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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 12, No. 5

Aline Kutan: High on Singing

by Wah Keung Chan / February 1, 2007

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When Armenian-Canadian soprano Aline Kutan takes the stage at Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier in the title character of Lakmé in l’Opéra de Montréal’s February production, she’ll be coming full circle. In 1996, Kutan made her professional operatic debut in the same role at Arizona Opera. And it was in playing this character again 5 years ago that she made her greatest international triumph — captivating media attention while singing six performances over nine days to replace an ailing Sumi Jo at Michigan Opera Theatre. Today, with her clear, warm, and flexible voice, Kutan is undoubtedly Canada’s leading coloratura soprano.

Being a successful coloratura soprano means having the kind of agility and precision for roles such as Mozart’s Queen of the Night and Zerbinetta in Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos. To be able to sustain high notes is often considered a natural-born talent. “The clarity in my voice was there quite early,” Kutan remembers. After her family immigrated to Canada from Turkey when she was 10, Kutan began taking piano lessons and singing in choirs. At age 11, she started voice lessons with tenor David Meek who taught her to breathe and sing in the mask. Although this type of training may seem too advanced for such a young girl, Kutan disagrees. “My second teacher Louise André explained that when girls reach womanhood, they are ready to sing. I went through puberty at age 10.” At age 14, Kutan was already studying Olympia and, by 16, she was looking at Violetta.

Based on her own childhood, Kutan believes that children can effectively find a balance between extracurricular activities and school. “Music is great for kids. I don’t think it takes away from them in school; I was a top honours student.” But when it came time for university, Kutan was faced with a difficult choice. “I had wanted to major in both science and arts, but my Dad thought it was too much. He told me to follow my heart and said, ‘If it doesn’t work out, then you can do something else.’” After two years of music at the University of British Columbia, Kutan transferred to Laval University to study with renowned teacher Louise André, who steered Kutan towards the coloratura repertoire. “I discovered a new spectrum of sounds going up to high E and C. The perspective from a woman towards breathing and placement was different. We worked more on resonance in the mask that helped me to get higher in the head voice.”

After graduation, Kutan joined the Phantom of the Opera touring company for two years, understudying the role of Carlotta and singing in the ensemble. “It was a great experience, learning how to control the voice and developing stamina with the dancing. After singing eight shows a week, I realized that I could do anything, including sing tired or when I’m sick.” She adjusted to using a microphone by “…singing into the head more than the body. It was a lot of pronunciation to articulate the words. You are still singing acoustically, but you are giving more consonants; you don’t have to enlarge the vocal line.”

The next couple of years following Phantom were tough for Kutan, as she found herself without a teacher. “Louise André developed Alzheimer’s, and it really depressed me because she was a great teacher.” Kutan decided to hone the two somewhat conflicting techniques she had learned from her two teachers to create her own. In 1994 she experienced a setback. “At the Metropolitan Opera Regional Competition, I was first up and I performed horribly.” Hearing another singer do better in the same repertoire caused Kutan to doubt her career choice. A summer master class with Ileana Cotrubas helped her focus on making her interpretative skills more soulful. After getting married, Kutan went on to win a series of competitions in 1994 and 1995, including the MSO Competition, the COC Mozart Competition and the Met Competition, eventually opening doors to Lakmé at the Arizona Opera.

Lakmé is a bel canto role in the French sense. Aside from the Bell song, it is quite a lyric part.” For Kutan, Lakmé is a love story that has relevance even today. “I think of the conflict in Iraq, and think about how love can bridge two cultures that hate each other. Love makes you do things that you never thought you would be capable of doing. Although I will never eat a datura flower [to kill myself], I would make sacrifices for my daughter and husband.”

Prior to becoming pregnant, Kutan normally spent two-thirds of the year away from her Pointe-Claire home performing abroad, mostly in Europe. While pregnant, her jet-setting life was temporarily grounded and she found time for teaching. “It has helped me confirm my ideas, and I’ve learned to use different imagery for each student.” Kutan’s approach focuses on natural singing, “there should be little stiffness or tension in the body, except in the air; the air must flow through the body and be used efficiently; have the sound vibrate in the resonators, out of the throat; sing the words like speech; never compensate with the jaw.”

Montreal’s Lakmé is Kutan’s sixth time playing the role, and it marks her return to singing following the birth of her first child, Nadine, five months ago. Kutan kept singing throughout her pregnancy, although travel concerns meant that she had to cancel engagements in Italy (La Scala), Japan and the Canary Islands. “In the beginning, I was very tired physically — in Lille, the dress in The Magic Flute was heavy. Vocally, I sensed the body changing. The high notes became a little less secure, but the air support was just amazing, especially by the sixth and seventh months.” During the latter half of her pregnancy, Kutan took part in two Analekta recordings that showed nice colour in her voice. She admits that her performance at the Canadian Opera Company’s inaugural concert at the company’s new opera house while she was seven months pregnant was not one of her best. “Once I gave birth, I tried to sing and it was all there.” Kutan took three months off before working on her voice. “Every year, I take two to three weeks off singing in order to rest and get rid of bad habits. It takes me ten days to deconstruct and reconstruct the voice again and I actually enjoy the process.”

Despite being Canada’s current leading coloratura soprano, Kutan, with her perky nature, is at once warm and approachable; there is no PR machine pushing a diva agenda. In person, she exudes a girl-next-door freshness, ready to talk shop or to simply share the health benefits of wild yams. The opera character she most identifies with is Constanze in Mozart’s The Abduction of the Seraglio. She idolizes Joan Sutherland for her great vocalism, but acknowledges that she finds fault in the great soprano’s pronunciation and tempo. As an artist, Kutan is grounded. Accomplished in both opera and concert, Kutan looks forward to expanding herself musically. She feels ready for the more lyrical coloratura repertoire such as Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto or Lucia di Lammermoor in Donizetti’s opera. Let us hope that opera directors everywhere are listening.


What book are you currently reading?

Holy Cow (An Indian Adventure) - Sarah Macdonald.

The Girlfriend’s Guide to Surviving the 1st Year of Motherhood – Vicki Lovine.

What Music do you listen to at home

Classical, Jazz, Pop and the Beatles (my husband’s favourite).

What is your favourite musical work?

Khatchaturian: Spartacus.

What is your current cell phone Ring tone?

Mission Impossible (for my European cell).

What instruments should parents start their children with?

Whatever the child seems to show interest in. Piano and violin are probably the best, but why not wind instruments?

What are your 5 recordings to bring to a desert island?

Anything and everything by Mozart.

Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos (we are on a deserted island after all) with Jessye Norman.

Piano music like Vladimir Ashkenazy playing Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No.2.

A compilation of 80s pop music.

The recorded sounds of my baby’s cooings and gurglings.

5 Favourite Places in Montreal:

1. Old Montreal: for walking around, the art galleries, Pointe à Callière.

2. Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue: for strolls by the water and ice cream in the summer.

3. St-Denis street: for shopping and Mikado Sushi.

4 Pointe-Claire Village: for its small shops and eating at Le Gourmand restaurant.

5. Mont Royal: for skating in the winter and picnics in the summer.

Favourite Restaurants:

Trattoria San Ferdinando in Naples: best antipasti and grilled octopus.

Le Boucher in Bordeaux: their speciality of magret de canard, which is out of this world.

Taverne Avedis in Avignon: fantastic food with Armenian and Greek specialities.

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