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Posted by on Jun 16, 2010 in Articles | 8 comments

Too Stupid To Quit 2- Saved For Later

Too Stupid To Quit 2- Saved For Later

Mitridate, re di ponto at Grand Theatre de Geneve  photo by: GTG

Mitridate, re di ponto at Grand Theatre de Geneve photo by: GTG

by Donald Kaasch

Complex voices take a lot of time to come together. It’s kind of like the difference between a bucket of legos and a bucket of duplos. The buckets are the same size but there are 100 legos for every 25 duplos. Dump them on the floor and it’s not hard to guess which will come together soonest. Nothing against duplos but, IF the legos are finished being put together, there should be a great difference between the possible complexities of the two.

Being ‘saved for later’, when you’re in it, feels exactly the same as being passed over, forgotten and left out. When everyone else seems to be coming together vocally and are making sounds that are earning compliments, encouragement and even award recognition, it can be a very lonely time. It costs a lot and leaves you bruised and battered, fearful and alone.

The important thing about complex voices is this; in an acoustical arena they tend to ‘cut’ through the orchestra and unfold out into the theater more than simpler instruments. They also contain a greater palette of colors and possibilities of expression and can withstand greater demands placed upon them. Simply put, they can do more, change more, develop more and evolve more than their more confined and defined ‘duplo’ colleagues. They are usually late bloomers and can often be misjudged as unfixable messes’ way too early in the process.

I’m still a late bloomer. At 51 years old I’m still vocally growing and learning new things that my voice can do. I remain utterly imperfect and flawed but I am still developing vocal landscapes and solutions through an ever-evolving repertoire.

When I finished my undergraduate degree in vocal performance at the University of Colorado in BoulderI was still low on the tenor totem pole and a vocal shamble. Even my own parents shook their heads at recitals… and asked my voice teacher, Dr. Barbara Doscher, “Do you hear it? We don’t hear it. Do you hear it?”, ‘it’ being anything that sounded promising or hopeful. It must have been hard on them, paying the costs of such a degree, to not hear the ‘hoped for’ sounds that would engender a sense of money well spent.

Shortly before graduating, as is with most departing seniors, I had graduate school on my mind for the upcoming fall. Not wanting to leave Dr. Doscher (who did ‘hear it’), I asked the then Chair of the Voice Department if I could return in the fall. I was told cleanly and clearly that I was ‘sub-standard’ for the graduate program and not waste my or the schools’ time.  Panic set in big time. If my own school had no faith in me, who would?

In the following two months I sang a few disastrous auditions for regional theaters with the common suggestion that I study a bit longer— those were the kind comments. They were all correct, even the hard assessments. I was a vocal mess and I would remain so for a long time to come. Maybe I still am…

My wife Catherine and I were married in the middle of that summer and we drove out to another family wedding in Illinois in August. I cannot remember why we decided to drive up to Northwestern Universityin Evanston, a northern suburb of greater Chicago. We did so unannounced and didn’t think of things like auditioning or even expecting anyone to be there during the summer break, before the start of a new fall semester. We just did it.

Upon finding our way to the School of Music on the Northwestern Universitycampus we found the only office that was open and poked our heads inside to say ‘hello’ to, of all people, the Dean of Graduate Studies, Dr Paul Aliapoulios. He was a very generous man and seemed to take an interest in the fact that I was a tenor without a graduate school. He said it was too bad that they were out of session because there were no voice teachers in the building and, catching himself, he made an internal phone call to someone named ‘Norman’ and walked us up to the fourth floor to a studio with the name ‘Norman Gulbrandsson’ on the door. He knocked, we entered, and were introduced to the man whose name we had just read. Norman Gulbrandsson was one of those workaholic voice teaching legends whose name stood on its own, over time. He was ‘Stormin’ Norman’ and we were standing in his domain.

I had no music, was not warmed up (not that it would have mattered) and was told to stand by the piano. I don’t remember what I sang to this day but I’m sure I didn’t pull off a miracle. I didn’t pull any wool over his eyes OR ears but Norman Gulbrandsson heard something….something that gave him the insight that I should be fast-tracked into Northwestern’s graduate program. He made a single phone call down to Dr Aliapoulios’ office and said, “Do what it takes to get him here”.

Northwesternis a part of the mysterious ‘Ivy League’ and is VERY expensive. Between a healthy scholarship from monies already allocated and a Teaching Assistantship in the Music History department I was fully covered financially. I had gone from substandard to indispensable with the same voice heard through a different set of ears.

Catherine and I returned to our newlywed apartment in Denver quite stunned, packed up and drove to Illinois in a little U-Haul truck filled with our meager possessions, pulling our 1967 VW bug behind us.  It all took place inside of two and a half weeks.

Being ‘saved for later’ really does feel the same as being passed over but if you have a propensity toward being too stupid to quit, you never know what you might find…


DonaldKasch1The career of American tenor Donald Kaaschhas taken him to the principal theatres of the world in title and leading roles at the Netherlands Opera, Teatro alla Scala, Metropolitan Opera, Teatro Colòn in Buenos Aires, Grande Théâtre de Genève, l’Opéra de Paris, TMP Châtelet, Zürich Staatsoper, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Australian Opera/Sydney, Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels, The Royal Opera House, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Staatsoper Hamburg, Staatsoper Stuttgart, Teatro Reggio di Parma, Los Angeles Opera…

He maintains an active international concert presence with major orchestras such as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Sydney Symphony, the BBC and Royal Philharmonic Symphonies, l’Orchestre de Paris, l’Orchestre National de France and l’Orchestre de la Radio-France, Berlin Symphony Orchestra… among many others. The title role in the Berlioz La Damnation de Faust is perhaps his signature concert role and one which he sings worldwide with conductors such as Prêtre, de Waart, Soustrot, von Dohnányi, and Soudant.

Recent engagements include: St François d’Asisse and Kat’a Kabanova with the Netherlands Opera, The Tempest at the Royal Opera House/Covent Garden in London, La damnation de Faust at the Semperoper in Dresden, Boris Godunov at the Teatro Réal in Madrid and Dallapiccola’s Il Prigioniero with the American Symphony Orchestra in NYC, Lincoln Center.

Future engagements include: Il Prigioniero with the Netherlands Opera, Elektra in Brussels, Toulouse and Santiago (Chile) , Salome in Liege, Kat’a Kabanova at both the Paris Opera/Bastille and the Opera Oviedo in Spain and Mahagonny at the Teatro Real Madrid.

Recordings include Rossini’s Armida with Renée Fleming on Sony Classics, Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex with James Levine on Deutsche Grammophon, Lizsts’ Christus on MD&G and Oh Fair to See, a collection of English Art Song with Peter Lockwood for Globe and Thomas Ades’ The Tempest with EMI. He is also featured on DVD  in the Stuttgart Opera production of Alceste (SudWest Rundfunk and Arte) as well as the Netherlands Opera production of St François d’Asisse from (Opus Arte).

Learn more about this accomplished American tenor at: and follow his TSTQ Series with the introductory installment at:


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  1. Loved your article, but, you are being way too hard on your former voice! Not at all surprised to hear that you were deemed unworthy of C.U.’s graduate school. One reason why the world is full of uninteresting singers with commonplace voices with graduate degrees, who, however, are professionally unemployable in opera, is that schools such as CU prefer them. We could talk!

  2. Thank you for this inspiring article. I am definitely going to give this to one of my students – 24 years old, complex voice, incredibly hard worker, great personality and often disheartened because her voice has note yet settled and often lacks resonance in the higher register. Visiting lecturers always compliment her on her timbre and say she actually has a ‘big’ voice. I am sure it will take time but she will succeed. This article will help me to convince her that she still has time!

  3. Dear Ms. Van Etten- I am VERY serious about avoiding the thought that anyone denied me anything along the way. CU was not unkind to me and certainly did nothing amiss. Had I gone to CU for my grad work I would not have had the opportunities that came with my degree work at Northwestern. It all worked out EXACTLY as it was meant to.

    Please read again what I stated regarding being ‘saved for later’. THAT is the key issue.
    However, I do thank you very much for your kind and supportive response. DK

  4. Wow, this article is so perfect for me to read right now and I can TOTALLY relate. I, too believe that nothing happens by happenstance or luck but everything happens for a reason. Thank you for this article, it’s amazing and is another reminder to be patient and wait and the right thing for you will happen.

    Thank you again, I really enjoyed reading this article!

  5. We all know stories of highly successful singers who were told at some point by “experts” not to bother. I understand some of the more delicate implications here. But, you state in your article that “I was told cleanly and clearly that I was substandard for the graduate program and not to waste my or the school’s time”. Surely there are kinder ways to reject and discourage a singer! Fortunately you had the good fortune to stumble upon a teacher at a major school who understood your voice and talent, which was crucial to your success. ( Some would call that fate, I call it luck.) But, for me, the remarkable part of your singer’s journey is your persistence, and it is that which I will hold up as an example to my students. I will INSIST that they read your article. Thank you so much for sharing your story.

  6. Thank you so much for this article! I just finished my freshman year, and despite huge personal growth, was feeling rather behind in comparison to my classmates. Your story has helped me to feel confident to keep learning. Thank you!

  7. To all of you very kind and patient readers! wait until you read TSTQ3 in two weeks as the plot thickens!

    I wish each of you could see and hear how much I find myself laughing when I write these! It has been such a goofy sentimental journey and still is to this day!

    Best to you all and my sincere thanks. DK

  8. Thanks Donald for your comments on complex voices and selecting the correct repetoire for your voice. I am a late starting Australian tenor. Didn’t have a lesson until 26 and now 37. My voice has grown immensley in this time and you have convinced me to not give up. There is not much room to move in the Opera world in Australia, but I will see where my voice can take me (even with such a late start). An English singing teacher (Michael Dale) that spent some time in Australia said that he met you years ago and said that my voice reminds him of yours – hence me searching for info about you. Thank you for being so open and forthcoming – you have kept another tenor in the competition….who knows we may meet on stage somewhere. A have a far greater voice than you give yourself credit for

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