Prospect Magazine: Alumni Stories

Opera Luminary

David Kuebler '69 earns his full share of bravos and bravissimos on stages worldwide.

Right around the time the opera patrons begin to make their way up the grand staircases to their seats in the private boxes, David Kuebler finds his place, too. It’s a place the opera patrons never see. And, really, why would they want to? They’re cuff-linked and cocktail-dressed, lingering over one last drink in the bejeweled lobby while they await the curtain’s rise.

But back here—behind the curtain, behind the stage—this is Kuebler’s place.

It’s really no more than a nondescript hallway, a passage that bears the traffic of technicians, choristers, and costumers. It’s so modest you might not suspect it exists. Every opera house, even the grandest of them, has these functional, out-of-the-way places; and in his thirty years as an opera singer, Kuebler has worked most of them. He has sung at the Met, La Scala, and a hundred others, and always he has sought out these plain, forgotten backstage corners.

He seeks them out in the final moments before a performance. It’s where he finds his last chance to ready himself to sing. Here he can be alone and put aside the distracting nonsense that accompanies any production. He forgets about the schmoozing, the after-parties, the wrangling with directors, and he finds a few blessed moments of quiet to concentrate on the work before him.

Kuebler would like us to get a glimpse into the backrooms that he knows so well. He’d like us to see the meetings, the rehearsals, the hours of mind-numbing repetition—all the preparation and perfectionism that goes into a production.

His own preparations can be obsessive. For example, when he was cast in Janacek’s opera, “The Makropulos Case”, Kuebler didn’t just learn to sound out enough Czech to handle his role. He learned Czech. It was as though he wanted to be able to argue with the composer himself in his native language. And before he sang the part of Alwa in Alban Berg’s “Lulu”, he made sure he read eve

Kuebler would like us to see all this; but we can’t, of course. We are out in the auditorium with the rest of the audience, segregated from his backstage world by a barrier of curtains and footlights. It makes all the difference in the world, that barrier. For all of us on one side of the divide, opera is just a diverting spectacle, a night out, a chance to see and be seen. But on Kuebler’s side of the divide, opera is a life’s work. For performers like Kuebler, opera is a serious business that’s full of risk—primarily, the risk of public failure before thousands of witnesses.

Maybe all we know of opera singers is the preening superstars we see during PBS fundraising drives. Maybe our idea of opera is a caricature of fat people singing arias—and all the bravos, bows, and bouquets.

David Kuebler would like us to forget all that.

Don’t get him wrong—he likes bravos and bows as much as the next guy. But the best part of his job, and maybe the hardest part, has always been the stuff that goes on before the curtain rises, in those little undistinguished places away from public view. He wants us to know now that this is where he really does his job, and this drab backstage world is his office. Here, in the last moments before the orchestra begins to play, all the fancy, unessential trappings of the opera world fall away, and he is left alone with the task at hand.

This is where he belongs. The work has been done and he is ready. This is the really interesting part, he says.

And then, to a wave of applause, the curtain rises.

In 1993, Kuebler sang Alfredo in Verdi’s “La Traviata” in Amsterdam. He was surrounded by a corps of dancers in the nude. He has sung crawling on his stomach. He has sung lying on his back. He has sung enshrouded in fog. One director asked him to sing while scaling miniature stage-set mountains.

He likes to disappear into a role, to not only sing a part well but to do it dramatic justice. The best evidence is his performance in Zemlinsky’s “Der Zwerg.” It’s a ninety-five-minute opera about a love-starved dwarf. Kuebler, who is over six feet tall, sang the title part on his knees.

His first turn in the role, at the Paris Opera in 1998, drew thunderously positive reviews. Not long after, in Geneva, Dale Duesing, another American-born tenor, saw Kuebler sing the part again. “I wish everyone could have seen that,” says Duesing. “Here’s this big guy, six-foot-something, singing the part of a dwarf. It was mesmerizing. He was singing high notes to the point where other singers would have been rolling over.”

Not every singer, of course, is happy to do acrobatics while trying to sing his part, and even Kuebler has his limits. But his performance in “Der Zwerg” was typical of him.

Huesing first encountered Kuebler in 1979, when they sang in a production of “Der Fledermaus” in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Later, they were cast together in a number of European productions. “He does his homework in spades,” Duesing says. “I remember rehearsing ‘The Makropulos Case’ in Amsterdam. We spent days walking around the city, talking out the problems of the opera. He takes an intellectual approach. He likes to debate and discuss.

“With some singers you want to say, ‘Just shut up and sing.’ But David comes by his intelligence and curiosity honestly. He really is trying to produce the most believable performance possible.”

As a youth, Kuebler did not seem destined to be an opera star. He seemed preordained, as it were, for the ministry. His father was a minister in the United Church of Christ, and figured David would follow him into the family business.

In the end, David figured differently. But his family background prepared him well for at least one part of the opera singer’s life, the moving around part. Kenneth Kuebler’s work took him to a new church posting every few years, and his family went along with him: to Fulton, Michigan; to Clintonville, Wisconsin; to South Bend, Seymour, and Columbus, Indiana; even, for a short stint, to Honduras.

After his peripatetic childhood, David enrolled at Elmhurst College, where his father and grandfather had prepared for the ministry. A veteran of countless church choirs, David joined the Glee Club, then directed by David Austin. It was a lot more than just another extra-curricular pursuit. “The Glee Club was probably the most important thing any of us did at Elmhurst,” Kuebler’s college roommate, Barry Warren, remembers. “It was part of our identity. If you asked any of us what we did in college, we’d say, ‘I was in Glee Club.’ For David, it was where he discovered he had a voice.”

In 1969, when the theatre program needed someone to sing the title role in a student production of Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro,” Kuebler tried out for the role.

“That’s when the bug bit,” he recalls. It was the ultimate low-budget opera production, presented in the unforgiving acoustic environs of the old gym. Kuebler, a natural tenor, was singing a bass baritone part. Yet the experience had a lasting impact on him. “I remember how excited I was to learn the role. The music is just transporting, and it blew me away. I was hooked on opera.”

He began taking voice lessons with Thomas Peck, the director of the Grant Park Symphony Chorus. After two years of studies with Peck, he joined the Lyric Opera Chorus, where he found himself part of an army of young, talented, ambitious singers, all looking for their chance to establish themselves.

Kuebler did not wait around for his own break. One day he knocked on the door of the chorus’s guest singer, Marilyn Horne. He asked the legendary soprano if she could tell him whether or not he had a future as a singer. “That’s the kind of thing I did in those days,” he recalls, seeming a little amazed at his own nerve. Horne arranged to listen to Kuebler sing in an unoccupied church in Hyde Park. When Kuebler finished the private performance, Horne announced to the young singer that he had what it takes to make a career in opera.

Not long after his personal audition, Kuebler got a call from Horne’s husband, Henry Lewis, who was running a highly regarded apprentice program for young singers at the Santa Fe Opera. Lewis was looking for someone to sing the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. He asked Kuebler if he knew it. “I said yes, which was a lie,” Kuebler says. “Then he hired me to come out the next week and sing it. I learned it and I did it. I didn’t have any choice.”

His work in Santa Fe launched him on his professional career. Kuebler quickly established a niche for himself as an agile lyric tenor. It wasn’t long before just about any major opera company around the world that was staging a Mozart or Rossini opera was calling on him. He made his European debut in Bern, as Tamino in The Magic Flute, then sang the role in Vienna and Munich. He sang it at the Met in New York City in 1981.

Since then, he has sung with most of the major European and American opera companies. His repertoire has shifted to heavier, more dramatic roles, often in rarely produced or “difficult” operas. His old college friend Barry Warren calls them “unusual productions of unusual operas.” Kuebler calls them “the wacko roles I’ve become known for.”

Along the way, Kenneth Kuebler came to embrace his son’s choice of career. David Kuebler says that he was able to sing before his father several times before he died, and that inevitably his father would begin to cry on the first note. “He once said to me, ‘Your singing is like preaching.’ I love that. It’s a wonderful compliment.”

By now Kuebler should be accustomed to compliments, not only from family but also from some of his art’s most exacting critics. In The New York Times, Paul Griffiths wrote, “He has a character tenor’s pathos and a keen sense of the text, yet he also moves decisively into a radiantly high register.” In the San Francisco Chronicle, Octavio Roca noted that Kuebler “not only sings seductively, but also manages to be witty.” The Chronicle’s Allan Ulrich praised his “fervor and steely tone.”

Kuebler dismisses the praise of the critics. He says he has no choice. “I learned long ago that if you listen to the good stuff, then you have to believe the bad stuff, too,” he explains. A certain number of pans comes with the territory. His performance last summer in San Francisco, in the title role of Hector Berlioz’s “Faust,” received especially harsh notices. Kuebler himself was so disappointed with his singing that he briefly considered withdrawing from the production.

“It was a really unhappy time for me, but I tried to be a professional about it and do the job,” he says. “And I do think the final performances were better than the first, but of course, they don’t review the final performances. It’s a tightrope walk every time you go out on stage, and what makes it exciting is the possibility you might fall off. I’m sure there are people who would say that’s just what I did.”

It didn’t take Kuebler long to shake off the San Francisco episode. As the fall began, he was looking forward to singing in a production of Alban Berg’s “Lulu” at the Bastille Opera in Paris. It’s one of his favorite venues, and for a telling reason: he likes its backstage rehearsal facilities. At most opera houses, rehearsals are relegated to remote sites where the cast works with makeshift reproductions of the stage set. The cost of putting up and pulling down the set every day is simply too great to allow for rehearsals on the stage itself. But at the Bastille Opera, sets are constructed atop huge sleds that can be stored in the cavernous backstage area, then pulled into place for rehearsals on stage.

It takes a singer with a positive mania for preparation to love an opera house for its rehearsal space. “The work you do in rehearsals with the director is really the most rewarding work,” says Kuebler. “We spend a lot of time with the text, and then we spend more time putting it to music. There’s an awful lot of repetition, and it can be mind numbing. But we all do it, because you can’t mine the gold until you’ve reached a certain plateau.”

It may be that amid the relentless travel and essential rootlessness of his career, the regularity of rehearsal is a reassuring constant for Kuebler. The months ahead will bring an engagement at the Met in New York, where he will sing the role of Shuiski in “Boris Gudonov.” Beyond New York are stops in Valencia, Baden-Baden, Vienna, Moscow, and a return to Paris. He lives in Germany with the soprano Angela Denoke. Germans easily identify him as an American, he says, because of his casual amiability. “Only an American would smile as much as I do.”

The years of living abroad, shuttling from continent to continent and singing in a half dozen different languages, have produced in Kuebler’s speaking voice the kind of vague accent that resists your best efforts to place it. He is in some ways a man without a country, no longer fully at home either abroad or in the United States. Maybe his only true home these days is in the rehearsal rooms and back halls of the world’s opera houses, where he prepares to sing.

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