BWW Interview: Kevin Langan on Operatic Idols and Vocal Longevity
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 further 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: Welcome back to SDO, Kevin! Congratulations on reaching this amazing pinnacle of 19 productions with the company. How does it feel?
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! A few artists in the comprimario category have more than me, like bass Scott Sikon and mezzo Suzanne Guzman, but 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: Tito Capobianco was the General Director. The work was mounted for Sherrill Milnes. The cast included Christina Deutekom, Brenda Boozer, Jacque Trussell, and Robert Schmoor, who had been a stalwart comprimario at the Met and had moved to San Diego to teach and continue performing with SDO. Antonio Tauriello conducted and Tito directed. It was the only time I got to work with Sherrill Milnes. His presence was inspiring for a young 28 year old bass making his debut with the company! It was February - the weather was like paradise here in San Diego - I told myself I had to come back here as often as possible, especially since most of the season was presented in the winter and early spring months!
EM: What happened afterward?
KL: Tito left after that season. I was concerned 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. He sang the role of Liberto and I was Seneca. We had a moment together singing a beautiful duet! 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: Let's talk about your background. 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 but the moment was a pivot for me. Music entered my life that night in a way I can only describe as magical. 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! Naturally it sits in my safe deposit box back in New Jersey most of the time! 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.
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 and knew of my Beatle obsession. 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 do you remember most about studying at Indiana University, one of the most high powered music schools in the country?
KL: IU has a 1700-seat Musical Arts Center, with backstage facilities similar to the Metropolitan Opera. They produce 6 operas over the school year, and two during the summer sessions. I spent 2 years there as a transfer undergraduate voice major (my first two years were at New England Conservatory of Music), and another three years in their graduate program obtaining a Bachelor and Master of Music in Voice with High Distinction. I was in 21 opera productions as a student there.
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 had a 22-year career at The Met singing most of the major Wagner roles and much of the Italian repertoire - as a mezzo for 8 years and dramatic soprano for 14 years. She was already known when I arrived at Indiana for turning out great singers in all fachs, female and male, who were working all over America and Europe. 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 a successful opera career, especially in achieving significant longevity, 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 of that discipline 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 in order to achieve longevity. Once your youth leaves you physically in your thirties, you must learn to 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 on my own.
EM: That's extraordinary.
KL: Harshaw's goal was to teach her students how to teach themselves until she became obsolete to them. 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. When I left Indiana in 1980 to sing professionally full time, besides having Harshaw's guidance in me, I had the good fortune to meet Walter Legge and his wife, soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf.
EM: Was that a turning point in your early career?
KL: Walter Legge and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf were touring the US giving master classes in the summer of 1978. They came to IU and I sang for them. 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 under his tutelage for a year while he prepared me for what he felt could be a major career as a recitalist and opera singer. I was 23 at the time and felt I needed more time with Harshaw to perfect my technique, so Legge offered to sponsor me in a recital the following year at London's prestigious Wigmore Hall, as his protégé, then take me around to audition for impresarios at various European opera houses. He had guided and supported Maria Callas through much of her career in houses and in recordings with his record label EMI in London. I accepted, and 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. However 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 flew to London and spent a week polishing the recital with Schwarzkopf and my accompanist Roger Vignoles. 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 and essentially make me a complete professional singer.
EM: Was the recital successful?
KL: Yes! Then I sang for some of Europe's best impresarios, was a position as a young artist in a Covent Garden program, but I had already been accepted into San Francisco Opera's Merola Program to begin immediately after the London trip. Ms. Schwarzkopf enlightened San Francisco Opera General Director Kurt Herbert Adler about me, and 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 all those years ago.
EM: Is it true you met Maria Callas?
KL: In 1974, in my sophomore year at NEC I met Callas during her final US tour with Giuseppe Di Stefano. After her Symphony Hall concert I went backstage to meet Ms. Callas. 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!" Then she wished me luck and I thanked her profusely.
EM: Your career has had extraordinary lasting power: 38 years, 1300-plus performances, 80 roles.
KL: I have been fortunate to have sung every role I ever wanted to do save for one: Boris Godunov. I focused on many Handel roles early on, all the Mozart bass repertoire (Sarastro, Osmin, Leporello, Commendatore, Masetto, Figaro, & Bartolo) and Bel Canto Italian repertoire from Bellini/Donizetti through Verdi and Puccini. I have always prided myself on controlling my own career to a reasonable extent, not letting others tell me what I should or should not do. Harshaw advised me along those lines. 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, in just about all of the major houses of the world over 18 years. We are married 34 years this summer. She is on the voice faculty at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, NJ. 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 genres and 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? Thankfully someone recorded a performance. I posted it on YouTube for posterity. 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: You've also premiered in several contemporary operas.
KL: EMMELINE by Tobias Picker was premiered and recorded in Santa Fe and later done with New York City Opera. It is, I feel, his best work, one of America's best operas of the last 25 years, and deserves many more opportunities to be heard worldwide. The melding of the drama into the music is as good as any Verdi opera. Ned Rorem's OUR TOWN, which I did at Central City Opera in 2013, which had a profound spiritual affect on not only me, but also the entire cast, was one of the most moving operas ever produced there. The operatic version is just as good as the play. Both as a performer and listener, it can have a profound affect on you. A perfect opera for Universities, as well as for professional opera companies.
EM: What were some of your most memorable orchestra concert and recital appearances?
KL: Wigmore Hall in London was the highlight of my concert career. 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 in 2014 and FIDELIO in 2015 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 - not in school, and certainly not from your manager, voice teacher, or coaches. 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. I have seen many great singers on the verge of bankruptcy late in their careers because they never took the time to invest their money wisely for a rainy day. I created the seminar to educate whenever the opportunity arises and interest is shown by the companies or even by individual singers who could use the advice.
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 (http://www.sdopera.org/season/2016-17-season/traviata).
Photo credits: Ken Howard, courtesy of the artist