“I should have asked him to sing!” I think, watching Victoria’s most famous tenor, Ken Lavigne, exit the restaurant where we met.
Since Lavigne once worked as a singing waiter at Splendid Chinese Restaurant, he’d be perfectly comfortable trilling away amid the tables here. And the job — serving up food and operatic arias — helped overcome his shyness. So I definitely should have asked.
“Shy” is not how I would describe this exuberant, articulate man, who at 39, is surprisingly humble, considering he’s played major roles in operas such as La Traviata, Cenerentolla, Tosca and The Barber of Seville; is a founding member of two highly successful bands, The Canadian Tenors and Romanza; performs regularly with multi-Grammy winner David Foster; and sang for Prince Charles at Government House in Victoria. He’s also recorded five CDs and — famously — played a concert at Carnegie Hall.
Our interview slides seamlessly through past, present and future, punctuated with amusing anecdotes and set against the backdrop of Lavigne’s true love of his art.
“The joy of singing is related to a mind-body connection,” he says. “We tend to think that the body is merely transport for the mind. But when we loosen that primal memory by singing, it takes over and you suddenly feel the earth move.”
The interview is also carried along by his mesmerizing voice — silken even as he speaks — but like “liquid gold” when he sings.
Wrote reviewer Oscar Moore: “Ken Lavigne can caress a lyric and bring tears to ones eye by the sheer beauty of his lyricism and sweetness.”
And noted in the Cabaret Exchange in New York: “His voice seemed to be liquid gold, a pure lyric sound that had surprising undertones in his unforced lower range.”
Born and raised in Victoria, Lavigne now lives with wife, Alice, and three young children (aged nine, eight and three) in Chemainus. Last year, he took time off his touring schedule to perform in Chemainus Theatre’s production of Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Lavigne rocked out in the Elvis-impersonating role of Pharaoh.
“I was always singing,” he says, recalling his childhood. “I was the weirdo in the family who sung myself to sleep.”
His parents, although not musical themselves, recognized his passion and enrolled him in voice lessons by the time he was eight. By nine, he had the lead role in the Victoria Operatic Society’s production of Oliver.
“It was an amazing experience; I remember thinking, ‘these people get me; I don’t have to hide this part of me. I belong …’”
Finding a sense of belonging among his peers was sometimes an issue for Lavigne, who again, refers to himself as “shy” — “I was always the guy waiting to see what the rest of the room was doing.”
He played soccer, but found his true passion singing in school choirs and musicals. He eventually took music and vocal training at the University of Victoria with Susan Young and Alexandra Browning-Moore, and with Selena James at the Victoria Conservatory of Music. (He still works with James, who is now 90 years old and “has no trouble calling me on things, and telling me when I’m wrong,” he smiles. In fact, the thought of an upcoming a voice lesson with James — scheduled for right after our interview — appears to prompt Lavigne to change his order from beer to coffee.) He also studied in Wales with Stuart Burrows, and in New York with Joan Dornemann.
Today, his genre is “classical crossover,” but he continues to sing opera, and is currently working with composer Tobin Stokes and author Margaret Atwood on an opera about Canadian singer Pauline Johnson.
His next Victoria appearance is July 13 at the Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre, where he’s performing with the Naden Band in the Pacific Tattoo. Although familiar with the band (he performs a Salvation Army fundraiser with it each Christmas), he notes that singing in a 7,400-seat arena is a long way from the more intimate soft-seat theatres he typically graces.
“The sound is generally better and people can actually see you,” he smiles. “But I’m looking forward to the Pacific Tattoo — I’ve never sung with in-ear monitors before.”
Facing the challenge of anything new — like the monitors — is a cornerstone of Lavigne’s career since he made the bold move of renting Carnegie Hall in 2009, hiring the New York Pops as accompaniment and then performing as a basic “unknown” to rave reviews.
“Carnegie Hall was a dream … You hear about the legends who do a Carnegie Hall debut and it’s a magic moment in time. I’d built it up in my mind that one day I’d be that good.”
It remained a dream until “a friend basically said I have to get out of my own way and embrace what I need to do in order to have this career.”
This “leap of faith” took tireless fundraising, mountains of paperwork, rehearsing, recording, touring and even periods of being “gripped with fear that I’m not good enough” — but ultimately springboarded his career onto an international stage.
He continues to tour his self-produced show, The Road to Carnegie Hall, which combines entertaining personal anecdotes and music such as ballads, classics and operatic arias. But amid a busy schedule of touring and recording, he’s also taking his career in a slightly new direction.
“The whole process of releasing an album has morphed into releasing singles on iTunes and YouTube,” he says, so he’s aiming to collaborate with some international artists, creating online productions with visual components.
But singing remains his joy; and within the hours of hard work, even times of self-doubt, come those moments of pure bliss that “fuel you to chase them” again. Sometimes, he adds, there’s also a reconnection with a song “that suddenly has new meaning; it twists like a prism in the sun and you see a rainbow that you missed before.”
Check out Ken Lavigne on YouTube, join his Facebook fan page, or view his website at kenlavigne.com.
Thankfully, I can hear that liquid gold voice online — and it doesn’t matter quite so much that I didn’t ask him to sing.
Susan Lundy is an award-winning journalist, freelance writer and the editor of Tweed and Soar magazines. She is also the author of Heritage Apples: A New Sensation, which was published this spring.