Beyond his accomplishments as a tenor, Ken Lavigne strikes a poised and manicured image in a well-tailored suit.
In person, he is charming and well spoken, and on stage he sings opera and pop ballads alike with an earnestness hard to miss from the back row.
Difficult, then, to try to imagine him cutting loose doing the hula.
It may be funny but it’s no joke.
Rather, hula dancing was just what the doctor ordered. The singing doctor that is.
Selena James has sculpted many of Victoria’s most talented voices, and has earned a reputation both for getting results and for her frank critiques.
Lavigne calls it shooting from the hip.
He recalls being incredibly intimidated during his first lesson with James – who is now in her eighties – in 1997.
“I had been going through some vocal difficulty at the time and I was very nervous,” said Lavigne. “We started to sing, and she got me to do the hula dancing in the first lesson. It loosened me right up … and it was as if somebody had just opened up a window and a gust of fresh air came through.”
Fifteen years later, he’s still visiting James. In the days leading up to his annual Christmas concert, he has returned for a tune up.
Before leading a series of scales at the piano, James explains the whole hula thing in this way.
“I’m always trying new things and for a while there I got bored,” she said.
So, she took a job in Banff where she was mentored by an actor in what’s called extended voice.
“He’d been a stretcher bearer in the World War and he’d been amazed by the range of the human voice that comes out of somebody when they are dying or when they sick,” James said. “He could make a sound like a motorcycle or a baby, and it so reached me … and I’m hard to reach.”
He got the whole body involved, she said. “When you’re standing static, then everything seizes up.”
Hence the hula.
“I’ve never heard that side of the story,” says Lavigne. “I always thought it was because she likes to watch me wiggle my hips,” he says, kidding with her.
Smartly dressed, she’s sharp and full of stories about her international travels.
As a girl, James journeyed to New York and Europe as a pianist and singer.
In her 50s, she got her Master’s degree from the Manhattan School of Music, and then came to the Victoria Conservatory of Music as the director of its opera studio. There, she taught Richard Margison, Benjamin Butterfield, and Barbara Livingston, among others.
Though officially retired, today she continues to coach her favourite students.
What distinguishes a singer is their ability to reach you with their words, said James. “There is some indefinable thing that makes the whole thing work, and usually it’s the inspiration of the poetry and the music.
“There are four of five people who I said would have a career because they had this ability,” she said. She counts Lavigne among them, but she’s not all praise for her student.
She doesn’t condone Lavigne using his voice to sing pop.
“If you’re going to be an opera singer, you’ve got to develop more muscle because it is a muscular pursuit,” she said. The style of pop and the use of microphones are at odds with opera, she explained.
For the past year, the two have been working on what Lavigne describes as a “vocal overhaul.”
“Being on tour so much, you run into trouble,” he said. Bad habits develop – such as pushing a high note – and become ingrained. It gets you through the concert, but can wreck your voice in the long term, said Lavigne.
Upon his return from touring, he got a scolding from James: “‘My dear, what are you doing? You look like you just had a sour candy!’” Lavigne recalled her saying.
“She can really get inside a person’s head … and challenge and cajole,” said Lavigne. James cuts him off, adding “and bully” to her list of characteristics.
The two share another big laugh.
“I never learned the important things in my singing until somebody really hurt me,” she said, simply. “But if you want to sing, you go back and try to find a way that you don’t do those physical things that get in the way of natural singing.”
This week, one of Lavigne’s biggest challenges will be the carol O Holy Night.
“The last note goes on and on and on forever, and that’s what I’m really going to be focusing on, is making sure I can hold that note far longer than anyone expects me to,” Lavigne said.
James shoots him a look – “I didn’t know about that.”Lavigne’s Christmas concert, Under the Mistletoe, takes place at the Royal Theatre Dec. 3, and benefits C-FAX Santa’s Anonymous. The show offers a range of traditional carols and humorous anecdotes. Tickets at the Royal Theatre box office, by phone at 250-386-621 or online at rmts.bc.ca.