Isle son gives deft, moving opener
By Ruth Bingham
Special to The Advertiser
When baritone Quinn Kelsey left Hawai'i to pursue a singing career, anyone who had ever heard him sing knew he was good. What they could only have guessed was just how good he would become.
Kelsey returned this week for "Quinn Kelsey: A Star Recital," his first-ever solo recital in Honolulu, presented by Hawaii Opera Theatre and Hawaii Theatre Center. It is hard to imagine a more fitting opening to the 50th anniversary season for HOT, which helped launch Kelsey's career.
The evening turned into a celebratory homecoming with an audience so full of fans, friends, family and fellow musicians that the theater ran out of programs. Included among the audience was a special guest, Kelsey's new bride Marjorie, nee Owens, a singer in her own right.
"Do you know how nerve-wracking it is to be on stage in front of all of you? Because I know so many of you. ..." Kelsey said. "It's a wonderful feeling to come home and say, 'Here, this is what I've been doing.' I hope it makes you proud. I just wanted to say thank you."
His singing more than made people proud: he is Hawai'i's own, clearly on a fast track to become one of only a handful of vocalists who sing in the world's great opera houses.
Since leaving Hawai'i, Kelsey's voice has become richer, fuller, and even larger, filling the hall without a hint of strain or the "edge" that comes from pushing. He has a solid sound core that he can color to dramatic effect, a lyric voice with long, silken lines and a lovely timbre throughout his range — the quintessential "bel canto" baritone.
Equally important, he has grown by leaps and bounds in his portrayals, bringing his characters alive and wrapping the audience into the story.
Kelsey has also developed a charming ease with being on stage, able to connect with his audience, professional yet approachable.
Born into a musical family, Kelsey studied with professor John W. Mount in the music department at the University of Hawai'i-Mānoa, and earned his degree in vocal performance in 2002. While an undergraduate, he joined the Orvis Studio of the Hawaii Opera Theatre and performed in numerous HOT productions.
From UH-Mānoa, Kelsey entered the Merola Opera Program in San Francisco and then Chicago's Lyric Opera Center for American Artists (now the Ryan Opera Center), both training programs for young singers that gave him extensive performance opportunities.
In 2008, Kelsey debuted at the Metropolitan Opera, singing the role of Schaunard in Puccini's "La Boheme." Friends and family from Hawai'i who flew to New York to hear his debut returned with glowing reports.
Since then, he has signed with Columbia Artists Management, a powerhouse in the opera world, and has sung with opera companies and symphonies throughout the U.S. and Europe — performing in Italy and Austria, auditioning at Covent Garden in England, and singing before Maestro Daniel Barenboim at La Scala in Milan, Italy. This spring, he will appear as Sharpless in "Madama Butterfly" with the New York City Opera.
As he travels, Kelsey keeps his friends at home up to date with a blog on his Web site, www.quinnkelsey.com.
MOVED TO TEARS
Kelsey sang a mix of art songs and arias, mostly in sets of three: Handel arias to highlight Kelsey's flexibility, and songs by Gerald Finzi, a 20th-century British composer, Ralph Vaughan-Williams, and Modest Mussorgsky, on topics both lighthearted and dark that explored Kelsey's range and tone.
The songs, and especially those by Mussorgsky, suited Kelsey's voice well, but the arias by Verdi — ah! — those seemed made for Kelsey.
"Mio figlio! ... Di Provenza" from "La Traviata," a father's plea to his son to come home, gave listeners "chicken skin," and "Si, la mia figlia ... Cortigiani, vil razza dannata" from "Rigoletto" was wrenching, moving some to tears.
Kelsey was accompanied by pianist Tamara Sanikidze, who settled into solid collaboration that shone in the Verdi arias and second half, especially in the Mussorgsky songs.
Kelsey's voice, built for the opera stage with full orchestra accompaniment, is somewhat large for the art song's ideal of a perfect balance between voice and piano, but it is doubtful anyone noticed or cared.
The audience responded with enthusiastic standing ovations, which Kelsey repaid with encores.