Music People: a tenor whose time has come | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Music People: a tenor whose time has come 

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With the aid of a beautiful voice, good technique, intelligence, and a relentlessly positive attitude, young tenor Donald Kaasch is building a career. Through November 19, he's facing one of the most challenging parts in the modern repertoire: the grueling title role in Dominick Argento's The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe at Lyric Opera.

Kaasch, 31, doesn't look or talk like the average tenor. Slender, bright, and articulate, he's devoid of the egomaniacal proclivities of the primo uomo. He lives with his wife and small daughter in a house they just bought in suburban Cary. Kaasch finds the tenors' bread-and-butter roles--the Pinkertons, Rudolfos, and Edgardos--"too confining," and he has no interest at all in the big, heavy, in-demand parts, like Cavaradossi in Tosca and Otello, which might damage his vocal instrument.

His is one of the most conspicuous success stories of the Lyric's apprentice program, the Lyric Opera Center for American Artists. He spent three seasons with LOCAA, joining it after work on a doctorate at Northwestern University; his mainstage debut was the minuscule part of Giuseppe, the gardener in La Traviata. "It really meant a lot to me to be told that I made a complete character out of him," he says. "No matter how small the role is, do it well. It's a good way to build confidence: start with the small roles and work your way up. These days a lot of tenors start out in college doing leading roles; they do them in grad school, and then in small companies, and they think that's all they should be doing. But it's confidence-building to do small roles; it means you're on the team--and you learn if you can produce."

Being a team player has paid off for Kaasch at the Met--if not America's best then its best-known and most prestigious opera company. There he first sang a character role, Spalanzani in The Tales of Hoffmann, is singing the secondary tenor in Beethoven's Fidelio and the Steersman in Wagner's Flying Dutchman, and this spring will take the title role in Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito (a part he understudied at the Lyric last year) under the baton of James Levine. "If you're willing to work on the team with them, they'll give you the next step up," says Kaasch, who's also built his reputation in ever-larger roles in ever-larger houses in Europe, particularly France.

"I'm not going after the meat-and-potatoes repertoire. I'm a lighter voice, and that's OK. My marketing chip is my top, in a day and age when a B-flat is enough for most tenors." Kaasch revels in arias filled with high Cs, those daunting "money notes" that drive audiences wild. That's good news for him, in an era when operatic fashion has brought back into favor the operas of Donizetti, Bellini, Berlioz, and Gounod--all composers who wrote for tenors who could pop off high C after high C.

One of Kaasch's trademarks is his ability to sing very high notes very softly, a feat requiring not only good technique but finesse. "The French really like that," he notes. "They don't like a screamathon. If it's marked piano at the top, they want to hear it piano--whereas if you do it piano in an Italian house, you'll get booed. They want to hear blood and guts."

Kaasch first proved himself in the difficult world of 20th-century opera with the Opera Center's production of William Neill's The Guilt of Lillian Sloan, followed by two roles in the Lyric's critically acclaimed production of Berg's Lulu three seasons ago. His success in those shows--and his acting ability and high vocal range--made him a logical choice for the lead in Poe.

He took the summer off to learn the role of the morbid master of the macabre; after months of private work, countless rehearsals, and several performances, he says he's "still tuning" the part in his voice. "It's difficult in that the part's so large; we figured out that I'm onstage for all but about 15 seconds in each act. In terms of the tessitura [where the bulk of the notes lie] and the range, it's terribly demanding physically. I have to be aware of the pitfalls. I have to be careful with my voice." He paces himself in order "to keep the height and brightness in my voice, as much as I possibly can, to keep it light. But there are countless sections where the music just pulls you in dramatically.

"It's hard on the voice. I'm very fatigued after act one, sometimes to the point that I'm concerned about act two. But act two starts out so beautifully that it really sets my voice back up." Largely at the instigation of director Frank Galati, about 20 percent of the score of Poe was cut, for dramatic reasons; but a plan to turn it into a one-act was abandoned out of compassion for the poor tenor, who would have had no break. Interestingly, when asked to compare Poe to other principal roles he's done, Kaasch chooses Ferrando in Mozart's Cosi fan tutte: it's "another role where I use full voice; it sits high; there are lots of dramatic moments; and you can't cheat."

Kaasch enjoys performing a variety of opera works, and would like to do additional contemporary ones. "The problem is, many of them are not written well. Many 20th-century composers are incredibly naive about voices, especially high voices. Donizetti really understood what voices could do. Mozart really understood what voices could do. [Modern composers] haven't done any studying of voices. They think a tenor can sing high As all night, and that sopranos can sing any vowel on any note. If they want it louder, they just go higher. So you have big orchestras, big choruses, everybody banging away, and you're supposed to sing over it all with an impossibly high line. Compositionally, these people chuck the rules, and they get away with it. But they cannot chuck the rules when it comes to voices."

Argento "is surprisingly well versed in what voices can do," Kaasch says, and he's also willing to learn more and to change things that don't work--unlike many other contemporary composers. Argento collaborated with Kaasch and baritone Richard Stilwell (who sings the role of Poe's nemesis/biographer, Rufus Griswold) to eliminate problems. "I called Dominick Argento up a number of times over the summer to talk about problems I was having, and he was very, very amenable to fixing things that didn't work. His attitude is, 'It's best to have a production that looks and sounds as good as possible for its assured life.'"

And Kaasch thinks Poe is a work that deserves to enter the established repertoire: "I think that we are involved in something that is extremely important to the art form. I think this is a piece that can continue to be refined, and will continue to be done."

The final performances of The Voyage of Edgar Allan Poe, November 16 and 19 at 7:30 PM at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker, have been sold out, but you can call for turnback tickets at 332-2244.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alexander Newberry.

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