Marty Heresniak, B.M., M.M
79 Hudson Heights
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When, at age 85, Carl Gutekunst finally consented to retire from his part-time position at Ithaca College, I organized a Last Rep Class which brought his students from his twenty-year tenure back to campus in recognition of his influence on all of us. For that program James Drake wrote a biographical appreciation which I reproduce here. I've lost track of Dr. Drake, but I'm sure he won't mind my putting his writing online for the world better to know of our vocal mentor.
Dr. James A. Drake
One had to have heard Alexander Kipnis' speaking voice to have grasped fully what the Italian term basso profondo really meant. The legendary Russian bass was nearing his eighty-eighth birthday when I last spoke with him. It was no auspicious occasion, the one marking that last telephone conversation - merely an editorial run-through of a biographical piece I was writing about him for a music magazine. He was, as I had always found him, precise in thought and language, and very much in command of himself.
At the end of the conversation I said to him, calling him by the affectionate name his friends knew him by, "Sascha, now that you've given me the essentials of what you want me to change in the piece, you'll want me to re-draft it and send you an advance-copy before I submit the manuscript to the editors, correct?" He hesitated a moment and then spoke.
"No, that won't be necessary," he said in that unfathomably-deep voice which, as a master-singer of German, French, Italian and Russian operatic roles, as well as a definitive interpreter of Brahms, Schubert, Schumann and the other lieder geniuses, had earned him international prominence between the two World Wars. I warmed at his dismissing the need to see a final draft of my article and, perhaps a bit impetuously, I asked him if he was sure he wanted to trust my judgment.
"Any man who has Carl Gutekunst's endorsement," he said profoundly, "simply has to be trusted!"
Alexander Kipnis' friendship with Carl Gutekunst was a product of their mutual involvements with the American Academy of Teachers of Singing, an internationally-known organization whose members - all of them inducted, and only after high-order nomination from existing members - are among the most prestigious teachers, scholars and performers in the United States. Prior to their Academy association, the two men had been associated geographically, if not personally; they both lived in Chicago, earning their livelihood there, Kipnis as one of the leading basses of the Chicago Opera Company and Carl Gutekunst as a voice teacher, during the last years of opera's "Golden Age" in the 1920s.
Chicago, perhaps more than any other city beyond New York, literally bustled with operatic activity. Whether in the Fine Arts Building on South Michigan Avenue, or the Lyon & Healy Building, or the studios of the Chicago Musical College, the city ate, drank and slept grand opera. Many of its opera company's stars - legendary names like Mary Garden, Rosa Raïsa and, after 1923, Alexander Kipnis - were held on the same international plane as the Geraldine Farrars and Rosa Ponselles of Manhattan. It was in this heady atmosphere of Roaring 20s Chicago - the city whose unofficial ruler, Al Capone, once told the world press that in his town, among his kind of people, "grand opera is the berries" - that Carl Gutekunst grew and developed as a singer and a teacher, eventually leaving there for Manhattan in the depths of the Great Depression.
Although a fine reputation preceded his arrival in Manhattan, he was by no means content with his development and was intent upon apprenticing himself to one of the very best voice teachers Manhattan boasted: he was Percy Rector Stevens, a man whose pedagogy reflected a combination of the principles and techniques of the legendary bel canto masters of Italy, wedded to twentieth-century anatomical and physiological research in voice production.
By the time Stevens' long and distinguished career had drawn to a close, the list of his internationally-acclaimed pupils was extraordinary. One of them, the American-born heldentenor Paul Althouse, endowed one of his pupils - a young cantor named Ruben Tikker who, as the Metropolitan's Richard Tucker, was often labeled the "American Caruso" - with the performing principles that Stevens had been teaching since the turn of the century.
For those of us who respect and admire Carl Gutekunst - and this is to say all those who have known and worked with him - it should come as no surprise that the great Percy Rector Stevens declared, near the end of his teaching career, that among all the teachers of voice he had ever prepared, Carl Gutekunst was the one in whom he had the most confidence.
For Carl, as with his mentor Stevens, the principles of proper voice production are, in some sense, abstractions from what we might call "life-principles." That is to say - and his pupils will understand this without a moment's reflection - Carl Gutekunst teaches not merely voice, not merely singing, but a way of life.
His pupils, especially those who might have studied with others before coming to him, know all too well how different is his "teaching vocabulary" from other teachers' ways of expressing their concepts. In his studio there is not, and never has been, any talk of "placing the voice," "controlling the tone," or "carrying the lower registers into the upper ones." Like his mentor, Percy Rector Stevens, he regards singing as a continuous, expanded and natural extension of speaking. To "place" it, to have to "control" it, to have to fractionalize this continuous act into discrete "registers" - such expressions have no place in his teaching. Nor did they in the descriptions of singing left us by some of the legendary performers of operatic history, including among the best of them Enrico Caruso.
Teachers of singing, rather like scholars in higher education, tend to divide themselves into two general groups. There are those who, on the one hand, see themselves as striving for something singular, something unique, something which will make the long-sought-for reputation. In scholarship, it may be the definitive book on Medieval literature that makes one's reputation; in the teaching of singing, it may be to boast as one's pupil a Luciano Pavarotti or a Joan Sutherland.
There are others in both enterprises who forego the singular, the unique, for what the other camp disdains as "a career with the masses." There are those, in other words, who spend their careers writing books and articles for the enjoyment and enrichment of the broader population, rather than a select scholarly few - and, in the teaching of singing, there are those who work to bring its joys to the so-called "ordinary" among us, those who as beginners, as novices, merely want to learn how to use our natural equipment to its fullest.
Carl Gutekunst fits admirably into both camps. For the beginner and for the well-paid professional, he is among the best of teachers in any era and, most importantly, he treats both beginners and professionals in appropriate ways. No professional has ever felt above him, and no beginner - which is to say almost all of his Ithaca College students, as distinct from many of his Manhattan pupils - has ever been made to feel below him.
On such auspicious occasions as this, when we who have studied with him are gathered to pay tribute both to the man and to the life-principles he has conveyed to us, word-choices become difficult and sincere meanings often become lost in mellifluous phrases. Wanting to keep my tribute simple, allow me to express a concluding wish for our dear Carl Gutekunst, a friendly toast which has its roots not in the eloquence of philosophy or literature but rather in the folk-wisdom of Middle America. It says all that needs to be said: "May you live as long as you want, and may you never want as long as you live."
JAMES A. DRAKE
Ithaca, N. Y., May 5, 1979