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After life lesson, 'C' is just a note to bel canto tenor

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When I remember my suffering, my happiness is doubled," sings the love-smitten Cavalier to his Puritan bride-to-be. "My joy is even dearer to me."

It's just one of the melodically sumptuous moments in Bellini's opera I Puritani, an 1835 masterpiece of the lyrical style known as bel canto that will be performed this month by the Baltimore Opera Company for the first time.

Those particular words must have an extra resonance for the tenor who will sing them here, Gregory Kunde. Ten years ago, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer.

"Every time I step onstage is just wonderful," says the easygoing, 50-year-old Kunde. "Now, if I get a little pain, I just remind myself: Hey, you beat cancer!"

When the diagnosis was made, the tenor had been enjoying a succession of important debuts in Rossini operas at leading Italian venues, including La Scala and the Pesaro Festival. Works by the two other bel canto giants, Donizetti and Bellini, also had been a big part of Kunde's work since the late 1980s.

Before that, he had been on a more traditional Verdi-Puccini path, which was still far from his first musical arena - Kunde spent weekends during high school and college doing lead singing and brass arrangements for a rock band called White Elephant, styled after the popular group Chicago.

In 1986, his manager suggested that Kunde consider I Puritani (ee poor-ee-TAH-ni). "When I first looked at the score, all I could think of was how high it was," he says. "It took a huge mind adjustment. But because I had been a rock singer, I had learned how to control that part of the voice."

Control would be essential for the lead tenor role in Puritani, which pushes past high C on to C-sharp, D and even F. Kunde met the challenge and was soon performing the role in such places as San Francisco and Berlin.

Along the way, he proved equally fearless in much rarer bel canto repertoire, including Bellini's forgotten Bianca e Fernando. That piece also confronts the tenor with a high F, which Kunde can be heard taking in stride on a live 1991 Nuova Era recording.

His assured handling of technically daunting operas by Rossini is exemplified on a live Sony recording of Armida, a forgotten gem that he sang in opposite Renee Fleming. That 1993 document captures Kunde at a particularly impressive peak of agile, stylish vocalism.

Keeping it secret

A year later, "God intervened and said, 'You should really stay home for six months,' " Kunde says. The hiatus was triggered by the discovery of the testicular cancer. "I was at the earliest stage; Lance Armstrong was at stage 4. He went through much, much more than I did."

Chemotherapy was successful, "but chemo kills everything," Kunde says. "You can't have children after being radiated. Luckily, we did some banking beforehand and, thanks to in vitro, my wife and I have a 2 1/2 -year-old daughter."

For six months after the cancer was detected and treated, Kunde barely spoke. Then he began to test his vocal cords. "The doctor said they looked so fresh," the tenor says. "I found that the voice had gotten a bit fuller, with a little darker shading to it, which was good."

But for more than eight years, Kunde told no one in the opera world why he had stopped singing. "I basically ignored the rumors," he says. "There is such a prejudice about the 'C' word, especially in Europe. I chose to keep it to myself."

Many singers do the same when they undergo any major illness, fearing that they won't be hired if they are perceived as a risk. Eventually, Kunde decided to be open to everyone about his cancer and his recovery - "You may not like my singing," he says, "but I'm OK."

Today the spiky-haired, bearded tenor sports a yellow "Live Strong" bracelet from the Lance Armstrong Foundation.

"I know this is such a cliche, but getting cancer really was the best thing that happened to me, a huge, life-changing experience," Kunde says. "Something like this really opens your eyes. You look at everything so differently, like just waking up in the morning - with hair."

'A real-life character'

Kunde's career continues to be filled with bel canto repertoire. "If done well, these operas can really engage you dramatically," he says.

"Sometimes the plots are a little silly, but in Puritani, Arturo is a real-life character. I keep finding more and more in the character to act with. And his music - the whole third act is so rewarding to sing. That duet with Elvira - oh, my God, it's just incredible."

Starring as Elvira here is soprano Elizabeth Futral, fresh from her latest triumph, a Richard Strauss rarity, Daphne, at New York City Opera. "She sings incredibly," Kunde says, "and she looks just like Elvira should look." The Baltimore Opera production will mark Futral's first performance in the role.

"I want people to have an experience with this kind of opera," says company general director Michael Harrison, "and to hear it done by artists like Elizabeth and Greg. I think he's probably the best person in the world today singing Arturo. He has the right style, and he certainly has the notes."

Lately, Kunde has been proving that he has the notes for another repertoire niche - the great French operas of Berlioz, which make their own set of technical and stylistic demands on the voice. He's featured on a just-released BBC/Opus Arte DVD of a 2003 Paris production of Les Troyens.

"I'm so proud of it," the singer says. But you get the feeling that Kunde is proudest of just being able to sing another day.

Gregory Kunde

Born: Kankakee, Ill.

Age: 50

Pre-opera: Lead singer for White Elephant rock group in Illinois during high school and college

University: Studied voice and choral conducting at Illinois State University

Major mentor: The late, great Spanish tenor Alfredo Kraus

Career interruption: Testicular cancer diagnosed 1994; resumed singing 1995

Current home: Rochester, N.Y., with wife, soprano Linda Wojciechowski Kunde, and 2 1/2 -year-old daughter

Sideline: Director of the 35-voice Gregory Kunde Chorale in Rochester, N.Y.

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