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 moment...

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].  My mother’s maiden name was Julia Ann Money, and she married Norman Kaasch.

Bruce Duffie:    [Laughs]

DK:    It’s true!  Money Kaasch.  In fact, her legal namebecause it was common for them to take their maiden name for their legal middle nameis 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 same system.

Bruce Duffie:    Most people do!  It’s a nice old reliable machine.

DK:    It really is, and I have exactly the same mike for it, as well.

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.

BD:    Teaching what?

DK:    Voice.  She’s a voice professor there.

BD:    Is it good for a voice-ist to be with another voice-ist?

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 day 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.

BD:    She’s able to separate the love life from the professional duties?

DK:    We’ve 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 then.

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 like that.

BD:    Does she also come and hear your performances?

DK:    Unfortunately not very much.  We have three children and she also has her own work.  In fact, that was one of the things 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 at home.

BD:    She needs fewer students, so she can concentrate on the one?

DK:    Yeah, 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!

kaaschBD:    You’re offered, I 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 Berlioz.

BD:    So you’ve got The Damnation and you’ve got Aeneas.  Do you also do Beatrice and Benedict?  [Photo at right from the Welsh National Opera production]

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 them.

BD:    What about Benvenuto Cellini?

DK:    That’s the one I haven’t done yet.  I would like to do it, but productions are few and far between. 

BD:    [Notes 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 challenge.  When 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 Jugendlicher Heldentenor repertoire.

BD:    Do a little Lohengrin here and there?

DK:    That’s 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 right now!

BD:    But of course, you’re not planning for tomorrow, you’re planning for two years and three years and five years down the line!

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 so-and-so.

BD:    You’re the first you.

DK:    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 those roles?

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 things are.

BD:    They get the girl...

DK:    Do they really?  There’s always the duet where they have the tenor and soprano clutch, which is a prison, physically.  The physical 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.

BD:    You prefer more meaty stuff!

kaaschDK:    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 this way.  I ask the producers if I can.  I shave my head by my own choice 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 for me.  Grimes is tremendous; Captain Vere in Billy Budd is a tremendous role!  The 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 he is!

BD:    You’re 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 conductor’s choice?

DK:    Generally 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 composer’s sense?

DK:    It’s hard to say.  How much air have you got at that point in time?  Do you know?

BD:    That’s true.  A string player can just keep going all day, but a wind player’s going to run out of air!

DK:    You bet.  And what is the note?  Some vowels take a little more air than other vowels.

BD:    Within these works that you sing and enjoy, did the composers know how to write for the voice?

DK:    Oh, absolutely!  It’s extraordinary, really.

BD:    They 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 up high.  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 real formant singer was Joan Sutherland.  [See my Interview with Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge.]  She always chose the optimum 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.

DK:    And 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 compromises.  People 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 and 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?

DK:    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?

DK:    Well, yeah, if it doesn’t make sense.  But we have to be very political and take care of a lot of levels.  We 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!

BD:    He doesn’t instead go to the costumer and scream at him?

DK:    No.  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 costumes 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 flexible people.

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-placeMise-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 concert?

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 emotionshave 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 performing.

BD:    Do you make sure that you include some of those in every season?

kaaschDK:    Always!  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?

DK:    No.

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.

DK:    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 uswith 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 my heart 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 well-tended?

DK:    Oh, 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?

DK:    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 instrument does.

kaaschBD:    Then you more and more trust your manager?

DK:    Absolutely!  Exactly!  I trust this repertoire change.  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 Renée 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]

DK:    Exactly, 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, just 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.

DK:    Well, Peter Seifert has got this fantastic bright instrument, I think.

BD:    You’ve mentioned several other singers.  Is there a collegial aspect to your work, rather than a competition?

DK:    Oh, absolutely!  Absolutely!

BD:    Even with other tenors?

DK:    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 voice 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 hurt you?

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?

DK:    Even 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 people 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 dwindling.  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?

DK:    They’ll get here.  The people that are supposed to be will be here.

BD:    Is the music that you sing for everyone?

DK:    No, absolutely not!  Nor is hockey for everyone, or football, or anything.  We don’t watch opera in seventy thousand seat stadiums.

BD:    Should we?

DK:    Absolutely not!  The problem there is electronics; it’s not opera anymore.

BD:    It’s a show?

DK:    Is a CD opera?

BD:    Let me turn the question back to you.  Is a CD opera?

DK:    Absolutely not!

BD:    Is a video opera?

DK:    No, 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.

BD:    Should 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 don’t recognize 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 another form that presents opera.  W
ith recordings, you choose.  “Oh, I didn’t like those fifteen minutes, so I’ll do another fifteen until 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.

BD:    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 can!

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?

DK:    That’s 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?

DK:    At 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 great house for the audience’s ears, it is what I call
blind singing.  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 that room 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 have to let it go.

BD:    Do you have any advice for younger singers coming along?

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.

BD:    Throw them out?

DK:    Not 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?

kaaschDK:    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.

BD:    Should you be?

DK:    I’d have to say no, because it’s such a longshot!

BD:    Should everyone who makes it find their own way?

DK:    Yeah, 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.

DK:    Not 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 pants, 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 realities.  I 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?

DK:    Yeah, yeah.  There are music fanatics, but I don’t have music on at home.

BD:    You have enough of it in your professional life?

DK:    I 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 that 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 music?

DK:    I think that music takes people somewhere.  Music can be used like uppers or 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?

DK:    He 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 Björling 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]

DK:    Well said!  But that’s an amazing testament to that technique!  The man 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 other contributions, but around the same core of things.  That was my biggest stumbling block.  This was what I was referring to earlier in this 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.'  No!!!  It 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?

DK:    Exactly, dusting off that worn-out little suit in my closet that is my voice.

BD:    The one that fits?

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 you?

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 you.  That’s 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 operas that 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.

BD:    That’s 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 what they’ve seen; whereas in Europe, because it’s been always state supported, you could do a huge range.  There are thousands of operas written.

BD:    Actually Lyric Opera of Chicago has always had a fairly varied and diverse repertoire.

DK:    Right.  This theater, because it is successful enough and because of its tremendous support, has always done things.  The initiative called Towards the 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!

BD:    But that’s trusting the house and company.

DK:    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 these lunatics.

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.

BD:    In the end, is it all worth it?

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 appreciate 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 Opera…

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: dkaasch@yahoo.com.

© 2003 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded in Chicago on January 9, 2003.  This transcription was made for inclusion in The Opera Journal, and was posted on this website in 2011.

Award - winning 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 like 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.