Tenor  Kurt  Streit

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie



Tenor Kurt Streit, born October 14, 1959 in Fukuoka, Japan, is an Austrian-American tenor.  He played guitar as a teenager, and later studied singing with Marilyn Tyler at the University of New Mexico. He went on to become a member of apprentice programs in San Francisco and Santa Fe. He has since performed for leading companies and houses around the world.

Considered one of the world’s best Mozart interpreters throughout his career, Streit has performed Die Zauberflöte in 23 different productions around the world (over 150 performances) and Idomeneo in eight different productions—in the opera houses of Naples, Vienna, Madrid, London, San Francisco and others. Performing in numerous productions of Don GiovanniCosì fan tutte and Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Streit has also featured in these and earlier works of Mozart in opera houses such as The Metropolitan Opera in New York, The Vienna State Opera, The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in London, La Scala in Milan, both the Bastille and the Grand Opera in Paris, Teatro Real and the Zarzuela in Madrid, and on the prestigious stages of San Francisco, Tokyo, Aix-en-Provence, Chicago, Munich, Berlin, Rome and Salzburg.

Streit’s renown has, in recent years, led him to further success in his broadening repertoire, encompassing works from composers such as Berg (Lulu at the Paris Opera), Britten (Death in Venice at Theater an der Wien), Pfitzner (title role in Palestrina in Frankfurt), Janáček (Kat’a Kabanova in London, Amsterdam and Brussels, both tenor roles in Jenufa in Amsterdam, From the House of the Dead at the Met), Wagner (Erik in Der Fliegende Hollaender in Barcelona and Munich, and Loge in Das Rheingold in Frankfurt, Dresden and Barcelona), Hindemith (Mathis der Maler), Berlioz (Les Troyens in Geneva, La Damnation de Faust in Madrid), Bizet (Carmen with Nikolaus Harnoncourt at the Styriarte Fesitval in Graz), Weber (Euryanthe in Brussels) and Beethoven (Fidelio in Vienna), all the while keeping his Mozart interpretations alive with the title roles in La Clemenza di TitoLucio Silla, and Idomeneo. His specialities also include Handel (Semele and Tamerlano) at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, Jephtha and Theodora with Concentus Musicus in Vienna’s Musikverein, Rodelinda in Paris, Vienna and Glyndebourne, Partenope in Chicago and in Vienna, (recorded for Chandos) and Monteverdi — both Ulysse and Poppea with appearances in Berlin, Zurich and Los Angeles (shown in photo below).


Streit has appeared with the world’s foremost conductors including Harnoncourt, Pappano, Muti, Rattle, Christie, Bolton, Ozawa, Mehta, Maazel, and with the noted symphony orchestras of Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, St. Petersburg, Berlin, Vienna, Paris, Boston, Florence, Stockholm, and all four of London’s major orchestras.

A two-time Grammy nominee (Brahms Liebeslieder-Walzer with EMI, and Bach: Cantatas with Harmonia Mundi), Streit can be seen and heard on Warner Music’s DVD of Rodelinda from Glyndebourne and Dynamic’s DVD of Idomeneo from Naples. His discography includes two complete recordings of Così fan tutte with Barenboim (Erato) and with Sir Simon Rattle (EMI) (shown below), Die Zauberflöte (L’Oiseau-Lyre), Die Entführung aus dem Serail (Sony Classical), as well as Cherubini’s Mass in D-minor with Muti (EMI) and Franz Schmidt’s Das Buch mit Sieben Siegeln with Harnoncourt conducting the Vienna Philharmonic (Teldec). More recently he recorded Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with Rattle and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (EMI) and the Mozart Requiem with Harnoncourt and Concentus Musicus (BMG).

[The information above is mostly taken from the website of his agency, IMG Artists, dated 2018. The following is part of his biography from Covent Garden, and shows a few more of his recent roles.]

Streit made his Royal Opera debut in 1992 as Ferrando (Così fan tutte) and has since sung Tamino (Die Zauberflöte), Belmonte (Die Entführung aus dem Serail), Johnny Inkslinger (Paul Bunyan), Cassio (Otello), David (Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg), Jupiter (Semele), Prunier (La rondine), Don Anchise (La finta giardiniera), Boris Grigorjevic (Kát’a Kabanová), the Marquis (The Gambler), Bajazet (Tamerlano - photo below) and Jimmy McIntyre (Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny).

Streit’s repertory includes Alwa (Lulu), Gabriel von Eisenstein (Die Fledermaus), Hoffmann (Les Contes d’Hoffmann), Enée (Les Troyens), Loge (Das Rheingold), Jeník (The Bartered Bride), Albrecht von Brandenburg (Mathis der Maler), Prince Vasili Golitsyn (Khovanshchina) and the title role in Palestrina. He has won acclaim for his Mozart and Handel roles, including Tito (La clemenza di Tito), Idomeneo, Grimoaldo (Rodelinda) and Jephtha. He performs regularly in concert, and has recorded for many leading labels.

Streit would appear with Lyric Opera of Chicago on four occasions...

1994-95 - Capriccio (Flamand) with Lott, Gilfrey, Rootering, Golden, Bottone; Davis, Cox, Tallchief, Schuler
2002-03 - Partenope (Emilio) with Futral, B.Mehta, D.Daniels, Doss, Bardon; Bicket, Negrin, Conklin
2004-05 [Opening Night] - Don Giovanni (Ottavio) with Terfel, D'Arcangelo, Mattila, Graham, Bayrakdarian, Silvestrelli; Eschenbach/Davis, Stein, Schuler
2005-06 - Midsummer Marriage (Jack) with Watson, Kaiser, Rose, Langan, Wyn-Rogers; Davis, Hall, Tallchief

In March of 2001, Streit would perform the Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings of Britten with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and Dale Clevenger (Principal Horn of the CSO), conducted by Sir Andrew Davis.  Also on that program were the Symphony #104 of Haydn, the Symphony in Three Movements by Stravinsky, and the Lyric for Strings by George Walker.

--  Links in this box and below refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  


See my interviews with Lella Cuberli, Sir John Tomlinson, Dame Ann Murray, and Sir Thomas Allen

streit As noted above, in the fall of 1994, Streit was in Chicago for Capriccio by Richard Strauss.  It was around Thanksgiving, and we met on one of the days between performances.  As we settled in for the conversation, this is how we began . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   The opera schedule gives you several days in between performances.  Is that too much time off?

Kurt Streit:   I don’t know if it’s because of Thanksgiving, but in any case, this is the longest period we have off, which is four days.  In a town, away from home, that’s a bit much.

BD:   [Mildly concerned]  You wouldn’t rather sing every night, would you?

KS:   I would like to sing every other night, or every third night at the very most.  This time, though, some people went home.  My wife’s in Germany, so I didn’t want to fly home and get jet lagged, and fly back and get jet lag again for four days.

BD:   Is the life of a wandering minstrel too tough?

KS:   No, it’s not too tough.  It’s just you have to get used to it.  I was born and raised on the road, more or less.  I was an Air Force brat, and that was great preparation for a job like this
moving around every two or three years, not getting used to having set friends, set rooms, or set a neighborhood.  No, I don’t think it’s too tough.

BD:   Tell me the secret of singing Mozart!

KS:   [Laughs]  It’s so funny.  Today I was learning a new piece by Mozart that I never had sung before.  I’m singing with Zubin Mehta in Los Angeles next, after this job, and I’m telling you, I was enjoying it so much and I just thought to myself,
When did I like wake up as a Mozart expert?  I don’t remember becoming a Mozart expert.  I don’t know what I’m doing to be a Mozart expert.  I’m just doing what I do, [laughs] and then people put a label on it saying, He’s a Mozart expert, and I didn’t even know it.

BD:   You fit the Mozart mold.

KS:   With the repertoire, and with the way my voice sounds, I guess so.  But as far as style and things like that, I don’t remember learning it.  I just remember always doing what I thought sounded nice, and then people said,
“That’s a Mozart tenor.”  I don’t remember when it happened.

BD:   Are you glad it’s Mozart and not, say, Wagner, or somebody else?

KS:   No, not necessarily.  I also love Wagner, but I haven’t studied it as much because I haven’t sung it as much.  I would love to sing Wagner someday, but I don’t think it’s going to happen... with the exception of a couple of small roles.  A lot of people would ask if I would ever sung Strauss, but there’s at least a couple of roles that I can sing.

BD:   What other Strauss have you sung besides this role in Capriccio?

KS:   Just Narraboth in Salome, and a small role in Die Liebe der Danæ in Santa Fe way back... one of the quartet of kings.

BD:   [With anticipation]  Might you do the Italian Tenor in Rosenkavalier?

KS:   I would sing that, of course, but that’s not a real role.  It’s just a cameo.

BD:   You would rather sing a role than a cameo?

KS:   Cameos are great if you have a name.  People say,
Oh, did you hear who’s singing the Italian Tenor tonight?  I can’t wait!  But if you’re just flying to a city, and you have four days off between performances, a cameo isn’t very much.  [More laughter]

BD:   You seem to be very concerned with days off.  How do you spend the days off
besides just exercising and learning new roles?

streit KS:   Good question, really.  I bring my computer with me [remember, this interview took place in 1994, when computers were not so convenient, nor ubiquitous!], and I do all my numbers things
by myself — all my finances, and taxesand I keep up with that.  But that could only take up a certain amount of time.  Gosh, sometimes I wonder what I do all day long.  All of us wonder about that, and we have our routines.  Singers have their routines even if they’re all a bit different.  I sing a lot.  I just now finished singing for about an hour, and I’m going to sing again for an hour after we leave, so that’s one I thing I definitely do.  I practice.  I know a lot of singers who don’t practice [has a sly grin], but I do, definitely.  I definitely learn when practicing and learning new roles, and working out and trying to keep a bit fit.  I also enjoy cooking so I don’t eat out too much.

BD:   [Patting his ample paunch]  Careful... you’ll start looking like me, and Falstaff is not in your repertoire!

KS:   [Laughs]  I like doing the cooking, so I always get an apartment instead of just a hotel room.  You can have a kitchen, and do all the fun things... although I don’t have my utensils
my toysaround me.  At least I can do something, and it saves a lot of money too.

BD:   [Being only 5 feet, 6 inches, I was a bit embarrassed to ask the following question, but it proved a fruitful area of discussion.]  You’re fairly tall...  How tall are you?

KS:   I am 6 feet, 2 ½ inches.

BD:   Is it good to be
such a tall tenor?

KS:   I’m sure that my height gets me a job here and there.  Rodney [Gilfrey] and I are both very tall.  Rodney plays Olivier, my other half in this show, and the Countess whom we’re trying to court in this piece [Felicity Lott], is also very tall.  So, it works out to be a nice little trio, a nice little mix.

BD:   I would think that sopranos would like to have a tall tenor rather than always the short tenor.

KS:   That’s true, yes.  The soprano doesn’t usually cast the roles, but you know what I mean.  [Both laugh]  It’s always nice, I guess, and it can’t hurt, I imagine.  But, it’s funny.  People always say there are so many short tenors, and it’s true.  But when I think of the people who sing my repertoire around the world
colleagues with whom I never work because we’re always singing the same showsthey are nice guys.  I know them all.  Hans Peter Blochwitz is very tall, like me, and Deon van der Walt is also pretty tall.  These guys aren’t short.  [Much laughter]

BD:   The age of Jan Peerce is over.

KS:   Maybe that’s it.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   We’re talking about the various roles you sing.  How do you decide whether you’ll accept an offer, or turn it down, or just postpone it for a while?

KS:   On a new role?  I have sung so few new roles in comparison with other singers that I know.  All I can say is just make sure that you can do it well, or try it out in a place where there is very little publicity, and take a big pay cut.  [Laughs]  For instance, I sang my first La Bohème just to try it out, and I did it in Albuquerque, New Mexico for free for my voice teacher there who directed it.  I just wanted to try it out, and it felt wonderful.  But I sing it with my style, with my way, so it’s not to everybody’s taste.  I can sing it in a place like that, or in a small house in Europe, but the big houses in Europe would never hire me for Bohème.  I just wanted to try it.

streit BD:   Is that something you will save for ten or twelve years down the line?

KS:   I said that ten years ago, and you can never tell.  I said I’ll be ready for Bohème when I’m 35, and I’m 35 now, and I’m not ready for it.  Of course, I want to sing Bohème.  I also want to look young when I sing it.  I don’t want to be 50 and sing Bohème.  Of course, if I can sing it at 50 I’ll accept the job, but with these youthful roles that I really connect with now, it would be too bad if I waited until I was too old to sing them.

BD:   Hopefully, you’ll have enough offers that you can pick and choose, and decide which ones you will accept.

KS:   Yes, that’s true, and that happens.

BD:   Being the tenor, most of the time you get the girl.  Is that a good feeling?

KS:   Yes, that’s a good feeling, I guess.

BD:   I ask because the baritone rarely gets the girl.  [Both laugh]

KS:   [Thinks a moment]  I’m sure if I wrack my brain I could come up with a few... like Onegin.  No, he doesn’t come up with the girl in the end, either.  Maybe you’re right!  [Much laughter]

BD:   Part of what I’m trying to get at is that you are cast in certain roles because of your voice range.  Do you like the characters that are imposed on you by your vocal range and style?

KS:   A lot of the times I do, and sometimes I don’t.  I sang La Finta Gardiniera of Mozart one time, and I didn’t like it.

BD:   [Surprised]  Really?  Why?

KS:   I just didn’t like it.  Vocally it didn’t suit me well.  The character itself wasn’t to my liking, so I dropped it.  The first one was in Paris, and I had a Salzburg contract for the second one, but I canceled it.  I told them I just didn’t want to sing this role anymore.  It just wasn’t right for me.  I don’t know why.  That happens sometimes.  I won’t go into the stories, but I heard this one tenor friend of mine who sang Herod in a production of Salome, and it was his instantaneous decision to come off the role.  That’s tough stuff.  Physically and vocally he could do it, but he sang it one time and he said never again.  He canceled all the rest of his shows and never sang it again.  The weird thing was that he wasn’t bad.  He just did not like the role.

BD:   How much should you push yourself to do something that you are committed to, and how much should you just decide no, you don’t want to do it, so you won’t do it?

KS:   It doesn’t happen very often.  He didn’t do a bad job, so it must have been a real instant decision when he said,
“No, this is not right, so I’m not going to do it.  That was what happened to me with Finta.  It doesn’t happen very often.

BD:   Of course, you’re not going to get an awful lot of offers for La Finta Gardiniera...

KS:   [Interrupting]  Well, for me, being a Mozart tenor, and also having a world career, they’re going to call from anywhere.  When they’re going to do Finta, my name will probably come up.

BD:   Because they know you know the role?

KS:   Yes, and also there are maybe five or six of us around the world who are known as Mozart Tenors.  There are other people who sing Mozart, and there are other tenors, but Mozart Tenors are a really small group.  In a way I like that title, but I have so enjoyed singing Capriccio, and so enjoyed learning new repertoire.  I don’t do it enough, and it’s really a pity.  I’d really like to get into new repertoire.  I keep telling my agent that, and he’s looking.


BD:   Maybe you can arrange it that you will sing the Mozart if they’ll also give you something else in that season or the next season.  Make that a contract point.

KS:   Oh, that’s a good idea!  Yes, I’ll have to use that.

BD:   How long does it take to get a new role off the page, and into your mind, and into your throat?

KS:   It depends on the role.  Capriccio I spent a lot of time, and when I say a lot of time, I’m talking about five years.  I didn’t have the contract, but I knew I wanted to learn it four years ago.  So, I picked up the score in the summer of 1990, and just learned it as an exercise because I knew I would want to sing it.  Strauss is not easy music to learn, but the nice thing about it is once you learn it, it never goes away.  It’s like riding a bike.  It never goes away.  It sticks.  I hear it when I wake up in the morning, and believe me it’s a wonderful feeling.  It’s not one of those things where I wish I could get this tune off my head!  It’s not that way at all.  It’s wonderful music.  I’m learning now The Ghosts of Versailles [by John Corigliano], which is coming here in Chicago next year.  I’m doing it at the Met next year, but I’m learning it now, and the contract starts in only three or four months.  I don’t need four or five years to learn every role.  Some you learn quickly.  Jan-Hendrik Rootering, who sings the La Roche, the director, in this Capriccio, told me he’s been learning Hans Sachs for years because it’s such a big hard heavy role.  [Rootering would sing Hans Sachs at Lyric Opera in 1998-99, with Gösta Winbergh, Nancy Gustafson, Eike Wilm Schulte, Michael Schade, René Pape, and John Del Carlo, conducted by Christian Thielemann.]

BD:   But that is a huge role, and needs that amount of time.

KS:   Right.  That’s what you go by.  If you need that time, then you take it.  If they say they need me to sing Siegfried in a month, can I learn it?  I would say no!  [Both laugh]

BD:   But if they came to you and said they wanted you for Siegfried in two years, would you begin learning it?

KS:   I wouldn’t, but somebody else would.  It’s not my repertoire.  But if they told me they need me for any Mozart Mass in a month, and I didn’t know it, I would definitely say yes.

streit BD:   You know the style.

KS:   I know you know the style, and I know probably where it lies.  He didn’t write high Cs or Ds.  If it were Rossini, I would ask them to show me a copy of the music first.  But it depends on the piece.

BD:   Is there a huge difference between a Mozart Tenor and a Bel Canto Tenor who sing Bellini, Donizetti, and Rossini?

KS:   Not a huge difference, but there is a difference.  It’s mostly in style.  The notes are more or less the same.  The problem is … I learnt this in Hamburg - in my house contract in Hamburg.  If you only sing Mozart, you never develop … keep those high notes that you probably learned when you were first studying, because Mozart barely uses B-Flats.  He uses several As, but most of it is below that.  I keep Donizetti in my repertoire.  I sing things like Don Pasquale, and L’Elisir d’Amore, and I keep them in repertoire for that reason
because I don’t want to lose those notes.  I want to keep them well oiled.  I’m singing a terribly high piece in Los Angeles in a year and halfThe Italian Girl in Algiersand it’s very high.  If I don’t sing repertoire like that now and again, I’ll lose those notes, and I don’t want to do that.  But mostly it’s style.  I told you about this Bohème last year, and when I was coaching it, they all said I was singing it like a Mozart tenor.  So, they had me try it more legato.  It’s very important to sing it legato, and a phrase in Mozart is not the same as in Puccini.  I really had to learn that, but it was fun.

BD:   Can you be flexible enough to do many different styles?

KS:   Yes, I think so.  I’ve been singing The Magic Flute and Entführung, and Don Giovanni for the last eight to ten years non-stop.  In 1993 alone I had six different productions of The Magic Flute, and next year I think I have five different productions of Entführung.

BD:   Is it confusing to have done a run of an opera, and then go to another run of the same opera with a different set and a different cast?

KS:   No, it’s not confusing.  If you get only one rehearsal it might be, but it’s not confusing if you have a normal rehearsal time, because you basically throw everything out regarding the staging.  You don’t throw out what you know about the character.  That always grows, so no, it’s not confusing.  In one way you’re growing in that character, and another nice thing is the director always seems to come up with new ideas.  Although I’ve sung more than a hundred performances of Tamino, I still learn things from different directors.  They ask me to tell them a little bit about the character, and then they always ask if I have tried this.  Then I think,
“Wow, how could I have missed that?  It’s wonderful that way!

BD:   They give you new ideas.  Does that eliminate the old ideas?

KS:   Absolutely not.  It gives you more ways to play it, more ways to sing it.  That happens even from conductors and coaches, and then you can choose.  Maybe one night you do it a little bit differently.  That happens.  I imagine that happens a lot in the straight theater, too.  Maybe the director didn’t tell you that exactly, but you have it up your sleeve in case you want to use it.

BD:   Is that how you keep the seventh, eighth, and ninth performances fresh?

KS:   [Laughs]  I don’t know.  It’s a real concentration thing.  I have to tell myself to concentrate because you sometimes aren’t into it.  You just don’t feel like doing it, but that is what makes a professional
you have to reach a certain standard night after night.  If you can’t reach that standard for any reason, you have to cancel, and that’s part of being a professional.  Part of the reason you succeed in this careerif you succeeded in this careeris because you can come up to that standard night after night after night.  Concentration is part of it.  If you just go on the stage and you don’t think about it before you walk onto the stage, all of a sudden you’re there, and you wonder how you can give a good performance under those circumstances.

BD:   Are you aware of the audience that comes each night?

KS:   Oh, yes!  In fact, I’m too much addicted to audience participation.  I wish I weren’t in some cases, but it’s really difficult not to because there are other people in the room with you, and their presence is felt even if you’re trying to concentrate only on your character, and only with the people on the stage.  It’s very difficult not to want them to give you some support.  That’s natural though.

*     *     *     *     *

streit BD:   Are the audiences different from America to Europe?

KS:   Yes, they are.  Tastes are different, and audience participation is different.  Some places they feel they can’t laugh, or they can’t applaud between numbers.  Other places they’re more open to it, but they’re different from city to city, too.  Among colleagues, we talk about those kinds of thing.  For instance, the best audience I’ve ever had was for the BBC Proms concerts, and it wasn’t even the Last Night.

BD:   [Laughs]  The Last Night of the Proms is always crazy.

KS:   It wasn’t the Last Night.  My goodness, no, forget about those.  Those are exceptional.  But this was exceptional for me.  I’ve never seen so many people.  They don’t even put chairs in the middle section of the main floor of the Albert Hall.  Those people stand up, some with scores.  You can see they’ve been waiting for this all year long, and they just follow the music.  Their eyes say everything.  Oh, it’s so wonderful!  But audiences are different all over.

BD:   Is it better to enlighten the old friends, or to make new friends?

KS:   That depends on the piece.  Since I’m here for Capriccio, let’s talk about that opera.  It’s a real connoisseur piece.  It’s one of those things, the more you listen to it, the more it grows on you, and that’s also true for the audience.  The first time I listened to Capriccio, I found it very boring, but the second time I had some things to pick up on
little melodies, little themesand after a few times, you really learn to like the music.  It’s nothing that you have to force.  It grows on you, and you can’t get rid of it.  It’s such a wonderful piece for that, but not every piece is that way.  Some are easy to listen to the first time.

BD:   Each person in the audience on any given night is going to get one shot at it.  Do you work a little harder to try and give them more to pull them in?

KS:   In a different piece, maybe yes, but in Capriccio, no, partly because of my own experience.  I wasn’t learning the music yet, I was just listening to it.  I’m also an audience member, and after two or three times I felt this is really nice, and the more I listened to it, the better it got.  When I did Bohème for this audience in Albuquerque, most of them had never heard it, but what a piece to have heard and seen for the first time.  In that case, I would play for the newcomers, definitely.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  But even in a place which we think of as being remote, like Albuquerque, is it not a good assumption that they’ve heard it on record, or seen it on the television?

KS:   Some of them have, but I know a lot of people in Albuquerque because I went to school there.  However, maybe five per cent of the people that I brought to that show
people that I knewhad heard it or seen it before.  Maybe the rest of the audience had, but all I can do is guess.

BD:   Is there any way that we can get more and newer audiences to come to opera?  Perhaps entice the disenfranchised baseball fans from this season?  [1994 was the year of the Major League Baseball Strike, which canceled their season after about 113 (of the 162) games, and also eliminated the World Series for the first time since 1904.]

KS:   It’s funny, I never really thought about that.  Being freelance and traveling from city to city, it’s not like I can worry about that because it’s really somebody else’s job.  But one thing I do know is that things like these Three Tenors concerts make an enormous audience for the rest of us, because they get people interested.  They bring it on an easier level, on a level that is attainable, that one can relate to more.  So, those concerts are a good thing.  I really like that they’re doing them.

streit BD:   Are you then unfairly compared with The Three Tenors?

KS:   Of course not!  [Huge laugh]  No, not never!  No!  Not even close!

BD:   What about the audience expectation for other tenors, such as yourself?

KS:   I don’t know really.  I never really thought of that.  All I know is that I don’t get near the applause that they do at the end, and that’s fine with me!  They deserve it.  They’re that much better.

BD:   Do you ever fantasize that there will be a time when The Three Tenors will be Streit, Blochwitz, and Van der Walt?

KS:   No, no, no, because the audience is made up of people who don’t really know the difference between these kinds of tenors.  You are that tenor already from your twenties.  People hear it in your voice if you sing Traviata in your twenties, and Bohème in your twenties, and you handle it well, and you’re not one of those people that blows themselves out.  Then you know that you can do that repertoire, but a Mozart tenor never gets to that status of being a world star.  They may be very popular, and they may be flying all over like we are, but to gain that kind of fame you have to be singing that other repertoire, and you have to be of that stature already in your twenties.  You have to be ready for it in your twenties for it to happen in your forties, because everything takes times.  Those guys weren’t very popular in their twenties, but they were very good singers, and that’s how you become a big star in opera.  Believe me, it takes a lot of time, and you have to be very good and a hard worker.  I did all that.  I was a hard worker, and I had a talent that my teachers, and my friends, and colleagues helped develop, but it’s a different kind of career.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Maybe you should try to market The Three Mozart Tenors.  [As a side note, I brought this idea up when interviewing bass Eric Halfvarson, and when posting that conversation, I included an
appropriate days edition of a nationally-syndicated comic strip.  I also noted that my inquiry pre-dated the comic by a year and a half!  Continuing the idea, in 1998, a group of Public Television producers formed a trio called The Irish Tenors, which have appeared in specials, and made several recordings and films.]

KS:   [Laughs]  I don’t think it could ever work.  Mozart’s a different kind of career.  On the other end, think of the Wagner careers.  These guys sing five hours, and they put in a lot of energy, and they put a lot of sweat into their careers, and they don’t even make it until after they’re forty.  Why are they not world stars that sing in Dodger Stadium, and bring opera to the masses, like Pavarotti and Domingo?  I don’t know why, but they still have great careers.  I consider my career still very, very good, and I’m glad to have it.  I love Mozart, and I love singing Mozart, but that kind of a career is another story.

BD:   [Before the tape recorder (remember those?) was turned on for the interview, Streit had mentioned that when he was very young he was learning the guitar, but one night it had been stolen.]  
Was it perhaps providential for the opera world that your guitar got ripped off?

KS:   Yes, wasn’t that funny?  I don’t know what to make of that.  All I know is that the night it was stolen, I was very depressed... more for the money than anything else.

BD:   Were you going into a career as a guitarist?

KS:   As a guitarist, absolutely.

BD:   You were going to be next Segovia?

KS:   Oh gosh, no.  I was pretty bad, I have to say.  I was not a very good guitarist.  Back then, I was singing a lot of pop music with guitar, and that I did well.  But I wanted to be a musician.  I wanted to study music, and when you go in for your applied instrument, there’s no Pop Music Studies, or James Taylor style of guitar and singing.  There’s nothing like that, so if you want to be a guitarist, you take classical guitar, and I really wasn’t very good at that at all.  I spent all my money that I had, and saved and saved and saved to buy this guitar, and I had one semester before it was stolen at a MacDonald’s restaurant.  I left it for seconds, and I never saw it again.  I was so depressed.  Anyway, I’m so glad it happened now because I’m doing something that I can really do, and I’m making money, and traveling around.  All the things that I wanted back then I have now.  When I was taking psychology during my first year at college, I remember going to my teacher and saying,
I know a lot about psychology.  I have this interest in it, and I’m very observant, and I really enjoy it.  I also really like music.  Do you know any career I could go into that would use both of these sides of me?  She didn’t have anything to offer, and it turns out, fifteen years later, that all of the things that I was asking in that meeting I have now, because with the acting you have to really understand human psychology... at least to a certain point.  [Laughs]  You don’t have to be a pro, but you have to understand it to a certain point, otherwise you can’t pull it off.  Then there’s the singing, so it really worked out.

*     *     *     *     *

streit BD:   Going back to Mozart just for a moment, is it particularly difficult in The Magic Flute and Entführung, where you go from singing to speaking?

KS:   That’s kind of tough, yes.  A lot of people have trouble with that.  You have to think of the speaking part as another singing part.  You don’t go the other way around.  It can sound ridiculous if you’re doing it in a room like this one, but on the stage it sounds more real because you’ve just finished an aria, so the ear isn’t thrown off so much.  But if I started talking like that right now [demonstrates a declamatory speaking style], very proper, with a good technique, and with lots of support, and also lots of sound, it would seem ridiculous here, but it sounds right there.  You have to treat the stage dialogue like your singing.  Actors who just speak and do dialogue also do it this way.  They treat it like a singer treats his or her voice.

BD:   Are there any of your parts that are perhaps a little too close to the real Kurt Streit?

KS:   Oh, yes.  I always feel a little connection with my characters
some more than othersbut in answer to your question, I would say Tamino.  In the second act of The Magic Flute, there are so many times when he has to be quiet, and he’s not allowed to talk.  Now imagine me, a singer, who’s tired vocally, who’s done too many performances, has to fly a great deal, and I’m in a hotel room for the next thirty-six hours before my next performance, and I’m not allowed to talk to anybody.  There’s a real connection there.  When Mozart wrote it, the idea had to do with the trials and the Masonic Rites, but for me it really speaks to me in my situation, having to always shut up, and stay put, and be calm.  It’s like the tests, and I really get along well with that character of Tamino.  In Entführung less, in Giovanni less, but in that one example, I really feel for the character.  I get along very, very well with Tamino.

BD:   Obviously your German is good, and I assume your Italian is good?

KS:   No, it’s not very good.  I haven’t spent any time working on it.  I’ve spent time in Italy on jobs, but I haven’t really lived there.  I have one month in the summer off, and my wife and I are thinking of going to Italy, and taking an intensive course in Italian because our Italian is horrible, really.  My pronunciation is okay because we have to pronounce it well to sing it on the stage, but my knowledge of Italian is poor.

BD:   Is she also a singer?

KS:   Yes, she’s singing in Leipzig.  She’s Fest, and has one of those house contracts in Leipzig.

BD:   Is it good for two singers to try and make the career together?

KS:   Evidentially not, in most cases, but in our case it works.  We have a very good relationship.  We’ve been together eight years, and we’re really used to the lifestyle.

BD:   Perhaps, once you both have the big careers you can organize your schedules so it’s easier.

KS:   I guess you’re right, that’s true, but it’s not necessarily easier because I’m away just as much as I was back then
in fact more, because during my time at Hamburg, she was also Fest in Hamburg, so we saw each other a lot more then than we did now.  But that’s when the relationship itself was growing, and now the relationship is set.  We have a good relationship, and we’re used to the travel.  She comes to see me when she can, and I go and see her when I can, but sometimes it’s very tough.  Everybody told me not to marry a singer, and I don’t know how it ended up, but I did.

BD:   Are there operas where you have roles in common?

KS:   Yes, she’s sings Pamina, as a matter of fact, and we’re doing one together in three weeks.

BD:   [Trying to be helpful]  You should make sure that your agent put you together as much as possible.

KS:   Yes, unfortunately we are on different levels in our careers, and she’s not on the same level as I am.  She’s still on a good level, and she sings wonderfully, but it just happens that way.  It’s not that one is better, necessarily, than the other.  It just means that I have to travel more.  I sing in a certain group of houses, and she sings in a certain group of houses, and it’s unfortunate that most of those houses can’t pay my fee.  Otherwise I would sing more with her.  But I’ve agreed to do a benefit performance in Leipzig, and basically take nothing for singing Tamino, just to be able to sing with my wife.  We’ve done it once before, again it was a benefit.  She was singing Pamina in Zwingenberg, a small festival in Germany, and the tenor canceled.  I was visiting her at the time, and she suggested that her husband do it.  They asked if I would agree to do it, and I said I would love to sing it.  It was so much fun for my wife and I.

streit BD:   That didn’t put the cast out of balance, because you were such a bigger singer than the rest?

KS:   No, no, gosh, no.  In Germany there’s a real a professional spirit all up and down the scales of these levels.  There’s a real professionalism.  They get into their repertoire and into their level, and they stay there, and they’re really comfortable in that.  It’s different in the States, but in Germany, it’s set.  If you think about how many opera houses there are, even in small towns in Germany, and they’re professionals.  Maybe if Domingo came and sang La Bohème, they would make a racket, but no, they were pleased to have me, and it wasn’t more than that.  It was a mutual respect
me for them, and them for me.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You’ve made some recordings.  Do you sing the same for the microphone as you do in the opera house?

KS:   I sing the same.  Where they place the microphone, and how they mix it, I don’t know, but I sing the same, definitely.  Then it’s a matter of taste.  When I listen to it, I don’t think it sounds like me, but that’s normal.

BD:   I was just going to say, no one can really hear his own voice.

KS:   No, right.  You hear it from inside of your head, and that’s different from outside and your ears.

BD:   Exactly.  Are you pleased with the recordings that are out?

KS:   Yes, especially The Magic Flute [shown above].  There’s a new one coming out now, a Quartet record for EMI [shown at right], with Olaf Bär, Anne Sophie von Otter, and Barbara Bonney, and Helmut Deutsch and Bengt Forsberg playing the piano.  We did it in Edinburgh, and it’s wonderful.  When we were making it, I was thinking to myself that I would buy this record because there were such nice melodies.  Some of the other records from before that I wasn’t too pleased with, but who am I to say?

BD:   Does it bother you, then, if someone comes up and says they really love one or another earlier recording?

KS:   It doesn’t bother me at all.  [Much laughter]  I’m glad they enjoy it.  When you hear yourself on the record, you want it to be perfect, and it’s never perfect.

BD:   Sure, and you keep striving for that perfection?

KS:   Yes, right.

BD:   Is that actually attainable?

KS:   Of course not, no, never.  A couple of days ago I was talking with Ardis Krainik [General Director of Lyric Opera of Chicago] about that, and I was thinking it had to do more with insecurity.  But she said it has more to do with this thirst for art, and your hope for perfection.  She also said that it’s hard to say to yourself,
Don’t worry.  You’re here because you’re good!  I don’t really want to say that to myself.  There’s a part of me that wants to worry because I always want to get better.  It’s a side of me that says, It’s not good enough.

BD:   I think she was just saying not to become complacent.

KS:   I guess that’s it, but at the same time she was saying you shouldn’t be so insecure in this field because you have made it this far.  But these insecurities are part of that.

BD:   [Being optimistic]  Don’t worry about being able to do it.  You’re able to do it now, and it’s your responsibility to continue.

KS:   To get better and better, right, absolutely.  That’s a good thought.

BD:   Are you at the point of your career now that you want to be at this age?

streit KS:   Yes.  The only thing, if I’m frustrated with anything, is what we’ve been talking about, which is my repertoire.  I am so thirsty to learn new repertoire.  If there’s any frustration at all in my career, it’s being labeled as a ‘Mozart Tenor’ and not singing more varied repertoire.  [As noted in the bio-box at the top of this page, Streit would expand his repertoire to include a wide variety of roles]  I have never sung Alfredo in La Traviata yet, and I am thirty-five years old.  Why?  It’s not fair!  I would love to sing that repertoire.  My voice is also just now getting around to growing.  When I was thirty, I still had a really small voice, but in the last five years it’s grown a lot.  As you know, it takes time.

BD:   In spite of all this, is singing fun?

KS:   Yes.  There are times when it’s not, but for most part yes.  Those days, like I described, when you have to fly around and you’ve sung too much that week, and you’re tired, and you have some conductor who says you’re not allowed to mark in rehearsal, then it’s very difficult.  That’s why Jimmy Levine’s such an angel.  But there are some conductors where you really feel that if you don’t sing out in this rehearsal, you’ll never work for this guy again.

BD:   Maybe that’s a good thing...

KS:   Well, maybe, but it happens sometimes.  It is true what you’re saying.  The real good conductors around the world with famous names and faces are always the best, it seems.  They’re always the ones who say,
That’s all right, don’t worry about it.  I trust you.  We’ll get to sing together again.  It always seems that they’re the best ones, but we all can’t always work with the Jimmy Levine’s of this world, can we?   Sometimes it’s not easy, no.  I had some trouble with my voice in the last couple of years, and I don’t mind saying it.  A lot of people are afraid to mention this, but I had some trouble on my vocal cords that I had to take care of.  In fact, I came to Chicago to do it, and it was a simple outpatient operation.  In the end, it was all fantastic and fine, and my voice is just totally normal, and has gone back to a hundred per cent again.  But during those times when I didn’t know what the problem was, it was terrible.  I was in Madrid, and I had this hemorrhage, so I canceled the whole thing for no reason.  If you’re out at a dance club screaming and laughing, and drinking like crazy, okay you deserve it.  But I was just sitting there, talking to someone like I’m talking to you, and I had this hemorrhage.  On those kinds of days it’s not fun at all.  Three weeks later, the doctor in Madrid told me it was going to be fine, and I went to La Scala to start a contract there.  On the first day of rehearsals, the same thing happened again.  On those days, singing is not fun.

BD:   That’s the professionalism that makes sure you get through it properly.

KS:   Right, but what I did was cancel.  I remember somebody in Hamburg teaching me about it.  I said to him, proudly, as a young singer,
I’ve never canceled once in my life.  So, he said, Das muss man lernen.  [That you must learn.]  I was thinking that I hope to never cancel in my life.  I hope to get through my entire career without ever canceling... but I learned!  [Laughs]  There are days to cancel, and that’s part of being a professional.

BD:   I hope you’ll back in Chicago.

KS:   I hope so too.

BD:   Thank you for coming and chatting.  I appreciate it very much.

KS:   My pleasure.  Thank you very much.



© 1994 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on November 25, 1994.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB two days later, and again in 1999.  This transcription was made in 2019, 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.

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.