Kyle Ketelsen: 'He's part of my personality - I like to make him a realistic person.'

Interview on on returning to Covent Garden to sing Leporello and Escamillo

26 May 2007

Kyle Ketelsen

It's been quite a year for Kyle Ketelsen. Since I interviewed him last June, he's won rave reviews at the Royal Opera House for his portrayals of Figaro and Zoroastre (Orlando), provided one of the highlights of the Proms playing Leporello and Figaro opposite Simon Keenlyside's Count and Don Giovanni, and sung Escamillo in the San Francisco Opera's production of Carmen.

He has just returned to Covent Garden to begin rehearsals for the upcoming revival of Francesca Zambello's production of Don Giovanni. He's playing Leporello, one of his favourite roles, though originally Jonathan Lemalu was announced for the part. 'They called me last November and said there was a chance I might be needed, and I said that was great. Then they told me it was not going to happen. Then they called again after I had signed up to do Colline in La bohème in Santa Fe and I had to cancel that, which is a shame, but I am thrilled to pieces to be here. It's always good to come back.'

Ketelsen has sung all four roles for the lower male voice in Don Giovanni - Don Giovanni, Leporello, the Commendatore and Masetto - but Leporello is clearly his favourite. 'He's part of my personality. I like to bring a certain verismo style to Leporello. I know that's a clash of musical eras, but I don't like to play him as buffo. I like to make him a realistic person. You go a little past the boundaries of what a real person would do, of course, but it's not all buffo - he's like Giovanni, multi-faceted.

'Also, you're given the chance to steal the show every night. The comic relief in the show becomes automatically endearing to the audience. You have that going for you without doing too much! There are many opportunities to do some serious acting, too. The graveyard scene, the finale to the second act and the sextet (when he's nearly killed!) all have huge acting potential. You can dig your teeth into the drama with him, and the music is wonderful too, with the aria and the sextet and so on.

'Giovanni is a very tough role to get. I did it once, a year ago in Minneapolis, and although it was OK and I got good reviews, I think it would take ten productions before I really got under his skin. The music is strange; you don't really get an aria. I really prefer Leporello.'

What's his function in the drama? 'He's Giovanni's pimp!' he jokes. 'Sometimes he's a buffer to Giovanni, a diversion. He's the ultimate servant - he'll do anything for money. Even after he's seen Giovanni kill the Commendatore and been shocked, he stays for money. Like Duncan, the director, was saying to us today, he has morals but they can be stretched a bit. He definitely has a moral centre but he goes outside of it a bit.'

Although Da Ponte's libretto for Don Giovanni describes the opera as an 'opera buffa', Mozart's score refers to it as a 'dramma giocoso', the latter suggesting a greater range of dramatic and musical styles. Which does Ketelsen see as more appropriate? 'I'm led to believe that Da Ponte's buffo would be more appropriate because if we're talking about storyline, that is rooted in the text, the libretto. However, I hesitate to say that because Mozart is Mozart and I think he knew what he was doing! He set certain things to certain kinds of music to make them more dramatic. That said, I think you can play with it a lot. Giovanni is a difficult role because you can do it in so many different ways. Simon Keenlyside and Gerald Finley have it down perfectly. You watch them treat a scene in a special way and think, 'I would never have thought to do it like that but it's perfect'. I know my limitations; I don't want to tackle Giovanni right now, especially since I prefer Leporello's buffo music.'

The cast for the current revival includes Russian star Anna Netrebko as Donna Anna, Anna Maria Martinez as 'a wonderful Donna Elvira' and Michael Schade as Don Ottavio; the conductor is Ivor Bolton ('a sweet and very energetic man'). Ketelsen was particular to commend the Royal Opera Young Artists (past and present) working on this production: 'Matthew Rose [Masetto] is a great guy, a good colleague, and I always see him when I'm here. Marina Poplavskaya is doing the initial rehearsals as Donna Anna [she has a performance later in the run] as Anna Netrebko was ill last week, and Sarah Fox is super as Zerlina. It's a little hectic as it's a three-week rehearsal period, but it's going fine.'

Although he's only a few days into rehearsal, Ketelsen is already enjoying the late Maria Bjornson's (of The Phantom of the Opera fame) lavish set designs for the production. 'There's a massive truck in the middle of the set in the shape of a semicircular wall - it closes and opens and turns and it's like a playhouse. If you go inside it, there's a little driver seat. Great fun!'

The singer also has fond memories of his appearance in Le nozze di Figaro at Covent Garden last June. 'McVicar's vision for that production of Figaro was unique. I get warm fuzzy feelings just thinking about it! The camaraderie with all the servants and actors - I don't know why that hasn't been done before. Staging the overture with servants crossing the stage establishes that Figaro and Susanna are servants with all these people - it's a community below the stairs. It was a magnificent production and I'd love to do it again.'

He also clearly enjoyed working on Handel's Orlando in February 2007. 'I got the score and saw I only had three arias and little bits of recitative, so I thought OK, I can relax in this role. Then Francisco Negrin [the director] had me onstage for almost the whole time, which was tiring and hard to learn. In my mind as a singer, my cues onstage come from musical cues in my head and vice versa, and suddenly I had lots of non-musical cues. So I had long cheat sheets in my pockets so that I knew when to go on - I used them up to the fifth performance! The cast was great - there was no weak link.'

Ketelsen hopes to expand his repertoire in the future to include more virtuosic roles, 'things like Handel and Rossini that can show off coloratura and the strength of the voice'. But he's been told that he's too young to sing Verdi at the moment - 'they hear my bright sound and think it's not dark enough, and they think I'm too young. But years ago, people like Siepi and Tozzi [Ketelsen's distinguished teacher] were doing these roles at the Met at the age of 25. There are such things as wigs and makeup - I'd love to do the Verdi roles, if they would hire me!' He also mentions Scarpia (from his favourite opera, Tosca) as a role he would love to do in the future, though he feels he has to wait a few years before he can do it justice. And he's returning in January 2010 to play Nick Shadow in a revival of the Royal Opera's new production of The Rakes' Progress (which will be unveiled in July 2008).

Next year, he's back at Covent Garden playing Escamillo in Carmen, a role he has sung more than any other. When I ask him whether he's looking forward to acting in Francesca Zambello's lifelike production, complete with live animals, he answers, 'I'm just hoping the horse stays forward!'

By Dominic McHugh