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Austin Kness
01 Jul 2010

Baritone Austin Kness on his way

Baritone Austin Kness, an Adler Fellow at San Francisco Opera recently spoke with Opera Today critic Michael Milenski.

Baritone Austin Kness on his way

An interview by Michael Milenski


On the subject of role preparation Austin would admit that he had not read Goethe’s Faust in preparation for his three lines as Wagner in Gounod’s opera of the same name. When not serving simply as a baritone of convenience for SFO productions he seems to be typecast — just now he sang Handsome’s few lines in Puccini’s Fanciulla del West.

Austin is in his second year as an Adler Fellow, one of ten young singers in residence at San Francisco Opera who will become the stars of tomorrow. The alumni of this finishing school are among the crème de la crème of today’s opera luminaries, like Deborah Voigt and Patricia Racette who are appearing just now with Austin in Fanciulla and Faust.

Playing an Adler Fellow is a new role for Austin, that of a little fish in the big San Francisco Opera pond. Back in Cedar Rapids (west of Chicago and east of Des Moines, for those of us who know Iowa as a state you fly over on your way to New York) Austin sang solos in church and played defensive line backer on his high school’s varsity football team.

In his last high school year he decided to take some voice lessons. His prospective teacher had but one caveat — he must agree that he would continue vocal studies as his university major. That he did in a small music department in a minor university where he became a star.

With a bachelor of music in voice in hand his career prospects were hardly defined, so he worked as a bank teller for two years before determining that he would be in fact a singer. He continued working as a teller while pursuing a master’s degree at University of Indiana, and recalls with pleasure being recognized as Don Giovanni while cashing checks.

IU is an opera factory (they say), and it is prestigious. Though, like opera schools everywhere, women outnumber men twenty to one (Austin’s calculation). So with this limited competition he immediately was thrust onto the main stage in the lead role of William Bolcom’s A View from the Bridge (a 1999 opera that made the rounds of major American opera stages). Mozart’s Count followed and finally the Olympus of baritone roles, Don Giovanni was thrust upon him.

Preparation for this role was exhaustive. He worked with IU coach Christian Capocaccia, first speaking the text, then speaking it in rhythm, singing without pitch, singing it with Mozart’s pitches, and finally putting all these pieces together. Veteran opera impresario and stage director, Tito Capobianco was there to stage the Giovanni, Austin appreciated his coaching on traditional operatic ideas of period postures and movement. In his Giovanni preparations he came across a video of the role sung by fabled bass Cesare Siepi to the Leporello of Ingvar Wixell — “those guys could sing!”

It is a big world out there, and Austin began discovering it with a summer at the American Institute of Musical Studies in Graz, Austria. While there he had remarkable revelations — the Academy’s Liederabends and the scope of opera at the Arena di Verona. He perceived as well that singers and musicians in Europe are accorded a respect unknown in the U.S.

His steps into the bigger world included a summer as a young artist at Des Moines Summer Opera where for the first time he worked alongside professional singers. The speed and ease with which these professional productions reached the stage impressed him, as did the alternative staging format of Des Moines Summer Opera (not the traditional proscenium theater). This foray into American regional opera gave Austin renewed admiration for the elevated production standard of IU opera productions.

Austin’s studies at IU have been trumped by the invitation to be an Adler Fellow at San Francisco Opera. Here too he is impressed by the professionalism of his colleagues, watching the remarkable confidence of divas Patricia Racette and Deborah Voight. He notes as well how artists with less confidence cope with the tensions of role and production preparation. There are some tricks of the trade he has gleaned — like the axiom that you try the ideas of conductors and stage directors before trying to impose your own.

Austin has enormous admiration for singers who are successful. He denies envy of tenors who for example get more applause and make more money, and says he sings falsetto only come scritto and that he never imitates sopranos just for the fun of it. He does admit resenting the fact that sopranos and tenors always seem to be the competition winners.

The Adler Fellows do offer opportunities for stardom. Austin is the Impresario in Mozart’s tiny comedy that has made the rounds of impromptu venues in the Bay Area. Austin can be funny, very funny indeed in his dealings with two Adler Fellow mini divas. He says this role was greatly expanding because it is mostly speaking, a medium completely new for this young opera singer (even though back in high school Austin wanted nothing more than to be a musical comedy star).

In this first blush of artistic maturity Austin has his eye on roles like Gounod’s Valentin, Rossini’s Figaro, and the early Verdi bel canto roles. His dream is to sing Onegin. Nothing yet is in the bag, and it is still a bit premature to sign on with artist management. In the meantime he is working hard on his Russian with SFO Opera Center coaches, and learning from every minute of his life as a young singer at San Francisco Opera.

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