The very idea of combining a career as an opera singer with a career as a lawyer in a big New York City law firm sounds preposterous. Yet that is exactly what operatic bass—and Knoxville native—Kevin Burdette has been doing. That is, until just a few weeks ago. Burdette has returned to his home town this month to sing the role of Bartolo in the Knoxville Opera production of Rossini's comic opera The Barber of Seville, part of the opera company's Rossini Festival. His return, though, is something of an ironic whistle-stop on what has been a strange journey on his way to a big operatic career.
Burdette attended the University of Tennessee, graduating in 1997 with double degrees, in music and in the College Scholars Program with a pre-law focus. Oddly, though, it was with the role of Bartolo in The Barber of Seville while at UT that everything began to change for him.
"I was dead set on going to law school when I was an undergrad," Burdette says. "But from the experience of getting to sing Bartolo in the UT Opera Theatre production of The Barber of Seville my senior year, I said ‘Maybe I'll go to grad school in music, too.' I applied to both the Columbia Law School and to grad school at Juilliard, and I got in both."
That was the first tough decision Burdette faced. He deferred the law school enrollment for six years. During that time, he studied at Juilliard for two years, spent another year at the Opéra National de Paris Young Artists' Program, and then freelanced for several years, including stints with New York City Opera and Glimmerglass Opera, among others.
But a nascent career can be full of anxious moments. "I was understudying a role at the Met, and it occurred to me that maybe I should take a step back and see if I'm actually happy in what I'm doing—if I shouldn't at least look into my initial interest in law," he says. "So I called Columbia and said, ‘I'm coming.'"
Burdette attended Columbia from 2003 to 2007, but opera was obviously still raging in his blood. He sang roles throughout law school, even taking a couple of semesters off for gigs, one of which was a role in Daughter of the Regiment with Knoxville Opera in 2005, and others at New York City Opera.
After graduation from Columbia and passing the New York bar, things changed for him yet again. He took a job at the big New York firm Debevoise and Plimpton as a corporate attorney. "That's when the juggling really got difficult," he says. "All my vacation time was being taken up with singing."
Having signed on for some roles at the Metropolitan Opera this past season, in Richard Strauss' Elektra and Shostakovich's The Nose, Burdette began to feel somewhat more secure in going with his true love. "Last fall, I went down to Buenos Aires to sing Osmin in Mozart's Abduction From the Seraglio for Teatro Colon," he says. "I managed to get a leave of absence from the law firm, but this wasn't like being on vacation and having to check your Blackberry—it was unpaid leave. And it was so much fun. Osmin is a great role in a fun opera, and I was in Buenos Aires…. And that's when I decided that maybe I needed to stop this lawyer stuff, because I was having way too much fun."
Burdette resigned from Debevoise and Plimpton this month after two and half years with the firm to devote his substantial bass voice and remarkable comic talents to his burgeoning opera career.
Joining Burdette as Bartolo in the cast of Knoxville Opera's The Barber of Seville will be baritone Andrew Garland in the role of the barber, Figaro. Figaro, of course, sings the instantly recognized, and often parodied, aria in Act I, "Largo al factotum." Other cast members are tenor Javier Abreu as Count Almaviva; Leah Wool as Rosina; Craig Irvin as Basilio; Ryland Pope as Fiorello; and Dixie Roberts as Berta. The production is being staged by James Marvel and conducted by Music Director Brian Salesky. m