A Year of Operatic World Premieres: Part 2 of a Conversation with Basso Kevin Burdette

My  conversation A Year of Operatic World Premieres: A Conversation with Basso Kevin Burdette resumed at the Santa Fe “Ranch” and has subsequently continued after the world premiere of “Great Scott” at The Dallas Opera.

[Below: Basso Kevin Burdette; edited image of a Simon Pauly photograph, from jakeheggie.com.]

GS (400) KEVIN-BURDETTE-by-Simon-Pauly

Wm: 2015 turned out to be quite a year for you, with four world premieres while you and your wife were raising your infant daughter.

KB: 2015 was a blast. I was doing several new works, as well as an opera that premiered in 2007, so I was undertaking to learn a lot of new music and figure out quite a few new characters. Some of that undertaking overlapped, one opera abutting the next, so I had to compartmentalize my time.

I had just finished Joby Talbot’s “Everest” when I began preparing to start rehearsals for Robert Aldrige’s “Elmer Gantry”. Jennifer Higdon’s “Cold Mountain” began rehearsal just after the opening of Donizetti’s “The Daughter of the Regiment” in Santa Fe. Before the end of the “Cold Mountain” run, I began digging into Jake Heggie’s “Great Scott”, and then I began rehearsals for Mark Adamo’s “Becoming Santa Claus” the Monday after “Great Scott” opened.

[Below: (Kevin Burdette, center with arms upraised, engages in toymaking with his fellow elves in the world premiere of Adamo’s “Becoming Santa Claus”; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]


As for my daughter, I’m extremely fortunate that my wife and baby are able to travel with me – my wife is associate general counsel at a not-for-profit that allows her to work remotely. It’s a balancing act, but an extremely rewarding one, helping care for the baby while working – I learn a lot of music at night, after she goes to bed. I’ve also found that my singing to the baby works for both of me and my daughter just fine. I remember singing “Everest” over and over to her as she napped in her stroller.

Wm: Explain how you “compartmentalize” when learning new operas.

KB: I do it in layers of abstraction. When performing “Cold Mountain”, I was digging into the details of my two roles in “Great Scott”, while simultaneously studying “Becoming Santa Claus” from a broadest level – getting my mind, and tongue, around the words and my character.

Fortunately, I am a relatively fast study. In 2011 when Santa Fe Opera mounted Menotti’s “Last Savage”, I was performing Stravinsky’s “Rake’s Progress” and was asked to take over the role of Mr Scattergood in the Menotti with only a two weeks to learn the role. Fortunately, my performances as Shadow were spread out enough to allow for good chunks of time to learn and retain the Menotti – and it helped knowing that the director and conductor of the show, Ned Canty and George Manahan, were old friends with whom I had a long rapport, so I knew I’d get a lot of support once I arrived in Santa Fe.

Wm: We were both in Santa Fe for the world premiere of Jennifer Higdon’s “Cold Mountain”, which traveled afterwards to the Philadelphia Opera. You and Higdon hail from the same community, don’t you?

KB: I’ve known of Jennifer for a long time; we went to rival high schools in East Tennessee – Heritage High School and Webb School of Knoxville. In fact, we both worked with the same coach/accompanist while in Tennessee! We first officially met, as I recall, backstage after a performance of Muhly’s “Dark Sisters” in Philadelphia. At the time, I let her know that I played the viola in high school and could, possibly, learn to play the fiddle for the role of Strobod – a fiddler in Charles Frazier’s novel – if she was interested in actually writing a fiddle tune or two for the character! She agreed, and I got the honor of not only singing her music, but playing it too!

Wm: And thus you were committed to fiddling while you sang. How did it all work out?

KB: I spent a lot of time working on the fiddle music, that’s for sure! There is one spot where I have to go into third position on the E-string – not this viola player’s strong suit, suffice it to say. And the fiddle tunes are frequently in rhythmic counterpoint with the vocal lines, so it was necessary that they become second nature. Still, I was anxious, at first, about playing in front of other folks. 

[Below: Strobrod (Kevin Burdette, second from right) fiddles and Pangle (Anthony Michaels-Moore, right) strums the banjo as Ada Monroe (Isabel Leonard, left) and Ruby (Cecelia Hall, second from left) look on; edited image, based on a prodution photograph for Opera Philadelphia.]


I have a lot of energy, but generally I don’t have nervous energy. I was very nervous, though, when I played the fiddle at the sitzprobe with the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra. They loved it, though – I have a lot of friends in that band, and they were extremely supportive. A couple even generously commented that they were glad that they didn’t have to sing when they played their instruments.

Wm: As in Theodore Morrison’s “Oscar”, whose world premiere was at the Santa Fe Opera in 2013, you had two roles in “Cold Mountain”.

KB: In “Oscar”, the two roles I sang – the Judge who sentences Oscar Wilde to prison and Colonel Isaacson, the prison’s warden, were two different manifestations of the societal constraints that Wilde had to endure.

In “Cold Mountain”, besides Strobrod, I also play the blind man. It’s not an enormous role – just one scene – but it’s an effective scene that is extremely rewarding to play. The director, Leonard Foglia describes him as the “blind man who has seen it all”.

[Below: the Blindman (Kevin Burdette, left) gives some welcome advice to W. P. Inman (Jarrett Ott, right); edited image, based on a production photograph for Opera Philadelphia.]


Wm: The blind man is such an important figure in the early part of Charles Frazier’s book, that I fully understand why librettist Gene Scheer included him in opera’s libretto.

KB: It’s an important plot point. The blind man is the one who suggests to Inman that he desert, saying “Heard the army is looking for deserters; if one were to disappear sooner rather than later seems prudent”. The blind man is also there for Ada’s introduction in the opera – Inman describes Ada to the blind man. Indeed, it’s that description that leads the blind man to think Inman will not be going back to the war – but rather back to Cold Mountain.

Gene Scheer does such an incredible job adapting this book to a contemporary operatic form. “Cold Mountain”, to me, is not a plot-driven book. It’s atmospheric, poetic, with episodic moments of introspection. Gene was able to find a keyhole into this odyssey and develop characters you care about and moments of vertical character development that move deeply.

He knows how to overlap scenes. He has an understanding of the human voice. He knows it’s in those moments of vertical development, where the character sits still, looks inward and says “Dove sono”, that opera is at its best and cannot be matched.

Wm: You spoke of your performances in “Rake’s Progress”. This brings to mind my conversation with composer Carlisle Floyd who related to me a conversation he had with Mack Harrell who created both the roles of Nick Shadow in Stravinsky’s “Rake’s Progress” and Olin Blitch in Floyd’s “Susannah”.

Harrell deeply appreciated the singable libretto that Floyd wrote for “Susannah”, but very much disliked what the poet W. H. Auden and his colleagues wrote for “Rake’s Progess”, which he didn’t feel were written to be singable. Floyd refers to the words to be sung as the “prosody”. Of course, Floyd, like Wagner, composed both the libretto and the music.

KB: As does Mark Adamo – and, among others, the wunderkind composer/conductor/pianist/super great guy Matt Aucoin.

WHB: A poet, especially one with a formidable reputation like Auden’s, and an opera librettist arguably have two different skill sets.

In the early 19th century Italian the opera librettist was considered the rarer talent. Many opera librettists, like Felice Romani, garnered much higher fees than opera composers such as Gaetano Donizetti and Vincenzo Bellini who most opera-goers in our time know of, while they may know almost nothing about the librettists.

The ability to write a theatrically valid libretto for a contemporary opera I think remains a rare skill. Gene Scheer and Terrence McNally, whose words you sang in three of 2015’s world premieres, are two of the most successful of the present era.

KB: In both Gene Scheer’s libretto for Joby Talbot’s “Everest” and his libretto for “Cold Mountain”, he was able to uncover a lot of singable words from other sources, like Beck Weather’s and Charles Frazier’s books. Gene has had a career as a singer, as well, so he has a wonderful ear and is extremely well positioned to understand what words flow easily off the tongue. One word he used in both “Everest” and “Cold Mountain” is elegy – and every time I hear the chorus sing that word, I’m struck by how the word itself resonates with the listener.

There can be some tension between language that is spoken and language that is sung. In Shakespeare, for a very significant example, the great spoken poetry adds its own dimension to the drama. But look at two of the best examples of how the move into the operatic milieu transforms the story and creates something new – Britten’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and Verdi’s “Otello”.

Take “Midsummer”, the librettist turns the story on its head – in the play, fairies descend on the human world, whereas in the opera, humans descend upon the fairy world. And Britten used that basis of being in a fairy world to inform his soundscape.

Wm: In “Otello” Verdi through the voice of the music supplants the Bard’s lyrics, no matter how beautifully constructed they are. Neither Verdi’s storm scene, nor the effect of the Iago-Otello duet Si, pel ciel marmoreo giuro! can be replaced with spoken words.

KB: Nor do you need a council scene for exposition.

Wm: The storm scene and the Otello-Desdemona love duet give all the exposition that one needs.

KB: Right!

Wm: You as a buffo are famous for your tongue-twisting patter and you explained in our previous conversation how you went about learning. What happens when you learn a patter song in one language and it’s translated into another?

KB: When that happens, the pattern of how syllables land in a phrase of music will often change between the original work and the translation. The oddly set syllables could become an issue – but buffo roles are supposed to be funny, so I try to figure out how to use the odd syllable in a humorous way.

[Below: Kevin Burdette performing the buffo role of Doctor Bartolo in the 2014 Opera Philadelphia production of Rossini’s “Barber of Seville”; edited image, based on a production photograph for Opera Philadelphia.]


Emphasizing a stressed syllable on an unstressed musical note, especially when accompanied with some physicality to underscore the syncopation – and to clarify to the audience that the syncopation was deliberate – is a good way to elicit a laugh. Or at least a grin . . .

Wm: In Heggie’s “Great Scott” you were again cast in two roles, each representing a strong and signficant character.

KB: Yes, I was the conductor Eric Gold, then later I was the ghost of Bazzetti, the composer of the bel canto opera being performed.

Wm: Is there a challenge in playing a live conductor and a dead composer’s ghost in the same opera?

KB: It was not terribly difficult playing the conductor. He had a long-time working relationship with the super star Arden Scott (played by the unparalleled, incredible, generous and basically historic Joyce DiDonato) and it was fun remembering and channeling times I have been in a rehearsal room in real life with that type of singer/conductor dynamic.

More difficult for that role was actually being convincing as an onstage conductor without distracting from what Maestro Summers was doing in the pit – I didn’t want to throw my colleagues off!

As for the composer’s ghost, I did find that understanding that character took more time. Ultimately, I decided that he was sort of an outgrowth of the conductor – a musician with insights into Arden Scott’s artistry and insecurities. Rather than being the generous colleague, though, the composer pushed Arden, making her question herself and why she sings.

Jake Heggie wrote some simply stunning music for that scene – some of the most rewarding singing I have ever done – and Terrence’s words hit deep. “Art endures; voices do not”. And, the director, Jack O’Brien, was extremely helpful in finding and developing that aspect of the character.

[Below:  Kevin Burdette (front, left) with The Dallas Opera world premiere cast of Heggie’s “Great Scott”; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]


Wm: If one looks through the performance repertory of operas, particularly by the large international companies, it’s quite obvious that there are virtually no characters who are intended to be shown as unambiguously gay.

In “Oscar” there is a gay relationship between Oscar Wilde and Bosie Douglas, but onstage it is characterized by a male singer and a mute male dancer.

In “Great Scott” your character, Eric Gold, and Anthony Roth Costanzo’s character, stage director Roane Heckel, obviously are attracted to each other. One expects a romance between them at opera’s end. Do you see “Great Scott” as helping to break down barriers toward sympathetic gay relationships being presented on the opera stage?

KB: I don’t think that was Jake’s or Terrence’s goal. They just wanted to tell a story and write characters that are real and that people can relate to. To me, it wasn’t so much about the characters being gay as two people being in the same space and realizing that they were attracted to one another – which happens all the time, in all types of jobs.

I also like the fact that the characters are from different generations and trying to connect – also a universal theme that so many people can relate to. That the two characters are gay was, to me, secondary. And maybe that loops back to the question: perhaps the characters did break down some barriers towards sympathetic gay relationships by simply showing a real relationship driven by human nature and human characteristics: interest, insecurity, playfulness, defensiveness – things everyone feels in the first blush of love.

As in life and love, it’s just about being human, with no labels. And if there were audience members to whom that concept was new, I’d love to think a barrier was broken down.

Wm: One of the issues with so many contemporary operas, is that they aren’t performed after their initial run. Three of the world premieres in which you’ve participated – Morrison’s “Oscar”, Higdon’s “Cold Mountain” and Heggie’s “Great Scott” – had the fortune of having later performance runs announced even before their world premieres – the first two at the Philadelphia Opera and the latter at the San Diego Opera.  What do you think are the prospects for “Everest”?

[Below: Kevin Burdette as Beck Weathers in The Dallas Opera’s world premiere of Joby Talbot’s “Everest”; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of The Dallas Opera.]


KB: I will be shocked – and extremely disappointed – if “Everest” does not have a life after Dallas. It is such a potent 75 minutes in the theater. It leaves the audience, and the performers, gutted at the end. And Lenny Foglia’s production is stunning. Plus, Joby Talbot is having huge successes right now – his ballet “The Winter’s Tale” is one of the biggest things going currently. That kind of momentum (especially on the heels of other great successes, like his ballet “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” will hopefully add to the drive to get “Everest” mounted again.

Wm: I was at the world premieres of “Oscar”, “Cold Mountain”, Great Scott” and “Becoming Santa Claus” and my reviews are already out there.

Let’s talk about Adamo’s opera. I suspect it needs a couple of tweaks, such as the insertion of an intermission, but I can see it becoming a holiday classic. After all, Santa Claus is one of the world’s most iconic images not owned by the Disney Corporation.

 KB: I agree. I think that “Becoming Santa Claus” definitely has that potential. I loved being part of it! It was such a delightful show and wonderful premise – how Santa Claus came to be, essentially. It has charm and sparkle and heart – and Paul Curran’s spectacular production brought all that charm and sparkle and heart brilliantly to the fore. I have to hope that Mark’s opera will become a Christmas-time institution in the opera world.

Wm: Thanks for your time.

KB: Thank you, William. I appreciate your taking the time for this interview and for all of the wonderful work you do on behalf of opera.