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Patience Rewarded

Quinn Kelsey waited to sing the great Verdi baritone roles until the time was right. This month, he’s San Francisco Opera’s Rigoletto.
By F. Paul Driscoll | Photographs by Dario Acosta 

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Photographs by Dario Acosta
© Dario Acosta
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As Enrico Ashton in Lucia di Lammermoor at Lyric Opera of Chicago, 2016
© Todd Rosenberg
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© Dario Acosta

IT'S A FEW MINUTES AFTER 4 p.m. in Tesori, the sleek restaurant on East Adams Street in Chicago, near Symphony Hall. Tonight’s concert doesn’t start for a few hours, and the dining room is very quiet as Quinn Kelsey settles into the banquette opposite me. Kelsey is in town to sing Enrico Ashton at Lyric Opera of Chicago, the artistic home for the Hawaiian-born baritone, who spent a three-year term in its Ryan Opera Center. His show opens tomorrow.

Kelsey is a big, broad-shouldered man who stands well over six feet, but any resemblance to the dark, villainous characters he plays onstage ends there. Kelsey has a surprisingly bright, engaging smile and a sense of humor that is deployed with almost startling subtlety: he can slip a bit of sly mimicry in and out of conversation so fast that you almost don’t realize that he’s done it. For example, when asked if he ever gets advice he ignores, Kelsey’s beautifully placed, firmly articulated speaking voice begins his answer, “Sure I do. You know a lot of people say”—and here his voice zips up an octave and narrows to a concerned squeak—“‘Quinn, why do you wanna sing Marcello? Huh? You know, he doesn’t ever get to really shiine—he never gets a real aria’”—before settling back into his natural range to lean in to the mic for the payoff: “I love to sing Marcello, because he is onstage for all four acts, and I am a stage hog!”

NOW IN HIS LATE THIRTIES, Kelsey started singing opera in 1991, as a teenage chorister at Hawaii Opera Theatre. The Kelsey family is musical: his mother is a classically trained singer who worked as a choir director for more than twenty-five years. “My sister, Blythe, and I learned a ton of musicality singing in her choirs—she was giving us voice lessons in the middle of learning the music for next Sunday. There was a point where my sister was the soprano section, my dad was the tenor section, I was the bass section, and Mom kind of filled up the alto section and conducted at the same time. And whoever else decided to come into the choir that Sunday—great!”

Kelsey did his undergraduate degree in Hawaii, which allowed him to sing with Hawaii Opera Theatre and “gain all kinds of exposure in an environment where I felt at home.” After stints at Chautauqua and Merola, Kelsey moved to Chicago to join the Ryan Center. “I took my one-way ticket and ended up here. It was a big adjustment. The tempo of life is very different here. There’s a reason why people think of Hawaii as a vacation spot where you can slow down. That’s not Chicago. My way of life didn’t fit at first—I was a bit shell-shocked at having to conform at twenty-five.”

Kelsey’s voice is naturally full and dark-toned; its bountiful, thrilling heft and luscious color are ideal for Verdi baritone roles and other “big sings.” Ferruccio Furlanetto, who was Attila to Kelsey’s Ezio in San Francisco in 2012, compared the young baritone to Piero Cappuccilli and Renato Bruson, citing his “nobility of timbre” and “beautiful technique.” But Kelsey’s first assignments in Chicago were, naturally, smaller parts. “The consensus was always that I was going to sing Verdi, but those parts are not where you begin a career. One of the biggest issues in that respect was learning to be patient—really patient. I was very anxious when I came to Chicago—you know, ‘What am I supposed to be singing now?’ And the best advice—and the most difficult advice to absorb—was ‘RELAX, buddy. Hold on.’ As a young singer, you want to get hired right away, and I’m sure there were companies when I was twenty-seven, twenty-eight, who would have hired me to do roles that I looked right for—but that I was not ready for vocally. Matthew Epstein, who was the artistic director here then, tattooed into my head the motto ‘Patience, patience, patience.’ I just thank my lucky stars that I had the brain to listen to him and the other people who were guiding me. 

“In my second year here, I covered Amonasro, which isn’t a very long part—he has the triumphal scene and the Nile scene, and that’s it. But Amonasro was not easy for me then. When the covers did a run of the show, I sang it, and I got through it. But I wasn’t singing it, really—I wasn’t performing it, I wasn’t embodying it. It took another—five years, I guess?—for me to get it in gear. I did my first real [Aida] in Bregenz, and if you had hooked me up to a machine and took a neural readout of my body when I was singing Aida at Bregenz and my body when I was covering in Chicago, you’d swear it was two different baritones singing two different roles. The difference was huge.

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Kelsey as Rigoletto at Santa Fe Opera, 2015
© Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera

“It was the same for Rigoletto. I covered that in my last year at Lyric. Did a complete run, and I could do it. But I was still an ‘emergency’ Rigoletto. It didn’t feel like my role until I sang it in Oslo, in 2011. That was my first one, and I felt as if I had hit the next level. It was even more mine when I did it four years later, in Santa Fe.”

Kelsey sang Rigoletto in Frankfurt in the spring of this year; he repeats the jester this month in San Francisco and returns to Chicago for more Rigolettos next fall—but he doesn’t feel as if he’s completely settled his interpretation. “I consider myself young in my development, and when I do a production, I want to leave space for my colleagues—the director, the conductor, the other singers—to fill in with their knowledge and opinions. I want to leave as many doors open as I can. I’m still learning. Educate me. I don’t mean to sound lazy, but I want to give them the space to let me collaborate.

“The most recent [Rigoletto] I did, in Paris, was very much off-the-wall. So it wasn’t easy to piece the character’s journey together from beginning to end within the framework of Claus Guth’s production concept. We had to go scene-by-scene, bit-by-bit, and the director was very specific about what he wanted. I don’t mind doing that, but I still feel as if I need to develop those skills a bit more.”

KELSEY REGARDS CHICAGO, San Francisco and the Met as his “key houses” in the U.S. Next season, he returns to the Met as Peter in Hansel and Gretel, di Luna in Il Trovatore and Enrico in Lucia. In Europe, he has especially positive relationships with Zurich Opera, Frankfurt Oper and English National Opera. “ENO has been really good to me. The first contract I had there was the Pearl Fishers that ended up just recently at the Met. I’d never done Pearl Fishers before. So, learning it in English wasn’t hard—I was Zurga. Singing Rigoletto there in 2014 was harder, for obvious reasons. By then I’d done three productions, so the role was fairly ensconced within my brain. The great thing, though, was that when there were times that the English-language text we were using just didn’t work, it was nice to have the background in the Italian. That made it ever-so-slightly easier to come up with alternatives. You think, ‘Okay, in the original language, it’s this. Okay, so, blah-blah-blah,’ and then we found ourselves coming up with the alternative text a lot quicker than if I’d never done it before.

“We began to notice points in the English text where you’d get to the end of a line and there’d be this one-syllable space in the original Italian that needed to be filled, and it seemed as though whoever was translating had a long day and was getting a little tired, and so just started throwing the same words in at the end of every line, to the point where our director said, ‘I don’t want to hear the words ‘now’ or ‘then’ at the end of a line again.’ So we burned probably five or six days’ worth of rehearsal having to redo the text. It was great, because everyone was allowed to think up alternatives to anyone else’s text. And that really helped—and sometimes it was funny as hell. Ooof! But by the time we were done, we were all pretty happy with what we came up with, and we were proud of it.”

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© Dario Acosta 

KELSEY TRACES HIS FASCINATION with language to his upbringing in Hawaii. “Although the local culture embodies everybody—all these different ethnicities from throughout Asia and Southeast Asia that coexist with the indigenous culture—the Hawaiian language is used all over the islands. It’s five vowels, seven consonants, and the eighth consonant is actually a glottal stop. No double consonants, all syllables have a vowel. And you always pronounce everything that you see. It’s actually a really nice language to sing in. It flows very, very well.

“Polynesians have a leg up on everyone else in being able to access classical music and opera, because, in Polynesia, the indigenous peoples come from a very, very strong oral tradition. They are used to communicating a lot by chanting, by singing. I’ve known many wonderful natural talents in Hawaii who very easily could have had careers in classical singing. But Polynesians also have a very strong familial tradition, which makes it really hard to leave home. Making a career away from home is a difficult thing for a lot of would-be young singers of Polynesian background.

“I feel very tied to my heritage, to my traditions from back home, so my iPod has playlists of Hawaiian music, which take me home whenever I play it. But my tastes are very eclectic—everything under the sun, except for country-western. Just never got my head around it. I got a lot of appreciation for folk, rock and alternative music from my dad. My dad—I love to brag about this, because he gets so self-conscious—my dad was the lead singer in a rock band in high school. And my parents met singing a duet in choir while they were in college—they love a lot of different kinds of music. I was exposed to church music and classically oriented music and opera fairly young, but as I have grown up I’ve branched into different kinds of hard rock—loud, screamy, guitar-y thingies. I like cars, too, so for me fast cars and loud music really work. I don’t always listen to opera when I’m not working!”

Kelsey says he is happy with his career strategy to date. “I’ve seen and heard the trials and tribulations that many of my colleagues have gone through in their vocal development. And I’ve been so blessed, you know? I haven’t had a difficult time understanding ideas about singing—placement, and space, and breath support—but progression and pacing are lessons I relearn and embrace all the time. 

“Usually, you expect a Verdi baritone—if you believe that there is such a thing as a Verdi baritone—to attack all those other parts first—you know, Renato in Ballo in Maschera, and so on—and then wind up at Rigoletto. And I kind of started the other way. But it’s worked out well. If something wasn’t working the right way with that role, I definitely would have stopped and said, ‘Okay, wait a minute.’ But I haven’t had any major problems with it since the first full production I did of [Rigoletto]. You know, we have taken great care to make sure that I don’t wear myself out—that I don’t wear out the role. We make sure there’s enough space in between productions, in between performances of Rigoletto.

“Other Verdi pieces—Traviata, Trovatore, Aida—they aren’t an all-night challenge the way Rigoletto is. There are the other big, big Verdi parts I haven’t tried—Iago, Macbeth—but they’ll come when it is time. Maybe I will start testing the waters in five years, six years. If we find a specific kind of success with those, we can start talking about things like Boccanegra.

“But trust me. I’m in no rush.” spacer 

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