I met Kevin McCutcheon over eighteen years ago in what now feels like another lifetime. He came to NYC from the Deutsche Oper Berlin to listen to auditions and choose the scholarship recipients for the Opera’s Young Artist program that year. He chose me then and changed my life forever. I came to Berlin, and he coached me for the next eighteen years right up until the pandemic made that impossible. Kevin didn’t exaggerate in his praise or criticisms. If he said something needed attention, I knew I needed to pay better attention. If he told me something was good, I knew that I could believe him. When I was a young artist that first year, far from home, completely unknown, he got me my first major job as a guest soloist with Berlin’s Radio Symphony Orchestra, sight unseen. They didn’t even have me audition – they just took me at Kevin’s word.
Kevin went out of his way for me many times over the years. He always found time for me regardless of whatever else was going on in his life. When I became a freelancer, if I had an overwhelming amount of music to cover, and he had a crazy schedule at the Deutsche Oper, he would still find time to coach me before, after, or in between playing Wagner or Verdi operas all day. His apartment was unique like him, a special place to sing. His myriads of scores, CD’s, record albums, and books (far too many to count, although I often thought about it) were all organized on giant bookshelves that took up entire walls. Every item in Kevin’s collection had its place, and singing while surrounded by all of those great musical works, as well as the models he so intricately put together, was inspirational.
I asked for Kevin’s advice and opinions on many matters, musical and mundane. For years, he helped me choose and prepare my audition repertoire and played on the demos I needed to record. But he also knew things like which dry cleaner wouldn’t melt the sequins off of my gowns. He told me which of his thousand-page books he enjoyed the most and thought I might like to read, as well as how to handle some of the many bureaucratic hurdles known only to the foreigner living abroad. And when I finally made peace with the fact that I was never going to master the German articles, he showed me his trick for casually mumbling through the “der,” “die,” “das,” “dem,” and “denen(s),” instead of stressing so much about it in conversation. Mostly, he told me not to worry so much, that I would be fine. “Be cool,” he would say, which always made me laugh, which made him laugh.
Kevin was an extremely intelligent person. He had a quick wit and a wry sense of humor. He was so understated that sometimes something he had said would strike me again later, and I would have to laugh out loud in the street, at dinner, or wherever I happened to be. Kevin never needed to put anyone down to feel better about himself. He never judged me when I didn’t understand something or let me feel stupid about it. I could ask him questions that I wouldn’t ask anyone else for fear of embarrassment. He also never assumed that he had all the answers. He would offer his thoughts and suggestions and would listen to my thoughts with equal measure. He was a gifted coach and conductor, and he could play anything thrown in front of him on the piano. He had the patience to run through the music many times, in many ways to help me figure out how to make it mine, even if he and I both wanted to hurl the notes across the room some days by the time we were through. When I began singing completely unknown Baroque music, he would transpose the score to the right key a half-step down, even while looking at the notes for the very first time. I was always amazed that he managed to play almost completely illegible manuscript copies of three-hundred-year-old scores at first sight. When it would all get to be too much for either or both of us, he would just quietly say, “Let’s take a little break. I need to clear my head.” And five minutes (and one quick cigarette on the balcony) later, he was figuring it out all over again.
I am not alone in my memories and grief over the loss of Kevin McCutcheon, gone far too soon. He touched so many lives, musically and personally, and made an indelible mark on those who were lucky enough to spend time with him. It is difficult for me to believe that I will never sing with him again, that I will never hear his voice making up the words to all of the other characters in an opera, as I struggle to memorize Italian recitatives. It is almost unfathomable that he will never again wave at me from his balcony as I run down the street hurrying to his apartment, telling me to slow down, he had time. But his ideas and musings are written all over my music. His gentle nature, kindness, humor and all that he taught me over the years are a part of who I am now, and he will always be with me when I sing.