A highlight for any young Pittsburgh Opera Center resident artist is getting the opportunity to sing a major role on the stage of the Benedum Center. Dean Kokanos' debut came about 10 feet below it.
Saturday night, the tenor sang the role of Lindoro in the opening night of the company's new production of "The Italian Girl in Algiers," but in the orchestra pit rather than on the stage.
Kokanos helped the Pittsburgh Opera through a bind when William Burden, its scheduled singer for Lindoro, couldn't get over a cold. It was too late to find a replacement for the role whose tessitura is higher and lighter than most tenors can handle well, so general director Christopher Hahn tapped Kokanos. The 28-year-old singer had been learning the music because it was important to his budding career, but he wasn't involved in any of the blocking on stage. So Hahn put him in the pit while Burden mimed the arias and ensemble singing on stage and sang the lower pitched recitative.
"It was a whirlwind," says Kokanos, who grew up in Lower Burrell and now lives in Brentwood. "We had known that Bill's health had been getting worse, and I had sung a few rehearsals in tech."
He got the call at 6:30 Friday. There was no time to even get nervous, as Lindoro has the opera's first big aria, "Languir per una bella." After he successfully completed the aria, a collective sigh was heard throughout the audience that had been rooting for him to succeed, followed by hearty applause.
Kokanos didn't even notice.
"I was so busy sighing from relief," he says. "I was pleased."
So was Hahn: "It was confident and strong, and the voice soared out into the house. I was very pleased and impressed with his calmness in a very difficult situation."
Kokanos, one of the few Pittsburgh Opera resident artists from the Pittsburgh area, grew up singing at the Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Dormition in Oakmont. "I joined the choir to get out of Sunday school," he says with a chuckle.
Kokanos is the only one bitten by the music bug in his family, and he realized it would be his career in high school. "I don't think I was ever anything but a tenor."
Ah, but what type?
"Every young tenor is convinced they will sing Puccini and Verdi their whole life," says Kokanos, who studied with Claudia Pinza at Duquesne University (bachelor's of music) and Douglas Ahlstedt at Carnegie Mellon University (master's of music), and joined young artist programs at Opera Theatre of St. Louis, Sarasota Opera and Opera Memphis. But his voice was raw then and is still developing.
"My coaches at the Pittsburgh Opera Center have been gently coaching me to go to Rossini," he says. That entails a higher range and lighter timbre than a more typical tenor. In fact, Kokanos' voice might just be shifting into a higher range, or fach, specifically referred to as a light lyric tenor.
Hahn stresses it still is not certain if Kokanos' voice will stay that high. But if the young singer does, he might follow the likes of Juan Diego Florez as one of the rare light lyric tenors, in high demand for high C's and for the roles such as the Count Almaviva in Rossini's "The Barber of Seville" and Tonio in Donizetti's "The Daughter of the Regiment."
"I don't have a problem being a meat-and-potatoes guy, singing the same operas again and again," says Kokanos, who will hit the audition trail this summer after finishing up his two-year training at Pittsburgh Opera.
If Burden does not fully recover, Kokanos will sing on stage instead of under it tonight, Hahn said. Kokanos is rehearsing as if that is the case.
"It is harder -- in the pit I am focusing on making beautiful music -- but it is a welcome set of challenges."
For Hahn and others behind the scenes at the Pittsburgh Opera, it will be just another step in Kokanos' development.
"He has progressed so enormously over the last two years," Hahn says.