Kevin Burdette is currently appearing as Stobrod/Blindman in Cold
Mountain at Opera Philadelphia, but he’ll be with us soon to start
rehearsing his role as The Pirate King in The Pirates of Penzance,
opening March 5th. We sat down with the “Robin Williams of opera” to pick his brain about preparing for
the role, Gilbert and Sullivan’s influence, and his thoughts on Queen
Did you grow up going to the opera?
up around classical music and went to a lot of orchestra concerts and musical
theater (in fact, I played viola in the Knoxville Youth Symphony Orchestra
starting in 7th grade and performed in school and church musical theater
earlier than that), but I didn’t go to the opera until I was in high school – a
performance of Don Giovanni, and I’m embarrassed to say that I fell
asleep in the second act! One of the singers in that show was the wonderful
Phil Cokorinos, with whom I have since sung, in The Nose at
the Metropolitan Opera (I never told about my dozing off…).
Do you remember the moment that captured your
interest in music and singing? Was there a particular artist that influenced
I am not certain there
was a specific moment that captured my interest – it was more like the
confluence of a lot a separate moments: sitting backstage, while in the chorus
of The Marriage of Figaro, listening to the Countess singing “Dove
sono,” and being struck by opera’s unique ability and power to move a listener
in moments of a character’s vertical development and looking within; sitting in
rehearsal of La traviata and getting overwhelmed
by the beauty and sorrow of the final act (especially from “Addio del passato”
to the end). Everyone in the room that afternoon, from the director, conductor,
diction coach, on down, was bawling at the final chord, moved by a transcendent
moment only opera can provide.
As for artists who
influenced me, I was extremely fortunate to have cut my teeth in opera at the
New York City Opera – I started there while still in grad school and performed
over 100 times with the company over the subsequent decade or so. The roster of
New York City Opera when I was there was full of the great American singing
actors of that time. I performed with, and learned from, singers like Bob Orth,
Joyce Castle, Lauren Flanigan, Mark Delevan, David Daniels, Bill Burden,
Elizabeth Futral, the list goes on and on.
Also, I would be remiss
not to mention one other singer who shaped my career profoundly: Paolo
Montarsolo. When I was a young artist in Paris, I had the honor of working with
Paolo on a production of The Elixir of Love. Dulcamara was one of
Paolo’s great roles, and we worked extensively for weeks on my interpretation
of that role. That work was invaluable and laid the foundation for the work I
do now as a singing actor.
How have you
prepared for the Pirate King, both as a vocalist and an actor?
I have had the good
fortune of being in The Pirates of Penzance multiple
times now, so I am very familiar with the piece, having been around so many
rehearsals and performances of it. My preparation, therefore, has been
relatively straight forward: diving first into the words to make sure I am
comfortable with them and where they are going, and then adding in the music.
The lyrics are extremely clever, and the musical setting varies among funny,
beautiful, moving, and rousing moments. The best thing to do, for me, is simply
to honor the source material by learning it, repeating it, trying to find every
bit of wisdom Gilbert and Sullivan added, and then doing it again.
It helps, of course, to
know that Seán Curran will be waiting when we arrive in Atlanta. Seán is one of
the funniest and cleverest people in opera, and it is extremely comforting to know
that we, and the operetta, are in his incredibly capable hands. Basically, I am
just looking forward to having fun!
performed so many kinds of opera. How does Gilbert & Sullivan differ from
the traditional works and contemporary pieces you’ve sung?
In some sense, Gilbert
& Sullivan does not differ much from the traditional works and contemporary
opera I have performed. Opera, to me, is all about telling the story – and
G&S write as good of a story as anyone. There are twists and turns, to be
sure, but part of telling the story is not anticipating those turns and simply
being in the moment when they occur.
Of course, Pirates is
a comedy, so in that sense, it is different from Everest or Cold
Mountain or La bohème. It’s not too far removed, though,
from a Daughter of the Regiment or an Elixir of Love,
as far as I am concerned. Donizetti was a genius at writing music that allows
for the humor of a text or of a situation to come to the fore, and Sullivan was
much the same. Dulcamara’s opening patter aria in Elixir has a
lot in common, I think, with the Major General’s opening aria in Pirates.
And just like with Marie and Tonio in Daughter of the Regiment, the
audience connects with Frederic and Mabel and is genuinely delighted when they
find a way to be together.
What is your favorite moment in The Pirates of
Oh, it’s so difficult to
name one. Thinking of that silliness I referenced, the “ ‘often, frequently’
only once” exchange is epic – so funny. And the Major General’s opening aria is
one of the funniest pieces of music ever written.
Perhaps best of all,
though, are the moments of pure beauty that emerge from the topsy-turvy world.
I cannot imagine
a more beautiful moment than the
duet between Frederic and Mabel in the middle of “Stay, Frederic, stay”: “”Ah,
leave me not to pine alone and desolate…he loves thee, he is here,” followed by
Frederic’s “Ah, must I leave thee here in endless night to dream…he loves thee,
he is gone.” It is a heartfelt text, gorgeously set: in 3/4, with a hemiola
midphrase and a stunning top G on “loves” – as beautiful as anything in the
finally: Queen Victoria, overrated or underrated?
The Pirate King MUST answer
that the Queen is underrated – for all our faults, I love the Queen!
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