Tenor Donald Kaasch
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
Tenor Donald Kaasch is an American Export. His early training was
with the Lyric Opera Center for American Artists (as it was called
then), and now he makes his career primarily in Europe.
Fortunately for Chicago, he does return occasionally for leading roles
with the company. He was the title character in The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe, and
in 2002-03 he was Nicias in Thaïs
with Renée Fleming [in photo above] and Thomas Hampson,
conducted by Sir Andrew Davis. One of the best things about that
production was that the cast was splendid from top to bottom, typical
of Lyric Opera to have strength in all the roles and not allow anyone
to be a weak link.
As I have noted in other interviews of this series, the radio man in me
always asks the guest to pronounce his or her name. In this case,
he expounded on his family just a bit, which was just fine.
Before getting to the rest of the conversation, here is that brief
Donald Kaasch: The
Northeastern corner of Germany, northwestern
corner of Poland is where the Kaasch family comes from.
The name was Kreistimien, and it’s been Americanized to Kaasch
[pronounced “Kahsh”, rhymes with gosh].
maiden name was Julia Ann Money, and she married Norman Kaasch.
true! Money Kaasch. In fact, her legal name — because
it was common for them to take their maiden name for their
legal middle name — is Julia Money Kaasch.
I sing in the States maybe
once every three years. Ninety-five percent of my work is in
Europe and beyond, and no one over there would ever say anything but
“Kahsh.” As a boy my
father was in Blue Island where there was a big German population, so
they were the “Kahsh”
boys; but it’s almost impossible for the
American mouth to say. My name could have fifteen A’s and
they’d still say “Cash.” But it’s “Kahsh.”
The production of Thaïs
ran in December and January of the 2002-2003 season. We
met very soon after the New Year and had a wonderful conversation about
his roles, his life and his views on many things. This is one of
the very few interviews where we get into the nuts-and-bolts of
singing, and the techniques required to survive and thrive in the world
of international operatic business.
As I was setting up to record our chat, my guest commented on the audio
equipment being used . . . . .
Donald Kaasch: I have the
Most people do! It’s a nice old reliable machine.
DK: It really
is, and I have exactly the same mike for it,
BD: I reserve
this just for the interviews, and
it works out very well.
DK: My wife
is using mine now in her
studio. She teaches at Denver University.
Voice. She’s a voice professor there.
BD: Is it
good for a voice-ist to be with another
DK: Well, it
can be! If she was a singer, if we had the same dream, the same
hopes, that would be difficult because there’s always somebody who’s
doing better than the other, and you would judge them exactly on the
same level. In this case, her real love is teaching. She’s
a technician. She is a real
pedagogue, a voice-builder, and people come to her from all over
the country to get their voices fixed.
BD: Do you?
DK: Oh, yeah,
she’s my teacher. I just spent twelve days having two lessons a
with her, and it was fantastic! When I can get to her, I love it.
BD: You have
to wait your turn???
DK: I do,
actually, sometimes! We have to
schedule it at her studio. Just like anyone else, I’m another
student coming in.
able to separate the love
life from the professional duties?
worked together vocally since
1986. When I had finally ground my voice to an absolute pulp, by
my own stupidity, then I started working with her. The first
rule was, “Shut up, and do what I say. If you want to give me
guff, study with somebody else.” That was rule, and we’ve stuck
to it since
BD: And it
has created vocal health for you?
DK: For me it
certainly has! She’s got the best set of ears around for my
voice. She understands my instrument. She understands
pretty much anybody’s. But it’s fantastic to have a voice teacher
BD: Does she
also come and hear your performances?
Unfortunately not very much. We have three
children and she also has her own work. In fact, that was one of
we discussed this time when I was home.
I’m getting into different, more heroic repertoire, and I need her
more. So we’re trying to figure out how we can slice and dice her
life up a little bit more to become more able to come
with me. Our youngest is ten, so it’s not so extremely critical
BD: She needs
fewer students, so she can concentrate
on the one?
actually, and I think she might
be ready for that as well. The academic grind can be problematic
at times, and it’s not her style. Her style is really
focusing on people’s voices, not the rest of the malarkey that goes on!
BD: You’re offered,
assume, a lot of repertoire, and you’re singing a French role
here. Do you enjoy singing the French roles?
DK: My most
favorite is French. For some
reason, vocally I respond to the French language the best, in
particular Berlioz. That’s my favorite composer, old Hector
BD: So you’ve
got The Damnation and you’ve
Aeneas. Do you also do Beatrice
and Benedict? [Photo at right from the Welsh National
DK: Yeah, in
fact next I sing Béatrice et
Bénédict at Washington Concert Opera. And
I’m singing Les Troyens
at the end of the year in Amsterdam. I’ve sung pretty much all of
about Benvenuto Cellini?
the one I haven’t done yet. I would like to do it, but
productions are few and far between.
with extreme sadness that Benvenuto
Cellini had been planned for Lyric Opera of Chicago, but was
changed (for budget considerations) to Pirates of Penzance.] You’re
asked for these and other roles. How
do you decide whether to say yes or no?
DK: That is a
your voice is healthy, it continues to grow and it continues to
change. That’s one of the signs of vocal health, at least to my
understanding of it. As a result, I’m constantly marching
through new repertoire. So I’m now moving into French heroic
repertoire, and even dipping my toe into the
BD: Do a
little Lohengrin here and
possibly in the works. Erik in
Dutchman is next in Los
Angeles, and I like that. It feels very
good to me; it feels very comfortable to sing that stuff.
BD: So how do
you determine what is next?
DK: In this
case, my manager in London is
my planning schedule. If he says, “This is right,” and I think,
“My gosh, he’s got to be out of his mind!”, it’s because I don’t know
right now. My voice is changing so rapidly
BD: But of
course, you’re not planning for tomorrow,
you’re planning for two years and three years and five years down the
DK: I am not
like Renée or Tom in this production. They are so far out
there. I am a blue collar tenor;
I’m a working tenor. My manager doesn’t spend his time
answering the phone, saying yes or no, or he’s not free. I
still work on a proposal basis, to a great extent. When I say a
“blue collar” singer,
that’s not to demean
myself. People aren’t beating down the door for
me and saying, “You’ve got a window in 2004.” Others are really
hot, but I don’t enjoy that kind of thing.
BD: You don’t
want to be a hot tenor?
DK: I’ll be
what I get. I have so far exceeded
my expectations and I’m having a ball. I never set my sights on
being the next
the first you.
Exactly. Everybody is. But
I don’t have a structured dream parameter about repertoire that is
based upon theme roles. I will never sing Puccini and
Verdi. It’s not my voice; it’s not my personality.
BD: If it was
your voice, would you be happy doing
DK: If it was
my voice, I would undoubtedly be happy
doing those roles, but I don’t find those roles
interesting. Perhaps that’s my own protection for my ego.
Maybe I make it easier on myself by saying, “I think those guys are
all putzes, and they’re not very interesting.” But in reality,
they’re all the same guy, really! Those guys are all the same
guy. They whine a lot and they complain a lot about how unfair
BD: They get
DK: Do they
really? There’s always the duet where they have the
tenor and soprano clutch, which is a prison, physically. The
language for these roles is so tiny! Look at
Edgardo in Lucia.
That’s the Italian tenor. You
stand on stairs a certain way. It’s like a prison, and
they’re very uninteresting. I finally got to it — those
guys are like
Kevin Costner roles. They’re all the same; Kevin Costner is
always Kevin Costner. He never changes.
prefer more meaty stuff!
DK: Take Anthony
Hopkins. That’s an actor! He’s middle aged; I’m
middle aged. Look at me — I’m bald! I prefer to perform
way. I ask the producers if I can. I shave my head by my
because it’s more powerful! It is more striking for me. I’m
not a slender man. I weigh two hundred and forty-five
pounds! I’m six feet tall. I’m built
columnally; I’m as thick as I am wide. I like these middle
aged roles; I like interesting guys. Aeneas in Les Troyens is
not a young man. He’s a grizzled veteran; he’s been out
there. The reason I like Bénédict in Béatrice et Bénédict is
that he has
put off marriage forever. He likes the military.
BD: Would you
do Peter Grimes?
DK: I would
adore a chance to do Grimes! I love
Britten the same as I like Berlioz. It’s like he wrote the parts
me. Grimes is tremendous; Captain Vere in Billy Budd is a tremendous
Male Chorus in Rape of Lucretia,
my gosh, the poetry you get to
sing and what you get to express! And physically these are
very interesting roles. Quint in Turn of the Screw, what a monster
talking about the roles and how
much you get into them. When you get on the stage, are you
portraying the role or do you become that character?
DK: I think
operatic acting is a kind of
schizophrenia. In a Stanislavskian concept, you can’t
afford to become the role because we are functioning on so many
different levels. We have a fixed presence. The orchestra
is like a wheel that is grinding, and you cannot stop that wheel!
So in that regard, you can’t become it because something outside is
determining when you respond, when you feel.
BD: The guy
with the stick?
DK: The guy
with the stick, but more than that; it’s
the book. The guy with the stick is also controlled by
the book. The book controls everything.
BD: Is there
a little bit of leeway? It has
to breathe, doesn’t it?
DK: It has to
breathe, but, “You’re late, Mr.
Kaasch,” is real, within the confines of it. It is not nearly as
elastic as you think! For example, if you have a fermata over a
half note, how long is that?
BD: Is that
the singer’s choice or the
it’s the conductor’s
choice. If you do something that makes sense to them, they will
go with you, but it’s an approval rating. They will
approve it or not.
BD: Is it
your sense, or is it the
DK: It’s hard
to say. How much air have
you got at that point in time? Do you know?
true. A string player can just keep
going all day, but a wind player’s going to run out of air!
bet. And what is the
note? Some vowels take a little more air than other vowels.
these works that you
sing and enjoy, did the composers know how to write for the voice?
selected the right vowel on the right
high note, etc.?
DK: That’s a
part of what I’m dealing with
right now. I’m not, at age forty-four, able to sing an “ah”
Jim Johnson, our prompter here and a tremendous coach, laughingly said
that a voice teacher’s job is to make “ah”
sound like “ah.”
[Both laugh] But it’s an interesting thing. I never
could sing an “ah” because
it would go flying right down my
throat. Now, at forty-four, I have the ability to sing an “ah.”
So it changes. Renée says, “I always
try to have some “E” in my
sound.” My wife has this amazing
platform of an optimum position. In vocal pedagogy, it’s called
the singer’s formant, the key word being “form.”
Any acoustic space
has an optimum form for the sound, and every pitch has its
optimum. The secret is how close to that you can get. A
formant singer was Joan Sutherland. [See my Interview
with Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge.] She always chose
form regardless of what it was on the page, so text
became garbled vocal perfection. And every consonant has its own
play on it.
For example, the consonant “T.”
Its back vowel,
the vowel space, the form for it, is an “E”
vowel, so if you’re singing that, at
the very end of ah you have actually made your throat space into an “E.”
BD: And that
closes it up.
that’s a vowel disintegration. It disintegrates the vowel.
So we have to
be very careful about these kinds of things.
BD: Yet the
director is going to come to you in
rehearsal and scream about getting the words out with proper diction.
DK: Well, if
he’s a pig he’ll
do that. They have to understand that we are high-flying
trapeze artists. First and foremost we have to sing
well. When you have somebody who comes
and literally screams in your face, “I don’t care how it sounds, I want
that word to sound like this!” you’re in the presence of a cretin, and
they won’t last long.
BD: So you do
what he wants for a while, and then
after he’s gone you go back to what you want?
DK: You try
to make those
would be amazed at what we hold together with the amount of people
coming up to us with suggestions to do this or do that. After
sixteen years at
Northwestern, I just finished my doctoral work, and I wrote my
dissertation called “Being a
Singer.” There’s a section I called “Spies
Counteragents,” where somebody whispers
things to you about, “Maestro would like this, and the director would
like this.” You try to please everybody.
BD: Is it your
job, then, to sort
out the real important things that you can do, and leave out the rest?
Yeah. First and foremost you have got
to survive. When the tables are cleared and the lights
are on, there’s nobody else there. All those people who were
there, whispering, are all gone. There’s always twenty-five
tables in front of us in rehearsals, but who are these people?
Eventually they all
disappear, and we’re out there. We’re the ones facing the
audience! Even the conductor’s got his back to the audience.
BD: You don’t
want the audience to know that last week the guy at the table asked you
to do this?
yeah, if it doesn’t make sense. But we have to be very political
and take care of a lot of
have to be quite schizophrenic. We have a lot of things to do at
the same time. In this production, Renée’s got a little
train on her costume, and during a very intimate moment for our
characters, by God I’ve
got to get around that thing! So I have to change my blocking to
solve that problem. I’ve got to make it work even if the director
comes up to me and screams at me because I’m not doing precisely what
he told me to do in terms of staying very intimate and very
close. If I say to him in the dress rehearsal, “I now
have a train I have to get over,” hopefully he’ll deal with that and
be intelligent. This director, John Cox, has certainly understood
that I have to
deal with that!
doesn’t instead go to the costumer and scream at
Quite frankly, those people
worked together well before they ever saw us. We had
to make it all work from our street
clothes to our rehearsal clothes, and now we now have to make these
function. So we make adjustments. It’s a rare singer
that’ll just break down and say, “It’s not the same! It’s not the
same!” [Both laugh] We have to make these things
work. We’re highly
BD: Are the
best directors are the ones that give
you an idea and let you make it work?
DK: It’s a
collaboration, certainly. The
best directors are people who bring out your abilities to make
it work, who can give you structure but also
encourage you to develop. They create a rapport so they’re not
just what the French call that a mise-en-place.
Mise-en-scene is a stage
director; mise-en-place is a
traffic cop who just blows his whistle
and says, “Come on through,” like
Patton in that movie where he gets up on that block and waves
his tanks along. [Both laugh]
BD: Do you
miss all of this when you sing a mere
DK: Well, a
mere concert allows us to breathe differently, to be in and among the
orchestra, to be so
close to a maestro, to not have that forty-five or fifty foot distance
between you and the pit. All those things — the
costumes and emotions — have to be read from so
far away! Sometimes just the purity of an orchestral concert is a
pleasure. To take
something like the Britten Serenade
and get a chance to bite into
that is tremendous; or Dream of
Gerontius of Elgar. It’s a great pleasure. So it’s a
different kind of
BD: Do you
make sure that you include some of
those in every season?
Fortunately, I don’t have to make
sure those things happen; my schedule has landed that way more and
more. Your opera
name builds your concert potentials, and if your opera name is
big enough, you actually can become a recitalist.
BD: Is that
what you want?
BD: Why not?
DK: I haven’t
thought about it. I haven’t done a recital since college.
BD: You have
a recording of English songs.
Right. That was a pleasure to do, and happened at the right
time with the right entities. Peter
Lockwood, who’s a tremendous pianist, accompanist, coach and
musician, told me that he’d been looking for a tenor to do these with
him, but he didn’t want a simpy English tenor who would make that
kind of whiny sound. He wanted somebody who could bite into it,
and felt that I was the right one. I was very thankful for
that. His mentor and friend Klaas Posthuma — who
has now left us — with his label,
Globe Recordings, showed interest and agreed to do it. We
recorded it in Utrecht, and it cost all of us money. It cost me
quite a bit of money to do that, but it was
something that I wanted to do. I would love to do that recital
again sometime, as a
live concert. We recorded it, on my insistence, in
a recital form. In other words, everything followed each other
even though it was done in the studio. Each song followed along;
I wanted the sense
of the pacing to be right. There wasn’t a lot of editing miracles
that had to be created. It
was what we produced on the sessions.
BD: So you’re
very pleased with it?
DK: I am
pleased with it. I could sing it
better now because I’ve grown up a little bit since then in some
crucial ways. I was a little hard-voiced, I think, for that, but
was truly in it. I love the texts. The Finzi works are
tremendous! It wasn’t written as a cycle, just a collection of
his last pieces, done right before he died, and they are so
beautiful! They deal with the end
of one’s life and his comparisons to a well-kept
garden, which, in time, becomes a little overgrown and
not so well-tended. It was
just fascinating; beautiful!
BD: You don’t
want your voice to become a little not
certainly not! But age is an
amazing thing. If we are willing to accept the celebration of
time on our bodies and our voices, there is repertoire for that, to
enjoy that we do change, that we do get older. It’s not
so much limitations, just difference.
BD: So rather
than staying in the same repertoire,
you’re looking to make it arch the way your whole career will arch?
Always! There are very interesting roles out there to be
done as you get a
little bit older, and I want to continue to always stay open to
that. But we’ll see what this next phase has in store for
me. I keep telling my manager, “You’ve sunk me. This one’s
going to kill me!” And yet, each one so far has been the making
of the next. It has furthered my understanding of what my
BD: Then you more
and more trust your manager?
Absolutely! Exactly! I trust this repertoire
When I sing the Gluck Alceste
in Amsterdam, that’s a
big tenor role. That’s a big part! I thought I was doomed,
but I learned so much about the upper extension and moving from G
through B flat. It was
fascinating, the technical gain I got from that. I couldn’t
be more thankful for that. The last notes I sing in
this role of Nicias, have big B flats, and I’ve learned so much
about these kinds of B flat singing, and what my body needs to do to
prepare for those things. It’s all fascinating. As
said today, we’re all learning, constantly learning. Heaven help
us when we don’t view it that way any longer!
BD: So it’s
all B flat today. When you get into
Lohengrin, you’ll spend all night in A major! [Both laugh]
exactly! “In Fernem Land” is an amazing aria, but the notes have
to be easy and it
still has to be music. Tom Moser said, “You don’t change your
technique because you change your repertoire.” There isn’t such
a thing as singing “Wagnerian,”
because that’s when you’re sunk. It’s
excellent advice. My wife likes that phrase a lot, and has to
remind me of that a lot. Do not try to sing “Wagnerian,”
sing. If your voice suits it, then that’s good.
BD: If your
voice suits it, or if it suits the
voice — or both?
DK: Let’s see
— semantics are always a
tricky thing... if my voice is suited to it. There’s our middle
ground. If something is comfortable for me, it
doesn’t mean necessarily it will work for others. It may not be
necessarily that my color
will be what that requires. I have a very bright
instrument. It may not be appropriate for the brightness of my
instrument to sing Wagner.
BD: I’m sure
that a lot of Wagner singers
wish that they had your brightness.
Peter Seifert has got this fantastic
bright instrument, I think.
mentioned several other singers.
Is there a collegial aspect to your work, rather than a competition?
BD: Even with
Surprisingly so. I think you would find your most
collegial voice category would be tenors. The reason is that we
are a rare voice
type, and there’s work for all of us. There isn’t a
plethora of tenors banging down the doors and hoping for jobs. If
you can do it and you can be heard and hit the notes and survive
through this stuff, you will be OK! It is the most high-pressure
category. You can understand the tenor voice by the way the bel
canto composers wrote for it. There’s always an act where he lays
out. That formula is for a
good reason. You’ve got to watch out for that and take
care of that guy because it is a very high-pressure
instrument. I find that nobody understands what we’re doing
like another tenor.
BD: Has the
phenomenon of the Three Tenors helped or
DK: It has
not done anything; hasn’t helped or hurt, really.
BD: If you
jump in a cab and the
cabbie says, “What do you do?” and you say you’re a tenor?
before the Three
Tenors, they would say, “Like that big, fat Italian guy,
Pavarotti? I saw him on Johnny Carson!” He is the entity
that made all this. Pavarotti was touted
as a household name before the Three Tenors, certainly, and I
think the Three Tenors phenomenon really capitalized on that.
Whether that’s had an effect on the opera-goer, or on the number of
who have become opera-goers, I really don’t know. There still
are, you know, the masses of
people out there who say, “Oh, I love opera! I’ve seen Phantom
three times!” [Both laugh]
BD: Are you
optimistic about the future of opera?
DK: Opera is
an acquired taste, and I think
that the people who are going to love opera, who are going to be bitten
by this, are always going to be there. Ticket sales aren’t
People have been talking about the future of opera forever.
Certainly in this country it’s a different phenomenon because it is
stilled viewed as a European art form.
BD: So how
can we get more people out of the
ballparks and stadiums, and into the opera house?
get here. The people that are
supposed to be will be here.
BD: Is the
music that you sing for everyone?
absolutely not! Nor is hockey for
everyone, or football, or anything. We don’t
watch opera in seventy thousand seat stadiums.
BD: Should we?
Absolutely not! The problem there is
electronics; it’s not opera anymore.
BD: It’s a
DK: Is a CD
BD: Let me
turn the question back to you. Is a
BD: Is a
no. Opera is a live form. It is a
live form that is experienced, in its design, by an audience observing
a stage upon which is mounted an opera.
there not be parallel lines with the
electronics and the live?
DK: Those can
certainly be offshoots of it. My problem with CDs is that people
that they are not opera. My parents still think that their CD
sets are recordings of live opera. They have no idea what
digital miracles have gone on with them! It’s not opera; it’s
that presents opera. With recordings, you
“Oh, I didn’t like those fifteen minutes, so I’ll do another fifteen
we find one that’s perfect.” Or, heaven forbid, “On another
recording we know that on an e vowel on the same note, it was
magnificent. We’ll borrow that one and glue it
in.” It’s something else. I respect it, but it is
something else. It’s not the same.
So should we sit everyone down and give them a
little course in what opera really is?
DK: No, it’s
not necessary. If people want to
believe that their CD collections are opera, that’s their
business. It’s a choice, but the reality
is that it isn’t right now, this
moment! It’s not live.
BD: So you
can make the recording perfect?
DK: You sure
BD: Can you
ever get a performance to be perfect?
DK: If God
wills it! [Laughs]
BD: Do you
ever have those nights?
DK: Boy, that
would be nice; that’s a tough call. I
mean, what makes something perfect? Even working with my wife,
when I’d think it was slick as snot, it wasn’t perfect! She’ll
say, “Yeah, in your ear it
was perfect, but out here it was smaller than the time before.”
So who’s to say?
BD: When she
tells you which one sounds the best,
you have to remember how that felt and reproduce it from that feeling?
right. There’s a limited amount of
what we can take in from our own inner ear. When
I’m singing a high note, my eustachians are closed.
BD: Do you
take advantage of, or are
you even conscious of the acoustics of the different houses?
certain points you can be, but
after this long of singing, it is a point of trust.
I remember an audition in the Dutch Opera in Amsterdam. It was
dreadful! I think it was my first audition
tour, which was in 1988 right after I finished here in the Opera
Center. It was horrible, because I wanted the room to give me
what Lyric Opera of Chicago gives you, and it wasn’t going to do
it. It’s not designed to do the same thing. While it’s a
house for the audience’s ears, it is what I call “blind
You just don’t know where you’re at out there; you’ve
just got to sing! You have to back off and not try to muscle
the room and make it work, but just leave it alone. Now I sing
there quite a bit and it is not a problem. My recollection of
is to think how could it possibly be the same space? But you
cannot muscle a room into its optimum formant for your ear. You
let it go.
BD: Do you
have any advice for younger singers coming
DK: Have the
courage to sing with your own
voice. Your CD collection is like a whole closet full
of suits, and back in the back on some rusty hook, dusty, unkempt, is
your own voice. Put all those CD voices on their beautiful
hangers and take them somewhere else.
necessarily. Put them somewhere
else, but pull your voice out and have the courage to wear that
one. I’ll give you one guarantee — you
will never have a
career singing with someone else’s voice! You have a possibility
of having a career if
you’ll sing with your voice. Learn to accept it, warts and
all, but be very, very subjective about it. It is your
voice. It will have its limitations; it will have its
strengths. Do not let your ego and your own taste determine the
way your voice ought to sound! It is a physical thing. You
can’t make your voice into something you want it to be. You have
to find out what it is, and that may be terribly disappointing!
BD: Is it
usual that voice and physical and
temperament all come together?
DK: I would say
it’s very unusual. That’s when an opera singer is born.
Think about it... It’s like a big
hopper full of peas with this little hole on the end, and every
once in a while, one’ll scoot through. My book called Being a Singer is to address that
pea that popped
through! We’re not trained for what to do if you make
it; we’re trained to try to make it! [Both laugh] Our
lifestyle is very
different. You don’t learn about how to function out here, how to
stay alive, how to keep yourself healthy and well, how to
maintain your personal life and your personal relationships, how to
bring home as much as you possibly can. We’re not trained for
that in college.
DK: I’d have
to say no, because
it’s such a longshot!
everyone who makes
it find their own way?
they should have to, because it’s a
tempering thing. It’s a
lifestyle that can eat you alive. There’s people who have made it
through, but the
lifestyle has made them quit. They didn’t lose their voice, it
just wasn’t for them. Consider my twelve year old. In his
life, I’ve seen
him six years. I’ve been with him for six of his twelve
years. Of the twenty-two years that I’ve been married, I have
been with my wife eleven.
BD: So you’re
a half-time guy?
DK: I’m a
half-time guy! I have a half-time job. But it is
interesting. Being out there
and being in foreign countries, trying to stay healthy and well
and trying to grow at the same time, all of that can have its toll.
BD: But I
would assume that what works for you and
your situation wouldn’t necessarily work for another successful tenor.
necessarily so. It depends on
everybody. Look at how we comfort ourselves. There’s
lots of drugs out there, there’s booze, there’s sex, there’s
pornography, there’s food. There’s all kinds of things that we
use to either reward or comfort ourselves out there.
BD: Is music
one of those drugs?
DK: For me,
no. No, no. I don’t know if music is that, in terms of
consumption, for singers. I have
my thirty-eight inch pants, my forty inch pants, my forty-two inch
and my forty-four inch pants. I’ll come home
as Mr. Forty-four, and after a while
I’ll get down to forty-two or forty, depending on how long I’m
home! Sometimes I'll even think to myself, “My gosh, you must
have been home a long
time — you’re wearing thirty-eights again!” But these are
comfort myself and reward myself through food.
BD: So then
as far as music goes, you’re a
pusher for others rather than a user of that drug yourself?
yeah. There are music fanatics, but I don’t have music on at home.
BD: You have
enough of it in your professional life?
do. For my own consumption, maybe I’ll turn on the
radio, but I don’t necessarily have it fixed firm and hard to
classical music. Quite frankly, a lot of times I’ll listen to
stuff and it’ll be familiar enough that I’m waiting for my entrance, so
the parameters of it are different.
BD: So let me
ask the easy question — what is the purpose of
DK: I think
that music takes people somewhere. Music can be used like uppers
downers to make you feel the way you want to feel. For example,
if you’ve got something you’ve got to do, music can push you along a
little bit. It can be a mood enhancer. I’ve got three
nieces, and when they’re getting ready to go out dancing, they’re
playing a lot of
hip hop and just driving themselves along, getting themselves pumped
up. My brother uses music in the car to bring himself down.
BD: To unwind?
listens to his jazz to unwind, to take him as a
bridge from one thing to another. Opera asks people
to feel something. My mother does not
care about what’s happening onstage; she is only about the sound of the
human voice, and it takes her to a place of feeling. I was raised
with Björling. Not with
opera, not with tenors, I was raised with Björling. Our
recordings are what we had in the household.
BD: His was
truly a wonderful sound. At least you didn’t learn to sing
sharp! [Both laugh heartily]
said! But that’s an amazing testament to that technique!
sure wasn’t singing flat. He sure wasn’t reaching for those high
notes! He was so free! There was so much attic left above
the room he was in that sometimes he poked his head up there. It
is just breathtaking! Saturday
mornings were Björling awareness time in our household. My
brother and sisters would head for the door, but I
would be reduced to tears! I thought it was the most beautiful
thing I’d ever heard in my life! It just moved me, made me feel.
BD: Did you
start out wanting to be him?
DK: I must
say that I thought of it, in terms of the
repertoire that we consumed from his recordings, which were all the
big Italian things. The mainstay would be Puccini and Verdi, with
a little Cilea and some Giordano thrown in — those
contributions, but around the same core of things. That was my
biggest stumbling block. This was what I was referring to earlier
interview, when I said that I’d ground myself to a
pulp. I had determined that that repertoire was what had to come
out of my mouth, and I tried to force my square peg into that
round hole, vocally. It wasn’t for me. The most
difficult thing, and yet the most freeing thing. It was very
painful, but I had to accept it. My wife said to me, “Do you want
to sing without
any “buts”? 'Yes,
but it has to be Puccini' or 'Yes, but it has
to be Verdi' or, more specifically, 'Yes, but it has to be the
arias that I grew up listening to with Björling.'
has to be, 'Do you want to sing?' and then, are you willing to sing
what your voice is capable of?”
BD: So you
get rid of the limitations and you find
where you should be?
dusting off that worn-out little suit in
my closet that is my voice.
BD: The one
DK: The one
that actually fits. Hopefully, if
you clean it up a little bit, make it presentable, wash it, clean it
off, dust it off, press it, it’s still yours after you make it more
refined, polish its buttons.
BD: And yet,
because you grow all the time, perhaps it
doesn’t fit anymore. Do you get a new suit tailored to the new
DK: Maybe I
should say be willing to wear your own
skin, instead of a suit. It’s not so exterior. We’re
shedding, so it’s a new skin. Be willing
to put it on since it will fit you; it’s designed for you, it really
is. And it will grow with you; your skin will grow with
the thing. I had to face that fact and get right down to
basics. I had never, ever sung from the inside out; I’d
always sung from the outside in. When I auditioned for this
program here in Chicago as an apprentice, I sang monstrous arias of
I will never sing. Thank goodness they
didn’t ask me for another group because I couldn’t have spoken, let
alone sung. I blew myself out because by sheer will I
pounded that things out.
what you thought opera singing was?
DK: It’s what
I wanted to do! I was bound
and determined I was going to do that. I had never
thought in terms of the repertoire that I’ve always sung in my
career. It’s part of the American psyche. We are
given a pretty steady diet of about twenty operas, and this is the
problem. People don’t want anything new and yet they are tired of
seen; whereas in Europe,
because it’s been always state supported, you could do a huge
range. There are thousands of operas written.
Lyric Opera of Chicago has always had a fairly varied and diverse
theater, because it is successful enough and because of its tremendous
support, has always done things. The initiative called Towards
Twenty-First Century is a great example. I was the tenor in The Voyage of Edgar
Allen Poe. I sang that role in the very first of that
ten year project that Miss Krainik created. [See my Interview with Ardis
Krainik.] Each year at least one of the
twentieth century repertoire was to be done, and she succeeded!
that’s trusting the house and company.
Absolutely! And the house
trusting the public. Those things happened, and they were
good. They served a purpose.
BD: Do you
like singing new operas?
DK: I haven’t
done a new one since then. Well, Wozzeck, but that’s been out
there. Still, it is probably the greatest example of twentieth
century opera. It is mind-boggling! One hundred and six
minutes of just brutal
progress through this situation. I’ve done it a good twenty
times — not
performances, twenty productions of it. I have always sung
Andres. I love Andres. He’s the sane nut in the middle of
BD: You don’t
want to do the Drum Major?
DK: I’d like
to. That’s what I’m going to do
next because it’s time for
me to not sing Andres anymore. I look older than the rest of
them! But what a great piece, what a tremendous
piece! But the last brand new role was Poe. Before that, it
was the Composer-in-Residence
Program with Bill Neil, and The
Guilt of Lillian Sloan directed by Frank Galati. I was
Owen Evans. That was back when I had hair and I was slender.
In the end, is it all
DK: It’s a
calling, so it must be. It’s
not a dream, it’s a calling — there’s a big
difference. It’s just what I’m designed to do. I’m meant to
do this. I’m not a perfect singer, but I love singing!
BD: You do it
well enough that people in the
audience appreciate it and enjoy it.
DK: I hope
so. I’d love it if they did, and I’m
told by a number that they do. It’s an amazing thing to be able
to do. There’s no comfort like it! I am more myself just
being out onstage and doing what I’m designed to do. That’s
empowerment when you’re doing what you’re meant to do, and not
everybody gets the chance to do that. The number crunch is that
you have a better chance of being a major league baseball
player than you do of having success in my business.
BD: It is, as
you said, the one little pea coming out.
DK: It’s that
little pea popping through. It’s an amazing thing, and it’s such
a tiny group of people
that do this. Really, in the higher levels the small
people disappear. It is decent, good people, who really
one another. That’s why it’s so much easier to sing
in the big venues, because they’re
filled with good, decent people!
|The career of American tenor
Donald Kaasch has taken him to the principal theatres of the world in
title and leading roles at the Netherlands Opera, Teatro alla Scala,
Metropolitan Opera, Teatro Colòn in Buenos Aires, Grande
Théâtre de Genève, l’Opéra de Paris, TMP
Châtelet, Zürich Staatsoper, Lyric Opera of Chicago,
Australian Opera/Sydney, Théâtre de la Monnaie in
Brussels, The Royal Opera House, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Staatsoper
Hamburg, Staatsoper Stuttgart, Teatro Reggio di Parma, Los Angeles
He maintains an active international concert presence with major
orchestras such as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Sydney Symphony,
the BBC and Royal Philharmonic Symphonies, l’Orchestre de Paris,
l’Orchestre National de France and l’Orchestre de la Radio-France,
Berlin Symphony Orchestra… among many others. The title role in the
Berlioz La Damnation de Faust is perhaps his signature concert role and
one which he sings worldwide with conductors such as Prêtre, de
Waart, Soustrot, von Dohnányi, and Soudant.
Recent engagements include: St François d’Asisse and Kat’a
Kabanova with the Netherlands Opera, The Tempest at the Royal Opera
House/Covent Garden in London, La damnation de Faust at the Semperoper
in Dresden, Boris Godunov at the Teatro Réal in Madrid and
Dallapiccola’s Il Prigioniero with the American Symphony Orchestra in
NYC, Lincoln Center.
Future engagements include: Il Prigioniero with the Netherlands Opera,
Elektra in Brussels, Toulouse and Santiago (Chile), Salome in Liege,
Kat’a Kabanova at both the Paris Opera/Bastille and the Opera Oviedo in
Spain and Mahagonny at the Teatro Real Madrid.
Recordings include Rossini’s Armida with Renée Fleming on Sony
Classics, Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex with James Levine on Deutsche
Grammophon, Lizsts’ Christus on MD&G and Oh Fair to See, a
collection of English Art Song with Peter Lockwood for Globe and Thomas
Ades’ The Tempest with EMI. He is also featured on DVD in the Stuttgart
Opera production of Alceste (SudWest Rundfunk and Arte) as well as the
Netherlands Opera production of St François d’Asisse from (Opus
Arte). Find out more about Mr. Kaasch at: www.donaldkaasch.com or
e-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2003 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded in Chicago on January 9,
transcription was made for inclusion in The Opera Journal, and was posted on
website in 2011.
broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago
from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of
2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and
journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM,
as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a
century ago. You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.