Basso Fabuloso: A Conversation with Brian Kontes

Brian Kontes made his operatic debut 21 years ago and is enjoying himself more than ever.

At 44, the Metropolitan Opera regular is just entering prime territory for his basso cantabile instrument.

“I like to tell people that I am now the youngest of the old men, which is a much better place to be than the oldest of the young men,” Kontes said, the timbre of his speaking voice a rich echo of the sound that has kept him in demand.

At the time we spoke, he was preparing to reprise the role of the Commendatore in Don Giovanni with the Pittsburgh Opera. Director Kristine McIntyre has suffused the Mozart masterpiece with a film noir mood. The show runs Oct. 12-20.

Kontes returns for the Pittsburgh Opera’s Florencia en al Amazonas (Nov. 9-17), Daniel Catán’s fête to the magical realism of novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, best known for Love in the Time of Cholera and the Nobel Prize-winning One Hundred Years of Solitude. Kontes plays the role of Capitán, a steamboat captain ferrying a famous opera singer traveling incognito to a performance in Brazil as she also searches for a lost lover.

He is equally at home playing opera’s great heavies or in more comical roles, reaching every seat of the large opera houses as Butterfly’s The Bonze or Figaro’s Bartolo.

“Part of being successful as a bass is being comfortable in your own skin, and that comes with experience,” he said.

While singing in Pittsburgh, he has the unusual privilege for a singer of sleeping in his own bed, in a home filled with Persian rugs and American oil paintings that he has collected over the years during his travels throughout the US and abroad. Kontes loves antiques almost as much as opera, with an expertise to match. He can explain how solid wood furniture eventually evolved into particle board (a burgeoning middle class after World War I couldn’t necessarily afford mahogany), trace his hard-earned growth as an antiques merchant or warn of the pitfalls (“reproductions are plentiful”).

In his thirties, he supplemented his income in opera by restoring old houses and dealing in furniture.

“When I was hired by a regional opera company, I would try to spend all my fee on antique furniture, then resell it and double my money…if I was lucky,” he said. “Occasionally, I would get pushback from conductors and people in the business wondering whether I was more passionate about furniture or singing opera.”

It helped when he explained that the profits paid for voice lessons and music coaching.

The passion for antiques also runs deep. Kontes grew up in Ridgway, Penn., a town of 4,000 known for the lumber mill founded by Jacob Ridgway, a 19th-century shipping magnate. Ridgway boasts enough elegant homes to have earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places.

The son of a nurse and the sheriff of Elk County, Kontes began singing in church and school programs. The turning point in his decision to pursue music was attending the Pennsylvania Governor School for the Arts where he met other classical music enthusiasts. He entered the Manhattan School of Music and was auditioning for a summer program at the Chautauqua Institution when he met the voice teacher who changed him most, Marlena Malas.

“She was my teacher, my mentor, my therapist and my biggest cheerleader,” he said. “I have always considered Marlena and her husband Spiro to be family, particularly when I was starting out as a young singer. She laid the groundwork for my singing career and recognized my talent.”

Malas coached him through Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, where he graduated, and repeat summers at Chautauqua.

Kontes continued an eclectic career journey, spending a couple of years as a sales and marketing manager of high-end outdoor gas lamps while still maintaining his singing schedule. He deepened a matter-of-fact, analytical bent he believes helps him succeed in opera.

“Singers are salespeople,” he said. “We sell ourselves every time we audition. We have to be versatile, especially in today’s market.”

Kontes enjoys working outdoors, cultivating his garden in the home he shares with two Westies, Lucie and Lillie. He speaks of all things personal and impersonal with a certain easy-going detachment, as if incoming data all goes into a mental hopper, then is sorted and analyzed and either kept or discarded. It comes across as a refusal to take anything too seriously, and it is instinctively appealing.

Now in his 10th season at the Metropolitan Opera and his 22nd as a professional singer, Kontes hopes to continue working for another 22 seasons.  “In the end, I would say singing is my greatest passion,” he said, “the devotion it takes to have and maintain a career demands it from every musician.”

— Andrew Meacham