Talking with singers: Gregory Kunde Photo: Chris Gloag

Talking with singers: Gregory Kunde

Jenna Simeonov

After almost 40 years spent singing professionally, American tenor Gregory Kunde is the epitome of what it means to play the long game. His long history with roles in the operas of Bellini, Rossini, and Donizetti has gradually led to heavier repertoire, like Puccini’s Pinkerton, Verdi’s Otello, and Britten’s Peter Grimes.

Last month, Kunde was named “Best Male Singer” at the International Opera Awards, and in July, he makes his long-awaited debut at the Royal Opera House as Manrico in David Bösch’s new production of Il trovatore. In his touching interview, he chats about keeping his voice in shape decade after decade, about the roles that still make him cry, and what’s left on his to-do list.

How have you kept your voice healthy throughout your career?

That is a very good question, and one I’ve never really thought much about… I’ve never been one to have “dos” and “don’ts” for my voice. I don’t smoke (never have) I don’t drink alcohol before a performance, I DO drink coffee (with milk) every day and as a habit, before the performance and usually in the make-up chair. So I’m not usual in following those “no-nos” that we hear about so often. But I think, more importantly, I’ve not pushed the voice in any way throughout my career. I’ve always heeded the advice of those who came before me to “sing what you know you are capable of singing, and be patient”. I’ve been very lucky that the voice has continued to respond well to the challenges I’ve encountered in the past 5-7 years with this change in repertoire. I’m very happy that I waited as long as I did to make the change. I think even 5 years sooner may not have had the same result.

How have you chosen your repertoire since your 1978 debut? Do you recall any particularly difficult decisions to make about the “direction” of your voice?

In the first 10 years, I would say the repertoire was chosen for me, meaning there wasn’t much choice in those days. All of us (US tenors) sang basically standard repertoire when we first began. But for me, I spent the first 7 or 8 years as a comprimario in the larger American companies and sang leading roles in the regional theatres. It wasn’t until 1986 that I was guided to make the jump to sing bel canto. My first major bel canto title was I Puritani with l’Opera de Montréal and that began the love affair with Bellini, Donizetti and particularly Rossini. I sang pretty much exclusively those composers with some French rarities mixed in for the next 20+ years. It wasn’t until about 20078 that I began to explore “heavier” repertoire within the bel canto (Norma, Poliuto) and in 2011 tackled my first real Verdi with I Vespri Siciliani with Gianandrea Noseda conducting at the Teatro Regio in Torino. I must say, I was not convinced that this would be the right move to switch to this repertoire as I had been “warned” that it was a big risk and that bel canto tenors NEVER have been successful with this switch.

I thank Mo. Noseda for his foresight and faith in me and to many along the way for their encouragement to make the jump.

Have there been any particular roles you’ve sung with which you’ve had a particular connection?

Well, I try to make a connection with EVERY role I do. But, I will say there have been a few that have made an impact and left an impression on me. The first is Otello. One can’t help but sympathize with this character. He is so amazing to play. There is every emotion in this role. I have been extremely fortunate to have played him in both the Rossini and Verdi versions and musically, they couldn’t be more different. But Otello is always Otello. And to see him go from decorated warrior and lover of Desdemona to a tortured, jealous, self-doubting murderer and be able to play this onstage is a real pleasure. I look forward to it every time I see it in my calendar. It is truly a special role.

Another is one I’ve not sung for many years and that is Rodolfo in La Bohème. I think I made the connection “back in the day” because he was such a sensitive character. He and Mimì showed us what real love is and the incredible music of Puccini always had an effect on me. It still does. I still cry in the end of the fourth act when Musetta comes with the cuffietta, and when Mimì asked Rodolfo if he has bought this for her, Musetta says “yes” before he could say “no”. Seems like a simple thing, but what a selfless thing she does to make Mimì feel good.

As I said in the beginning question, most American tenors sang standard repertoire in the early days of their careers and this is a piece I sang more than 50 times. I also sang many performances of Traviata, Butterfly and Rigoletto in those days. I have fond memories of them all.

Do you sense any particular anticipation with your Royal Opera debut as Manrico?

Yes! A lot from me! It’s been a long wait but it has been totally worth it! Just being here amongst colleagues that I’ve known for years and being a part of this huge ROH family has been quite an experience. I’m really looking forward to our Trovatore premiere on 4 July (other cast is 2 July) and also to returning in the near future!

When it comes to vocal longevity, how much do you account for a singer’s nature, versus nurture?

I think both are extremely important. I’m a very easy going person in real life, so not much affects me that would impact my singing. I’m not one to get too stressed out about anything and I’ve always been able to compromise when it comes to musical collaboration. But nurturing is also key. I think “babying” the voice or ones self in general is not helpful, but certainly care of one’s body (including the voice) and one’s spirit is essential. I’m a believer, and that faith has helped me through many tough situations in my life. I know I’m not in control of my destiny and I am truly thankful for everything that has been given to me. And in that vein, I consider it my job to take care of the gift that I’ve been given.

Are there any roles that you’ve not yet sung that are still on your to-do list?

Not many, truthfully. I’ll debut Andrea Chenier in Rome next April and that was one. I’m also hoping to do Peter Grimes in a staged production in the near future. I’ve sung it in concert form in Rome with Mo. Pappano back a few years ago with the Santa Cecilia Orchestra, which was amazing! Next summer, I’ll debut Calaf in Turandot with Zubin Mehta with the Israel Philharmonic in concert form as well, and lastly I’m hoping, someday, to sing Cavaradossi in Puccini’s Tosca.

Il trovatore opens at the Royal Opera House on July 2. For details and ticket information, follow our box office links below.

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