IWU alum Pfortmiller hits high note for alma mater

2012-02-23T08:00:00Z 2012-02-28T16:39:43Z IWU alum Pfortmiller hits high note for alma materBy Dan Craft | dcraft@pantagraph.com pantagraph.com
February 23, 2012 8:00 am  • 

Just because you sing with the Met, swap arias with Renee, bump into Placido backstage and get beamed into bijous in high-def doesn’t mean you’re absolved of working through life’s little details.

On a typical work day, Kyle Pfortmiller, the Illinois Wesleyan University alum who made his Metropolitan Opera debut a year ago, is up at 6:50 a.m., just like a zillion other wage-earners.

Daughter Alana needs to be readied for school, a joint endeavor with Kyle and wife Laura (also a singer, but earning her wage outside that realm).

Next, it’s off to the gym for an hour, all the better to shore up the stamina needed to do Verdi & Co. full justice.

Then, off to the Met at Lincoln Center by 10 a.m. for anywhere from three to six hours of intense rehearsal.

The rehearsal-to-performance ratio is, he says, around one hour of practice for every one minute of doing it in front of a paying audience. (This is a guy who once considered majoring in math, so the calculations aren’t pulled out of thin aria.)

If it’s a non-performance day, he’s home in time to “help with dinner and homework”; if it is a performance day, then he needs to be at the Met by 6:30 p.m. for the 7:30 curtain and a presentation that can clock in anywhere from three to four hours, or more.

“We work together as a team, but when I’m gone out on the road, I’m gone, and my wife becomes a single working mom in New York City.”

Between October and August of last year, “I was gone 26 weeks, all told. I’m so glad that I married a saint,” he says. “And I’m so glad that she didn’t change the lock.”

Singing at the Met — the Everest aspired to by any opera singer worth his five-octave range — is reward enough for a professional career now into its 20th year, agrees Pfortmiller.

“But what’s really great about singing at the Met,” he adds, “is that it means I get to be at home to share in all the cool things I most want.”

Back at IWU this week for his first serious homecoming since his May 1992 graduation, Pfortmiller would appear to be at the top of Everest looking down. But his admittance into the Met’s fabled ranks is less an apotheosis than the latest stopover on a journey in progress.

“I really am looking forward to coming back and sharing the knowledge I’ve gathered. It’s a huge honor,” he says.

On tap: a non-musical presentation and question-answer at 4 p.m. today, followed by a recital at 7:30 p.m. Friday, all in Westbrook Auditorium.

“I do have a bit of a passion for sharing what I call ‘the intangibles’ of the business,” says the Elgin native. The latter, he says, fall outside the range of the far more tangible perquisites of “technique” and “God-given gifts.”

The intangibles are “the things you don’t think about” along that aforementioned journey, “which is endless.”

For Pfortmiller, opera was among “the things he didn’t think about” growing up a high school jock committed to baseball and basketball, until an injury or two “slowed the process down.”

In what surely isn’t the first scenario of its kind, “a pretty girl said that I should join the chorus.” Done.

Then his dad, not an opera buff, caught a film version of ‘La Traviata,’ was taken with it and purchased the soundtrack on cassette (hey, it was the ’80s).

“That was my one and only experience with opera growing up,” admits the man who traded arias with Renee Fleming a year ago this spring in the Met’s “Capriccio.”

Like father, like son: Kyle dug the score, and began to take a cue, honing his voice in church AND school choirs.

His dad, a devout Methodist, also urged his son to check out IWU downstate. “Being the bright man he is, he said it was a fantastic school. But I was also looking at a couple other schools,” Pfortmiller recalls.

Among potential pursuits, besides music: pharmacy … math … history … writing.

“I walked onto the campus and right away something told me, ‘OK, this is it.’”

That simple. Still mulling majors, he took a legal pad, listed the above-named potential pursuits and wrote what he liked most about each.

Let’s just say the relative volumes he penned under “music” left “pharmacy,” “math,” et al., eating its dust.

Clad in his best MTV cap, David Letterman T-shirt and “Rocky Horror Picture Show” jacket, Pfortmiller strode into the head of the School of Music’s office and announced, “I think I’d like to be a music major.”

“OK? What do you do?” “I’m a singer.” “Do you play an instrument?” “I used to play drums in junior high.”

Somehow the erstwhile drummer secured an audition and was heard by IWU’s esteemed vocal maestra Linda Farquharson, who announced, “I want that kid!”

“She was willing to take a chance,” is how Pfortmiller rationalizes it 20 years later.

He landed his first stage role in “H.M.S. Pinafore,” then went on to a music education in earnest.

Defining moments: appearing in music-theater department joint productions like Aaron Copland’s “The Tender Land” (“I felt like I was out of my league, but it raised my game and conquered a lot of demons”) and, above all, forming his own student Pierrot ensemble (a quintet of instruments with vocalist) to tackle Peter Maxwell Davies’ daunting “Eight Songs for a Mad King.”

Requisites (for starters): a five-octave range and the ability to work it hard for 30 minutes non-stop.

He praises Farquharson for her advice and support, and, looking back, he knows it was a defining moment of his IWU period, preparing him for the next 20 years.

From the get-go, the Met was a destination he very much targeted, as do all opera singers.

He originally thought it might take five long years.

It took 20, but, he says, he knows the long road was the better path, allowing his maturation through work with smaller opera companies across the land (Tulsa Opera, Florida Grand Opera, Sarasota Opera, Bronx Opera, among others) and, as of 2003, the New York City Opera.

His roles there ranged from “Carmen” to “Candide” to “Cosi fan tutte,” with time out for tours through Europe and across the States — all to wide acclaim.

Now a part of the Met’s regal family, he has “Billy Budd” and another staging of “La Traviata” waiting in the wings, and summer slate performing his other love, musical theater, via “Kiss Me Kate” and “My Fair Lady.”

In the world of opera, “only 5 percent of us are working at it and making ends meet,” Pfortmiller says. “And, believe me, we all count ourselves as very, very lucky.”

 

At a glance

Illinois Wesleyan University alum Kyle Pfortmiller arrived at his alma mater Wednesday for a master class with students. He is participating in two more events today and Friday in Westbrook Auditorium. Both are free and open to the public:

Thursday, 4 p.m.: A presentation by Pfortmiller on his vocal career, from his days at IWU in the early ’90s to his current affiliation with The Met in New York. Following the talk, he will answer questions from the audience.

Friday, 7:30 p.m.: A career retrospective recital by Pfortmiller, including art songs and arias from his operatic history (by Schumann, Korngold, Monteverdi, Gounod and others) as well as numbers from his musical theater resume (by Cole Porter, Rodgers & Hammerstein and more).  Accompanists are Eva Ferguson and Bill West.

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