While some people harbor secret ambitions to be artists, Kevin Burdette, an accomplished opera singer, has always wanted to be a lawyer. Although his passion and talent for music run deep, he has resisted becoming completely immersed in a field he sees as receiving so little public support.
Two of Mr. Burdette’s early experiences affirmed this view: An internship for the now-defunct Congressional Caucus for the Arts in Washington, D.C., demonstrated the important role of government and the law in supporting artists and also highlighted the ongoing struggle for funding. A year later, while studying voice at the Vienna Academy of Music, Mr. Burdette witnessed the flip side in Austria’s deep commitment to the arts.
“While in Vienna, it occurred to me I could pursue music as a vocation,” says Mr. Burdette. “Back in the United States I never saw it as more than a glorified avocation.”
Nevertheless, in 1996, he applied and was accepted to Columbia Law School and a masters program at Juilliard. Music came first, though he never anticipated the heights to which his career would soar.
After a year at Julliard, Mr. Burdette was offered a position as a young artist with the national opera in Paris and, after that, a post at the New York City Opera. From there, job offers became more prestigious. He deferred his law studies and Columbia was very receptive to his pursuing his opera career. “I always knew I would go to law school,” he says.
Mr. Burdette debuted at City Opera in 1999 and the next year became a resident bass. Two years later, he was given major roles: Papageno in The Magic Flute and Leporello in Don Giovanni. At the same time, he performed outside New York, with the Toledo Opera, Opera de Quebec, and the Glimmerglass Festival outside of Cooperstown, N.Y. (where Law School Professor Jane Ginsburg heard him sing). Ultimately, the Metropolitan Opera hired Mr. Burdette – without an audition – to understudy for Don Giovanni’s Masetto. It was the greatest honor of his career, though Mr. Burdette found it hard to envision opera as a lifelong profession.
“As much as I enjoyed the applause and the rush of being offered a role, I’m not sure that’s the reason to be in opera,” he says. “I equate it to someone who runs a marathon for the glory of winning rather than for the enjoyment of running.”
Also tired of the constant travel, he at last decided to enroll at Columbia. After six years of anticipation, Mr. Burdette says that one of the best things about law school has been meeting students from so many different backgrounds. While a focus on arts law seems the obvious fit, Mr. Burdette points instead to another type of theatrical performance.
“Criminal defense in the courtroom relates to the performer in me,” he says.
Another unexpected pleasure was the discovery of a Monday lunchtime ritual led by Professor Peter Strauss, who gathers students and faculty in a conference room to sight-read madrigals. “There’s a stack of scores,” says Mr. Burdette. “It’s fantastic.”