Heldentenor Gary Lakes brings his rare voice, robust sound to Goucher College

Gary Lakes is the musical equivalent of an endangered species.The 42-year-old singer, who will appear Sunday at Goucher College with several winners of the Rosa Ponselle Competition in a concert celebrating what would have been the 95th birthday of the great diva, is one of the handful of genuine heldentenors in the world. These are the tenors with voices large and brilliant enough to ride over the Hurricane Andrew-sized waves of sound in Wagner and a few other composers. The reason there are so few of these tenors around is that nature endows very few men with the appropriate genes, Lakes says.

"I think you have to be born with it," he says. "You can't do it through force or by technique."


In the late 1970s, he was a young baritone -- one with a voice sizable enough for roles such as Rigoletto -- who just thought he had a particularly nice and sweet top to his voice. But a perspicacious Seattle teacher, William Eddy, thought otherwise.

"He didn't think I knew what I was doing with the top of my voice," Lakes says. "We worked half step by half step from 1979 to 1984. He was a great teacher who made me sing more lyrically. The danger in the Wagner repertory is that -- because it's so loud -- it tempts you to try to force your voice. But it's all love music, and you need to sing lyrically if it's to work. Singing lyrically is one of the things that makes [Baltimore-born basso] Jim Morris such a great Wotan. He can sing Wotan one week and sing Mephisto in [Gounod's] "Faust" the next."


The hard work that Lakes did over five years in converting himself from a baritone to a tenor made him into an "overnight" sensation. Such is the demand for his kind of voice that, before the 1980s were over, he quickly went on to win two Grammies -- one for his Siegmund in Wagner's "Walkuere" on the James Levine-conducted "Ring" and another for his Bacchus on the Levine-conducted "Ariadne auf Naxos" of Richard Strauss. He is now the Siegmund of choice all over the world, including New York's Metropolitan Opera, the Vienna State Opera, Milan's La Scala and Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires.

He had some help along the way from the Rosa Ponselle Foundation. "They heard me sing in 1982 and invited me to sing in 1984 at Villa Pace," he says. "That was an important date for me -- because a number of important conductors heard me. So when Elayne Duke [the executive director of the Ponselle Foundation] asked me if I would appear at this concert with some of the youngsters who have won their competitions, I said yes. It was a way of giving back some of what they gave me."

Lakes is nowadays under a lot of pressure to take on new roles -- to move beyond Siegmund to the even more challenging Siegfried and from Verdi's Rhadames (in "Aida") to his even more voice-straining Otello.

But Lakes says he will wait until he is almost 50 before he takes on those parts.

"When you sing this stuff you have to be careful," he says. "Because if you're not, you wind up doing something else, and it's not singing."

Gary Lakes

Where: Kraushaar Auditorium at Goucher College.

When: Sunday at 7 p.m.


Tickets: Tickets are free and may be reserved by calling (410) 486-4616.