Interview with Gregory Kunde at the Rossini Opera Festival-August, 2009

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Gregory Kunde in recital at the Rossini Opera Festival August, 2009
© Amati Bacciardi. Official ROF photos.

Interview With Gregory Kunde

Q. According to your biography at ROF, you started singing in Pesaro in 1992.
How did that come about?

It was a bit strange actually. I auditioned for Mo. Zedda by chance back in 1989 while I was in Paris to sing Guillaume Tell at the Theatre des Champs-Elyseè. Pier-Luigi Pizzi set up the audition as he was the producer and stage director of the show in Paris. It was a very nice audition and I sang “Asile Héreditaire” and the aria from Cenerentola. Mo. Zedda was very nice and said he thought I sang wonderfully, but that my voice was too beautiful to sing Rossini! In any case, one year later, I had the chance to sing at La Scala for Muti and also Zedda again as they were looking for someone to cover Chris Merritt in La Donna Del Lago and perhaps sing a performance or two. Well, I got the job as Chris’ cover and subsequently was called a year after that audition to come to Pesaro for Semiramide. Now, mind you, I had no idea what either of these parts entailed; I only knew that I would have an opportunity to sing at, first of all, one of the greatest, if not the greatest theatres in the world, and also at one of the most prestigious festivals, as well. As it ended up, I made my stage debut at Scala in July of 1992 and went directly for rehearsals in Pesaro and made my debut there four weeks later. Also of note, Bruce Ford was my partner at La Scala as Giacomo (I was Rodrigo), and we made our debuts in the same performance and then again in Pesaro, he was in opening night of Barbiere and I in Semiramide the next night.

Q. What made you decide to return?

Well, after having such a wonderful and, may I say, unexpected success as Idreno, Dr. Mariotti and Mo. Zedda asked me after the premiere if I would like to come back the following season for Armida. How could one resist such an offer? Of course, I jumped at the opportunity. As one who knows Pesaro, Nick, it’s hard to say no to this wonderful city.

Q. You sang Idreno in Sermiramide in 1992 and again in 2003, did you have a
different approach to the role when you sang it in ’03?

I have to say, I was a bit torn about that invitation. It was, and always is a difficult decision to say you will come back to reprise a role in which you had such a success. In ’92 I was a new face on the scene, and, therefore, there was no pressure on me except to do well. And in 11 years I had quite a lot of repertoire. But I don’t think that I approached it any differently except for the fact that I had expanded the repertoire already a bit by having begun singing some Berlioz. I also was, of course, a bit concerned about whether or not I would be able to repeat the role as I had done it 11 years before. I hadn’t sung the part since ’98, but I had good memories of the three productions that I had already done. And, in fact, I had just come from Berlin where I was doing the role in a new production there with Mo. Zedda in the pit. That actually went quite well, but I must say that I was not very happy with the outcome of the ’03 Idreno.

Kunde as Antenore in Zelmira Act One Scene One © Amati Bacciardi.

Kunde as Antenore in Zelmira Act One Scene One © Amati Bacciardi.

Q. In 1996 you sang the protagonist in Ricciardo e Zoraide, what do you think
about the role? Did it fit your style?

I think it did. I must confess that I don’t remember a lot about that production except that it was a role much like Rinaldo in Armida. I remember the entrance aria being quite exciting and the duet with Agorante was also a high point. I also remember there was quite a bit of controversy over my performances, and I really never understood why. I have listened to the recording a few times, and I must say that I was quite happy with the outcome. But in any case it proved to be my last performance there for many years which made me a bit sad.

Q. In 2007 you sang Otello and now in 2009 Antenore in Zelmira, have you
approached these roles differently, say in vocal dexterity and in interpretation, from your earlier roles at ROF?

Well, let’s say my voice is quite different than in ’96 or even ’04. After singing quite a bit of Berlioz in the years prior to Otello, I discovered the center of the voice and became unafraid to use it in its fullest form. Berlioz requires it as the orchestration can sometimes be quite heavy, but singing things like Benvenuto Cellini, Damnation of Faust and Les Troyens gave me the chance to explore that center, but also to use the bel canto style and training that had given me the ability to sing softly and use the top in an easy, comfortable way. So, I guess it’s been a win-win for me in that sense. I’ve used my bel canto background to do some of the things in the heavier repertoire that a more dramatic tenor may not be able to do like really sing mezza voce and be comfortable singing B-flat and above without straining. And vice-versa I’ve learned from the heavier rep how to fill out the center of the voice when singing the bel canto repertoire.

Q. Why did you decide to sing Antenore in Zelmira? What attracted you to the

I have to be honest and say that it was not a role that I had wanted to sing. I had heard the piece and was not in the least interested in it. But, in fact many of my colleagues kept telling me that Antenore is a great role and that I should sing it, so there you have it. I agreed to do it, but I must say that even while studying it, I was not convinced that it was a “great” role. Only when we assembled as a cast in early July did I finally understand that this would be not only a great singing part, but a great acting part as well. I also felt blessed and immensely helped by my fellow cast members. They made it so easy for me to play this character. And musically speaking, a lot of credit has to go to Roberto Abbado for shaping and molding such a great performance from all sides.

Q. What was the benefit of having the critical edition of Zelmira to perform?

Never having done Zelmira, it wasn’t a factor for me except for the fact that the Paris version was used and that might’ve never been done without the critical edition.

Antenore  Act One Scene Nine © Amati Bacciardi.

Antenore Act One Scene Nine © Amati Bacciardi.

Q. Describe what the rehearsals were like for Zelmira? Was there any special
attention given to its artistic presentation?

I must say that rehearsals went off as they normally do. From the very first rehearsal, I knew that it would be a very collegial atmosphere. Most of us knew each other from previous productions. I had worked already with Juan-Diego, Marianna, Mirco and Mo. Abbado so those relationships had already been formed. I had not worked with Kate, Francisco or Salvio, but all three of them were extremely easy to get to know. And of course, all of the maestri collaboratori were more or less the same as in years past, again making it much easier to rehearse. I would say that in Pesaro, artists become much more friendly as in other theatres because of the close proximity you work in. We actually look forward to these times so that you are able to catch up with people that perhaps you’ve not seen in a long time. The rehearsals themselves went pretty much as most rehearsals do. You arrive, look at the set, get the idea of what the stage director wants to portray and do the best you can to do what he or she wants. There are always bumps in the road, but they always, and I can say truthfully, always get ironed out. I think the second part of your question might be referring to a hierarchy of treatment, perhaps? And I will answer that by saying that from where I stand, all colleagues are equal. That’s what makes Pesaro such a special place. There may be a star or two in each cast, but we are all in it as a team. If there is no team, we don’t serve the music or the production. We are all there to support each other. That is why we all encourage each other before and after we enter the stage. I am always one to say “in bocca al lupo” and “buon divertimento” to everyone, and I think most of my colleagues do the same. But all of this starts in rehearsals. It’s the only way to work as far as I’m concerned.

Q. We often hear the vocal classification ‘tenore baritonale” mentioned about
Rossian tenors, how does that term apply to you, and if so, what roles have you
sung that fit that category?

I think the actual term is “bari-tenore”, but I could be wrong, but in any case, my voice has grown into that type of voice in the past 5 or 6 years. For most of my career I was considered a tenore leggiero or tenore di grazia, but in recent years, I’ve discovered the center of the voice and have put it to full use. The bari-tenor in Rossini’s operas usually sang the less florid, more mature parts. They still had quite a few opportunities to show off the high voice and usually played the rival to the tenore contraltino when there appeared two tenors in his operas.
I’ve actually sung quite a few bari-tenor roles since starting in ‘92. Beginning with Rodrigo in La Donna del Lago, Rinaldo in Armida, Arnold in Guillaume Tell, Argirio in Tancredi, Otello, Pirro in Ermione, Leicester in Elizabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra and just this year Antenore in Zelmira.

Antenore Act Two Scene One © Amati Bacciardi.

Antenore Act Two Scene One © Amati Bacciardi.

Q. Other American singers have had success appearing at ROF, bass, Samuel
Ramey, soprano, Rene Fleming and mezzo Joyce Di Donato, to name a few but
not for the length of time you have spent there. How would you describe your
time working at ROF over the years?

I have to say that it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. I think overall my time in Pesaro has been positive. I would only say that there were a couple of years that
things did not go as I had hoped, and, therefore, created a bit of dissatisfaction. But, for the most part, 90% let’s say, it has been very good. I love the people, I love the food, and the administration and the backstage people to me are like family. It is always a pleasure to come to Pesaro and be accepted almost as a citizen. My wife and I really feel like we belong when we come.

Q. It’s no secret in the opera world that the Italians have their own way of
rehearsing and have a unique perspective on how to perform their operas, as an American, how have you adjusted to their viewpoint? Can we assume you feel
comfortable in their working environment since you have been appearing with ROF since 1992?

Well, I must say that I have adjusted to the Italian way over the years. I am much more patient now that I was in the early years. I know that things always have a way of working themselves out. It took me a while, coming from the very structured way of rehearsing in the US with every minute of every rehearsal being planned out, to get used to the more casual way of everyone coming for the entire rehearsal and basically waiting for your turn, sometimes never getting to do anything for a few hours. But, that’s our job. We are there to rehearse and are at the disposal of the conductor and stage director. I’ve come to be OK with that.

Q. How do you find the musical standards and preparation at the festival?

I think the standards tend to be very high. I have always thought of the festival as the place where all of the best Rossini singers in the world gathered to show the world how Rossini should be done. I remember coming for the first time in ’92 and realizing that I was in the presence of greatness everywhere I looked. From that first production, I found that the musical standards were of the highest quality. I have been fortunate to be able to have worked with over the years the most talented musicians and stage directors in the business. Zedda, Gossett, Gatti, Gelmetti, Palumbo, Abbado, Ronconi, Pizzi, de Ana, etc.

Q. How long is the rehearsal period for each production and how do you feel
about staying in one place for such a length of time?

Normally, the rehearsal period in Pesaro is 5 weeks. That includes only the rehearsals. The performances take another 12-15 days, so overall, you are there for about 6 and a half weeks. Now, for me, that is too long in any one place, but in Pesaro, you never seem to mind. It is so relaxed and there is so much to enjoy in and around the area.

Q. I noticed that you are there with your wife and daughter. How do they feel
about staying in Pesaro while you are working? Do you get out into the
community and do you socialize with your colleagues?

They have a ball! Isabella has friends here that she has met over the last few years and Linda and I have also made some new friends here as well. We always try to have a cast dinner and although we tend not to spend a lot of time with my colleagues as we find it our time to be together as a family sort of on a working vacation, we are always having impromptu coffees and lunches since we are always running into one another on the street. That, to me is the best part of Pesaro and the festival: that is the proximity of the artists to the public. We are always visible after performances, during the day walking, eating at a café, etc. And I love to meet the public and talk with them. I feel like they are the reason we are in this business. We perform for them and they give us reason to show up for the next show.

Q. What roles of Rossini will you add to your repertoire or what roles would
you like to perform again? Will you have an opportunity to perform them at other

As of now, I have no plans to add any more roles of Rossini (I think I’ve done about 16 already), but I look forward to doing perhaps Otello, Antenore (Zelmira), Rodrigo (Donna del Lago), Leicester (Elizabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra), Argirio (Tancredi) and Arnold (Guillaume Tell) sometime on the near future.

Q. Are you planning to return to ROF?

No plans as of today. I would, though, like to return as a conductor. That is my future when I finish singing. In the meantime, I hope to be able to mix the two and find some opportunities to show off another of my skills.

Q. Is there anything else you would like to add? The stage is yours!

First of all, thanks Nick for giving me this forum to speak (probably too much). Thanks again for your kind words over the years.
Second, I want to thank again all of you that continue to support this wonderful art form. Without you, there would be no us. We so appreciate every bravo and every compliment we receive either in person, in an email or in a letter. Thank you for your continued support.
Lastly, and most importantly, I want to thank my beautiful wife Linda and most precious daughter Isabella for supporting me in what I do. It is a very difficult life for them living most of the time with me far away. But somehow, they manage to do it and do it well. I am so grateful to them for putting up with this crazy life. They make me very proud.

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3 Responses to "Interview with Gregory Kunde at the Rossini Opera Festival-August, 2009"

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  1. David

    September 20, 2009 at 3:06 pm

    Thanks for this interview! I’m a big fan, and I was wondering if any reviews of last night’s opening of Norma have shown up yet.

  2. Administrator

    September 20, 2009 at 9:33 pm

    I haven’t had a chance to look. Will keep you posted. Nick

  3. Connie Brown

    September 22, 2009 at 11:21 pm

    Bravo! Thanks for keeping me in the loop.

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