meet a teaching tenor– K.E. Querns Langley

K.E. Querns Langley

K.E. (Ken) Querns Langley is a talented tenor and an international voice teacher. He has lived, taught as a vocal instructor, and sang in London and Italy. He studied classical voice with great teachers from The Royal College of Music in London, The Curtis Institute of Music, The Manhattan School of Music, and with coaches from La Scala in Milan, La Fenice in Venice, and The National Opera Studio.

Presently he is the Music Department Chair & Professor of Voice at the Pennsylvania School of The Performing Arts. His studio was recently voted, “Best Voice Lessons  in Philadelphia.”

One of Ken’s voice teachers lovingly exclaimed that his squillo (the resonant, trumpet-like sound in the voice of opera singers)  “could peel the paint off the walls.” Ken’s repertoire is primarily 19th Century Bel Canto & Romantic Repertoire, and he sings comfortably in: Italian, French, German, Spanish, English and Neapolitan.

He holds a Master of Arts in Humanities (Music, Opera & Language) and a Bachelor of Arts in Language (Music & Voice Performance).

Welcome to Operatoonity, Ken!

Where did you grow up and how did it affect your life choices?
I grew up in southern New Jersey amidst farms forests and wetlands. Most of my childhood was spent running through fields of corn playing ‘hide & go seek’ and building log cabins in the woods. Those were the days when parents could say “Go out and play!” and you would come home around dark, or when you heard them call for you. One of the most persistent sounds of my childhood was my grandmother yelling over the fields “Kenny” sustaining the finial “ee” in a high piercing belt voice.  The other thing about my grandmother’s voice was her yodeling. Every morning she would drive me to school and would yodel all the way.  I just figured that everyone’s grandmothers yodeled.

From that description, one would assume an idyllic rural upbringing, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. I spent most of my time playing outside because I couldn’t bare the thought of being inside. The son of an alcoholic mother and a deadbeat father, I was left to my own devices to raise myself, and “come up” as they say. My grandparents did their best to show me love and help me, but there is no substitute for a real family. So, when the time came to go to college at 17, I ran.  I ran as fast as I could and didn’t look back. When the city wasn’t far enough, I kept running … to London, Switzerland, Italy and back again.  How did it affect my choices? Simply actually, try not to get caught again in the fire from which I was wrought.

When did you know that you were destined to become an opera/classically trained singer?
I had begun singing as a boy soprano when I was 8 years old, and spent a lot of time in choirs and in the schools shows.  One day during choir rehearsal, the choir master stopped all the children asked “Who is singing with vibrato?” Seeing that none of us knew what that was, no one said a word. He then clarified, “Who is making their voice do this?” He made a rocking motion with his hands and 20 little fingers pointed directly at me as if to identify the one that should be taken off to the stocks, but the choir master’s response was “Good, keep doing that!!” Needless to say I was greatly relieved.  Thinking back, I imagine the damage he could have done by requiring me to sing straight-tone.

But honestly, I had no idea that I was suited to Operatic literature until I was 18 or 19 years old. When I began studying with a teacher from the Curtis Institute of music, I was told that I had an operatic voice and should consider training classically.  I was more interested in musical theatre at the time, but she insisted on classical rep. for technique purposes, and I found that I enjoyed the challenge.

How would you describe your voice?
It’s tough to describe one’s own voice objectively. I can only give a list of attributes, but as far as being descriptive, I can relay what I’ve been told. My two first principal teachers described my voice as having a timbre similar to Jussi Bjoerling, and as my first teacher described it “bronze colored with flecks of gold.” Whatever that means. Sounds like a compliment, so I take it.

Personally, I consider my greatest attributes to be: a sustainable full-voiced range well over three octaves (obviously not including falsetto which adds a significant interval), great coloratura agility (I enjoy fioratura and have a trill even in the upper register), Sustainable high-noted to D E F above High C, and a lush middle and lower register.  Now, getting it all matched up … that has been journey!

What is it about your voice that makes you so successful singing bel canto roles?
Perhaps I got ahead of myself listing my attributes. I think that the structure of the instrument itself is partially to thank, but it is difficult to know if it’s nature or nurture. I say that because during my formative training years I spent hundreds of hours singing along to Joan Sutherland while listening to her most famous roles. So I was performing difficult scales and training the muscles in bel canto style before I ever learned to fear the coloratura and sopracuti or ever realized the difficulty level what I was doing. I think had I not been singing along to Sutherland, I would have developed a technique, probably into much more dramatic music.  But all in all, I am glad that I was trained in a legitimate bel canto tradition.  My teachers came from studios of pupils of Marchesi and/or Lamperti, and I feel a sense of pride and continuity of history.

You are fluent in Italian. Did living two years in Italy impact your opera performance
I began my linguistic study with French actually. I had been studying French for 5 or 6 years before I began Italian and German, then Greek, Latin & Spanish. It just so happened that I had the opportunity to live in Italy, after 4 years in London, and that became the dominant language. I was quite lucky to learn Italian in Italy, because I was able instinctively understand the composition and importance of double consonants and the subtle shadings of vowels that occur under certain circumstances. You can’t really integrate the subtleties of a language from outside the country, because you don’t hear it everyday on the street or on the news, and you don’t have people CONSTANTLY correcting you in conversation. Also, living in Europe gave me an understanding of language diction that you simply can’t get from IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet), because many sounds use the same symbols which are actually pronounced differently in different languages.

Being fluent in any of the languages has truly impacted my ability to perform, because I am singing from a place of understanding, not of learning.  When you speak a language, you know the words and the structure and you have an intimate relationship with the language. Words give you an emotional response that can’t be replaced with acting. When you translate a word, your remove it from its own context and translate it into something you understand, but in the end it’s not the same. You sing the original, not the translation and you have to convince yourself of the meaning rather than truly feeling and understanding the significance … more than the meaning.

Favorite composer? Favorite opera? Favorite role?  Favorite venue?
Donizetti is by far my favorite composer and Anna Bolena, is my favorite opera. I have been enjoying this opera for decades and I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to see it coming back into the repertoire. I learned the role of Lord Richard Percy years ago, and was told that it was a waste of time, but it has now become an asset in my mind, because the role has sat with me for so long. Favorite venue is too difficult to say really, each one has their great aspects.

Why did you begin teaching? When did you realize you had an aptitude for teaching vocal performance?
The truth would have to be out of necessity. I was studying in London with Kenneth Woolham from the Royal College of Music, and I needed the extra income. I finally felt that I had acquired enough training that I had a least something to offer someone who had no training at all, low and behold I found that I was quite good at it. I was told by my teacher that I had “an ear for voice” but that really didn’t mean anything to me. I knew I was good with languages, because I had always been told so and had studied so many, and that my diction was good, even in German (I was once asked by a Dutch man if I was German after performing a German aria in concert). So, I knew I could offer help in that arena.

Very quickly,  I realized I could help beginners because it was nearly every week that someone new would come into the studio, not understanding how to bridge their passagio and get in to their head voice and it never failed that I was able to show them how to do it in that lesson. It was very rare that a student didn’t take to my technique. Then I began working with more advanced students, and the 10 years of hardcore language. Diction, style & coaching came in. It is truly enthralling to help a student understand the difference between Mozart, French or Italian legatos or how to approach a cadenza by different composers. Working legato and phrasing are very passionate and need to be fully understood and appreciated.

Website for Ken's voice studio

You have voice studios across the world. How did that synergy come about?
I began teaching in London, which is where my heart lives, but for visa reasons I had to return to the US until my EU citizenship came through. It took far longer than anticipated. In that time, I was able to develop my studios in the US and now have the opportunity to travel back and forth to the UK, and hopefully I will be able to expand. We are now considering opening a performing arts school in London which will offer most forms of dance, acting and music.

What would you like to be doing in five years? Ten years?
I should be based in London by that time, and I think I would like to be in full swing of a singing career. I’m not very old and have lots of tread still on the tires. The voice is very free and flexible, and the high notes require no more effort than the middle voice and the vibrato is nice and even, so I expect to have many more years of singing; barring that, I will continue to teach and develop both professionally and artistically.

When did you embrace social media and how has it impacted your career or visibility. Or has it?
Social media has become a necessity in reaching audiences. If you are not there, it’s as if you don’t exist. An artist either has to do it themselves or have someone do it for them. I have been using social media to promote my teaching and singing for many years, even before we had facebook or twitter. I’m not even sure there was a term for it then, but I was trying to get my name out there. But I really do enjoy being able to reach out and be more directly in contact with people from all over the world.  The difficulty now is the competition. Managing your online presence has become a second job and can be detrimental to the actual artistic work.

What is something most people don’t know about you, something not on your resume?
It’s so difficult to convey your personality in a CV. It requires the Social Media content to flesh out the artist with blogs, videos, pictures. So I guess it would be my dedication, perfectionism, comradely with fellow artists.  Any director or conductor that has worked with me has always asked for me again by name. I enjoy developing relationships with those around me and want to help us all work towards a more truthful and significant artistic environment. CVs tend to be lists of things, and what you get in the end is a sort of generic idea of what someone has done, with whom they’ve done and where they’ve been, but there is no soul … only PR. So, I would really like people to see the person behind the Tenor; a real person, a man and an artist.

Where can we see you in 2011?
I have a few recitals coming up, an Italiana in Algeri, and maybe a Cenerentola. But I will keep you posted as things develop.

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You can find out more about Ken’s voice studio at his website. Also, you can follow him on Twitter @KEQL and on Facebook at http://facebook.com/BelCantoSinger.

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