This May, Verdi’s tragic masterpiece La Traviata returns to the Blaisdell Concert Hall as part of Hawai‘i Opera Theatre (HOT)’S 2018-2019 season.
Headlining the show is none other than Honolulu’s own Quinn Kelsey, whose rich and distinctive baritone voice has earned rave reviews in performances at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House, the Royal Opera House, San Francisco Opera, Washington National Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Paris Opera and at the Bregenz and Edinburgh Festivals. But before becoming an internationally renowned opera singer, Kelsey was just a Manoa kid who attended high school at UH Lab and sung with his family.
“I had a ton more appreciation for singing because I grew up in a very musical family,” recalls Kelsey. “My mother and father started singing in the Hawai‘i Opera chorus in the 1980s. As soon as my sister and I were old enough, we joined because music was what we all did together as a family.”
Kelsey’s mother, who was classically trained, and his father, a strong natural singer, had met while attending the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa. The college’s music department director assigned them together to sing “Lei Aloha, Le Makamae,” the (original) Hawaiian wedding song for class. The duo later sang together in a local music group. Their passions gave Kelsey a strong foundation in music—but also gave him pause when considering what to pursue in college.
“After high school, I felt like it would’ve been cheating to have gone straight into studying music at college because it was so familiar,” Kelsey says. “I felt an obligation to make sure there wasn’t anything else I wanted to do more than opera. So I studied marine biology, visual arts, Hawaiian studies and things I felt strongly about. Ultimately, the draw to music was just too strong.”
Around the same time as Kelsey’s second year of college at UH Manoa, HOT created an apprentice program that connected emerging local talent with prominent figures in the opera world. Kelsey joined and soon was attending master classes from the likes of Grammy- winning soprano Marilyn Horne, soprano Denyce Graves, and the late tenor Jerry Hadley. He attended the prestigious Merola Opera Program in San Francisco and the Chautauqua Institution in New York. By the time he finished college, Kelsey was not only performing the main baritone role of Marcello in Puccini’s La Bohème, but was also packing his bags to train at the Lyric Opera of Chicago that summer. “One of the biggest blessings in my development has been that every- thing progressed from one to the next,” says Kelsey. “Through [HOT’s] program, I gained so much attention and training that I don’t know if I would’ve gotten had I gone away for school.”
In Chicago, Kelsey found that one of the biggest benefits of training with the big opera companies is they include develop- ing artists on stage alongside the veterans. So although Kelsey was technically enrolled in their program, he was also performing in smaller roles or as under- studies for bigger parts. He soon acquired a manager, who helped him land auditions. “After finishing the artist program in Chicago, I auditioned for maybe four or five years after that. By now, my manager just connects with the opera companies that know my work and he lines up shows,” Kelsey says. His performance calendar is booked nearly through 2022.
With a back-to-back schedule of shows scattered throughout North America and Europe, Kelsey has to “make home” in each city he’s performing in. His regular routine—if there is one for the life of an opera singer—involves flying into a particular city a day before rehearsals begin to get settled (Kelsey enjoys grocery shopping), rehearsing for several weeks, then several more weeks of performances before flying out to the next show.
“It sometimes gets tedious when you’re in the rehearsal process but once opening night comes, the show moves by quickly. If you don’t take advantage of the time to enjoy the city, suddenly a few months have passed from the first rehearsal to when you have to pack up and take off again,” says Kelsey. “The nature of this business can be lonely and frustrating but at the end of the day, you have to have a deep love and passion for this art form.”
Kelsey’s favorites to perform include the painter Marcello in La Bohème by Puccini, and the titular role from Verdi’s Rigoletto. “I’ve been singing Verdi for a good number of years; I’m very specific to the kind of baritone for which he wrote,” Kelsey says. “Rigoletto is on-stage throughout the entire show but I like having to do so much in that opera. I feel that a big part of my responsibility as a performer is to give to the audience what I would want to see if I were sitting in the house.”
Once or twice a year, Kelsey returns to Hawai‘i, where he takes advantage of getting into the ocean (“I have to get into the water. It’s very spiritual for me, like a cleansing”), visiting favorite restaurants (“Gotta go to Side Street Inn, Zippy’s, Rainbow’s [Drive Inn], and you have to try Asato Family’s sherbert”), and, perhaps surprisingly, singing karaoke: “I stick to Elvis.”
Kelsey also makes time for performances at HOT. “I have a huge sense of responsibility to this company which allowed me so much opportunity to advance,” says Kelsey. “Now I look for every opportunity to be able to come home and sing for the company that gave me my start.