From Victoria to Carnegie Hall: Ken Lavigne's incredible journey

The classically trained tenor shares his story and showcases his ineffable voice at Millennium Place

If you're a classically trained musician, chances are at one time or another you've fantasized about playing at New York's legendary Carnegie Hall.

But the sad truth is for every artist lucky enough to grace the stage at the world's largest concert hall, there are hundreds, if not thousands more, who will never get the chance. So what do you do if your lifelong dream is to play this most hallowed of musical venues, but you've never been invited? Well, you simply raise the more than $200,000 it costs to rent out the entire place and hire the New York Pops to back you, of course.

No one would blame you if you assumed this was the plot to another feel-good Hollywood movie, but it was a reality for one of Canada's most esteemed tenors, Ken Lavigne, who will share his incredible story (and voice) at Millennium Place Thursday (Feb. 13) at the Whistler stop on his Road to Carnegie Hall tour.

The iconic Carnegie Hall first captivated the Victoria native over a decade ago while he was living out the struggling musician stereotype so common to the Big Apple, trying to make ends meet and audition when he could in between his extensive vocal training. He managed to get his hands on a ticket, and the experience would leave an indelible mark on the young singer's mind.

"I remember walking in and just falling in love with this place. There was gold leaf everywhere, it's this old-style concert hall and it's enormous," Lavigne explained. "You could feel the atmosphere had this electricity and I kind of likened it to this effervescence, you just feel energized. I didn't know how it was going to happen, but I knew one day when I made it that I was going to sing at this place. It just became one of those far-off dreams."

Fast-forward nearly a decade later, and Lavigne, while content with his career as an in-demand opera singer and founding member of The Canadian Tenors, still felt like there was something missing. At a coffee shop with one of his close friends, someone Lavigne described as "one of those life coach-type people," she asked him what it was he wanted to do with his career when he first became a singer. Lavigne said he'd always wanted to perform at Carnegie Hall.

"And she said, 'Well, what's stopping you?' No one ever put it to me like that before," he explained. "In my head I thought there were a million reasons, but really I didn't know what was stopping me from doing this. So I decided I better find out."

It took Lavigne a full two weeks to work up the courage to make the phone call to figure out what it would take to get his name on the hall's marquee. Expecting that staff would scoff at his idea, he was surprised at how helpful they were. And then he learned what it cost to rent out the building: a whopping $200,000 that Lavigne didn't have.

"They told me how much it would cost and I had to pick my jaw up off the floor," he said.

Despite the many doubters and naysayers who repeatedly told the singer he was crazy, Lavigne set his sights on Carnegie Hall and played numerous shows throughout the Lower Mainland to raise funds - including a packed concert on Vancouver Island where he raised over $100,000 in a single night.

With the money in hand, the concert was set, but Lavigne was still struggling to draw ticket sales, and put the word out to friends from the West Coast to New York in a last-minute push. A mere week before the concert, only 68 advance tickets had been sold. But by the time the lights came on and Lavigne was in front of the microphone, over 1,200 people filled the seats.

"Stepping out on the stage it was nerve-wracking until the orchestra started to play, then I realized I knew what my job was; I just needed to sing the right notes at the right time," he said. "Then the train left the station and you just enjoy the ride, so for me that was what it was really about: taking that breath and enjoying those moments as they came."

Lavigne has built on the momentum from his 2009 Carnegie Hall debut, regularly performing with multi-Grammy winner David Foster and even singing for Prince Charles last fall. In recent years, he's shifted the focus to developing his crossover solo show, belting out a wide variety of classical numbers, pop hits and iconic Canadian songs, like Leonard Cohen's timeless Hallelujah in an effort to appeal to a broad audience and showcase the vast range of his voice.

"I am a classically trained tenor and I love that music, but I recognize that it can be intimidating for those who aren't used to classical music or it's really not what they're into," he said. "What I try to demonstrate in my shows is the versatility of the tenor voice, and it's all about the entertainment factor."

Catch Lavigne with a full band at Millennium Place Thursday at 8 p.m. Tickets are $26.50 general admittance, $24.50 for seniors and students and $22.50 for Whistler Arts Council members. Available at the box office or online at www.artswhistler.com.

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