Monday, January 20, 2014

ARTISTS CORNER: Tenor Kirk Dougherty

Tenor Kirk Dougherty
Tenor Kirk Dougherty has a thriving career in concert and opera.  Opera Magazine (UK),, and Opera News describe his voice as a “tenor on the rise”, “an “exceptionally beautiful tenor”, and a “limitless, iridescent instrument”.  This season he makes his Sarasota Opera debut as the troubador Manrico in Verdi's Il trovatore opening February 8th, a role he has sung with a number of renowned musical organizations.  Continue reading to learn more about Mr. Dougherty and the path that lead him to a performance career in opera.   

Q. Where are you originally from and where do you make your home now?
A. I am originally from Sleepy Hollow, NY, which is a suburb of New York in Westchester County.  My wife is originally from Park Slope, Brooklyn.  We now live in the Washington Heights neighborhood in New York.   We like our neighborhood because it is convenient to our work which often revolves around auditioning and studying as much as performing.  Our neighborhood is also in between our two families who still live in Westchester and Brooklyn.

Mr. Dougherty as Ferrando in
Mozart's Cosi fan tutte
Q. What drew you to become a singer?  Was there a specific “Aha!” moment of clarity?
A. I never had any ‘aha!’ moments that led me to singing.  I think it was a combination of many events.   When I was younger I didn’t have a lot of career direction but I did have an interest in many academic subjects and disciplines.

Oddly enough though, I believe that lack of direction helped me a lot with some of my long-term singing goals.  To be a great professional singer seems to require combing many diverse disciplines into a single art.   I am definitely a generalist and I enjoy the intersection (each to a certain degree) of music, drama, athletic performance, psychology, history, linguistics, literature, and technology.

I think it’s important have the capacity to ‘get lost’ or ‘lose one’s self’ in a work of art.  When I started to be able to do that a few years ago, I felt that I was finally on the right track to a career in singing.

Q. Did you have other career aspirations in the works before you decided on singing?  
A. I considered many far-flung careers as a high school student but by the end of college I knew that I wanted to be a musician or maybe a musicologist.   As a graduate student, I had many performance opportunities but I initially focused on learning and teaching singers rather than on opera and performing. After graduate school, I got a job offer to become a college voice instructor.  For a few of years I taught voice lessons and singing to a number of undergraduate students, but I quickly realized that my true desire was to perform.  About five years ago I began to pursue a full-time opera career.

One of my greatest supporters through this transition has been my voice teacher at the Eastman School of Music. He made quite an impression on me and I admire him very much.  He has a tremendous humility about the art and about his teaching.  He instilled in me a way of thinking that improved my singing and my approach to the performing career.
Mr. Dougherty as Manrico in Verdi's Il trovatore
Q. What can you tell us about this character?  Why should the audience care about him?
A. I think that Manrico is a character who exemplifies contradictions. Although his thoughts and motives demonstrate the nobility and the chivalry of a medieval warrior, he also acts impulsively with the recklessness of a gypsy or a wanderer. This fearless, wandering nobility is also perhaps why his music and his songs seem so intriguing to Leonora.  His profession seems to reconcile these opposing qualities: as a ‘trovatore’ or ‘troubador’, he sings songs with simple, direct melodies but with words that portray the chivalrous ideals of love and courage.

I think it is even more interesting that the other three primary characters of the drama have their own similar contradictions in motives and actions.  In this way, I think Il trovatore can seem hard to follow for some opera-goers, because so much happens.  On the other hand, it’s also an unusually balanced opera with respect to the depth and development of each main character.

For an audience familiar with this drama, I hope it will be fun for them to observe and attempt to understand for themselves the inner motives of these characters.  It is both a “two-woman opera” and a “two-man opera”. Usually, operas largely involve the motives and actions of either one couple or a triangle of main characters. I think it’s interesting that, at one time or another, each of the main characters in Il trovatore – Manrico, Leonora, the Count, and Azucena – carry the drama through their own personal conflicts.

Mr. Dougherty as Hoffmann in Offenbach's
The Tales of Hoffmann
Q. You have performed this role before at other companies.  What do you enjoy about it?
A. I’ve performed the role at Tri-Cities Opera.   I think that prior experience was very important for me.  Il trovatore is definitely a difficult opera to perform and Manrico is a complicated and challenging character to create.  My goal for this production is to give a balanced interpretation of the role’s vocal and dramatic demands. I have never worked anywhere with as much rehearsal time and as many performances as we will have at Sarasota Opera (4 weeks of rehearsal and 10 performances).  I am looking forward to the challenges involved in putting together this opera.

Q. Is there something unique about your process when preparing a role for performance?
A. A few years ago I got my professional start at some smaller opera companies with fewer resources that a company like Sarasota Opera.  I was charged with learning a variety of roles in a short amount of time. I needed to develop a way of understanding and learning each new role in a constructive way.  At that time, I started studying with a system of index cards in order to quickly memorize the music and words.

The bulk of preparation happens long before the rehearsal period begins.  I always want to ensure that I arrive at each new production fully prepared and ready to immerse myself in rehearsal.  I developed a personal system of notation where I write down the smallest rudiments of music for my specific role – text, rhythm, and pitch - on approximately 10-20 index cards.  The cards help to get my nose out of the music and begin to understand the opera and my character more completely.

Mr. Dougherty as Nemorino in
Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore
Q. Beyond the musical work, what other kind of preparation/research work do you incorporate in the learning process?  Historical?  Character study?  
A. I have always been interested in history and so I will often try to find the historical context of the story. The original story of Il trovatore involves a medieval kingdom in present day Spain called Aragon.  At various points in European medieval history, Aragon was an important kingdom.  During the period of time Verdi set his opera, there was a war of succession in the early fifteenth century involving the count of Urgell (which is a county in Aragon), Jaime II, who was a claimant to the Kingdom of Aragon.  Manrico was probably leading men in Urgell’s army against the elected king Ferdinand I.  Many other details of the opera are fictional.

There is publication on the history of forgotten political dynasties and nations called “Vanished Kingdoms, the Rise and Fall of States and Nations” by Norman Davies.  In that book there is a chapter about Aragon which explains more about its history and origin through to its rebellion during the 18th century War of Spanish Succession and beyond.   In an unusual coincidence, this book was a gift to me from my father-in-law.  I had no idea that it would be useful reading until I opened it one day last year and found the chapter on Aragon.

Mr. Dougherty as Manrico in Verdi's Il trovatore
Q. Thus far, what is the most bizarre experience you have had during a rehearsal?  During a performance?
A. The Tales of Hoffmann was full of bizarre experiences.  I sang a duet with a robotic character (Olympia) that wore roller skates.  Making sure that she didn’t roll into the orchestra pit was crucial.

Q. Do you have any pre-performance rituals?  Performance superstitions?  Good luck charms?  If yes, why?
A. I don’t have any particular rituals and I try to avoid superstitions.  Sometimes I do bring a puzzle with me on show day just to keep my mind from thinking too much about the upcoming performance. Usually it’s an old-fashioned jigsaw puzzle.  I buy them from time to time but I rarely ever finish them.

Q. How do you relax in between performances?  What hobbies do you enjoy at home and “on the road”?
A. At home, I like to watch old movies and TV shows on Netflix.  I watch a lot of British TV and foreign film.  I guess it reminds me somehow of opera.   I also enjoy listening to the radio – NPR and talk radio. I rediscovered radio when I was driving a lot more and working locally for a variety of places in New York State.  I found talk radio and NPR was the best thing to listen to when driving a long distance.

When it’s possible, I try to enjoy the local and regional environment around me at any given place.   I was working recently in Anchorage, AK and saw some pretty scenic landscapes.  Nevertheless, it is a lot of work to produce an opera.  I try to give my voice and myself some space and time to recover from a production day.  Unlike a lot of actors and musicians, an opera singer is constantly keeping track of their instrument.  As a consequence, I am more conservative about how I spend my free time during a production.

Mr. Dougherty as Edgardo in
Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor
Q. How do you stay connected to family and friends when you are “on the road”?  Do you keep a blog? Website? Facebook?  Twitter?
A. I think it’s amazing how far technology has come to bringing people close to one another over vast distances. One of the things that definitely kept me from pursuing my singing career earlier in my life was the amount of travel and distance away from your family.  An itinerant life, however, is so much easier now than it was ten years ago.  I talk to my wife via Skype, Facebook, email, text, phone, and Facetime.  I’m also lucky that my wife sings opera as well and has a career of her own so she understands what a production period is like.   We always keep in touch throughout the time we are away and often it gives me some important perspective.

Whenever possible, my wife and I travel with each other.  When we don't have the good fortune of working on the same production, one of us will travel with the other to wherever they are singing.  Last summer I was very fortunate that she could go with me to Spain for some concerts and a production of Verdi’s Otello.   We know each other’s work very well and having my wife there with me helped me have great rehearsal and production days.

Don't miss Mr. Dougherty's performances as Manrico in Verdi's hot blooded Il trovatore opening February 8th and running for 10 performances through March 22nd.  Subscriptions and Single Tickets are on sale at or by calling (941) 328-1300.

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