Opera singer Samuel Ramey never saw an opera until he was in one.
A bass voice typically isn't cast in leading opera roles. Those parts, and the stardom that accompanies them, are kept for tenors.
But Kansas native Samuel Ramey is breaking the rules. He has worked with every major conductor of his time and executes more than 70 performances a season. His more than 80 recordings make him the most recorded bass in history.
And the bass-baritone has done it by playing villains.
"I have 10 or 12 favorite roles. All of them are my devil parts," he said during a recent phone call from New York City. "I like the bad boy parts."
Ramey will perform "A Date with the Devil" at 8 p.m. Thursday in the Lied Center. The Kansas City Symphony Orchestra and conductor William McGlaughlin will join the singer in a concert that will include works from "Les contes d'Hoffmann," "Faust," "La damnation de Faust," "Robert le diable" and "Mefistofele" as well as "March to the Scaffold" from "Symphonie Fantastique," music from "The Firebird Suite" and "Night on Bald Mountain."
"I've only performed it two other times -- first in New York and second in San Juan, Puerto Rico," he said of the program. "It's a fun concert. I had a nice time putting it together."
The last time Ramey returned to Kansas was to accept the Kansan of the Year award in January 1995. His last performance on Kansas soil was five years ago in Colby, his hometown.
Colby, of course, isn't a mecca for opera lovers. Ramey said his first contact with the genre came after he enrolled at Kansas State University.
"I had a voice teacher there. We worked on arias and I started listening to recordings," he said.
Ramey then heard about a summer opera company in Central City, Colo., that was looking for young performers. He auditioned and got a part in the choruses for "Don Giovanni" and "Il Trovatore."
"I never saw an opera until I was in one," he said.
After that summer, Ramey decided he wanted to be an opera singer and transferred to Wichita State University, where he studied under baritone Arthur Newman, formerly a member of the New York City Opera. He has shown his appreciation for his early training by establishing the Samuel Ramey Endowed Opera Fellowship, a $100,000 gift, allocated as a $5,000 graduate award each year.
Ramey headed to New York City after his graduation and began working to pay for more voice lessons.
"It took awhile. My voice wasn't ready," he said. "I studied for four years before I began auditioning."
In 1973, Ramey believed he was ready. He took advantage of the New York City Opera open audition system and bowled over its staff. When City Opera lost its star bass, Norman Treigle, Ramey's talent was tapped.
He remained with City Opera for 10 years and began to gain a reputation as a sex symbol. People magazine even announced that he was "hot."
Ramey made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1984, opposite Marilyn Horne in "Rinaldo," the first Handel opera ever staged at the house. He played Argante, the villain.
"It was a very exciting night," he recalled.
That was Ramey's "big break" and from there his opera career has soared. His most often performed role is Mephistopheles in Gounod's "Faust," which he has performed more than 200 times in more than 20 productions.
"I've always had good people looking after me, career-wise," he said. "My agents have done a good job in choosing a repertoire to show what I can do best. I've turned down roles that others would do."
These days, Ramey is booked solid. The Lied Center concert is the first stop in a "small" tour he is doing in the United States that will take him to Los Angeles, Chicago, St. Louis and Houston. Another tour is planned for October or November.
In March, he will go to London to perform Boito's "Mefistofele." Then he'll go to Paris for Rossini's "Italian Girl in Algiers," followed by Vienna for Verdi's "Jerusalem" and Sao Paulo, Brazil, for Verdi's "Attila." In July or August he will be in Salzburg, Austria, for Verdi's "Don Carlo."
And sometime this spring his latest recording, a collection of operatic duets with baritone Thomas Hampson, will be released.
Still, Ramey says he hasn't done it all.
"There are several bass parts in Verdi operas that I hope to do in the next few years," he admitted.
-- Jan Biles' phone message number is 832-7146. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.