Tenor  Gregory  Kunde

A Very Early Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Gregory Kunde (born February 24, 1954, Kankakee, Illinois) is an American operatic tenor particularly associated with the French and Italian repertoires.

Kunde studied choral conducting and voice at Illinois State University before making his professional debut in 1978 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. As a member of the Lyric Opera School (later the Ryan Opera Center), he performed small roles, later singing Cassio in Otello, Prunier in La rondine, Vanya in Katya Kabanova among others. He appeared at the Opéra de Montréal as Tybalt in Roméo et Juliette, and as Arturo in I puritani, opposite Luciana Serra, which revealed his affinity for the bel canto repertory and his impressive upper register, reaching a high F (above the tenor high C) in falsettone. He made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York as the understudy for the role of des Grieux in Massenet's Manon opposite soprano Catherine Malfitano in 1987, replacing the indisposed Dénes Gulyás for just one performance. He did not return to the Metropolitan Opera for another 13 years, where he was again stepping in for an indisposed colleague in one performance of their 2000 production of Rossini's La Cenerentola, a procedure that would then become standard for Kunde's Metropolitan Opera career, replacing an ill colleague again in 2006 for their production of Bellini's I puritani opposite star soprano Anna Netrebko, and in 2019 for their production of Saint-Saen's Samson et Dalila, a series of performances with which he received critical acclaim.

He won considerable plaudits in Europe in Les Huguenots, A Life for the Tsar, Anna Bolena, at the Pesaro Festival in 1992 as Idreno in Semiramide, and in 1993 as Rinaldo in Armida, opposite Renée Fleming.

Other notable roles include Mitridate in Mitridate, re di Ponto, Rodrigo in La donna del lago, Arnold in Guillaume Tell, Ernesto in Don Pasquale, Nadir in Les pêcheurs de perles, Roméo in Roméo et Juliette, and Enée in Les Troyens. [A DVD of a performance from 2003, which includes a full set of instruments envisaged by Berlioz for this opera, is shown below-left.]

In November 2012 he made an unexpected, successful debut as Verdi's Otello in Venice, becoming possibly the first tenor to sing both the Rossini and Verdi versions in the same year [recordings shown directly below].


Kunde resides in Rochester, New York, with his wife Linda, and his daughter Isabella.

==  Names which are links in this box and below refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

This conversation was held at the end of September of 1982, very early in the career of Gregory Kunde.  He had just finished his training with the Lyric Opera School (later called the Ryan Opera Center), and, as can be seen in the photos of his recent CDs and DVDs, he has been doing major roles in famous and not-so-famous operas.

At the time of the interview, Kunde was singing Melot in Tristan und Isolde with Jon Vickers, Janis Martin, Nadine Denize, Siegmund Nimsgern, Hans Sotin, Gualtiero Negrini, and Terry Cook, conducted by Ferdinand Leitner.  In previous and subsequent seasons, he would take on various other small roles before embarking on an international career embracing leading parts.

Bruce Duffie:   How long have you been in the operatic field?

Gregory Kunde:   I’ve been here since I started with the Opera Center in 1978.  I graduated from college in 1977.

BD:   Did you always know that you wanted to be a singer?  You didn’t want to be a dentist or something else?

Kunde:   [Laughs]  As a matter of fact, my father wanted me to be a dentist, but I didn’t want to do that!  I wanted to be a teacher, and a choral conductor very badly.  At Illinois State University there was quite a good choral program.  I studied quite a lot, and for three of my five years I was a choral education major.  My voice teacher said I should try singing just to see what it’s like, and to see if I could do it.  Eventually he took me to the Met auditions, and I got into the finals.

BD:   Does it scare you at all being a young tenor in the age of The Three Tenors?

Kunde:   It doesn’t scare me.  It’s kind of challenging.  I’m looking forward to doing things.  Some of my colleagues and I are trying to change the image of tenors.  As you well know, they’re supposed to be temperamental babies, and can
t be dealt with.

BD:   Did you finish your degree?

Kunde:   Yes,
but we’re trying to make people think about opera singers as normal peoplewhich we are!especially this generation of people.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Is it normal to sing opera?

Kunde:   Why not?  [Bursts out laughing]

BD:   It’s fun, but it’s not normal.

Kunde:   That’s true, I guess.  It is fun!

BD:   Do you enjoy singing opera?

Kunde:   Yes, I do.

BD:   More than choral singing?

Kunde:   Right now I’m not doing any choral singing.  It’s a field that I hadn’t really thought of getting into.  I didn’t even know what it was until I was nineteen.

BD:   If Greg Smith [founder of the Greg Smith Singers] called you and said he was going on leave for a while, and asked you to take over the chorus, would you do it?

Kunde:   Yes, I’d probably do it!  [Much laughter]  That really is in the back of my mind all the time.  I’d love to be a conductor of anything!  I conducted the church choir when I was in college.  It was fun, and my wife is a choral director.  Hers is a masters in choral conducting, and she has a church choir.  We live in Florida, and right now she’s the co-ordinator of music for South Florida Catholic Archdiocese.

BD:   How do you manage with her in Florida and you in Chicago?

Kunde:   I’m just here for five weeks, and then I go back home for a while.  I was at the Opera Center (then called the Opera School) for four years, and we lived in Chicago.  

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   Let’s talk about the Opera Center.  Is it a good idea?  Is it working properly?  Is it on the right track?

Kunde:   Unfortunately for me it’s on the right track now!  [Both laugh]  I didn’t get as much chance to perform as the people that are there now. 

BD:   What kind of things did you do, and were all of them beneficial?

Kunde:   Most of them were.  You end up doing things that need to be done.  I can’t say that doing the Philistine Messenger in Samson & Delilah was a beneficial experience, but that same year doing Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet was a beneficial experience, a fabulous experience for me.  Of the four operas I was in last year, three of them were very beneficial.  The other one I had to do because I was needed, so in that way it was a great experience.

BD:   I would think that any time you walk out on that stage, you’re going to learn something.

Kunde:   Yes... but not necessarily a good thing.

BD:   [Being optimistic]  You learn not what to do?

Kunde:   Probably what I learned most by being here four years was seeing people come in and do things that you hope you never do, or hope you never act that way.  First of all, you learn here how to master Italian to get along, because it is supposedly an Italian house, and that’s pretty much the main language.  Maybe not so much this year, because there are a lot of English-speaking people here.  But in my first two or three years, when Carol Fox was here, Italian was the language of the house.  But it was so important just being here and seeing the big boys work.  Every time I was down on the stage watching Alfredo Kraus sing, I was taking a voice lesson.  You can’t pay for something like that.  They were actually paying me to be here, and that’s a great experience.

BD:   When you were singing Tybalt, and you sang directly to him, was that a frightening experience at all?

Kunde:   No, it was wonderful just to be on the same stage with him.  He’s not the kind of a man to get down on you, or make fun of you, or anything like that.

BD:   Some singers might not get down on you, but they might just ignore you.

Kunde:   He kind of found out what an idol I thought he was, which I still do.  He is very important to me, and probably always will be.  I am trying to make my career in a similar way, to limit myself to twelve or fifteen roles, and just sing those.  As you know, he’s had many offers to do bigger things, but he just won’t do them because he doesn’t think it would be right for him.

BD:   You are learning the discipline of saying no?

Kunde:   I certainly am.

BD:   How hard is it for a young singer to say no?  I ask this of older singers, but I wonder how is it for young singers.

Kunde:   It’s really hard.  I’m right now managing myself, which is God-awful.

BD:   [Surprised]  I would think that would be a mistake.

Kunde:   At first it’s not a mistake, because the process of looking for an agent is done over a long time.  You supposedly have to go to New York and stay there.  You have to audition.  You have to wait, wait, wait and all this time you’re not getting any work.  You’re starving!  I have been very fortunate in that when I came out of the Opera School, I had a lot of stuff to do.

BD:   Did that open doors for you?

Kunde:   Yes, quite a few.  I toured with Texas Opera Theater.  Louis Salemno was the conductor there, and that opened a few doors for me, and people heard me.  Then I toured with Western Opera Theater.

BD:   What kinds of roles did you do with those two companies?

Kunde:   With Texas Opera Theater I did Rodolfo [La Bohème], and Don Ramiro in La Cenerentola.

BD:   Do you like the Rossini style?  Does that fit your voice?

Kunde:   That particular one does, but The Barber of Seville doesn’t
... at least I don’t think so.  A lot of people think it does but I don’t like to sing it very much.
BD:   Why?  They seem to be cut from the same cloth.

Kunde:   They are, except for the tenor.  There’s not as much exposed singing in La Cenerentola.  He’s a main character, but you don’t really see him that much.  Rodolfo is wonderful.  In the right place at the right time, Rodolfo is a good part for me.  I had the experience of singing Pinkerton this past summer in Bear Valley, California, and what I thought was going to be just way too much for me, turned out to be a great part, and will be a great part for me.
BD:   In big houses or small houses?

Kunde:   Any place, because it’s not very long.  You sing the whole first act, but then you get a whole second act off.  Then you come in for the third act, and sing ten or fifteen minutes.  I think it would be a great debut role for a tenor if you have got enough experience and have worked on it enough.

BD:   If you were offered Goro, would you do it?

Kunde:   No!  There are a few smaller things I’ll do, like Tybalt.  I’m keeping it in my repertoire until I can really sing Romeo.  Romeo is a tough role, and a long role, but I don’t see Tybalt as a comprimario role because he sings too much.  He has some really beautiful music.  I’m also looking forward to Alfredo in Traviata, and the Duke in Rigoletto.  I just have to look at Alfredo Kraus’s repertoire to see what I have to sing!  [Both laugh]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let’s talk about some of your roles.  You seem to be in a position where you do major roles, and yet you’re singing a lot of smaller roles.  Does that make you schizophrenic?

Kunde:   [Laughs]  No, it doesn’t make me schizophrenic.  I do the smaller roles in the big houses because it’s good money.

BD:   But you don’t want to do that all your life?

Kunde:   Oh, God, no!  If I had to do that for the rest of my life, I’d quit.

BD:   Then you’d go back to choral conducting?

Kunde:   I’d go back to choral conducting.  It’s much more satisfying.  I’m fortunate to have that if this doesn’t work out, but I’m confident it will.  I’m giving it time, and I’m paying my dues.  I am sure it’ll work out for the best.  People have had nothing but good things to say about me, and I’m very happy about that.  People here in Chicago keep asking me when they are going to see me do this or that, and I tell them to call Ardis Krainik and let her know!  I made a point to have them put in the (current) program that I’m doing Belmonte in The Abduction from the Seraglio in Washington, with David Gordon doing Pedrillo.  [Gordon was also with the Opera School.]  Its going to be in the Terrace Theater [part of the Kennedy Center], and the first performance is January 1st.  [Gerard Schwarz conducted, and it was sung in Andrew Porter
s English translation.]

BD:   How big a theater is that?

Kunde:   I think it seats 700, or 750.  So, it’s going to be a nice intimate surrounding with not a great big orchestra, but well publicized.  I hope a lot of people will be able to see it.  Patrick Raftery did Barber of Seville there, and it got rave reviews.  I’m doing La Traviata in November with Columbus Opera, with Winifred Faix-Brown, and I’m really looking forward to that because it’s going to be in Italian.  It will be my first really big-time regional theater major role.

BD:   When you study these roles, do you learn them in English and Italian?

Kunde:   I learn them in the original language first, depending on whether I’m actually engaged to do it or not.  If I’m not engaged to do it, I learn it in the original language, and if I’m engaged to do it in English, then I’ll learn it in the original language, and then in English.

BD:   Does singing in English bother you at all?

Kunde:   No.  It’s one of my fortes, as a matter of fact.

BD:   Your diction is good?

Kunde:   Yes, my diction is good, and I’ve had success in English.

BD:   Does opera work well in English?

Kunde:   It depends on which one it is, and who did the translation.  The traditional translation that Ruth and Thomas Martin made of Così Fan Tutte doesn’t work.  There’s too much cliché.  Mozart is excellent English if you get the right translation, and Andrew Porter has done a brand-new translation of The Abduction from the Seraglio, so what could be a really interminable evening of Mozart is going to be fun because it’s a great translation.

BD:   Do you find any closer union with the audience when you sing a line in English and know that they understood the words?
Kunde:   Yes, there is that but it also depends on the audience.  If you did opera in English at Lyric Opera, I don’t think they’d accept it because they’re used to these works being in the original language, and they know they’re not going to understand everything.

BD:   [Defending the company]  But they hear great voices, and they’ve presumably done their homework.

Kunde:   Yes, but most of the people are satisfied reading the synopsis in the program, and just listening to the music.  Usually in an international house, they will have actors who will be able to convey the story without having people looking at the libretto, and not watching the action.

BD:   Are you a good actor?

Kunde:   I don’t know.  I’ve got a lot to learn, but I think I can handle myself on the stage pretty well!  Like I say, you learn a lot just being on the stage and watching people.  I’ve only been able to watch Plácido Domingo in one production of Andrea Chénier.  He’s so good with his face, and you learn how much you can do with your face.

BD:   Are you booked up immediately after the current Tristan?  Would it be worth your while to actually hang around Chicago for [the next production] Domingo in Tosca?

Kunde:   I’d love to, but I’m working in a church when I’m home, and we’re doing a production of Amahl and the Night Visitors [Menotti].  I’m producing and directing it, so that’s a new experience for me.  Otherwise I’d like to stay around.  I wish there would have been something for me to do here.  I always save my fall season for Chicago, just in case there’s something.

BD:   [Lamenting]  If San Francisco offers you something good, you will desert us!

Kunde:   This fall they did offer me some things, but it wasn’t what I had wanted, so I turned them down.  I had some experience singing in Western Opera Theater, and there were four performances in San Francisco during the run of the tour.  I did two performances of La Bohème, and Mr. McEwen saw me, and liked me a lot.

BD:   Those were at the War Memorial Opera House?

Kunde:   No, they were at the Herbst Theater [928 seats], right next door in the Art Museum.  He wanted me very badly to be there in the fall, but he had already cast everything except for a few little parts.  He said he was sorry he had nothing really to offer, but supposedly next fall he’ll have something for me.

BD:   How far ahead are you booked?

Kunde:   At that time it was April, and he wanted to book me for the fall.  Usually right now things are set a year in advance.  If I get into the comprimario roles, then people will keep asking for comprimario stuff.  Whereas if you get into the regional theater, people read Opera News, and they know how people do there.  As I said earlier, it’s very hard to say no.  [Laughs]  I had an experience over the phone, trying to say no, and this person could not let it go.  They just kept saying they really need me, and really want me to be there.  It wasn’t a small part!  It was a major role, but I didn’t have time.  Someone had canceled, and they needed somebody to come in immediately.  I said that I didn’t know the role, but they said they’d teach it to me.  They said they knew I was a quick learner.

BD:   That fact had gotten around!  [Both laugh]  Can that be a handicap?

Kunde:   It can if you do too many things.  I’m looking forward to the things that I’m doing, but everything is new...

BD:   Have you done anything a second time yet?

Kunde:   Rodolfo.  As a matter of fact, I’ve done twenty-five performances of Rodolfo in English.  That’s an opera which works in English.  It brings the house down.

BD:   They tried Bohème in English at the Met in the early 1950s, and it was not really accepted.

Kunde:   Right, but with regional companies going more for the middle-class person, you need to sing things in English because you want people to know that this isn’t all bad.  It isn’t all fat ladies up there singing high notes.  Opera in English is really working there.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   In your opinion, how much has television and film affected the dramatic action in opera?

Kunde:    A lot!  The acting in opera has just come up so far.  You can tell it with the old singers.  They don’t act as well as the people who have been trained to do it.  The old singers were trained to just go on and sing because the people wanted to hear their voices.  If they moved on the stage really well, it was great, but there was really not that much action.  Now, for example, the Jean-Pierre Ponnelle productions bring them to life, and the singers can do whatever he asks for.  That’s why his productions are so successful.
BD:   Have you worked with Ponnelle yet?

Kunde:   No, but I understudied Don Ottavio two years ago, and it was great just to see him work.  He’s a perfectionist, and he wants you to emote.

BD:   Did he get the singers to work, or did he work around what abilities they had?

Kunde:   He worked around what abilities he had, but he had hand-picked the cast, and knew what they could do before he got here.  [The cast included Hermann Winkler as Ottavio, and Richard Stilwell, Stafford Dean, Anna Tomowa-Sintow, Carol Neblett, Isobel Buchanan, and John Macurdy, with John Pritchard conducting.]

BD:   It would have been interesting to see you do Don Ottavio, because his whole conception had him as an older man.

Kunde:   Yes, the complete opposite of Don Giovanni.  The first Don Giovanni I ever saw, which was on Live From the Met [1978], had Joan Sutherland and John Brecknock, who came up to about her breasts!  [Much laughter]

BD:   How tall are you?

Kunde:   5ft 11ins.  As far as a tenor goes, I guess I’m medium-average size, but then you see these baritones...  [Sighs]  You can’t compare us to those guys!  It’s embarrassing.  In my first year at the Opera Center, we did a concert, and when we came out for a final bow, I was on the stage with Julien Robbins who is 6ft 4ins, Ed Halls who is 6ft 6ins, and Dan McConnell who is 6ft 2ins.  Then there was me at 5ft 11 ins, and I looked like a dwarf out there!  [Both laugh]

BD:   Do you ever wear elevator shoes when you’re on stage?

Kunde:   No, no!

BD:   I saw James McCracken one time, and he came out wearing lifts.

Kunde:   Yes.  Jon Vickers does that every once in a while, too, and you’re surprised.  He’s such an imposing figure on the stage when you see him in the house, and then you walk backstage to meet him, and he’s not a large man.  He does so much movement on that stage.  Have you ever seen the rake which is used in this [Tristan] production?  It’s impossible!  It’s a 20% incline, and I have to stand up there for fifteen minutes while Hans [Sotin] sings his aria.  I don’t know how Vickers is able to do that third act on that rake.  It’s incredible.

BD:   Wasn’t he lying down for a lot of it?

Kunde:   Yes, but just being able to stand yourself up without falling down into the pit is incredible.

BD:   How much does the physical production affect you or performance?  I assume it
s not so much in the small roles that you’ve done here, but what about the big roles you’ve done in regional companies?

Kunde:   Usually I have enough rehearsal to get myself acquainted with the set and the stage, so it doesn’t bother me.

BD:   Does it affect your conception of the part?

Kunde:   Sometimes, yes.  I’ve done three productions of La Bohème, and the sets have all been different.  But it’s not so much the sets that worry me, or change my outlook on the parts.  It’s the director.  He has a different outlook on things.  I once did Bohème with a guy who wanted Rodolfo to be a real lover, a real Cassanova-type, which you can’t be!

BD:   He was looking for anything in skirts?

Kunde:   Right, and he can’t be that.  He’s not old enough.  He’s just taking after the others in the first act.

BD:   How old is Rodolfo?

Kunde:   In my opinion, he’s about nineteen at the most.

BD:   How old is Mimì?

Kunde:   I think maybe she
s a little bit older, about twenty-one.  She acts coquettish, but she really knows what she wants.  She wants Rodolfo.  She’s seen him many times, but has never approached him.  She’s seen him with the others from afar, and this just happens to be the night that she’s actually going to knock on the door.  That’s the way I see it, anyway.

BD:   What would you do if the director insisted on doing things that were completely wrong?

Kunde:   I wouldn’t do it.

BD:   At what point would you pull out of a production?
Kunde:   That’s really hard because you accept something, not knowing what the director actually wants, and then if you’re at odds with the director or the conductor, it’s really difficult.  I did Madama Butterfly in Bear Valley this past summer...
BD:   Where is that?

Kunde:   Bear Valley, California, just east of San Francisco.  It’s up in the mountains, a wonderful place.  They had an assistant conductor prepare us.  He did all the musical rehearsals and all the staging rehearsals. Then the actual conductor came in a week before the opening to do one run-through with us, and to find out what we were doing.  I won’t name him, but he proceeded to sit down, open the score, and said,
I’m sorry, but I haven’t had time to look at this score.  From then on, all the work that we had done was falling apart.  In college maybe I can see that, but this is a professional production.  They paid me money to come out there.  I know my music.  Why don’t you know yours?  You can’t sight-read Puccini!

BD:   Usually, you get an assistant conductor just to save work by the old experienced conductor.  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with José van Dam, Michel Plasson, and Janine Reiss (vocal coach on this, and many other French recordings).]

Kunde:   Right, and then the old experienced conductor comes in, and does a wonderful job.  Well, this guy hadn’t even looked at his music.

BD:   If you got a contract to work with this same conductor, would you just decline?

Kunde:   They want me to come back next year, and I said I will not come back if he’s conducting.  In the dress rehearsal, after we had gone through what we had done here, there is a tradition in one part of the first act where the tempo slows down and it says con forza in the score.  Traditionally it slows down there a little bit so the tenor can get the high A.  Well, he wanted to beat right through it, and I said,
We’ve done it this way since we got here, and he said, “It’s not that way in the score.  All it is is a tremolo in the violins, so he could beat through those measures and just wait for me, but he said he wouldn’t do that.  So I said, “If you don’t want to do it that way, I’ll just go home.  He said,All right, go ahead!  So, I left!

BD:   This was a rehearsal, but did you do the performances?

Kunde:   Three of the violinists went to him at the break and said,
Why did you do that???  Why don’t you have some sense???  That is the way it’s done.  If you had prepared the score, you’d know that!  [Laughter]  The orchestra is a gathering of people from California and Nevada that play in other orchestras, and some of them had played the score many, many times.  So, I came back for the third act, and it was really touch-and-go.  I didn’t know whether I should look at him or not.  I like to know musical things.  Some people get offended by the knowledge I have when I come to a rehearsal, because my ear is very acute in hearing mistakes.  So when people, such as conductors, don’t hear mistakes, I get very upset.  I wonder why he doesn’t stop.

BD:   Do you go down to the green room later on and tell the bassoon player it’s an F# and not an F natural?

Kunde:   No, no, no I never do that...

BD:   Let’s talk a little bit more about Madama Butterfly.  How big a cad is Pinkerton?

Kunde:   [Laughs]  He turns out to be a pretty big cad, but in the US Navy at that time, it was always done.  It was just the thing to do.  When you got off the boat on your leave, you had a good time and “married” the girl.  Then you would get back on the boat and go back to the United States.  Pinkerton happened to pick the wrong girl.

BD:   Does Pinkerton feel anything for Butterfly?

Kunde:   Sure, he does!  He came from a very good family, and I don’t think that he would actually do this, or actually think of doing this to the girl, but because all the boys did it, what the heck.  I look at him as a sincere man when he’s there with her.  I really think he does fall in love with her, but in that day and age he feels that he just couldn’t bring her home, or couldn’t really admit that he was in love with her.  Then in the third act, he really realizes what he’s done, and he doesn’t know that he has a child until he gets off the boat with Kate.  My biggest problem with the opera is that I don’t understand how Kate takes it so well.  She’s very compassionate with Butterfly and says she’ll take care of the baby.  Everything will go very well, and he’ll have a nice education.  Pinkerton was a victim of circumstances.   Had it been any other girl but Butterfly, he would have been in fine shape.
BD:   Would he have come back there at all?

Kunde:   He didn’t come back just to see Butterfly.

BD:   He just wound up back there, and expected that she would have married someone else in the meantime?

Kunde:   Sure, of course!  That was the standard.  That was what was done.  

[We then had a brief discussion about various singers who had children, and the joys and sorrows of that situation.]

BD:   During one interview, I asked the teen-aged son if he’d rather meet Luciano Pavarotti or Frank Zappa, and without hesitation he said Frank Zappa!  [Both laugh]

Kunde:   There you go!  [More laughter]

BD:   Is Rock music, real music?

Kunde:   [Ponders a moment]  Yes, I really think so.  Sure, it takes an inspiration.  [With a wink]  You’re asking the right person, because before I started in opera, I was the lead singer in a rock group for five years.  We did things by the group Chicago.  We had a horn section and everything, and it was great experience for me.  It got me out in front of people, and you really had to pour your heart out to them to accept you.

BD:   It didn’t strain the voice?

Kunde:   I knew how to use my voice at that time, so it never hurt.  I was always able to sing.

BD:   Did you enjoy it?

Kunde:   Yes, I loved it, and I was kind of sad to get out of it.  We broke-up when we went to college, but we made music all together, and it was a tight group.  We really could have gone places...  But I was into rock music, not that punk rock.  I don’t think that is inspired music.  That’s contrived.  That’s music for a purpose, to be rebellious from rock, and that kind of music I don’t like.  Twentieth-century concert music I don’t particularly care for, either.  The John Cage stuff which is scientific, or things which are just improvisational I don’t enjoy.  I can see that there is something that goes into it, but I don’t consider it music.

BD:   Where do you draw the line?  It’s easy to see one, and it’s easy to see the other, but it’s sort of gray in the middle.

Kunde:   It is, it is!  I have to hear the piece before I can draw the line.

BD:   Is there a line to be drawn, or is it just a wide paint brush that just sort of clouds over that middle area?

Kunde:   I don’t think there is a line to be drawn.  It’s a feeling.  If I don’t get anything out of it, I don’t consider it music.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Are you good audience?

Kunde:   Yes, I think I am.

BD:   What are you feeling when you’re watching a performance, rather than being on stage singing?

Kunde:   I never have preconceptions.  That’s why I think I’m a good audience.  I like a lot more things than a lot of people do.  I can see through things.  If someone is having problems on the stage, I can see through that, and I can see that there is an effort being made.  They’re actually wanting to give me something, and I am receiving it.  Then when I see other people on stage who don’t have that, or if you’re not up there to give me something, if you’re just up there trying to make a sound, and trying to impress people, then you shouldn’t be up there.  You should be pouring your heart out because that’s what you’re getting paid for!  We want to see inside you, and we want to see inside your character.

BD:   Do you think about this when you’re on the stage?

Kunde:   Very much so, yes.

BD:   Do you ever find yourself giving too much?

Kunde:   Yes, in rehearsals, and I think that’s good if you can give too much.  That way the director can say you’re giving too much, whereas if a director has to pull it out of you, you’re in trouble.

BD:   Do you try to work ahead of the director?
Kunde:   No, no, no!  I try and see what I would do with the character, or with a particular movement.  I give suggestions every once in a while, asking what if I do this, and what if I do that?  Usually it works because a director, especially in opera, doesn’t have that much time to say when you should move your right arm, or give a gesture like in high school.  Only Ponnelle has that much time!  [Both laugh!]  You have to have suggestions, and they like it when you have suggestions on little things like that.

BD:   Do you find that all of your movements are studied, and do you think about each gesture?

Kunde:   No, no, no!  It’s different all the time.

BD:   Is it easier all the time?

Kunde:   It’s easier for me not to be so structured.  La Bohème is a perfect example.  If you’ve got the basic movements down, then you can really have fun on stage, especially in something like the second act where you sit at the table.  That can be so boring sitting at that table for five minutes while Musetta sings her aria.  You have to converse back and forth, and know the music well enough to not get yourself lost.

BD:   Do you ever try to pull a stunt to break up another singer?

Kunde:   It’s been done!  [Much laughter]  People sometimes put naked pictures in punch bowls, and stuff like that.  It’s fun, and if you know your part well enough, it’s not a disaster.  But you have to know your colleagues.  Instant opera not that easy to do.

BD:   Would this happen in rehearsal, or also in performance?

Kunde:   In performance you can do it sometimes.  On tour it gets to be an every-night thing, wondering what’s going to happen.  La Bohème is one of those operas that I just love.

BD:   Would you ever do the Leoncavallo setting?

Kunde:   I don’t know it.

BD:   There you get to be the painter.  Marcello is the tenor!

Kunde:   Oh, it would be fun!  [Both laugh]  I’ll have to look at it.

BD:   Caruso recorded a big aria from it, but the rest of it is mostly forgotten.  Do you ever listen to old records?

Kunde:   I used to, but I don’t very much anymore.  [He laughs]  I’m never home to do it.  I have to just listen to tapes of things that I’m going to do to get an idea.  A lot of people don’t like to listen to tapes of things that they have to perform, but I do.  I want to know what’s going on underneath me.  I want to know that the clarinets are playing, and it’s only clarinets and oboes there, because that sound is going to go straight up, and it’s going to capture everything I’m singing.

BD:   Do you know when the whole orchestra is going full-blast, and maybe you could even fake it a little bit?

Kunde:   Sure!  That’s another thing you have to know, because most places you’re not going to get anything but a dress rehearsal, and that’s the first time you’re going to hear the orchestra.  If you’ve never done the work before, you’re going to be in trouble!  You’re going to be putting out too much sound.

BD:   Do you mean giving too much at the wrong places?

Kunde:   Probably everywhere!  When you start putting out a big sound, and then you have the full orchestra underneath, you have to put out even more.  At least the performer feels that way.  If I start out with my mezzo-forte, my fortissimo is really going to be more.  You’ve got to know what’s going on.

BD:   Do you ever feel the orchestra covers you up?

Kunde:   I feel that a lot, but I’ve been told that it doesn’t.  You can always hear a sound coming through.

BD:   When you sing out, does the voice come back at you in various theaters?

Kunde:   Yes, here it does a lot.  It’s great to sing in this theater, but there have been places...  I always go back to the experiences of touring because that’s been my main experience so far in performing.  On tour, you don’t get a chance to sing in the hall except for when you arrive at the theater at 6:30 PM for an eight o’clock performance.  You walk in and you sing a few notes, and see what it’s going to do, but then you still don’t know.
BD:   How much do the different theaters affect your performance?

Kunde:   It shouldn’t affect it at all, but subconsciously, I’m sure it does.  I try and do the same things all the time, whether it’s a 3,500-seat theater or a 700-seat theater.  Especially for a 700-seat theater, I can’t hold back on it, because it hurts you.  If you have a certain way of singing, and that produces a certain volume, you need to sing that way all the time.  A lot of people hold back when they’re in a smaller place, and it shows.  But different acoustics drive you crazy, because when you get into a certain theater, you can’t hear the orchestra.  On tour, you never travel with monitors like we have here.  If you can’t hear the orchestra, you can’t hear the orchestra, and that’s all there is to it!

BD:   What kind of monitors are there in this house here in Chicago?

Kunde:   They have two big Shure columns on each side of the stage, off stage, right and left, that shoot the sound back at you.

BD:   Is it your sound, or the orchestral sound, or both?

Kunde:   It’s a mixture, but there are microphones in the orchestra pit that are just for that purpose, so that we can hear the orchestra on stage.  It gets pretty intense up there when you have everybody singing full voice.  You usually can’t hear anything but yourself, and especially in the soft passages you can’t hear the orchestra at all.

BD:   Do you rely on a prompter?

Kunde:   I don’t... at least I haven’t had to yet.  The parts haven’t been big enough that I would ever forget anything.  I’m sure I will eventually.  There’s always that time when you’re going to go blank, and that’s why the prompter is there.  We had a prompter in Bear Valley.

BD:   Where was he?

Kunde:   He was in the orchestra pit, just where the prompter’s box would be, but he wasn’t visible to anyone in the audience.  If you needed anything, you just looked to him and he’d throw it to you.  It’s a good idea because in a lot of debut performances you’re scared to death up there, and if you forget a line, it scares you even more, and if there’s no one there to save you...  That’s happened not to me, but to people I’ve been with on stage.

BD:   Do you keep your nerves under control?

Kunde:   Yes, that’s why I like to know the whole thing.  I like to know everybody’s part because if anything goes wrong, especially in a regional theater, there’s no way they’d ever get you back on.  I’ve been known to throw people lines.  A lot of the big singers do that.  Alfredo Kraus knows everything.  He always knows every part.  You see him backstage conducting every once in a while!

*     *     *     *     *

:   During the second act of Madama Butterfly, do you do or not do anything special in your dressing room?

Kunde:   No, I don’t do anything special.  I’m up there to sing, and I never baby myself.  I never have anything superstitious that I do, or don’t do.

BD:   If another colleague comes in, would you talk with them, or would you not talk just to rest the voice?

Kunde:   No, it doesn’t make any difference.  
If there was a football game on, I’d be watching the game.
BD:   Before going out for the third act, do you re-vocalize?

Kunde:   That was a problem with the production in Bear Valley.  They wanted to do acts two and three together, and I said I needed to re-vocalise.  There were other factors, and the soprano also wanted to have a rest, so there was an intermission.  It was in a tent, and there was no dressing room area back stage.  But in a regular production, I would be in my dressing room and could re-vocalize.  They also wanted to sell drinks, so the Administrator said they would be taking a break.

BD:   How much do the economic factors of opera influence you or affect you, if at all?  Are you conscious of the fact that the show has to make money, or that you have to sell tickets, or concessions, or programs?

Kunde:   No, that’s not my job.  I rarely think about that.  As a matter of fact, as much economic trouble as supposedly we’re in, the opera world really isn’t feeling it very much.  A lot of programs are being cut, but the patrons and the benefactors are making up for it.

BD:   Do you sing benefit concerts and things like that?

Kunde:   Yes.  As a matter of fact, I am doing a dedication at Notre Dame [University in South Bend, Indiana] for their new chemical building.  They asked me to sing for that.  I’m also doing a recital next week.

BD:   Do you enjoy recitals as well as operas?

Kunde:   I just enjoy singing!  I don’t have a preference, really.  Whatever I’m doing at the time is what I really like to do!  This recital is with my voice teacher, and we’re doing seven Schumann duets and some things from [Brahms’s] Liebeslieder Waltzes.

BD:   Is your voice teacher a man or a woman?

Kunde:   A man, a baritone.

BD:   Does it take a man to teach a man?

Kunde:   I don’t think so.

BD:   You keep taking lessons?

Kunde:   Yes.  I have been with him almost ten years, and he is my only voice teacher.  
His name is Peter Schuetz, and he teaches at Illinois State University.

BD:   You’re very lucky.  A lot of people bounce around from teacher to teacher.

Kunde:   Yes, and that’s an unfortunate situation because it’s very hard to find someone that you can trust.  So many voice teachers want you to sound like them, and not many voice teachers are technically inclined.  They know what the sound should be, but they can’t tell you how to make it.  They can’t tell you what your muscles do when you make this sound, or what you’re doing now that is wrong.

BD:   I would think a good natural singer would probably be a very poor teacher because it just came easily to them, and they didn’t have to work on it.

Kunde:   Right, exactly, because they really don’t know what goes on unless they actually go and learn.

BD:   A couple of singers were telling me they could always tell who someone’s teacher was because they pick up all their bad habits.

Kunde:   That’s exactly right, and they pay $50 an hour to do it.   My voice teacher is a technician only.  I don’t coach roles or pick repertoire with him.  I just want to know how my voice works, and he is one of the rare people who can take in any voice and make it work like that voice is supposed to work.  He can take a pop singer and make him sound like what it should sound like, with that voice singing pop.  That voice also could sing opera if it wanted to.  He’s an amazing person.  His students don’t all sound alike.  They all simply sing well and have a good technique.  That’s why I have stayed with him, and probably will stay with him.  Even at this point in my career, I’m solid in my technique, so that if anything goes wrong, I can just take a lesson and ask him what to do.

BD:   But then you coach roles with others?

Kunde:   I coach roles with people here like Donna Brunsma, Lee Schaenen, and Richard Boldrey.  I also coached a lot with Louis Salemno, who is in Texas right now, and Walter Baracchi, who is an unbelievable coach.  It’s nice that he speaks Italian.  That’s where I really learned my Italian.  He and his wife always spoke Italian, and you learn how to get along in that language.  But as far as the Italian repertoire goes, in works that they sing at La Scala, there’s no comparison.  He knows everything about it.  You can’t coach with anybody better than Baracchi.

BD:   Would you learn unknown operas?  What if they wanted you do an opera by, say, Saverio Mercadente?

Kunde:   I’d have to look at it first.  I
ve heard many operas that I just don’t even want to have anything to do with.

BD:   Would you do Alwa in Lulu?

Kunde:   I don’t know that.  It’s been on TV, but I never watched it.  I saw a production of Cherubini’s Medea at the City Opera with Grace Bumbry this past year, and boy, is that a piece or trash!   I don’t know how that got into the repertoire!
BD:   So, if someone offered you $5,000 a performance to sing Jason, you wouldn’t do it?

Kunde:   No way!  It’s not satisfying.

BD:   Even if it fit your voice?

Kunde:   No, I wouldn’t do it.  I couldn’t stay awake and be successful at that opera.  Maybe Maria Callas was very successful at it, but when I saw that opera, and heard the music, and saw what action you could put to it, I realized how fabulous she must have been just to carry that role off as being one of the best things she ever did.  It’s just terrible!  [Much laughter]  There are patches from Beethoven and patches from Mozart.  I was just sitting there wondering how they could spend money on this.  It’s just a piece of trash!

BD:   [Playing Devil
s Advocate]  What if someone comes to you and says that La Bohème is a piece of trash?

Kunde:   [Smiles]  Well...  [Both laugh]  Everybody’s opinionated.  I have my opinions, and I’m not embarrassed to say them.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Where is opera going today?

Kunde:   It’s going to the real people, thank God!  As much as I don’t think Pavarotti is doing the right things these days, as far as his voice goes, where would we be today without Pavarotti in the United States?  He has done so much for this business.

BD:   Do you resent knowing that people idolize Pavarotti, but really don
t know that he’s not doing the right thing?

Kunde:   I think it’s sad.  I really don’t see how he can last much longer.  [Remember, this interview was held in 1982.]  I really think he’s not … I’ve heard him say,
I’m fine.  I’m doing the right things.  I can do this, and I’m not hurting myself.  I think I’m getting better!  But he doesn’t hear himself.

BD:   At the radio station, when I play an early Pavarotti disc, people will call up and ask who that tenor was.

Kunde:   Those early discs are the only ones I have now.  When I first heard that voice, that’s what really turned me on.

BD:   Do you resent the fact that he’s on the front of Time rather than Kraus?

Kunde:   No.  He’s a very charming person if you really know him.... at least he used to be!  When he was here in Rigoletto [1979], he was a prince.  He would make time to talk to everybody, especially the young singers.  But now he’s so damn busy.  It is sad to see what has happened to him.  The media has kind of taken him over.

BD:   Would you ever stop if they tried to make you into a personality?

Kunde:   Well, probably not.  I think I would know how to handle it a little better having seen the experience that has happened to him.  The big word is No, and that is something you can’t learn.  It’s something you don’t learn out of a book.  You’re taught that it’s bad to say No to that opportunity.

BD:   You don’t want to be in People magazine playing tennis or cooking pasta?
Kunde:   I don’t do those things, but I wouldn’t mind being in People magazine playing in the Bob Hope Desert Classic.  I do play a lot of golf.  That is my downfall.  That’s why I live in Florida.

BD:   When you’re at the golf course, do you take pains not to make it known that you’re an opera singer?

Kunde:   I don’t flaunt it, but if someone asks, I’m not embarrassed to say that I am.  As a matter of fact, I’m pretty proud to say I am.  It is incredible to know that I’m making a living doing something I like because so many people in this world are not.  I really enjoy what I’m doing.  Music is really something.

BD:   Would you ever write music criticism?

Kunde:   No, but I have predicted that my wife would be a critic in about ten years.  She has a better ear than I do, and she has a better vocabulary.  She’s a genius, to tell you the truth.  She is one of those people that went through high school and college and got her master
s degree with a perfect four-point average.  She’s the kind that writes the term paper, and just sits down and does it.  No outline, no nothing.  She just types it and gets an A.  She’s a wonderful writer, and she doesn’t do enough of it.  Last year after the opening night of Samson and Delilah, we were riding to the Opera Ball in a limousine.  They have all these limousines for the performers that take us to the Hilton Hotel.  It was raining, and we got in, sat down, and there were already two people there.  One was Danny Newman, and we didn’t know who the other man was.  She was talking about the performance, and saying how Carlo Cossutta was in great voice, and he really stood out in the performance.  During the course of the ride, I had figured out who she was sitting next to, and I told her it was Robert Marsh, the critic for the Sun-Times!  [Both laugh]

BD:   Did that phase her at all?

Kunde:   No, she wasn’t embarrassed about it at all.  She was very well educated in what she was saying.

BD:   Do you read the critics?

Kunde:   I do, sure.  I want to know what they say, but they haven’t really said anything much about me!

BD:   Here you
re doing mostly small roles, but what about where you do principal parts in Bohème or Butterfly?

Kunde:   Marilyn Tucker of the San Francisco Chronicle was at the Butterfly performance, and even though there were a few production things that really didn’t go very well, someone told me backstage that she’s a big fan of mine.  I couldn’t figure out why, as I’d only performed in San Francisco twice in La Bohème and didn’t get a review because she had already printed one from the night before.  It was a double-cast and she reviewed the first.  But I do like to read the reviews.  It’s fun because you can pick up some good things no matter what they say about you.  You look at your performance, and you realize maybe I did do that if I look back on it.

BD:   Do you read the review after the first performance, or do you wait and read it after the last performance?

Kunde:   I read them after the first performance when they come out.  When I listen to Claudia Cassidy [former critic for the Chicago Tribune, and by the time of this interview doing a weekly segment on WFMT], she is so opinionated.  She has a performance in mind that you must match, and if you don’t match that she can be nasty.  I was so upset at her review of Tristan and Isolde because she had nothing but bad things to say about Isolde, and I just think Janis Martin is fabulous.  You just don’t hear an Isolde like that because it’s different, and I really think that’s why Cassidy didn’t like it, because it’s different.  It’s a lyric soprano singing this part.  To hear the Liebestod sung that way, it’s just not screaming.  There’s something to be said about Birgit Nilsson back in the 1960s.  It was incredible, but this is just as incredible.  I am thrilled to hear Martin sing it that way, and to sing the last note pianissimo.  As Melot, I have the fortunate experience of being killed in that act, and I get to lie on the stage when she sings it, and it’s just an incredible experience.

BD:   Is it hard to die on the stage?

Kunde:   No, as a matter of fact, it’s kind of fun!  [Both laugh]  I love dying as Tybalt.  That was my big moment.

BD:   Would you rather kill or be killed?

Kunde:   [Sighs]  That’s hard to answer.  I enjoy both.  I enjoy being able to be in action on the stage instead of just standing there and singing an aria.  I like to do things on the stage because I feel I’m capable of doing them.  I don’t get bogged down worrying about having to sing this note while trying to do something.  If I think it works, I’ll do it.  If I think it’s crazy, maybe not.  For one production of La Bohème, when I sang Chi son?, the director wanted me to jump up on a chair and sing it forte.  Why???  Why did he want me to do that???  [Laughs]  Why can’t I just stand and sing it?  I can put my leg up on the chair maybe, but I won’t jump up on the chair.  There are a lot of crazy things that go on.
BD:   Where do you hope to be ten years from now?

Kunde:   [Thinks a long moment]  Playing golf!  [Both laugh]  No, I just hope to make enough money in this business, and please enough people so that those in this field of opera will know who I am, and will want me to sing for them.  I want to be comfortable enough to be able to do whatever I want to do, and play golf anytime I want to.  I’m not looking for millions and millions of dollars.  I just want to make a comfortable living, and be wanted.

BD:   So, you won’t hesitate to turn down a few performances because it would be simply too much?

Kunde:   Definitely!  You see these schedules of the international stars that are just going day and night, traveling here and going there.  I’m sure I will have to do it at one time, but, like I say, my goal is to be able to pick and choose, and be able to do what I want to do.  I always have to go back to Alfredo Kraus.  He’s a pick and choose person.  He goes where he wants to go and when he wants to be there.  He doesn’t sing more than he wants to, and that’s the way to be.  He’s a man who has had a lot of experience.  In the beginning of his career, he sang a lot of things that he didn’t want to sing, but did because he wanted to move up.  Because he did those things, he did move up, and now he’s able to do what he wants to do.  Also, he gives the greatest advice.  If you have a question about your career, about your voice, anything, he’ll be straight with you.  All you have to do is ask him.

BD:   Is it different for you this time, doing one performance every five or six days, as opposed to when you were here with the Opera Center, and you were doing more performances, and you had to be at rehearsals all the time?

Kunde:   It’s a lot different.  It’s a lot calmer.  Now, usually I’d only be here for two weeks, but with the days between Wagner performances, I’m here for three.  It’s kind of nice because in the open days I can learn roles.  I can work a lot on my own.  I learn stuff on my own pretty much, but I allow free time to myself where I can do what I want, such as play golf.  This time, the weather is beautiful!  It’s such a beautiful day out there, I should be on a golf course!  [Laughs]  But it’s nice to be back, and it’s a different feeling not being in the Opera Center.

BD:   Do you instinctively go up to their offices and rehearsal space?

Kunde:   I do!  I go right up to the sixth floor, and wonder why I am there.  [Much laughter]

BD:   Are you coming back next year?

Kunde:   They haven’t talked to me about anything yet.  I told Ardis it was nice to be back, and she said,
“It’s nice to have you back!  We hope to have you back every year, so whatever that means, I will just wait for them to ask me.  What I’d really like to do is be on this stage and sing with this orchestra in a student performance.  I’m high on the list, so it’s a possibility.

BD:   I hope that it all works out for you.

Kunde:   Me too!  It’s going well, so I have a lot of confidence.

BD:   You’re happy where you are now?

Kunde:   My voice teacher says he wishes he had as much confidence as I do.  He says I just emit confidence, but this isn’t everything.  Opera is not everything.  It’s not your whole life.  It can’t be your whole life.  A lot of people make a big mistake in thinking that.

BD:   There’s always a Pebble Beach [golf course in California]...

Kunde:   There you go!  [More laughter]  There is Pebble Beach, and I do have friends that can’t get beyond Pebble Beach.  Really, it’s very true.  For me, anyway, you have an outlet, or many outlets, especially in music.  A human cannot just have opera in his mind.  There’s got to be something else.  I also enjoy rock music.  I enjoy Willie Nelson.  He’s one of my heroes.

BD:   When you’re a big star, will you send Willie Nelson a ticket to your performance?

Kunde:   I’d love to do that if I ever get to be a personality.  I
d love to just meet these people and let them know I’m an admirer, or be able to sing with them sometime.

BD:   In twenty years, is it going to freak you out when a thirty-year-old comes up to you and says he’s admired you for so long?

Kunde:   [Laughs in horror]  People have come up to say that they really enjoy my work, and I wonder where they would have seen me.

BD:   You have to learn how to accept all of that.

Kunde:   Yes.  It’s fun, and it’s very flattering.

BD:   The best of luck to you, and I hope everything continues to work out.

Kunde:   Oh, thank you.




See my interviews with June Anderson, and Denyce Graves


© 1982 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on September 30, 1982.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1990, and again in 1999.  This transcription was made in 2023, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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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.