When Vancouver Island’s most famous tenor Ken Lavigne once worked as a singing waiter at Victoria’s Splendid Chinese Restaurant, he’d be perfectly comfortable trilling away amid the tables. The job — serving up food and operatic arias — helped overcome his shyness.
“Shy” is not how most would now describe this exuberant, articulate man he has become.
But at 39, he is surprisingly humble, considering his resumé: major roles in operas such as La Traviata, Cenerentolla, Tosca and The Barber of Seville; a founding member of two highly successful bands, The Canadian Tenors and Romanza; regular performances with multi-Grammy winner David Foster; and singing for Prince Charles at Government House in Victoria. He’s also recorded five CDs and played Carnegie Hall.
“The joy of singing is related to a mind-body connection,” he says. “We tend to think that the body is merely transport for the mind. But when we loosen that primal memory by singing, it takes over and you suddenly feel the earth move.”
Lavigne’s mesmerizing voice — silken even as he speaks — is like “liquid gold” when he sings.
Wrote reviewer Oscar Moore: “Ken Lavigne can caress a lyric and bring tears to one’s eye by the sheer beauty of his lyricism and sweetness.”
And noted in the Cabaret Exchange in New York: “His voice seemed to be liquid gold, a pure lyric sound that had surprising undertones in his unforced lower range.”
Born and raised in Victoria, Lavigne now lives with his wife Alice and three young children in Chemainus.
Last year, he took time off his touring schedule to perform in Chemainus Theatre’s production of Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Lavigne rocked out in the Elvis-impersonating role of Pharaoh.
“I was always singing,” he says, recalling his childhood. “I was the weirdo in the family who sung myself to sleep.”
His parents recognized his passion and enrolled him in voice lessons by the time he was eight. By nine, he had the lead role in the Victoria Operatic Society’s production of Oliver.
“It was an amazing experience; I remember thinking, ‘these people get me; I don’t have to hide this part of me. I belong …’”
Finding a sense of belonging among his peers was sometimes an issue for Lavigne, who again, refers to himself as “shy” — “I was always the guy waiting to see what the rest of the room was doing.”
He played soccer but found his true passion singing in school choirs and musicals.
He eventually took music and vocal training at the University of Victoria with Susan Young and Alexandra Browning-Moore, and with Selena James at the Victoria Conservatory of Music. He also studied in Wales with Stuart Burrows, and in New York with Joan Dornemann.
Today, his genre is “classical crossover,” but he continues to sing opera and is currently working with composer Tobin Stokes and author Margaret Atwood on an opera about Canadian singer Pauline Johnson.
Facing the challenge of anything new is a cornerstone of Lavigne’s career since he made the bold move of renting Carnegie Hall in 2009, hiring the New York Pops and then performing as a basic “unknown” to rave reviews.
“Carnegie Hall was a dream … You hear about the legends who do a Carnegie Hall debut and it’s a magic moment in time. I’d built it up in my mind that one day I’d be that good.”
It remained a dream until “a friend basically said I have to get out of my own way and embrace what I need to do in order to have this career.”
This “leap of faith” took tireless fundraising, mountains of paperwork, rehearsing, recording, touring and even periods of being “gripped with fear that I’m not good enough” — but ultimately springboarded his career onto an international stage.