No one ever accused Håkon Kornstad of playing it safe. A conservatory-trained tenor saxophonist who first made his name in the late '90s with the Norwegian electronic jazz band Wibutee, Kornstad has since created a wholly unique solo show with tenor and bass saxophones, flute, flutonette, and an audio-looping device.
Now he has a new weapon in his arsenal: a formidable opera tenor.
"It will be me and my Electrix Repeater, which is a looping device. Me and my saxophones and my flutes and my voice," Kornstad says in a Skype interview from his spare Oslo apartment. On paper, it's an absurd and incongruous collection of talents for one man to have. But in concert — whether with his full-band show Tenor Battle or in the daring solo show he'll bring to Spoleto — the music stuns with its beauty far more often than it befuddles with its strangeness.
On Soundcloud, where Kornstad holds a near monopoly on the hashtagged genre description #operajazz, hours of his live recordings give a taste of the treats in store. When we get to a recording of Paolo Tosti's popular opera piece "Marechiare," Kornstad sings the old tune gracefully before launching into a saxophone improvisation based loosely around the melody. On Gluck's "O del mio dolce ardor," Kornstad opens with a gently clicking, fluttering saxophone solo that loops and builds as he starts to sing, to bewitching effect.
Even before he learned to sing opera, Kornstad could catch an audience off guard by layering breathy drones over the subtle percussion of his saxophone's keys before improvising solos on multiple instruments in sequence. A loop pedal, long a favorite toy of bedroom guitar noodlers who like to rip solos over their own rhythms, can be a cheap party trick in some settings. But a master like Kornstad can make it a formidable instrument in its own right.
The looper has been with Kornstad since his days in Wibutee, when the young Trondheim Jazz Conservatory student was already restless in his experimentation. "I was exploring all kinds of ways of playing the saxophone," Kornstad says. "I wanted the saxophone to be more than just a solo instrument. I wanted it to be in the sort of middle ground as well, filling in things while the singer was singing or someone else was playing a solo." At the same time, Kornstad was learning advanced jazz saxophone techniques like slap-tongue, in which the player releases powerful bursts after building up pressure behind the tongue, and multiphonics, in which two or more notes are played at once.
Wibutee got their start in Blå, an Oslo jazz bar that had started attracting a younger crowd by booking DJs who incorporated jazz into dance music. Kornstad credits Blå, along with the singer Björk, for introducing him to jazz early on. "In the late '90s, you had a revival of '60s design and '60s everything in London. Oslo followed suit," Kornstad says. "Suddenly jazz was starting to get hip again, and I think that's something that the Blå gang wanted to use. Until that point, jazz had been my parents' generation's thing."
Today, Kornstad stands poised to introduce jazz — and opera — to yet another generation. What his songs lack in pop sensibility they make up for in sheer genre-bending, crowd-silencing chutzpah.
"I remember when I was going away to study in Trondheim, I was thinking already then what I could do that would be something that my generation would be interested in, if I could manage to do that," Kornstad says.
In 2007, Kornstad released his first album under his own name, Single Engine, which featured a backing band and was well-received by Norwegian music critics. But it wasn't until 2009's Dwell Time that he produced a true solo album.
At this point in the Skype interview, Kornstad picks up his laptop computer and tilts it out the window of his apartment, angling down at the church next door where he recorded Dwell Time, alone, over the course of a few nights. Sofienberg Church, built in 1877, is a popular concert venue because of its impeccable acoustics, and the album sounds like the work of a tight, gloomy jazz band. Slap-tongue riffs mimic the pluck of an upright bass, key clicks provide the percussion, and some hushed low tones even simulate brushes on a snare drum.
In a review of Dwell Time, the jazz magazine DownBeat called Kornstad "one of Norway's most original and daring musicians." And he hadn't even discovered opera yet.
Within a year after the release of Dwell Time, Kornstad says he already felt like he was stagnating musically. "I didn't know what to do next. I'd done the solo saxophone for so long, and for me maybe that was the pinnacle of how difficult you can make it for yourself," Kornstad says. "I was starting to think, should I do other combos, work with other people? What should I do now?"
Seeking to break out of his comfort zone, Kornstad stopped listening to jazz, took a trip to New York, and opened himself up to whatever new opportunities awaited him there. For months, nothing happened. Finally, he says, a friend called and invited him to the Metropolitan Opera, which was putting on Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana and Ruggero Leoncavallo's Pagliacci. Kornstad says he scoffed at first. "I didn't know if opera was anything for me. I thought it was really old music and nothing I would expect for something new to happen," he says.
But when the music began, he was struck by the timeless grandeur. "There was just a new world that opened up to me with a new repertoire that I'd never checked out, new sounds and how the voice can sound," Kornstad says. "Maybe I also wanted to sing."
And so, at age 32, with an established solo jazz career that was just starting to take off, Kornstad started from scratch and enrolled in the Academy of Opera at the Oslo National Academy of the Arts. It turned out he had a voice for opera. While in school, Kornstad began taking on lead roles in operas, and his 2011 solo jazz album Symphonies in My Head showed signs of the opera influence — including a saxophone rendition of an aria from George Bizet's Les pecheurs des perles. He also formed a new ensemble, Tenor Battles, inspired by mid-century tenor saxophone "battles" between American tenor saxophonists, except that in this case Kornstad plays both of the tenors — one a saxophone, one a voice.
Kornstad is completing his opera studies this summer, and he already has a full plate of jazz and opera collaborations in the works. He's been tapped for the lead role in German composer Gerhard Stäbler's new opera Simon, and Kornstad will employ both voice and saxophone in folk singer Sinikka Langeland's new work Mysticeti: Mass for the Blue Whale at two festivals this summer.
Kornstad says that while he may have imagined some sort of jazz-opera mashup at the start of opera school, he strove to be as much of an opera purist as he could. He respected the form, and he wanted to treat it seriously in its own right.
"Of course it was in the back of my head that it could lead to something," Kornstad says. "When one man does one thing and suddenly starts to do something completely different, there will be links between them."