Kelsey, Owens join Hawai’i Symphony Orchestra
BY STEVEN MARK / firstname.lastname@example.org
In politics, Hawaii has produced a president in Barack Obama, a Heisman trophy winner in football quarterback Marcus Mariota and a superstar in pop music singer Bruno Mars.
And in the rarified atmosphere of opera, it has produced world-class baritone Quinn Kelsey, who returns home with his wife, soprano Marjorie Owens, and leading opera conductor Stephen Lord for a recital Sunday with the Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra. They will perform opera favorites by Leoncavallo, Mascagni, Massenet, Verdi and Wagner.
Hawai‘i Symphony Orchestra
Opera stars Quinn Kelsey and Marjorie Owens; Stephen Lord, guest conductor
How good is Kelsey? Many observers think Kelsey, at age 36, has emerged as the Verdi baritone of the day. In the opera world a great Verdi baritone is highly coveted.
“When it came to the baritone, (Verdi) had a really specific voice in mind,” Kelsey said, calling it an “upgrade” from typical baritone roles. “In my opinion, the Verdi baritone is a much more heroic sound.”
Ferruccio Furlanetto, a bass who sang with some of the best Verdi baritones in the last half of the 20th century, told Musicalcriticism.com in 2012, “In today’s complete lack of Verdian baritones, (Kelsey) represents a hope for this type of voice. … Kelsey has the right color, a beautiful technique — all the right qualities.”
After a performance of “Il Trovatore,” Chicago Tribune writer Mark Thomas Ketterson wrote, “Kelsey has now fully graduated into the leading Verdi baritone roles he was clearly born to sing.”
SINCE HIS last major appearance in Honolulu with Hawaii Opera Theatre’s 2012 production of “Aida,” Kelsey has become the go-to guy for the demanding title role in “Rigoletto,” Verdi’s tragic story of the jester who sees his daughter seduced by his playboy master. Kelsey performed it first in Norway in 2011, then in Canada and Switzerland before getting an extended run in London.
The praise for his portrayal has been stratospheric.
“The title role was magnificently performed by baritone Quinn Kelsey. His voice was rich, warm and resonant, and his empathy for Rigoletto’s plight was completely evident in his dramatic interpretation,” wrote Canadian critic Keira Grant.
The role was a long time coming for Kelsey, a graduate of the University of Hawaii’s Lab School who went on to study at UH. He first “covered” — understudied in opera parlance — the role for the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2006.
“I’d go to all the rehearsals, all the staging, and of course I had all the music prepared,” he said. “It’s nice to get all that attention from such a big company, but you’re basically just a backup. But that really helped me in preparing for it. … For me, that was really part of the formula for proper preparation for the role.
It took five years to get the chance to perform the role in public — a test of patience of performers in other fields but normal for opera singers, Kelsey said.
“This is one of the things about this business and this art form,” he said. “We’ve had some wonderful people along the way who’ve kept us on that path, who kept us from straying. They’d say, ‘No, no, it’s not time yet. You’re not ready.’”
One of the challenges in his performances of “Rigoletto” was relearning it in English for his London performances. Not only was the translation unwieldy, requiring a week of valuable rehearsal time; it took a new understanding of how to sing the role.
“You study it so much, and you get so used to how the language works, and the pacing, and how to use the language throughout the role so that you don’t burn yourself out,” he said. “Everything you do in having to get that role into your body and into your voice. To come back to your native tongue, it’s not easy at all.”
Kelsey will sing “Rigoletto” in Sante Fe, N.M., this summer, and in the meantime he’s getting other leading Verdi roles: Count di Luna in “Il Trovatore” and “Falstaff” in Japan, which he called his most difficult role ever.
Most recently he performed as the elder Germont in “La Traviata” at the Met — his latest appearance at the pinnacle of American opera. He was actually in town to support Owens, who was making her Met debut in title role of “Aida,” but the Met offered him a job when another singer had to cancel.
“It was hard not to accept it,” Kelsey said. “For every young singer growing up and studying, the Metropolitan Opera is definitely the goal to which we all aspire.”
SUNDAY’S CONCERT will feature the rare opportunity for Kelsey and Owens to sing together. Though married five years now — January is their anniversary month — Owens has spent much of that time in Germany, singing in the renowned Semperoper, the ornate opera house in Dresden.
“I had actually shown up to cover the Countess in ‘Le Nozze di Figaro,’” said Owens, a Virginia native who studied at Baylor and met Kelsey at a training program in Chicago. “But when I got out there, the lady who was singing it had canceled. So I had about a week to jump on it. It was definitely trial by fire.”
The rest of her experience in Germany proved equally intense. The Semperoper is one of the most important opera houses in Europe. After the firebombing of Dresden in World War II destroyed it, it was the second major building in the city to be restored.
“The Semperoper is where Strauss and Wagner premiered a lot of their stuff, so they’re very, very proud of that,” Owens said. “The audience there is very conservative, very knowledgeable. So the audience that will come to a Wagner or a Strauss opera, they’re totally different than the audience that will come to ‘La Boheme,’ Italian stuff. The German opera, they take that a lot more seriously, so you’ve got to meet a certain standard. I feel like I can perform it anywhere, now that I’ve done it at Semperoper.”
Conducting the orchestra Sunday will be Stephen Lord, who has worked with Kelsey in Chicago and Seoul and will be working with Owens for the first time for this concert.
Lord followed an unusual path into music: He took accordion lessons for a year as a kid but didn’t start piano until his teens.
He got his start professionally playing piano for singers, eventually working with opera greats like Joan Sutherland and Frederica von Stade. “For some reason, I knew how to get the best out of them,” he said.
Renata Scotto, the great Italian soprano, thought so much of his work that she would pay him with a blank check. At their first meeting, she asked him if he knew “Don Carlo.” “Of course I lied and said yes, and she said, ‘Good, we start tomorrow,’” Lord said. “So I went home, put the headphones (on) and played along with the record, to do everything I could to stay ahead.”
Lord is currently music director of the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, director of the opera program at the New England Conservatory and a frequent guest artist at the world’s leading opera companies. He was one of four conductors named among the “25 most powerful names in U.S. opera” by Opera News.
Lord is especially pleased to see how Kelsey’s career has developed.
“He has found his way,” Lord said. “I saw his first set of ‘Rigoletto’ performances, and he was really fantastic. That is a really difficult role.”