When his boss wouldn't let Donald Kaasch out of work to attend the birth of his daughter in 1986, a co-worker came to the Hawthorn Woods man's defense. World-renowned tenor Luciano Pavarotti told Lyric Opera of Chicago that he wouldn't go to the rehearsal for "Un Ballo in Maschera" unless Kaasch was allowed to go to the hospital. Kaasch got the time off.
"I liked him a lot," Kaasch says of Pavarotti. "He was a reasonable man."
During three decades singing alongside legends such as Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo, Cecilia Bartoli and Renée Fleming, Kaasch, 59, has performed in iconic opera houses in Amsterdam, Milan, Buenos Aires, Paris, Geneva, Zurich, Sydney, Brussels, London, Berlin, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. And he did a recital this fall in the sanctuary of the First Presbyterian Church of Arlington Heights, where he teaches an adult Bible class.
"I've sung in three decades in houses and with people I never thought I'd qualify to sing with, But I never got hoity-toity about my career," Kaasch says, noting he certainly is not above singing for a couple dozen people in a suburban church on a Wednesday afternoon. "The recital I did was such a pleasure for me."
Music was not his first love.
"I wanted to be an Egyptologist, an archaeologist with a specialty in Egyptology, Armana period, late 18th Dynasty," says Kaasch, who grew up in Denver, the son of Norman (an architect) and Julia (a homemaker and part-time secretary). "I never got to do that because somebody thought I could sing well."
He didn't aspire to be a professional opera singer, either.
"I sang in a rock band in high school. I was in choirs and performance ensembles," Kaasch says. "To me, good music is good music. Good rock from our era is incredible. Good country is good music. I love the blues."
He enrolled in Cornell College in Iowa with the idea of becoming a lawyer before switching courses and earning his bachelor's degree in music at the University of Colorado.
"I always call myself the accidental tenor because along the way I had people saying, 'You're substandard, you'll never have a career, your voice is so ugly,' on and on," Kaasch says matter-of-factly. "My own parents said, 'We just don't hear it.'"
But some experts recognized his potential.
"Small voices come together faster than large voices," says Kaasch, who possesses the latter. "I stayed with it."
He knew an opera career was a long shot. "You have less chance of being a professional opera singer than you do of being a professional baseball player," Kaasch says, remembering how he was coddled in college because of his voice. "It's like being a quarterback at a university. I have A's in courses I never took."
Three months after graduation, the newlywed Kaasch and his wife came to Chicago on a visit and stopped by Northwestern University on a lark. A secretary told Kaasch that the dean just happened to be in his office, and Kaasch suddenly got a chance for an unexpected audition. A week later, Northwestern offered Kaasch a massive scholarship.
"In a way, we're freaks of nature," Kaasch says, noting opera singers don't have the luxury of microphones. "Can you be heard? That's the biggest thing. Between my mouth and your ears lies an 80-piece orchestra."
He got his master's degree in 1983 from Northwestern and was selected to be part of the Lyric Opera Center for American Artists. That's how he befriended Pavarotti, who died in 2007.
"If Luciano were to start his career now, he couldn't," Kaasch suggests. "It's a visual art. The old idea of two refrigerators singing on stage is almost gone."
Early in his career, Kaasch would work on restoring his old Pontiac Fiero and "go to the Lyric covered in grease," he says. When his career blossomed, Kaasch was in demand around the world and he made more than 250 trips to Europe, dozens to Australia, and even performed in Iceland.
"In my repertoire, I was often one of three who could sing it," he says in explaining how he was in demand for supporting roles. "I've been second banana, third banana, fourth banana for a long time."
Blessed with an expansive range ("I used to add high C's left and right"), Kaasch excelled in the Italian and French operas composed in the 18th century by Christoph Willibald Gluck and the Italian operas of 19th-century composer Vincenzo Bellini. He has a few posters of his appearances and can tell stories about the time he walked into his dressing room to discover Domingo was using it, but "that stuff has never mattered to me," Kaasch says. "It's about the work, not the person. There's no room for prima donnas."
Unless he is with an opera crowd, he prefers not to mention his career.
"You're an international opera singer?" he says, imitating the comments he's heard. "Oh, I love opera. I've been to 'Phantom' twice."
Like the plot twist in many operas, Kaasch says he's back in the suburbs because "I was brought here by the love of a woman." He met Rachel Peters, a health teacher in Kildeer-Countryside District 96, and even sang with her in a church choir in Long Grove when they were both married to other people. Kaasch became the godfather to Peters' daughter long before he and Peters found each other again after their divorces. Kaasch has grown children, Megan, 31, Max, 26, and Miles, 25, and a granddaughter named Finnley.
He never got to become an Egyptologist, but Kaasch did discover a talent for artistic woodworking, which has become his latest forte. He's crafted an assortment of Celtic crosses, menorahs, whimsical anteaters and stunning visual art, including wooden landscapes and his "What Does Music Look Like?" wood sculpture that shows a rolling landscape with the musical direction "Con Intensita" (with intensity) and a repeat sign at the end.
"I have so many passions," Kaasch says, swelling as if he is ready to burst into song. "I love them all, and they all sing to me."