I DON’T KNOW how many Grammy award winners are living in Savannah. But it can’t be many. And classical music singer Kurt Ollmann is probably tired of talking about it.
But (as I know well) “award-winning” (in my case, broadcast journalism) is a title that never goes away. It’s always going to be there. I will die an “award-winning journalist.”
Ollmann, a self-described reserved Midwesterner, once kept his Grammy in a closet. Talking about the statue today, he uses words like “coattail” and “small role.”
“We now keep it out on view and sometimes people do take selfies with it,” he says with a big laugh. “But I won this award because I was part of a fantastic project.”
Ollmann was one of nine people to win the 1991 Grammy for Best Classical Album, “Candide” by Leonard Bernstein, “who died the previous year,” he adds, as if explaining.
The baritone sung the role of Maximilian. But in many different roles, he spent the better part of a decade on some of opera’s most legendary stages, like Paris, London and Milan.
If you look on iTunes, his name sits next to names like Kiri Te Kanawa, June Anderson and Della Jones on recordings for Bernstein, into whose orbit Ollmann fell in New York.
“It was very heady,” he says of his ‘80s and early ‘90s life. “But when you’re young and you’re ambitious and you have nothing to compare it to, you sort of go back and forth between pinching yourself and thinking, ‘Oh, this is how it works.’ It’s a funny thing.”
By his telling, he landed in opera’s “center of everything” more or less by luck. Ambition and talent got him the rest of the way. And yes, he’s asked all the time about Bernstein.
“He was like a microcosm of the universe,” he says. “He was kind. He was extremely intelligent. But he also could be unpredictable, challenging and spiky. He loved people.”
He worked with Bernstein on several projects during the last decade of the composer’s life. Ollmann sometimes premiered works that composers wrote with his voice in mind.
But then he says he lost the knack or the desire for self-reinvention, the marketing and business underbelly of “award-winning” that nobody tells you about the first few times.
Let me tell you! The first few times it just comes to you! But then, as Ollmann says, “the business breaks your heart, even if you’re successful.” So he found an “out” in academia.
He took to teaching university-level voice students in his native Wisconsin for 12 years. And three years ago, he moved here, like many people do, for the warmer weather.
He now considers himself semi-retired. “It’s not that my singing changed as much as my attitude, what I’m willing to put up with,” he says. He chooses projects more carefully.
For one, he’ll soon record an album, with pianist Mary Dibbern, of French art songs, often compared to German lieder. The two forms are something of a specialty for him.
“That is the repertoire that originally inspired me to become a singer when I discovered this as a college student,” he says. “I want to keep myself in the conversation.”
Then, an October concert will join him with several other great local classical singers with American music. And later in January, it’ll be Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen.
Music he wants to sing! Things he wants to do! I suppose that’s a luxury that award-winners have, although I’m not totally there yet. Maybe it’s time to dust off my plaques.
“I’m just glad that I have lived in a time when I had opportunities,” he says. My thoughts exactly.
Kurt OllmanN, Eric Jones & Bill Smith