Hawaiian baritone making his mark in Verdi

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Posted: Nov 25, 2013 11:17 AM
Hawaiian baritone making his mark in Verdi

CHICAGO (AP) — There are baritones who sing opera, and then there are "Verdi baritones." Quinn Kelsey has no doubts about which camp he is in.

"I'm definitely a Verdi baritone," Kelsey said in an interview last weekend at his home here. Fitting into that category requires a voice of a certain size and power, he said, but something more as well: "It's a quality one has to have in the voice, a kind of a noble timbre. It has to have a very large space, what you would think of when you think of how a king would sing."

That's a tall order, and it's not surprising that it's been a while since the opera world has seen a singer of the stature to compare with great Verdi baritones of the past like Leonard Warren, Robert Merrill or Kelsey's idol, Ettore Bastianini. (By contrast, there are many fine lyric baritones who excel in lighter repertory like Mozart's operas.)

Kelsey may not be in that rarefied company just yet, but he has many of the necessary ingredients. These are currently on display at Chicago's Lyric Opera, where he is appearing as Giorgio Germont in a new production of "La Traviata."

It's one of a series of Verdi roles, large and small, that he has taken on in recent years, including Rigoletto, Amonasro in "Aida," Paolo in "Simon Boccanegra,"(for the Lyric and for conductor Riccardo Muti in Rome) and Monfort in "Les Vepres Siciliennes" (for Frankfurt, Germany).

Audiences and critics have been quick to recognize something special in his warm, resonant sound and the sense of amplitude and ease under pressure it conveys.

"Kelsey's singing is capacious and weighty, with effortless power and plenty of vibrant color," wrote Joshua Kosman in the San Francisco Chronicle of his Amonasro in 2010. Said Robert Everett-Green in The Globe and Mail of his 2012 Rigoletto in Toronto: "His richly modulated voice, musical intelligence and dramatic physicality are exactly what the role demands."

At age 35 — still a virtual baby by Verdi baritone standards — Kelsey is adding new roles, carefully. Next up are Renato in "Un Ballo in Maschera" Rodrigo in "Don Carlo" and Falstaff. He said heavier parts like those in "La Forza del Destino," and "Nabucco" are "going to have to wait for a while, and Iago will have to wait — but not so long."

Why the slow rollout? "The Verdi baritone is not something to be trifled with," he said. "Because if you do it wrong, you could really hurt yourself. You could have an effect on the longevity of your vocal career."

Kelsey was born in Honolulu into a musical family. His father is of Anglo-European descent and his mother's family is half-Hawaiian and half-Filipino. That makes him one of a very few singers of Hawaiian ancestry to have risen to prominence on the international opera scene.

He was bitten by the performing bug at age 13, before his voice had even changed, when Hawaii Opera Theater was looking to amplify its men's chorus for a production of "Aida."

"I got to sing as a tenor in the priest's chorus," he recalled. "To have that view, from the stage down to the audience ... there was an attraction, there was a draw to it. That was kind of the beginning of the end."

Kelsey studied voice in college in Honolulu and joined a vocal studio at the opera company, where he met well-known singers such as Denyce Graves, Marilyn Horne and the late Jerry Hadley. He apprenticed at Chautauqua in New York and the Merola program in San Francisco before coming to the Lyric, which he considers his artistic home.

He's married to an opera singer, soprano Marjorie Owens, who is currently under contract in Dresden, Germany. With both of them scheduled months and even years in advance, they face the same challenges as many married performing couples.

"It's not even a commuter marriage," Kelsey said. "It's Skype and Facebook and, 'Hey, honey, I'm going to be in San Francisco. Wanna come hang for three weeks?'"