The following interview took place on the “Ranch” of the Santa Fe Opera, whose facilitation of this interview is gratefully acknowledged.
[Below: Basso Kevin Burdette; promotional photograph, courtesy of Kevin Burdette.]
Wm: What were your earliest experiences with vocal music? With opera?
KB: I am youngest of five children, the baby.
I was brought up in East Tennessee, the son of parents who had grown up as hand-to-mouth farmers, and who wanted to see that their children were afforded opportunities that they had not had as children. They focused our time on education, sports, and music.
Each of my siblings took piano or viola lessons. I sang in music theater in high school, and I viewed music as an avocation.
All my siblings went to professional schools to become doctors or lawyers. I had been a prelaw major as an undergraduate, and was on the path to go to law school.
Wm: What made you change your mind about the possibility of an operatic career?
KB: I didn’t think about opera at all until after I sang in the chorus of “The Marriage of Figaro” at the University of Tennessee.
[Below: Kevin Burdette as Koko in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado”; resized image of a production photograph.]
As part of a scholarship that I received to attend UT, I was able to spend a year abroad after my junior year, and I chose to spend it in Vienna, Austria, at the Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst
There I saw firsthand the effect of Austria’s generous support of the arts, which resonated deeply with me, as I had spent the summer of 1994 in Washington, D.C., advocating for the arts under the auspices of the Congressional Arts Caucus.
Music, of course, is the lifeblood of Vienna. I attended performances weekly in the standing room at the Staatsoper. At that point I fell in love in opera.
After that experience in Vienna, and the experience in my senior year back at UT performing the role of Dr. Bartolo in a production of Rossini’s “Barber of Seville”, I began to consider that music, generally, and opera, in particular, could be a vocation, not just an avocation.
For that reason, when I graduated from UT in 1997, I decided to apply not only to law school, as I had originally planned, but also to a graduate music school. I applied to and was accepted both at Columbia Law School and the graduate program at Juilliard.
Although it would have been impossible to attend simultaneously both of those professional schools, at that point I did not want to turn my back on either music or law.
Wm: It’s unusual, I believe, to find persons in their 20s simultaneously preparing for such unalike career paths as law and vocal performance. What did you do?
KB: Thankfully, Columbia agreed to allow me to defer my entrance there so that I could pursue a two year graduate program at Juilliard.
Wm: When did you determine you were a basso?
KB: That was pretty early on. My voice dictated it.
Wm: You spent your first summer after completing Juilliard in the San Francisco Opera Center’s Merola program. It was through that experience, that you ended up in the Young Artists program at l’Opéra national de Paris.
KB: It was quirky how the San Francisco experience turned into a year in Paris. In 1998, when I was performing in Merola’s productions of “La traviata” and “The Magic Flute”, the folks at Merola received an emergency call from the young artist program at l’Opéra national de Paris saying that they needed a bass right away—they were performing “Boheme”, “L’Elisir d’Amore” and “L’heure espagnole” and needed another Colline, Dulcamara, and Don Inigo Gomez.
[Below: Kevin Burdette as Mustafa in Rossini’s “L’Italiana in Algeri” in the 2006 Seattle Opera production; edited image of a production photograph.]
Christine Bullin, who had been the head of Merola for many years, was then the head of the young artist program at the Bastille and still had strong ties with Merola. Four of the basses at Merola auditioned for Christine, and I was selected.
Wm: When you were in Paris, you worked with the great Italian basso buffo, Paolo Montarsolo. That must have boosted your buffo credentials immeasurably. Was this when you decided to become a basso buffo?
KB: Working with Paolo Montarsolo was formative and invaluable. He taught me how to respect and use the words that the composer set and to enjoy playing onstage while not compromising vocal quality. After I finished a year with the young artist program in Paris, I returned to Juilliard and was offered a contract from New York City Opera, where I became a resident bass.
However, it is interesting that when you are a young bass, you have to bide your time. You may want to sing Verdi. You can prepare an aria like Fillipo’s Ella giammai m’amo from Verdi’s “Don Carlo”, but no one will cast you in the big Verdi basso roles in your late 20s.
My time at New York City Opera when I was just starting out was so influential on my career, as I spent hundreds of hours onstage, cutting my teeth and learning from some of the best American singers of their respective generations: Mark Delavan, David Daniels, Elizabeth Futral, Lauren Flanigan, Joyce Castle, Amy Burton, Christine Goerke, Bill Burden, and the list goes on.
I was Leporello in “Don Giovanni” and Papageno in “Magic Flute” and also sang comic roles in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. People started laughing and I caught the bug.
Wm: But you also still had a bug for law. What happened to the Columbia Law School?
KB: I ended up deferring entrance for six years as I continued developing performance experience, singing, among other things, the title role in Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale” at Wolf Trap Opera in the summer of 2002, and a handful of roles at Glimmerglass Opera, including Sirocco in Chabrier’s “L’étoile” in 2001, Popolani in Offenbach’s “Bluebeard” in 2003 just before I began at Columbia Law School—in fact I commuted between New York City and Cooperstown for the last few performances—and Archibald Grosvenor in “Patience” in 2004, after my first year of law school.
[Below: Kevin Burdette in the title role of Donizetti’s “Don Pasquale” for the 2002 Wolf Trap (VA) Summer Festival; resized photograph of a production photograph.]
Wm: So while others were packing for law school, you were reading your performance reviews in the Washington Post. But you did complete law school and were admitted to the New York State bar – an unusual preparation for an operatic basso.
KB: My first interest had been law. In my law studies at Columbia University focused on intellectual property law, with a particular interest in entertainment law, and I worked with Professor Jane Ginsburg, an international leader in the field of copyright and trademark law, acting as her research assistant for two years.
I enjoyed many aspects of that field of law. After graduation from Columbia in 2007, I went to work for Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, a New York City law firm, where, among other things, I met my wife, who was an attorney there, as well.
Wm: But during this whole time you were still performing lead opera roles in major companies. When did you finally choose which career you would follow?
KB: By the year 2010, after I had taken leaves of absence from the firm to make my debut at the Met and my debut at Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, I decided that music would be my career—although I did use my law background for marking up my first contract after law school. Most of my suggested edits were disregarded . . .
Wm: Were your parents supportive of your change of career path?
KB: If I were the only child, I am not sure what they might have said about it, but they have been wonderfully supportive. They have been living my career vicariously.
Wm: This is your second season in lead comic roles at the Santa Fe Opera.
KB: Yes, my first role was Mr Scattergood in Menotti’s “The Last Savage”. I loved that part. George Manahan was a great conductor and Ned Canty’s production was a work of genius.
Wm: What is it like working this season with production designer/director Lee Blakeley in Offenbach’s “Grand Duchess of Gerolstein”?
KB: Lee is so sharp. He gave me the room to play. I trusted his wit. If I gave him four or five options for a scene, he would pick one—or give me four or five BETTER options!
Wm: How early did you know you would be skipping rope and singing General Boum’s big number?
KB: That came up during rehearsals. Because the first act in Blakeley’s production was centered in a collegiate gym, he wanted it performed while Boum was doing some sort of athletics or calisthenics. He suggested the dips, and I suggested the rope jumping.
[Below Le General Boum (Kevin Burdette, center with skip rope) inspires his assembled troops; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]
Wm: The altitude of the Santa Fe Opera is over 7000 feet. This would be a physically demanding routine at any altitude, but must have been particularly challenging here. How did you do it?
KB: I stay in shape by running each day. In fact, as you know, we re-scheduled the beginning of this interview to allow me a chance to run today.
Wm: I’ve suggested that we create the term buff buffo to describe you. There aren’t that many of your buffo colleagues that I think that would apply to.
In fact, I think your appearance changes the audience perception of the character. For example, one suspects that Susan Graham’s Grand Duchess had particular reasons for promoting your Boum to the rank of General.
I noted earlier this year that you were a physically fit and handsome Sulpice in Donizetti’s “Fille du Regiment” at the San Diego Opera, which very plausibly made you the object of the Marquise’s attentions.
[Below: Sergeant Sulpice (Kevin Burdette, center) leads the men of the 21st Regiment; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]
KB: Thank you. I love your term buff buffo and I tremendously enjoyed performing in the Emilio Sagi production of “Fille du Régiment” in San Diego.
Wm: One buffo character that I believe really needs a physically appealing basso is Osmin in Mozart’s “Abduction from the Seraglio” to make sense of Pedrillo’s suspicion that Blonde might actually have succumbed to his sexual charms.
[Below Osmin (Kevin Burdette, seated) with Pedrillo (Carlos Natale); edited image, based on a production photograph for the Teatro Colon of Buenos Aires, Argentina.]
KB: Osmin is a fantastic part: great music, and so much fun to play. But there are some folks that prefer their Osmin to be a little less thin. I sang it at the Teatro Colón and one critic complained that I was too skinny.
Wm: This summer you also play two “heavies” in “Oscar”. The change of pace between the comic General Boum and the villainous roles of Mr Justice Wilks and Colonel Isaacson must make for an interesting summer.
KB: I love being able to be sinister onstage. I’ve done the role of Nick Shadow in Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress”. The devils in Gounod’s “Faust” and Boito’s “Mefistofele” are such fun roles to play, especially by a basso with comic instincts. These devils, I think, call for a trinkle in the eye.
[Below: David Daniels os Oscar Wilde (left) and Kevin Burdette as Colonel Isaacson (right), rehearsing a scene in the 2013 Santa Fe Opera production of “Oscar”; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph for the Santa Fe Opera.]
I loved working with Director Kevin Newbury for “Oscar”. I was really impressed about how he brings out the essence of the story.
Wm: You also perform the role of Olin Blitch in Floyd’s “Susannah”. As a person raised in Knoxville in the western slopes of the Appalachians, what are your thoughts on Floyd’s work and the character of Blitch?
KB: I love the work. Carlisle Floyd was very young when he wrote the opera (both music and libretto), yet amazingly he caught the spirit of the revivalist communities of the rural Appalachians.
In the hymns of the revival scene, in the way he sets the language to music, he has really caught the essence of rural East Tennessee. In a major recording, Cheryl Studer, who went to school in Knoxville, imbues Susannah’s language with such authenticity.
There is a human quality to the opera that really resonates with me. When Blitch tells Susannah that he is a lonely man, one can truly see his human side – that he is not pure evil.
Wm: “Susannah” has achieved more performances over its lifetime than any other American opera other than George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess”, yet I believe the larger opera-going community has not yet fully grasped how important and rewarding this work is.
KB: I believe that “Susannah” is such an important and quintessentially American work, that it deserves much greater popularity here—similar to Robert Ward’s “The Crucible”, which is based on Arthur Miller’s play that, like “Susannah”, was a metaphor for the “Red Scare” of the early 1950s. Both “Susannah” and “The Crucible” should have resonance in revivals.
I am looking forward to another opera about the South, Jennifer Higdon’s “Cold Mountain”, which will have its world premiere at the Santa Fe Opera in the summer of 2015. Nathan Gunn will create the role of Inman, the Confederate deserter.
Wm: You recently were involved in another operatic project about religious fundamentalism.
[Below: Kevin Burdette as King in “Dark Sisters”; edited image, based on a production photograph for the Gotham Chamber Opera and Opera Philadelphia.]
KB: Yes, I created the role of the Prophet/King in the world premiere of Nico Muhly’s “”Dark Sisters” about a fundamentalist sect that split off of the Church of Latter Day Saints after that church renunciated polygamy.
“Dark Sisters” was presented as a chamber opera by Gotham Chamber Opera and Opera Philadelphia.
[Below: Caitlyn Lynch (left) as Eliza, with Kevin Burdette (right) as the Prophet in “Dark Sisters”; edited image of a photograph for the Gotham Chamber Opera and the Opera Philadelphia.]
Wm: Besides the directors here at the Santa Fe Opera, are there others whom you particularly enjoy working with?
KB: Again, Ned Canty, with whom I will be working soon as Koko in his famous production “The Mikado”. I love working with Christopher Alden, with whom I’ve done a lot of work, including the recent “La Périchole” at New York City Opera. With David Schweizer, I did “Emperor of Atlantis” at Boston Lyric Opera, which I thoroughly enjoyed performing.
[Below: Kevin Burdette (center, front) in the title role of Ullman’s “The Emperor of Atlantis”; resized image of a photograph for the Boston Lyric Opera.]
Wm: What are some of the roles are in your immediate future?
KB: In addition to that upcoming KoKo, I am at the Metropolitan Opera in Shostakovich’s “The Nose”, at the Portland Opera in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Pirates of Penzance”, the latter with Daniel Okulitch, my colleague from “The Last Savage”, and it looks like I will be back in Santa Fe in 2014 for the double bill, about which I am so excited!
Wm: Thank you Kevin.
KB: Thank you also.
For my previous reviews of performances by Kevin Burdette, see: World Premiere of “Oscar” at Santa Fe Opera – July 27, 2013, and also,