If you think the nomadic, demanding schedule of opera singers might make it difficult for them to sustain a healthy marriage, you have not met Kevin Langan and Sally Wolf.
The bass and soprano, who are appearing in plum roles at the Central City Opera (CCO) production of Our Town this summer, are living proof that opera singers can have their cake and eat it together. As a couple. Long term.
In fact, during the CCO season, they will celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary — an unusual enough milestone for anyone, much less two people in a competitive, high-pressure field like opera.
“People ask us, ‘How does your marriage last with these two careers going?’” Langan says. “The fact that we respect each other, that there’s no jealousy over one doing better or making more money than the other. We just really respect each other’s talent, ability, and the fact that this is what we wanted to do with our lives.”
Langan and Wolf met 36 years ago, when both were studying at Indiana University. It is fair to say that they fell in love with each other and with each others’ voices.
“When I heard him sing I just couldn’t believe it,” Wolf says.
With both careers off to a fast start, Wolf and Langan had some initial worries about maintaining a marriage.
“That’s why we waited,” Langan says. “We didn’t get married until three years into our professional careers. During that period we were trying to figure out, is this going to work.”
Wolf remembers a cross-country trip after they had served separate summer apprenticeships, his in San Francisco and hers in Santa Fe. “That was three months of not seeing him at all, so on our way back, we talked about, do you think we can handle this?”
With such peripatetic careers before them, it was clear that the marriage would be based in their relationship more than the traditional notion of building a home together. They bought a house in New Jersey, to be close to auditions in New York City, but soon found that they were almost never “at home.”
“We were gone about 11 months out of the year,” Wolf recalls. “We didn’t have the money to travel yet, and there was one year we didn’t see each other for like eight months. But pretty soon, once we both got rolling [professionally], then if I had a week off I’d fly to him or vice versa.”
The couple was careful not to mix marriage and careers. They instructed their manager never to offer them as a package.
“We don’t keep [the marriage] a secret,“ Wolf says. “But I don’t want somebody to say, ‘We’re going to have Kevin Langan, and we’ve gotta have his wife, too.’ So we have been places where they don’t know that we’re married.”
In one case they laugh about today, the apprentices where they were performing saw their rings and assumed they had both spouses elsewhere and were having an affair.
Because they individually became known for the high quality and dependability of their work, they did end up on the same stage more than once.
“We’ve done a lot together, over the years,” Langan says.
For example, Wolf became well known for her Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute, and Langan was an imposing Sarastro in the same opera.
“In Abduction [from the Seraglio]” we sang Osmin and Constanza,” Langan says. Turning to Wolf, he adds, “I married you in Lucia di Lammermoor — in Denver, in fact.”
“And killed me in Rigoletto,” Wolf replies.
“A few times,” Langan admits, laughing. “I was your dad in Norma and in Don Giovanni. She voted for me in Baby Doe, even though I lost the election.”
When not performing together, sharing each other’s big nights has been a priority. Once, Langan flew from Santa Fe to Salzburg and back in a six-day break between performances, to hear Wolf performing at the prestigious Salzburg Festival. And when he was honored for his 300th performance at the San Francisco Opera — the first major artist to reach that milestone — Wolf was there.
A big part of their success is just the fact that their careers have lasted so long. Langan and Wolf attribute this to Margaret Harshaw, their teacher at Indiana, who was one of the great singers and teachers of the last century.
“She really understood the voice, no matter whether you’re a soprano, tenor, baritone or bass,” Langan says. “She gave us the basis for a vocal technique that goes back to the bel canto period of the 19th century. That’s what’s kept us in the business as long as we’ve been able to.”
Like many of Harshaw’s students, they would return for a “check-up” long after they were singing professionally.
“Every year we made sure that we could get back for lessons,” Wolf says. “Once we started professionally, she said, ‘If you guys can come back together, that’s great, because you should sit in on each others’ lessons. When I’m gone, you’re going to teach each other,’ and that’s what we do.”
Ultimately, the success of their marriage comes down to mutual respect — and the absolute security each feels in their own career and person.
“We have that security,” Langan says, “because we don’t sing the same repertoire, and we have admired and respected each other’s talents since the day we met in 1977. I am thrilled for Sally’s success as a singer and vice-versa.”
Then Langan touches on a topic that many of his colleagues probably don’t want to hear about.
“There is the problem of the male ego being bruised, if you’re both in the same business,” he observes. “Some men can’t handle that. I find that often the case in our business, that if the woman is more successful, the male can’t deal with that. I don’t see things that way, but other people seem to. My mother once said, ‘You’re the breadwinner! Doesn’t it bother you that your wife makes more money than you do?’ And I said, ‘Not at all. She’s a soprano! They make bigger fees!’”
Down time together has helped keep them grounded.
“When the job is over we go home and we don’t think about it,” Langan says. At the family summer cabin in Canada, they cook out, go fishing, go to the movies, and enjoy Wednesday night bingo. “The word ‘opera’ may not come up for weeks on end,” Langan notes. “You know, we’re just a normal couple to everybody up there.”
Indeed: A normal couple that has sung on the major opera stages of the world for 35 years, but always love, admire, respect and celebrate each other, completely without jealousy.
Our Town plays at Central City Opera through July 28. For tickets and more information, visit www.centralcityopera.org/ourtown.