Leonard Bernstein’s Mass: Interview with Kevin Vortmann
Taking on the role of the Celebrant who struggles with his own lack of faith is award-winning Broadway singer Kevin Vortmann for whom this is the 5th production of Bernstein’s Mass. We asked him for his insight on the role, the work and the composer.
Interview by Aileen Tang
TFI: What was your first reaction when OMM approached you for this production?
KV: Each time I am approached about singing the Celebrant in Bernstein’s Mass, it’s difficult to contain my excitement. This piece has been such a profound part of my musical journey and career over the past 20 years (from singing “Simple Song” in university, to being in the Street Chorus, to singing the Celebrant, and to recently having my version released on DG) and it easily tops the list of my favourite roles that I have performed. Knowing that the piece isn’t performed that often – given its enormity – every opportunity to revisit it feels like a gift. I was also thrilled at the prospect of coming to Singapore; this will be my first visit!
TFI: You’re reprising your role as the Celebrant in Bernstein’s Mass. How do you make each performance and collaboration fresh? Does your approach change with every new production?
KV: This will be my 5th production of Bernstein’s Mass and my 4th as the Celebrant. Each time I work on this piece it feels new. The music never ceases to excite and challenge me, and the Celebrant’s journey throughout the piece is ripe with opportunities for new discoveries each time I am offered the opportunity to perform him. Much of the latter has to do with the particular group of people with whom I share the stage. I endeavour to allow the individual journeys of each the members of the company (Street Chorus, Boy Soloists, Orchestra Members, Maestro, Children’s Choir, Dancers, Concert Choir, Rock Band, Blues Band) to influence my journey as the Celebrant. Since so much of his actions are reactive to the needs of his congregation, I am influenced differently every time I perform the piece by what everyone else brings to the piece. This is one of the reasons that rehearsing and performing the piece never feels stale for me, I never know who or what will capture my attention at any given moment and have an impact on my performance choices.
TFI: How different is this role – vocally and dramatically – from some of your other roles, for example in West Side Story (Riff) and Miss Saigon (Chris)?
KV: The Celebrant is, by far, the most challenging role that I have ever performed. Vocally, it requires a wide range (about 2 and half octaves) and comfort singing in a variety of musical styles with a large amount of delicate singing in the upper register as well as two lengthy a capella sections which require razor-sharp intonation and musicality. Dramatically, it demands that I go on an emotional journey that leaves me empty after every performance – feeling the weight of the souls of all the company members (often over 200) and the audience (often over 2000). At the end of the hour and forty minutes, I have hardly (if at all, depending on the production) left the stage and used most of my vocal and performance abilities. No other role that I have performed has required this of me, and no other role has been as rewarding.
TFI: How relevant do you see the character of the disillusioned Celebrant – created in 1971 – in our modern age?
KV: I feel like Mass and the Celebrant are as relevant and relatable now as they were in the early 1970s. The piece examines several ideas: What happens when the institutions in which we place our faith and trust, fail us? What are the inevitable consequences of not attending the needs of the disenfranchised? Where do we find our purpose and inspiration when everything seems hopeless? How do we mend impossibly vast schisms? These questions are always relatable within ourselves, our communities, and the world. For that reason, wherever and whenever Bernstein’s Mass is performed, there will always be a journey represented by someone onstage that resonates with this piece’s ever-changing audiences. This is a marker of great art.
TFI: You’ve recorded both West Side Story and Mass. What is your personal take on Bernstein and his work?
KV: I have been incredibly fortunate to have Lenny’s music be at the core of my career. And as the world celebrates the Centenary of his birth and I am afforded more opportunities to perform his pieces, I find myself even more enamoured with his contributions to the world of music – not only his compositions but also his legacy of bringing music to the people (especially future generations). To me, he is, hands down, the most important and prolific American composer and conductor.
I like to say that much of how I sing Bernstein music is intuitive – it just makes sense to me. I hear his pieces and have a visceral gut reaction to them. They call to me – unlike any other composer. His compositions (specifically in Mass) know no boundaries or prejudices. Wouldn’t it be something for the World to look a little more like his music?
TFI: What can Singapore audiences expect to experience on 2 June? What do you hope they will remember about Kevin Vortmann?
KV: A full production of Mass is a once-in-a-lifetime event for most communities. It will take your expectations of what a Symphonic or Theatrical piece is and completely smash them. I don’t really have hopes for how people remember me when I perform this work. My overarching desire is that people walk away moved by the piece – in any way – and that the conversation that it inspires ignites positive change in the world (whether on a micro or macro scale). Bernstein’s Mass is finally – almost 50 years after its premiere – gaining the recognition and notoriety that it deserves on a global scale. This is not something to be missed!
Leonard Bernstein’s Mass plays on Saturday 2 June 2018, 7.30pm at the Esplanade Concert Hall
Tickets at $15 and $30 available from Sistic https://www.sistic.com.sg/events/cmass0618