10 Questions for Kyle Ketelsen

Kyle Ketelsen is a special talent, a wonderful voice with extraordinary dramatic presence. I’ve seen him twice. The first time he was in the Canadian Opera Company’s La Cenerentola, when I said that he “brought a majestic sound to the role of Alidoro, the philosopher”. The second time was in the video-recording of the Aix-en-Province production of Don Giovanni directed by Dmitri Tcherniakov broadcast on TFO last year, playing a Leporello unlike any I’ve seen before.

More on that in a moment.

Ketelsen is in demand all over the world, with the world’s leading opera houses and orchestras. You can read more details of his bio here. This weekend that same production of Don Giovanni (the COC’s co-production with Teatro Real Madrid (TRM)/Festival d’Aix-en-Provence/Bolshoi Theatre) opens at the Four Seasons Centre. I had to ask Kyle Ketelsen ten questions: five about himself and five more about his work in Tcherniakov’s Don Giovanni.

Bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen (photo: Dario Acosta)

Bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen (photo: Dario Acosta)

1-Are you more like your father or your mother?

Well, of course the appropriate answer is difficult to gauge, since we are invariably an amalgam of DNA. I suppose it’s my father, though I do see my mother in me quite a bit. By appearance, naturally, I’m nearly a clone of my dad. Same size and build, same voice. Same thin face with close-set eyes, just without the firefighter’s moustache he brandished for virtually all of his adult life. The older I become, the more frequently I see him in the mirror. Funny how that happens.

Dad was such a gentle soul, a devoted husband and caring father. He truly was my hero. He wasn’t without a temper, which he inherited from his father, but managed to tone down quite a bit. Much the same as I have with the temper he gave me. That’s the challenge of each new generation – to build on our parentally-taught positive traits, and dull the sharp edges of the negatives. He surely did, and I am.

My sisters and I kept a list of “Dadisms” when we were young. Things dad said that struck us as particularly funny. For example, “He’s ugly as a burnt rope.” Or “Baker Baker,” code for bad breath. “Let the big dog run” was one of our favorites. Many others not fit for printing in a family publication. My sisters and I continue his legacy by repeating as many of these little sayings as we can. It’s not difficult, as they naturally pour out of us. I hear my kids repeating them as well. Passing it down.

Physically, I’m hard-pressed to see my mother in me. I’m 6 feet & 192 pounds. At her apex, she reached 5’2” and maybe 110 pounds. I could heft her like a sack of flour, but mentally she was Plymouth Rock. As in many families, she was the glue that bound us, and the driving force creatively. I have her emotional (read: sappy!) perspectives of things like family, music, nature, movies, and the world in general. Which quite often will leave me in satisfying tears. The happy curse of having sympathy, I suppose. I see it in my kids as well, which is quite beautiful.

There’s an interesting (albeit indirect) connection my mom has with the COC. She was a devourer of books and, until I was out of grad school, ironically, I myself resisted reading. Couldn’t see the point in it when there was a perfectly good television sitting right there in my living room. My mother died much too young just before I was to debut at COC with “La Fanciulla del West” in the 2000-2001 season. My role of Ashby was pretty minimal, so I found I had significant chunks of free time at rehearsals. I remember thinking that there’s probably a reader somewhere in my genes, so I started with Catcher in the Rye in those COC rehearsals 14 years ago. I’m so grateful to have discovered that part of mom in me.

2-What is the best thing or worst thing about being a singer?

Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona. Kyle Ketelsen as Escamillo. Fabio Armiliato as José. 2011 (Photo by Antoni Bofill).

Allow me to make one thing clear: to do what you love for a living is a gift! Plain and simple. I try my best to never take it for granted. Don’t hate me, but I have one of the best (and BIG quotes here!) “jobs” in existence. There’s a lot to choose from when it comes to finding the best thing about being a singer. Is it getting as much sleep as I want every night, or not working in a cubicle, or not attending committee meetings, or playing dress-up for money, or that I have collaborators in lieu of a “boss?” Quite possibly, speaking for my soul, it is that I’m fortunate enough to be fulfilled artistically while at work. That intangible capital, at the same time fleeting and yet somehow cumulative, that you hold inside which gives you pleasure in being artistically alive. Or perhaps this is just from hearing the applause, and feeding my ego. I think maybe these things are related…

Even on the worst day of rehearsal, it doesn’t rate compared to so many other possible scenarios. I like to say, “No one died on the table today.” That said, easily for me the worst part of being a singer is spending so much time away from my family. Becoming a husband and father was always a part of my life plan – well before the idea of becoming a professional singer – so I hold it above all other priorities. Traveling to foreign lands can seem exotic and exciting, which it sometimes is. However, it’s often overpowered by the painful separation from my wife and children.

3-Who do you like to listen to or watch?

I’m a rock-n-roller, for sure. I do enjoy opera, but I hear it all day at work. So it’s usually Led Zeppelin, Stones, Beatles, Jack White, STP, Radiohead, and many others to a lesser extent. Just about every genre of music (shy of country or, say, death metal!) makes it onto the air in the Ketelsen household, including jazz, bluegrass, standards, showtunes, movie soundtracks, pop, blues, and heavy metal. The mainstay of my playlist lately has been Rival Sons, a kind of neo-Classic Blues Rock group with four albums under their belt. Very reminiscent of ‘70s-style rock n roll. I just can’t get enough!

I’m a huge fan of movies, and I’ll see quite a few on the road. Binging TV series is a favorite pastime as well. I’m currently rewatching HBO’s The Wire. Others on my faves list (in alphabetical order) are: The Americans, Archer, Betas, Bron/Broen, Derek, Homeland, House of Cards, Justified, Ray Donovan, Silicon Valley, The Walking Dead, True Detective, and Veep.

I’ll also watch just about any NBA or NFL game. Cubs/Bears/Bulls are always my priority.

NHL??? Sorry, Canada, I can’t follow the puck!!

4-What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?

Having played pick-up basketball passionately for over 20 years, I used to actually have dreams about dunking the ball. I could always grab the rim, and even dunk things like a tennis ball, or my sweaty jersey. It’s as close to flying under my own power as I can imagine. So much beauty in that act.

5-When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favourite thing to do?

Some days on the road it’s just good to do nothing at all; let the brain and body rejuvenate. Most free days, though, I’ll either work out, take a long walk, read a book over dinner at a nice restaurant, see a movie, take in a museum or sporting event. Hopefully I have good colleagues, with whom I enjoy spending time. Quite often I’m working in a city where I have friends or relatives, so it’s a treat to be able catch up with them. This job certainly affords me the opportunity to stay in touch with people I might not otherwise ever see.

When I’m home, it’s all about family. My wife is endlessly creative in finding activities for our kids. I’m on the go quite a bit, taking them to karate, piano, guitar, and ALL manner of sports. Not to mention intellectually enriching classes & events. It’s truly a pleasure to witness your kids thriving and finding things they like and have a talent for.

Five more about Leporello in the new COC Don Giovanni opening this week.

1-Please talk for a moment about the rationale or subtext of Leporello, in Dmitri Tcherniakov’s reading of Don Giovanni.

In this production the roles of master & servant are set aside in favor of a more modern take. Leporello is a wayward youth in desperate need of a father figure, which he finds in Giovanni. It’s established in the staged overture that the two have previously met, though is appears that they’re not yet friends. My character is in his late teens or early twenties, and has been a sort of ward of the state. He’s allowed to live in the house of the Commendatore, to whom he’s related in some obscure way.

Like any youth Leporello has learned how to relate to others from adults – in this case Giovanni. It’s clear he’s been misguided when dealing with just about every other character in the show. Where a son might mimic how his father treats women, such is the manner by which Leporello acts toward the gender. His notions of what makes a relationship are severely warped, clearly demonstrated (I hope!) in his interactions with Elvira. He makes a pathetic attempt at wooing her during the Catalogue Aria, and later tries to impress her with an eerily cold, lifeless kiss.

The mutual contempt he holds for his peers – played by the members of the chorus in one scene – is made clear as well. Every relationship Leporello has is horribly dysfunctional. He’s just a lost little boy at heart.

2-Please talk about working with Dmitri Tcherniakov, his methods and his manners.

I honestly believe Dima is an artistic genius. He creates layer upon layer upon layer of motivation and back-story for each character, and commits an unbelievable amount of rehearsal time to each character, in each scene. Many directors will have holes in their plan, not knowing exactly what to do in certain places. No such thing with Tcherniakov! He arrives the first day of rehearsal with his entire story so well conceived, it’s a Russian novel unto itself. That’s not to say he’s inflexible with his concept. He does allow for artistic interpretation, and honestly considers any input. If he doesn’t agree with a suggestion from a singer or conductor, he will give you a thoughtful reason why he doesn’t want it. No decision is made willy-nilly in his productions. There’s multi-level reasoning behind nearly EVERY move made onstage. Astonishing depth.

3-What’s your favourite moment in this Don Giovanni?

It does happen to be the first act recit and trio with Giovanni and Elvira, leading to the catalogue aria. It establishes in detail what my character is all about, as well as my relationship with the two. It begins with my expressing disapproval of Giovanni’s lifestyle, segueing into flirtatious infatuation with his former love, Elvira. My action during the aria demonstrates my character’s immaturity. In attempting to impress Elvira, I invent sums of the Don’s conquests, mock the contents of her purse, show off with a yo-yo (!), make faces at her through a window, make light of the Commendatore’s memorial, pose and preen as he believes a desirable man would, before moving in for the overt seduction attempt. It all reinforces Tcherniakov’s architecture of the character, to be very boy-like, mocking and insulting instead of praising and positive attention, in an attempt to impress a female.

4- The arts often feel very precarious in this country, spoken of as a luxury even as they starve alongside wealthy sports teams. Please comment on the business and how you observe it unfolding as an artist and as a citizen.

Indeed we’re in an age where the arts are often seen as an elitist indulgence. As a form of entertainment, opera thrived well into the 20th Century with very little competition for viewership. Today’s entertainment options are seemingly unlimited, therefore we need to fight for exposure and relevance. If we’re to guarantee opera’s survival and prosperity, each must do his part. It’s why outreach to schools, creative marketing and audience development are absolutely vital, as well as inventively incorporating social and mass media.

I am concerned about the survival of this very special art form. Public and private financial support are continually scaled back in favor of more “tangible” causes. This is incredibly short-sighted and ignorant. Intangible benefits are benefits nonetheless, and fulfill the soul. Art for art’s sake benefits society, and is indeed for humanity’s sake.

5- Is there a teacher or an influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?

I’ve had the incredibly great fortune to encounter the perfect voice teachers at the appropriate moments in my development as a singer. My voice teacher in undergrad at the University of Iowa was a man named Albert Gammon. He was a perfectionist when it came to vocal technique and diction. He was a living legend 25 years ago, and has a remarkable enduring legacy with hundreds of his students, and their students.

My teacher in grad school at Indiana University was Giorgio Tozzi. Readers who aren’t familiar with him should just search YouTube.

One of the most famous basses in history, he was a caring, insightful teacher. Always positive, famously friendly and generous, he was also incredibly intelligent, and had diverse interests like art, politics and hypnosis!

He very quickly opened my upper vocal register with his Italianate technique. For years we concentrated on legato, warmth of tone, and overall interpretation. He became very much a grandfather figure to me.

click for more information about the production

I’m so very lucky to have encountered these two men at the ends of their careers.


The COC production of Don Giovanni opens Saturday January 24th at the Four Seasons Centre.

This entry was posted in Interviews, Opera. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to 10 Questions for Kyle Ketelsen

  1. Pingback: Some resist seduction by Tcherniakov’s Don Giovanni | barczablog

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