American Bass-Baritone Kyle Ketelsen is in Toronto for the Canadian Opera Company’s co-production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Ketelsen brings his inimitable dramatic flair to the character of Leporello filling the theater with his robust voice and compelling stage presence. Ketelsen is in regular demand with all the major opera houses throughout the world, and it was a rare treat to have a candid conversation with him on life, the opera, and Don Giovanni.

Directed by Dmitri Tcherniakov, and co-produced by Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, Teatro Real Madrid and Bolshoi Theatre Moscow, Don Giovanni runs at the Four Seasons Theater in Toronto until February 21st, 2015.

AH: In many ways, you define the role of Leporello,in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Can you tell us about your long history with this role?

KK: Wow, thanks for the compliment.  When I first learned the role I remember thinking I’d never be able to memorize all that recit!  It’s a ton, but it’s rich with character.  Over the years I’ve learned to use it, and change it with voice inflection, pauses, or occasionally quasi-speaking a line here and there for different effect.  It’s one of my favorite roles, as it holds great opportunities for both comedy and drama.  I never play Leporello in a buffo style.  That is, bumbling and bigger than life.  As with many roles, I feel it’s best served by investing a great amount of verismo, or true-to-life believability, to the characterization.   For example, I resist making physical gestures I wouldn’t make in real life.  It’s a dangerous (and unfortunately very common) tendency in opera for movement to be huge.  It really doesn’t need to be.  The music can often speak so much more powerfully than waving your arms around.  It’s a tough lesson to learn, but less is indeed dramatically more, in most cases.

 AH: Leporello is a peasant whose moral compass is only in slightly better shape than his master, Don Giovanni. How do you bring complexity to a character who could so easily be played as a type?

KK: I may have addressed this partially in the previous question.  There might be a history of Leporello being portrayed in the buffo tradition, but I’ve never seen the character in that way.  I like to play Leporello as sort of a child.  There’s an adult world-weariness to him, but an amount of innocence at the same time.  He can also be naughty, misbehaving, and lying – a bit like the good angel on Giovanni’s shoulder, but too easily corrupted.  He might whisper some sense into the Don’s ear, but then do a 180 when some cash (or women or drugs, in some productions) is thrown his way.

AH: Don Giovanni seems to be your territory. Is there a reason why you gravitate towards this particular opera?

KK: Many reasons.  First of all, Mozart’s music is pretty safe for young singers, so many of us began with his works.  Leporello was one of my first professional roles, and quickly became one of my favorites.  He’s the comic relief, which immediately appealed to me, as does his music.  Also, depending on the production, I often bring an incredible amount of physical energy to the role.  It’s very demanding, but ultimately extremely rewarding.

I suppose I became known for the role, so I was hired more often for it.  As I said, it’s one of my faves, so I accepted the offers, as long it made sense for me artistically, and career-wise.  I hope to perform Leporello for at least another decade, though naturally with less frequency, due to my desire to expand my repertoire.

AH: Given that you know it so well, what keeps the spark alive in each performance?

KK: Well now, that’s one of the greatest challenges for a performing artist, to make it fresh each time.  It’s our duty to present the show to each audience, each night, as if it’s just happening for the first time.  I think it’s a whole lot easier to do than, say, someone in a Broadway show with eight shows a week!  I was just talking with a friend who was in “Phantom” back in the 90s here in Toronto.  He said he thought about all the people who perhaps drove a long way, or how much they paid for tickets for the whole family, or how excited they were to see the show.  He’d do the show for them.

Honestly it’s rarely a challenge for me to present myself onstage in this manner.  Simply put, it’s just part of the job.  If I’m not up for it, there are others behind me who might be.  If I sell it short one evening on the spontaneity of the character, I’m doing a disservice to the integrity of the art.  My innate competitive desire helps push me onstage, as well.  I want to present the strongest character possible, every time.  Really it’s just one of many cogs that make up the gears of an artistic discipline.

AH: You have sung under the direction of luminaries like Christoph Eschenbach, Sir Colin Davis, Pierre Boulez, and others. Can you give us a sense of Michael Hofstetter’s approach to Don Giovanni? What do you enjoy most about singing this role under his musical direction?

KK: Michael fulfills the number one requirement for what I consider to be a good conductor – he understands that what we’re doing is a collaboration, not a dictatorship.  He listens to our input, and respects our viewpoints, then takes it into account when conducting.  Like Tcherniakov, Michael uses beautifully descriptive stories and analogies when trying to elicit specific reactions from the orchestra and singers.  It’s clear to everyone involved that he is sincerely invested in the work we’re doing.

AH: Can you tell us a bit about this production? What is it like to work with Dmitri Tcherniakov? Do you find that the production has evolved since Madrid and Aix-en-Provence?

KK: This production is a highly stylized retelling of the opera.  The general premise is that the characters are all related to one another (by marriage or blood), and are staying in the same house for a span of a few months, following the death of the house’s patriarch, the Commendatore.  Among other things, it’s a study of how one strong, but warped, person can have great influence over many weaker-minded individuals.

Most of the usual dramatic conventions you find in the opera are stripped, in favor of more surreal interactions, expanding of the passage of time, and finding new interpretations for many of the plot points.  One example is in the second act when my character traditionally is disguised as Giovanni, in order to remove Elvira from the scene, so that the Don is free to continue his conquests.  In this version the Don has so much influence on Elvira, that he quasi hypnotises her to play along with the twisted farce, and to pretend that Leporello is indeed Giovanni.  Later, his coat alone is enough to induce a semi-erotic trance in Zerlina as she sings “Vedrai carino.”  It’s usually sung for her beau Masetto but, in this case, it’s sung to Giovanni via his worn, soiled coat.

Dmitri Tcherniakov is amazing at extracting intricate dramatic nuance from his performers.  I imagine an outline in his head, listing the entire show.  If you click a bullet point, it’d expand into about 73 details for each action onstage.  Truly the man has a complete vision when he arrives the first day of rehearsal.  The word “uncertainty” could never be used to describe him.

At first this seemed quite daunting to me, as I suspected that many of the characteristics I like to bring to the role of Leporello would be disallowed.  Happily this was not so, and I’ve still managed to hold onto many of his character traits that are so endearing to me.  What’s more, in performing Tcherniakov’s production multiple times in the past five years, I’ve been naturally able to expand my idea of who Leporello is.

To Dmitri’s credit, the production has indeed evolved.  It’s an oblivious director that would ignore the different singers’ strong points or shortcomings with their roles.  Each new singer for each role brings a different cross section of qualities.  He see this, and allows for each singer to make his or her mark on their performance.

Also, moves and gestures, have been added or discarded, like when Leporello pushes Masetto to the floor in the second act.  That was added to make more sense of the scene.  Then there are the basic logistical changes that occur.  Most often these are made due to the venue changes.  L’Archevèché theatre in Aix-en-Provence, for example, is an intimate setting with fewer seats and different sightlines.  We could make smaller gestures onstage there that we can’t do in the Four Seasons Center, simply because they won’t be noticed.

AH: Moving away from Don Giovanni, you excel at playing the devil and his shadow in his many operatic avatars. What draws you to characters like Nick Shadow or Mephistopheles?

KK: In my opinion, the music in these pieces can’t be beat!  Then there’s that great Rake libretto by Auden – so very British.  The characters are deliciously malevolent, yet carry out their evil deeds with a great comedic flair.  They’re delightfully playful villains, until it comes to the final dirty deed of damnation, where comedy is set aside in favor of pitiless fury.  SO MUCH FUN to play roles with this polarization!!  I enjoy giving them the bi-polar treatment.

AH: As one critic ably put it, if the devil was as charming as your depiction of him, we would all be in trouble. Not only do you possess an incredible voice, you’re a performer who inhabits the story, someone who works magic on an audience. Is a sense of the dramatic something that comes naturally to you?

KK: Well, thank you!  I guess so.  I mean, you can certainly hone the skill, and become a better artist, as we should all strive for, but I think you either have it or you don’t.  Or at least there are gradations of it.

I believe a great contributor to this ability is the same thing that hindered me often in school.  I tend to have a hard time concentrating – I’m better now, but when I was young it gave me (and my grades!) fits.  I envy the ability my wife and daughter have to sit and read for hours without distraction.  This is not me or my son!  We tend to notice every little thing that happens around us.  I played pick-up basketball passionately for many years, and became a very good passer.  Perhaps the same attributes which gave me court vision, being able to take in and process multiple layers of stimuli, contribute to my dramatic abilities as well.  I smell a scientific study!

AH: You have spoken about the fact that you have backgrounds in many areas; you trained in the military, for example. Can you take us back to the moment when you knew that you were going to be a singer? What was the view like then? What is it like now? 

KK: I’ve sung since I was a child, but I’d never really thought about becoming a singer until my third year of college, at which point I’d already been in the Army National Guard for two years.  The point where I actually knew I’d be a singer came pretty late, as well.  That really didn’t occur until I was nearly finished with grad school, I’d say.  The reason for this mainly came from pragmatism on my part.  I didn’t want to get my hopes up, and really just focused my efforts on becoming the best all-around artist I could.  I think what aided me greatly is that I never expected success to just come.  At no point in my learning (or even well into professional life) did I stop and think, “Now I’ve arrived.”  So when an amount of success did reach me it was tremendously meaningful and touching.

My perspective now is a bit different, having achieved a bit of success in this latent-dream-come-true profession.  I still strive for perfection in my art (though it never comes!), and continue to nurture my career, which only sometimes takes care of itself.  I’m remarkably privileged to make a living in the arts, and do my best to never take it for granted.

AH: You’ve been very committed to bringing opera to young people, and to the general public, and you consistently work against the notion that it is elitist. Can you share some memorable stories about this process?

KK: Sometimes it’s easy to point to the price of tickets for an opera and call it elitist.  These productions do cost money, and there’s a laundry list of folks who work to get paid.  It’s a highly specialized form of entertainment.  In order to cultivate this art, we must put great effort behind youth outreach.  Just as the NFL or NHL have their own youth leagues to garner interest and foster talent, so do we need an arm extended to the young.

Numerous opera companies invite children’s groups to a dress rehearsal, or even have performances dedicated solely to school audiences.  These are the best crowds to sing for, as they are so enthusiastic, and really look for opportunities to cheer!  Same thing with outreach.  When you see the looks of discovery on their faces, and how engaged they are with the music and drama, it’s apparent how they are touched by the art.  I see this with my own kids as well.  Children grow up and return to what they feel as home.  Those who are touched now will grow up and come back to support this vibrant form of artistic expression.

AH: What’s life like beyond the opera?

KK: Opera is wonderful, yes, but it IS work.  My rich family life fulfills me beyond any other endeavor I could pursue.  My wife and I are constantly on the go with our kids, and it’s the most beautifully satisfying, significant accomplishment I could ever hope for.

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