Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Kevin Langan on Operatic Idols and Vocal Longevity

Ashraf Sewaillam, Aris Argiris, Kevin Langan, photo Ken Howard
INTERVIEW: Kevin Langan

Civic Theatre, San Diego

American bass Kevin Langan, who has earned the distinction of having one of the longest, most prolific solo singing careers of the past few decades, will again grace the San Diego Opera stage this month as Grenville in Verdi’s La Traviata. Having made his debut as Duke of Norfolk in Henry VIII in 1983, Langan has returned to SDO numerous times in a cluster of classic and contemporary roles. A mainstay of the most celebrated companies in North America, Langan has performed with such opera luminaries as Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo and Marilyn Horne. 

EM: Congratulations on reaching this amazing pinnacle - 19 productions with the company.

KL: I believe this may be the record for the most productions done by a leading artist at SDO in the history of the company! Maybe even more performances than Ferruccio Furlanetto, who has been a regular here almost as long as I have! After roughly 80 performances with SDO, I feel like this has been my second home! 

EM: What was it like to debut in Saint-Saëns’ rarely performed HENRY VIII in 1983? 

KL: The work was mounted for Sherrill Milnes. The cast included Christina Deutekom, Brenda Boozer, Jacque Trussell, and Robert Schmoor. Antonio Tauriello conducted and Tito Capobianco directed. Milnes's presence was inspiring for a young 28 year old bass making his debut with the company! The weather was like paradise here in San Diego - I told myself I had to come back here as often as possible! 

EM: What happened afterward?

KL: I was concerned after Tito left I might not be invited back, but Ian Campbell, the new SDO General Director, who had seen me performing often in San Francisco, brought me back in 1986 for Bartolo in NOZZE DI FIGARO. Ian and I got along very well, and he was pleased with my work, so I was back here 16 more times over the next 28 years – now under David Bennett's administration! David and I worked together in a 1994 Dallas production of CORONATION OF POPPEA when he was a young singer. To come to San Diego now and work under him is an honor for me! It constitutes 34 years for me as a singer with SDO! 

EM: You mentioned on your Facebook page that as a 9th grader, seeing The Beatles perform on the Ed Sullivan Show “opened the world of music to me for the first time.” 

KL: I was only 8 years old when I saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan in 1964. The moment was pivotal for me. Music entered my life that night in a magical way. From that moment on I was one of their biggest fans, buying every album they made in America, and becoming a lifelong collector of their memorabilia. I now own one of only two existing 1st edition copies of John Lennon's first book "In His Own Write" from 1964 that contains autographs from all four of the Fabs, signed by them on their first US Tour that summer! When I joined my Jr. High School choir in 9th grade and was asked to do my first public vocal solo, I chose "Yesterday." A photo of the moment was taken and made it into my school yearbook. It is rare to visually capture your very first moment doing what would become your life's work. 

EM: Indeed. 

KL: A high school choir tour of Europe in 1972 introduced me to classical music. In my senior year I decided to take voice lessons, go to music school for college and pursue studies toward an operatic career. In 1991, I actually met Paul McCartney at a break in the dress rehearsal of his Liverpool Oratorio at Carnegie Hall, thanks to my dear late colleague Jerry Hadley, who was the tenor soloist . I told Paul that seeing The Beatles on TV in 1964 had been my inspiration to embrace music and eventually pursue a career in opera. He chuckled and said that was a first to hear that The Beatles had inspired someone to go into opera! 

EM: What was your experience studying at Indiana University? 

KL: The main reason I went there was to work with soprano Margaret Harshaw, arguably at the time the best vocal pedagogue in America, who sang most of the major Wagner roles and much of the Italian repertoire at the Met. She was known for turning out great singers in all fachs, female and male. Two students, Vinson Cole, and Alma Jean Smith, had won the Met Auditions, as Harshaw had done herself back in 1942. 

EM: How did she approach teaching? 

KL: Harshaw taught that the key to longevity and a successful opera career is to learn and understand a secure vocal technique that will carry you beyond just the first decade of simply singing on one's youth, to decades of good solid healthy vocalism based on discipline to master technique. As a result  I have sung professionally now for 38 years, and the voice remains strong, secure, and healthy. Many talented singers take off in their youth like Roman candles only to fizzle out and disappear from the business after only 10 years or so because they haven't a clue what they are doing technically and have no discipline to embrace technique. Once in your thirties, you must rely on pure technique to carry you further. During my early professional years I returned to see Harshaw at least once a year for 17 years until she passed away. We fixed bad habits that crept in, and continued to polish the technical aspects. When she died, I felt confident I knew all that was necessary to sing technically proficiently, so when a coach would tell me something was amiss, I knew exactly what to do to fix it. 

EM: That’s extraordinary. 

KL: Harshaw's goal was to teach her students how to teach themselves until she became obsolete. She said we possessed the natural gifts to sing, and merely showed us how to do it using our own gifts of voice and, just as important, the brain that controls the voice. 

EM: What was the turning point in your early career? 

KL: Walter Legge and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf were touring the US giving master classes in the summer of 1978. I sang for them at IU. They were both taken with my ability as a bass to sing fast coloratura passages in Baroque arias as well as the standard song literature repertoire. Mr. Legge wanted me to come to Europe to study with him for a year to prepare me for what he felt was a major career as a recitalist and opera singer. I felt I needed more time with Harshaw to perfect my technique, so Legge offered to sponsor me in a recital the following year at Wigmore Hall, then take me around to audition for European impresarios. He had guided and supported Maria Callas through much of her career. I spent the next year preparing the program in Bloomington with Harshaw that I would present at Wigmore. Two months before the recital, in March 1979, Mr. Legge suddenly passed away. I thought that would end the whole affair. Ms. Schwarzkopf contacted me and said the recital would go on as scheduled and I would be be presented as Mr. Legge's last protégé. I credit Schwarzkopf with giving me the ability to delve into my soul to find the artistry within myself to attach to the technique Harshaw had instilled in me to make me a complete professional singer. 

EM: Was the recital successful? 

KL: Yes! Then I sang for some of Europe's best impresarios, was offered a position as a young artist in a Covent Garden program, but I had already been accepted into San Francisco Opera's Merola Program. Ms. Schwarzkopf enlightened San Francisco Opera General Director Kurt Herbert Adler about me, how she and Legge had been impressed with my abilities. As a result, after Merola Adler offered me a six-role contract with SF Opera for the fall of 1980. That began a 30-year association with that company - over 300 career performances 43 different productions. I am currently only behind mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook holding the record for the most performances by a leading artist since the company’s beginnings in 1923! We are the sole members of "The 300 Club!" I have Walter Legge and Elisabeth Schwarkopf to thank for being in the right place at the right time when I needed that lucky break. 

EM: Is it true you met Maria Callas? 

KL: In 1974 I met Callas during her final US tour with Giuseppe Di Stefano. I told her I was hoping one day to make a career as a singer. She smiled and said, "I will give you one piece of advice. People will tell you constantly how to sing. Make it louder, softer, faster, slower." Then she put her hand over my heart and said, "Always remain true to this when you sing no matter what they tell you!" I thanked her profusely. 

EM: Your career has had extraordinary lasting power: 38 years, 1300-plus performances, 80 roles.

Ferruccio Furlanetto, Kevin Langan, photo Ken Howard
 KL: I have been fortunate to have sung every role I ever wanted to do, save for Boris Godunov. I focused on many Handel roles early on, all the Mozart bass repertoire  and bel canto repertoire from . I have always prided myself on controlling my own career, not letting others tell me what I should or should not do. One other person I trusted, my primary coach who taught me most of my repertoire, was Martha Gerhart, whom I initially met at Merola. Just as important is my wife, Sally Wolf, also a Harshaw student, who was famous for her signature role, Queen of the Night. She is on the voice faculty at Westminster Choir College. Those two women were the only set of ears I relied on and trusted - unbiased, honest, frank, and trustworthy in a music business known for its ruthlessness. 

EM: What were your favorite roles? 

KL: My all-time favorite is Leporello in DON GIOVANNI, which I have done more than 80 times. I could easily sing it year-round and never tire of it! I have two favorite moments onstage. One was an historic night, AIDA in San Francisco, 1981. I was singing the King. Leontyne Price stepped into the title role for an indisposed Margaret Price, and Luciano Pavarotti was singing his first-ever Radames. Standing onstage holding both of each of their hands as we sang the Triumphal Scene was a moment forever frozen into my memory. The other was 1984, DON CARLO in San Jose, Calif. I sang The Grand Inquisitor to Cesare Siepi's King Phillip. Siepi was my idol since the day I began to study singing and opera. How often does one get to sing the greatest bass duet in the operatic repertoire with their idol? I was very proud of that opportunity. I remained friends with Siepi until he passed away in 2010 and was honored to speak about him at a special memorial service in New York at the request of his daughter.   

EM: What were some of your most memorable orchestra concert and recital appearances? 

KL: Wigmore Hall in London was the highlight. I also gave a solo recital at the old Carnegie Recital Hall (now Weill Hall) in 1984, as well as the Vorpal Gallery in San Francisco in 1997. The Verdi Requiem, my favorite orchestral work, I have done with the Richmond, Santa Fe, Calgary, Dallas, and Seattle Symphonies. I especially loved doing concert opera performances of PETER GRIMES and FIDELIO with Michael Tilson Thomas and The San Francisco Symphony. Singing Rocco opposite Nina Stemme as Leonore was simply thrilling. MTT is one of the best opera conductors around - a true singer's conductor! 

EM: Tell us about your seminar on “Financial and Professional Implications For The Professional Self-Employed Opera Singer.” 

KL: Singers are Self-Employed Independent Contractors regardless of how large or small their solo career. That means we get no pension. A professional singer can potentially earn a significant amount of money over a relatively short period of time. It is important to know what your options are regarding setting up IRAs while you are earning a lot of money so that you will have something to live off of in your golden years. Many successful singers live opulent lifestyles while engaging in their careers. Inevitably when even the greatest singers come to the end of their singing careers those great fees suddenly vanish. If you have learned to invest and save a significant amount during those highly productive years, one can end up in retirement with a nice investment return that you can live on comfortably. Most singers have never been educated in how to achieve this. The responsibility is yours to obtain this information well before you reach the lofty heights in your career. I also spend time on the tax implications of a singing career. I try to enlighten singers at Young Artist Programs as to these opportunities early on, so they can sensibly maximize those wonderfully productive years, financially. 

EM: That sounds tremendously valuable, Kevin. Thanks so much for enlightening our readers and your fans. Have a great Traviata!


SDO’s La Traviata runs from Apr. 22-30 at the Civic Theatre.

Photo credits: Ken Howard, courtesy of the artist 

Erica Miner can be reached at: [email protected]

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