Alan Held laughs at the coincidence that his operatic niche bears a striking resemblance to his name.
“I’m known as a ‘Heldenbaritone,’ which besides from my name being Held means ‘heroic baritone’ (in German),” he said in an interview. “This is what I’ve been doing and what I’ve been known for. That’s my niche, and I love being in it.”
An Illinois native, Held received his master’s degree from Wichita State University before embarking on a career that’s taken him repeatedly throughout the world and across the country.
“That’s what I was aiming for when I was a student at Wichita in the early ’80s was this repertoire,” Held said. “It’s kind of coming full circle to perform these in Wichita.”
Held became a Kansas resident again three years ago, when he and Samuel Ramey – another Kansan who holds an impressive opera pedigree – were hired as faculty for Wichita State’s opera program. Held has recently been named to chair the program, beginning this fall.
“I’ll be wearing three or four hats at once,” he said.
Held also has a musical homecoming next weekend, in two performances with the Wichita Symphony Orchestra.
The affable Held talked about performing with the Wichita Symphony and instructing the next generation of performers.
Q: How long has it been since you’ve performed in Wichita, or even in Kansas?
A: A few little things on campus, but the last big event was in 2011 when Sam Ramey, Joyce DiDonato and I did a concert together at Century II for the Wichita Grand Opera. That was an awe-inspiring event, a fun night.
Q: What’s it like to be on stage for what’s essentially a home crowd?
A: Until I did that concert with Sam and Joyce, I had never performed there, so this is only my second concert in Century II. I sing all over the world in concert halls and opera houses, and it’s kind of strange not to have performed there very much. I’m really kind of excited about it. I’ve never performed with the Wichita Symphony, and I’m thrilled. The program we’ve put together is really exciting. I think people are going to be very moved and energized by this music. It’s incredible stuff. It’s especially nice that I’m 20 minutes from work. I’m flying around the world, and it’s nice to say, “I’m going downtown to sing.”
Q: Do you think it’ll be a different feeling going onstage here versus where you’ve been, or is a stage a stage?
A: Maybe 30 or 35 years ago it would have felt different, but now you just want to go out and sing your best, no matter who or how many are out there in the audience. What’s nice about this one is that so many of my colleagues from Wichita State are in the orchestra. So I can turn around and say, “Hey, I know you, and you.” It’s kind of fun. And they’re getting the chance to play some music they don’t play very often. I’ve done music like this with other orchestras before … and people would write to me and say, “Thank you for giving us a chance to play this music, because we don’t get to play Wagner very often.” It’s big, exciting stuff. What’s exciting about this is the chorus is involved and the orchestra is going to be big.
Q: Did you and (Wichita Symphony conductor/musical director) Daniel Hege confer on what you’ll be performing, or were you given carte blanche?
A: We sat down last winter and shot some ideas here and there. He wanted me to do some solo things and something with the chorus. I didn’t just want to do the things that people are always hearing. I wanted to bring stuff that may be really big hits from my repertoire, but big, grand, exciting things. This is big, grand opera. Some of the things I’m doing have never been sung in Wichita, much less in Kansas. They’re all bit hits, but people just don’t do these things. I’m thrilled.
Q: What will you be singing? Are these songs in your current repertoire or are you trying something different?
A: I’m doing (Wagner’s) “Die Walküre,” and I just did “The Ring Cycle” in Washington, D.C., so I’m kind of bringing that here. “Die Meistersinger” is something I’ve done in Tokyo and I did it in Cincinnati. And we’ve got “Te Deum” from Puccini’s “Tosca,” and that’s just blow-the-roof-off-the-hall type of stuff.
Q: Do your selections have great significance for you?
A: I’m kind of known as Wotan, so the “Walküre” selection is very special to me – a father saying goodbye to his daughter because he has to put her to sleep and leave her on a rock, until the greatest of all heroes can come across a fire. “The Ring” is something I’m fairly identified with, and doing that is very special to me.
Q: You’re in your third year of teaching at Wichita State. Does it deliver the satisfaction that you thought that teaching would?
A: My degree is in music education, so I was planning on being a teacher all along, but this opera-singing thing kept getting in the way. After I finished my master’s here, WSU hired me to teach for a couple of years. I taught for two years and went out to the East Coast and started to perform. About 3½ years ago, Dr. Rodney Miller (dean of the college of fine arts) called me and said, “Do you want to come home?” I said I wasn’t through singing yet, and he said, “No, we want to encourage it. We want you to perform.” I came back, and I love my students. I’ve said this many times but it’s true – singing has made me a better teacher, and teaching has made me a better singer.
Q: What kind of message are you conveying to the next generation of opera singers?
A: I kind of teach them how to communicate with their text. It’s not just singing: If I want to hear singing, I’ll go to a concert. If I just want theater, I’ll go to a play. If I want to see it all together, I’ll go to the opera. I’m trying to teach them they have to be singers and actors – it can’t just be one or the other. I try to show them what life as a musician really is.
Q: Do you have any sort of bucket list – either role, works or place you want to sing?
A: I’ve done 75 to 80 roles, so there’s not a lot of those left. I’ve sung in just about every opera house in the world, so there’s not a lot of those left for me. I just want to continue doing what I do at the top of my game, as long as I possibly can, and maintain the experience and the quality. I’ve always told my wife, “If I start to sound a certain way that’s not up to standards, please let me know.” And I’m walking away. I don’t want to just hang on for the sake of hanging on. I love teaching, and I have no idea of retiring. I’m a Christian person, and the Bible doesn’t say anything about retiring.
‘A Night at the Opera’
What: Wichita Symphony Orchestra with Alan Held, internationally acclaimed opera bass-baritone
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 18, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 19
Where: Century II Concert Hall, 225 W. Douglas
Tickets: $20 to $65
Information: Tickets available at www.wichitasymphony.org, 316-267-7658 or in person at the symphony box office at Century II. Box office hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays.