opera21 June 2014
A R T
S O N G
June 2014: Art Song
Editor-in-chief Jennifer Choi operaswag.wordpress.com Editor Kevin Ng nonpiudifiori.wordpress.com Contact Opera21 opera-‐21.com Email: contact@opera-‐21.com
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O21 Table of Contents
Volume 2 | No. 3
The Britten Man: Interview with Nicholas Phan Kevin Ng
The Necessity of Gender Fluidity in Schubert’s Die Winterreise Laura Petrarcha
The Conversationalist Singer: Interview with Dawn Upshaw Kim Feltkamp
The French Melodie, Verlaine Poems, and Baroque Techniques Keara Parciak
The Process of Art Song: Interview with Nathan Gunn Griffin Candey
Nicholas Phan: The Britten Man By Kevin Ng Having made his Carnegie Hall recital debut in 2010 with a programme of songs by Purcell and Britten, tenor Nicholas Phan has emerged as one of the greatest Britten interpreters of his generation. In 2013 alone, he has performed as a recitalist and with orchestra in New York, Baltimore, Toronto, and Ravinia in addition to performances of composers as diverse as Bach, Handel, Mozart, Schubert, and Stravinsky. I had the chance to talk to him over the phone about his thoughts on performing Britten’s music. What were your first experiences with Britten’s music, and what was your reaction to it? My first experience with Britten’s music was in my youth orchestra. I played the second violin part in the Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra when I was a teenager, and that was my first experience with Britten’s music. I was curious about it and I liked it, but I didn’t get really fascinated until later in college. I was drawn to the story of Britten and Pears, and I started reading the correspondence between them. I was fascinated by the story of this relationship that produced so much incredible music and beauty. From there I started looking at the music, and I fell for it immediately. I think the first piece of his that I sang was On this Island, and from there I was hooked.
sits around a D-natural! You know, I think it was that he was in love with him! I think he was totally inspired by him, and just head over heels in love. They were friends first, and they took a while to get to know each other, but once they fell in love there was a huge musical influx, and the floodgates. What I think really inspired him about Pears’ singing was his diction and his ability to breathe life into the text. You’ve performed works written for Pears that were written over a large time span, from the Michelangelo sonnets in the 40s to the fifth canticle in the 70s. What kind of evolution do you see in how Britten wrote, both purely in terms of the voice and from a more general point of view? There are some things that are the same, and there are some things that are different. For instance, if you take the first canticle and the last canticle, there are these dotted rhythms which are very prominent, and that sort of writing bleeds throughout his music. In terms of what he wrote for Pears’ voice, you do see a lowering in tessitura – if it goes high it only pops up there for a little bit. It doesn’t sit in the same place – the harp folksongs are lower than the earlier arrangements from early in their relationship, so you do see some things
You mentioned that you were interested in Britten’s relationship with Peter Pears. What do you think it was about Peter Pears that inspired Britten so much, and that made him so suited to Britten’s musical style? Well, I think it was really a synthesis of musical styles, since Britten was writing all of his music for him. It was all tailored it to his voice, which is probably why so much of it
change. I also think his harmonic language gets more interesting for sure. If you compare something like the Michelangelo sonnets to, say, the fifth canticle, it’s more adventurous. His sense of melody and harmony certainly evolved over time, but still within the framework of the core of his music.
should be bringing ourselves to the fore all the time, but it’s impossible to avoid at the same time. We have to do our best to follow the instructions that are given to us on the page. In the case of Britten, it’s wonderful that we have these documents of him conducted and playing along with his pieces. It’s a great document of reference, but at the same time he was a practical performing musician. Things like his sense of tempo, or his sense of the moment vary depending on where he was, or what his mood was that day, so you do hear differences. So within that, I think you have to use the recording as a reference, but then you really have to go back to the page as well. I listen to the recordings early on, just to get a sense of the piece and to get a sense of what he was wanting, but I really try to stick to just using his instructions from the page. There’s a lot of detail, actually, and he doesn’t leave much room to go astray if you follow his instructions.
Another interesting thing about Peter Pears is that his operatic roles range from Albert Herring, which is sung today with a lighter voice, to Peter Grimes, which is much heavier. How do you decide which songs or roles are suitable to your voice? Well, I think we forget in this day and age that he wrote all of those roles with one person in mind. That person, being Peter Pears, was capable of that wide range of roles and dynamics and orchestration. It’s funny, because people tend to think of Britten tenors as being very light, and there’s this exception of Peter Grimes. I think that his voice was obviously quite sizeable, and he had really great control of it. I also think he was singing at a time when a lot of people were a lot less boxed in by this idea of fach. I mean, if you look at other tenors who were his contemporaries, they would sing everything from Rossini to Verdi to Wagner!
Britten was known as being politically and socially quite radical, in terms of his pacifism, for example, and his sexuality. To what extent does this come through in his music, in his choice of texts, for example? I think it comes through exactly because of the way that he was. It’s funny – I think if he knew that people today thought of him as a gay pioneer, he’d be a little shocked. He simply led his life, he wasn’t overt about it, though he was open. He certainly wasn’t as outspoken about political things as much as some of his contemporaries and close friends, like Auden and Isherwood, but he had strong opinions, and those opinions seeped through his work. You have things like the War Requiem, which was a fairly strong political
Britten is one of the few composers where you have actual recordings with him conducting, or playing the piano. When you learn a new piece, how much do you listen to the recordings, and then how do you make it your own? I think what’s so beautiful about music is that it’s a collaborative art form. There’s the composer, the poet, and then there’s the performer. As performers, it’s not like we
statement. It showed definitely in his choice of text, and also the forces he composed it for. He was very mindful about those things, and I think that rather than try and preach about it, he put forth the idea of good music first. Still, he was very aware that our art form is in service to the community around us, and he wrote from that standpoint. That’s probably why his music is so powerful.
Well I mean, the folksongs were actually Pears’ idea. Pears suggested that he write them, and Britten started arranging them for their recital tours. He was surprised at how well people responded to them, there are letters of him writing back to England saying “these folksongs, the crowds just loved them, I’m going to do some more!”. What I love about them is that you get a real sense of Britten’s desire to tell a story. He’s a masterful storyteller, and that’s why his operas are so great, I think. He focuses in on these tunes that we all know as part of our collective soul, things we could easily take for granted, and he reharmonizes them and adds these embellishments so that it’s like you’re hearing it for the first time. I think that’s what makes Britten’s folksong arrangements so special – there are other folksong arrangements which are lovely, but there’s not the same attention to detail. In the Britten folksongs, there’s a real sense of drama and life. He takes something very familiar and turns it on its head.
And to ask the flip side of that question: do you think there is too much emphasis on Britten’s homosexuality? It often seems like his sexuality is discussed more than his music. I feel like a lot of people have been asking me about it this year, you know, because I’m gay. And because of the time we live in, especially in the United States, and frankly, worldwide, gay rights are a big issue right now. It makes sense that people are drawn to it, and things were very different back then. I think people are drawn to the story, and I can see why people want to talk about it, and it’s part of who he was. But I also think that his music is so strong, that it would be like people just focusing on the fact that Tchaikovsky was gay. Which they are lately, especially considering the situation in Russia, but his music, just like Tchaikovsky’s music, speaks for itself.
That’s one thing that’s often struck me about Britten’s music, like in the folksongs, and in the Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. He takes something very simple and makes it musically very sophisticated. As a performer, how do you deal with that paradox? I think it takes a lot of work – the hardest things are the simplest, right? I think that’s always a challenge with Britten, especially with the folksongs, and Myra Huang and I have worked really hard to make it sound simple. At the same time, you also have to let the arrangements seep into your bones a little bit, so that you can have the nuance that’s
I wanted to ask specifically about his folksong arrangements. They’ve formed a pretty major component of both of your recordings, and they’re incredibly colourful, for lack of a better word. What about these folksongs do you think appealed to Britten?
required but still not lose sight of the big picture. You also have to provide yourself with options – again, the moment in the performance is what dictates what will come across, and something may strike you, and that’s what’s wonderful about it. There has to be a sense of spontaneity, but there also has to be a strong baseline of work behind it.
I remember when I first started playing Britten, I kept reading everywhere that Britten is quintessentially British – that his music was influenced by the English countryside, and so on. What is it like performing Britten as an American, for American audiences, or is there no difference? There is a Britishness in his music, and it helps being able to know what that is, I guess. I’ve never actually been to Aldeburgh, but I have spent a fair amount of time in the UK, and I have a real appreciation for the culture. I have to say that I think he’s a much more international composer than other British composers of his time, and he really lifted British music up. I think there are other ways in which we can relate to him, and the themes that he deals with are universal. I have found that people see the name on the programme and before they know what it is, they think “oh, it’s going to be difficult”. When I’ve programmed it though, people are really moved by the music. The most convincing case of that was when I first performed Winter Words. We weren’t sure how the audience was going to respond, but the one thing they were drawn to and moved by was Winter Words. My hope is that this year that by having been exposed to it, they can feel less intimidated when they see Britten’s name on a programme.
Britten was quite well known for setting the English text. What about his use of the language is so interesting and unique? Well, I’m about to do this tour of Britten and Schubert, and what makes him unique is that to me, at least, he’s the Schubert of English song. He’s able to realize a piece of music without making it sound obvious or cheap. It’s still beautiful music, and he pushes the capability of what the instrument is capable of. In Winter Words, for instance, in the second song, you hear the train, the whistle, and he manages to make this come out of the piano. It’s very evocative, and he never gets in the way of the text. When he was writing the third canticle, there’s a lot of correspondence between him and Sitwell, and he said that all he really did was get out of the way of the text and let the words speak for themselves”. I think that as a composer, he came from a very respectful place, and I think it’s that reverence that really came through when writing in English.
Kevin is a second year university student who dreams of a career in the opera world, which is why he is currently studying cell biology and doing chemistry labs. You can find him at nonpiudifiori.wordpress.com.
“No Material for a Woman”?: The Necessity of Gender Fluidity in Schubert’s Die Winterreise By Laura Petrarcha “Can we discuss this like civilized people?” This is the plea that critic and journalist Matthew Gureswitsch makes at the beginning of his review of Brigitte Fassbaender and Aribert Reimann’s 1988 recording of Die Winterreise. He wants to discuss the problems of a woman recording Schubert’s masterwork, and he’s begging our indulgence because he’s arguing, “this is no material for a woman.” If we were to discuss this “like civilized people,” Mr. Gureswitsch, then we have to recognize that your assumption contains several serious flaws about how gender functions both in the song cycle and the world. First: it is sexist and profoundly wrong to exclude people from singing some of the greatest lieder solely based on gender. But beyond that, to characterize Winterreise as a representation of male emotional experience that only men can interpret, as Gureswitsch does, is misunderstanding the purpose and impact of the cycle. Gureswitsch characterizes the problem as follows: Winterreise is such an emotionally intense cycle that is must be presented without dressing or artifice. A woman singing from a male perspective is “patent artifice,” and according to Gureswitsch it is forgivable on the opera stage, but on the recital platform, the presence of a woman gets between the musical narrative and the audience. And the first song, ‘Gute Nacht’, appears to establish a simple heterosexual narrative: “Das Madchen spracht von Liebe/Die Mutter gar von Eh’? (The maiden spoke of love/Her mother of
marriage even). Since a female love interest and traditional marriage are spoken of in the same breath, we can (and in Gureswitsch’s view) assume that a man is speaking to us. But must we make that assumption? Are we bound to a literal interpretation of the text? The audience’s impulse may be to place the story firmly in Schubert’s time, but since the recital hall has none of the trappings of theater, it is up to the audience to contextualize the story in space and time. Each audience member can bring their own context to their side of the recital platform: personal struggles, larger issues of modernity and society, and all of the questions you might be asking yourself about humanity on that particular day, in that particular moment. A woman singer makes it easier for an audience member to think about queer or gender nonnormative contexts for Schubert’s cycle: you have to ask yourself if you need to identify the persona as a woman, a man, a genderless entity, or none of the above. All of these answers could be correct; it depends on singer’s interpretive choices and vocal color. Some interpretations of Winterreise lend themselves easily to gendered classifications. For example, Jonas Kaufmann’s virile tenor suggests physically powerful but emotionally desolate man, and Lotte Lehmann’s sweet Straussian soprano suggests a feminine kindness that heartbreak has ravaged beyond repair. But there are voices that exist between and beyond male and female. Ian Bostridge’s reedy tenor evokes something haunted and fey, as if there 7
is a part of the Winterreise persona that is already communing with the spirit world. Brigitte Fassbaender’s chest tones sound as if they are scratching something lower than sadness or desperation, something primal that we cannot necessarily name. And Alice Coote’s dark murmuring timbre conveys the emotional exhaustion of one who is confronting the reality of eternal loneliness. These interpretations, along with many, many others, favor vocal coloring and emotional accuracy over any kind of gender definition. So we do not need to impose a gender on the Winterreise persona: human is enough of a descriptor. Muller’s poetry itself diverts attention away from the wanderer’s gender by focusing instead on how the wanderer expresses emotion and how those expressions interact with the world. The wanderer becomes so fixated on “mein Tranen” (my tears) and “mein Herz” (my heart) that they in essence become features in the landscape and perhaps even characters in the narrative. In “Gerfrorne Tranen”, “Erstarrung”, and “Wasserflut”, the wanderer’s tears begin frozen, but the wanderer imagines that the tears are so hot from emotional pain that they melt the snow and stream to the beloved’s house. By “Wasserflut,” the tears have become a stream, a natural force in their own right. The wanderer’s heart also interacts with the natural word: it rages beneath a still surface like the river in “Auf dem Flusse” and flashes like lightning through a sunrise in “Der sturmische Morgen.” And the persona often talks directly to “Mein Herz”, most notably in “Die Post” where the wanderer tries to smother the heart’s excitement about the arrival of the mail coach. The effect is a musical dialogue in
which the heart seems to exist independent of the wanderer and carries a raging hope outside and beyond the cold acceptance of rejection and heartbreak. In “Mut!”, the wanderer’s gutwrenching final burst of strength, the wanderer stands against the heart and against the wind and weather which appear in the poetry as one force. The wanderer sees this emotional maelstrom, tries to carry on in spite of it, but collapses into the despair of “Der Nebensonnen” with the realization that sometimes our emotions get bigger than us. The poetry brings the innermost depths of a person into physical space, so the wanderer’s journey reminds us that emotions are as ubiquitous and as mutable as the world around us. All of us are capable of flood-like depths, wind-blown rages, and eerie poststorm stillnesses, and all of us know what it’s like to move from one to the other. There are no emotions that are specific or inherent to men that women cannot experience, and therefore it is impossible to look at the emotional expanse of Winterreise and identify it as singularly male. To call Winterreise a man’s journey and to define the wanderer as absolutely male is imposing boundaries on Schubert and Muller’s unbounded expression of human emotion. But there is a moment in the cycle in which the Winterreise persona appears to gender as male, yet even that is more complex and inconclusive than it appears. The fourteenth song is titled “Der Greise Kopf”, or “the Grey Head”, and in it the persona says: “Der glaubt ich schon ein Greis zu sein” which translates to “I believed I was an old man.” The word for old man, “Greise,” does not resemble the word for old woman, which is “Alte.” But the Winterreise persona is
creating an ideal for the future, and we must remember that imagining becoming an old man does not necessarily mean being a man at present. What we often forget about gender, besides the fact that it is possible to transcend the male/female binary, is that it is not necessarily a fixed state. It is, like emotion, endlessly mutable. A person can change their gender identification in their lifetime, perhaps in one major transition, or perhaps fluidly and often, adapting to whatever their mindset and their body tell them. We should allow the Winterreise persona that same freedom. The recital hall is perhaps the ideal place to acknowledge and embrace gender fluidity
because the platform itself is something of changeling: it adapts to the needs of the repertoire, the performers, the audience. When we see and hear a woman on the platform singing Winterreise, then we know we must shatter our expectations and preconceptions of gender to involve ourselves in the experience. And hopefully that will be liberating. Maybe we can learn to shatter those gender preconceptions every time we enter a recital hall, regardless of the repertoire or the gender of the performer. And maybe after a while those absolutist concepts of “male” and “female” will stay broken.
Laura is a first year master’s student at Fordham University. She works in digital marketing and studies English literature. She spends her spare time running up and down the velvet steps at the Met. You can find her at fyeahoperasingers.tumblr.com and on Twitter as petrarchian.
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Dawn Upshaw: The Conversationalist Singer By Kim Feltkamp On a sunny afternoon, overlooking the tranquil countryside of Dutchess County, New York, I had the privilege of interviewing internationally acclaimed soprano Dawn Upshaw. Ms. Upshaw, in her humble and down-to-earth manner, would be appalled at me listing her various accomplishments (Grammys, MacArthur Genius Grant, etc), so I’ll refrain from doing so. Instead, I’ll allow her intelligence and good nature speak for itself. What first drew you to singing Art Song? I think I was drawn to the intimacy of it. Of course, when we all first study classical singing, we end up usually beginning with Art Song. It’s funny, I don’t call it that anymore. What do I call it? Just song. Art Song implies classical music. And I think, especially in the beginning, it was not the easiest path for me to choose to study singing, with the idea of performing, because I think I used to be shyer, a little bit. I know it’s hard to believe. [laughs] I think that the intimacy of song, and the depth of emotion that it could evoke, made me feel like there was a place for me in it. That it was a way I could express myself that felt true to myself. I was always sure, when I was just starting voice lessons, that opera was not for me. I started out thinking that opera was the antithesis of what I wanted to do and song was what I wanted to do. Because song seemed cozier to me. More comforting.
the head of the Met young artist program. I did get an audition and, as scary as that whole experience was, it opened my mind to the true art form, which I really had no understanding of. Because I had no experience with it, unfortunately. We all grow up in this country and, if we don’t have parents who love to listen to opera, we don’t typically learn much about it in school. So I didn’t learn about it at all. But then, as I became fascinated with opera and the potential in opera, I still saw song as…I’m not sure how to say this… as my little cottage in the woods as opposed to something that’s a bit more extroverted. Song is a more intimate and private experience, and I still feel that way. And that’s what makes it difficult to perform? It makes it easy and difficult at the same time. I think that you’re even more vulnerable, a little more naked. I think you’re always naked when you’re performing, and when you’re singing, just like anybody that’s trying to convey something of meaning. You have to expose an inner part of your soul to do that, to be true to it.
Have your feelings about song and opera changed as you’ve done opera? I think so. I was totally ignorant about opera. I had all of these prejudices against it and ideas that were totally wrong about it. I had no experience with it, either. In college, I went to maybe one opera a year. It was really my voice teacher in graduate school who encouraged me to be heard by the person at
What do you, as a performer, get from singing song that you don’t get from singing opera? 11
I think I feel a little bit more like I’m having a conversation, because it’s usually just with one other musician, the pianist. So I feel the dialogue is more one-on-one than opera or a concert performance where you’re supported with full orchestra. For that, the overall feeling of the evening is ensemble. I’m especially drawn to song. Now that I’m older and I have people that I love making music with, that conversation is of more and more interest to me. Also, I enjoy the miniature. I love short stories. I think probably I love Art Song for the intensity, the clarity, and the short form. I find that fascinating.
their works. What do you especially love about that process? I love investigating and learning more about forms of communication and learning more about myself, in a sense, and what I can share. You’ve got a blank slate and there are advantages and disadvantages to not having any historical traditions to study or take a listen to. The advantage to that is that you are free. There’s this great sense of freedom. The disadvantage to that is that you have to work really hard to get to the truth and understand. I think sometimes I work on a new piece and it’s like working with a new foreign language. I’m trying to decipher it in order to say something. And it can take longer with a brand new piece, with a new composer, but it can also be immediate. It changes, it’s different. But I feel very alive when I’m working with a composer. I feel vital and fresh and alive. That’s always the big draw for me to do music of my own time with living composers.
Why do you think Art Song is important within the musical spectrum? I guess the question I ask in my own head is, why wouldn’t it be important? [laughs] I feel because there isn’t usually a strong narrative, you’re working all the time with experiences or emotions or situations that you’re constantly trying to share with other people that they, too, have experienced. When I’m performing, I sense more the audience and their response in a song recital than I do from the opera stage. There’s that relationship, too. It’s essential. And for me, as an audience member, too, it’s a very special experience when I’m really moved by a singer. I can feel changed in a different way, in a more personal way, than in opera. A powerful opera experience is big and overwhelming sometimes. It’s moving and it can be intimate, but most of the time it’s this big thing that I’m responding to.
Do you think that, because it takes so long to decipher composers’ languages, you enjoy coming back to the same composer again, maybe knowing what you’re coming into? Do you enjoy that as well? Yes. Even in order to understand it better sometimes. There have been several composers who I’ve thought: I am really drawn to this; I don’t quite understand it yet, but I want to do more because I really know there’s something there for me. I think that another really important thing to me has nothing to do with me, because I want to make sure that I’m not just talking about myself. That’s not why I’m thinking of this, because I have spoken about this before. Composers
You’ve worked with many living composers, collaborating and premiering
need to be heard. I feel like sometimes even when we don’t understand it yet, the next generation will. There’s actually something that happens when a piece is repeated. Molecules change or something actually happens so that on its third or fourth performance, and no matter who’s performing it or how many people have heard it, I feel like it matures, it evolves. That’s one thing. The other thing about that is that I truly believe that it’s very important for a composer, in order to write this amazing piece that’s going to be one of the greatest pieces or the piece that this composer is going to be best known for, must be given multiple opportunities because it might be the fifth piece that composer writes. Those pieces one through four are essential. They absolutely need to be written and performed, but they may not be at the same mature level. So the composer also needs a chance to grow and mature and the only way to do that is to have his or her music performed. I’m a big believer in, if I’m interested in a particular composer, devoting at least a few opportunities and performances of my own to that composer’s music, so that the music can grow and mature.
believe that sometimes art, and music in particular, is traveling in its own time that might be different than time as we experience it. Describe one experience of song that stands out in your memory as being particularly special for some reason. I think it’s taken me a while to be able to totally relax in a song recital. I think those moments now…I like any situation where it just feels like I’m singing in my living room to a bunch of people who I know want to be there. And I don’t always have that feeling. But, I think one of the greatest, one of the most meaningful experiences for me was when I came back to singing after having gone through chemotherapy. I couldn’t stand ever wearing a wig when I lost all my hair and everything. I decided that I would just go out and do this concert bald. Which, it wasn’t that it took so much courage for me to do that or anything, but it added somehow to my nakedness in the experience. And also to this connection with the audience of feeling that there was nothing in the way, between me and the audience, and these songs and the audience. That was one of the freest nights ever for me. I felt like the music lived in an almost completely free way. So that was a very special memory. When you feel like the music speaks completely freely through you, that’s the best. When you feel like you haven’t gotten in the music’s way. You’re just an expressive vehicle. In order for it to be true, not put on, not presented, it needs to be honest you with this music coming through you. So that’s our job, to figure out how to do that. And I felt like I had accomplished it a little bit more easily that night.
It’s interesting to think about music evolving on its own over time. Because then you think of these things that have been around for hundreds of years and I wonder how it was different then than it is now. Yeah. You think about big pieces we hear now and understand the musical language completely, or fairly well, after just one or two hearings. Like “Rite of Spring” by Stravinsky. And how when that was first played, apparently it caused a riot. I really
How can we, as musicians or patrons of the arts, promote and enhance Art Song in American culture? Well, one thing that I think is happening right now, with your generation, is presenting concerts in all sorts of venues. Getting away from this idea that we need concert halls to present music. Taking it off its pedestal is healthier. You don’t have to have a big ol’ hall to have nice acoustics. It’s about getting it out there. It would also be great if children were exposed to more of this music: taken to concerts, studying music in school a little bit. I think one of the things I feel strongly about when I’m teaching is singing in our own language more. The young singer learns a great deal about expression and how to use all of the tools we have to sing a piece when we work through pieces in our own language. So I always am hopeful that the students will have maybe, ideally, half of their repertoire in English and half in other languages. I think, in this country, it’s hard work learning how to express well and clearly in another language. It’s hard work for the people who are trying to do it and it’s hard work for those people [in the audience] who don’t speak those
languages and don’t have any reference; it’s hard to connect with it in a concert. Obviously, there is great music that we all want to sing in other languages, and I think it should be shared with American audiences. I’m not talking about completely English programs. I’m not talking about taking Schubert and putting it in English. But I do wish that English language [song] was presented more frequently. If you could have any poetry, that hasn’t been set yet, set to music, what would you choose? Wow. That’s an interesting question, because when I work with composers on a new commission, on a new piece, I don’t like to offer poetry. It works best when the composer has chosen the poetry. Actually my father writes poetry, just for himself and the family, and I’ve often thought about looking through all his poems and seeing if one would be wellsuited to song. But I like all sorts of poetry and there’s a lot of poetry I like that I don’t want set to music. It’s got to be really hard for poets, nearly
Kim Feltkamp is a mezzo-soprano currently pursuing her MM at Bard College in Dawn Upshaw’s Vocal Arts Program. She has been part of the online opera community as OperaRox, providing interactive opera liveshows and contests to educate and unite the opera community. She is also a published writer. You can find her at OperaRox, Kimozart, and her professional website.
The French Mélodie, Verlaine poems, and Baroque Techniques By Keara Parciak strumming while the vocal part sings a very Over the years, the great French cheerful line to accompany it. When the vocal composers have perfected the art of the line reaches the word “tendre” (tender) the mélodie. Composers like Fauré and Debussy harmony changes to reflect the text. As with have created pieces that are vocally, the Fauré setting, the line “tourbillonnent…” compositionally and technically beautiful is filled with triplets in the vocal line to mimic using the text of major works of French the spiraling in the text. poetry. To do this, these composers use a Debussy’s Il pleure dans mon coeur is technique similar to that of baroque another example which uses this technique. composers with madrigals. This word The poem by Paul Verlaine talks of loss and painting allowed composers to fully bring to anguish, and Debussy uses this as a means of life the words of the great French poets; in creating a somber effect with the minor mode. particular, the words of the Symbolist poet In addition to the overall effect of the text, Paul Verlaine. Debussy creates the sound of rain falling on Mandoline from Paul Verlaine’s Les Fêtes the streets to echo the text in the piano. As the Galantes is a notable example of this. Fauré’s piece goes on, the rain-like accompaniment setting of this poem uses an accompanimental intensifies up until “quoi….nulle trahison! Ce figure that mimics a mandolin playing, while deuil est sans raison” (“what useless betrayal? the voice sings a beautiful melodic line. At This pain has no reason”). One could assume the end of the first two stanzas, the voice sings that intensification is not only musical, but a figure that mimics a mandolin while the could also represent a literal increase in the piano still maintains the lyrical line to intensity of the weather. As the piece comes maintain the effect. As the piece continues to an end, the rainstorm in the accompaniment the piano plays a spiraling figure that mimics maintains a steady rhythm and dynamic until a whirlwind to add to the words the end. Fauré’s Spleen (his setting of the “tourbillonnent dans l’extase d’une lune rose text) also creates a similar effect. The et grise” (“spinning in the ecstasy of a pink accompaniment is a steady eighth note beat and gray moon”). The tonality also shifts to intended to mimic the sound of steady rainfall. something ambiguously major to Over that, the voice sings a languishing line to accommodate the text. Debussy’s setting of reflect the text. The last line in the vocal part this poem is very different in that he ends abruptly as if to almost create the illusion accentuates the idea of the mandolin that the vocalist is in too much pain to throughout the accompaniment. The piano continue. part has the jovial affect of a mandolin Keara Parciak is a pianist, mezzo-soprano, and a composer (who also dabbles in conducting). She recently graduated from Saint Joseph's University with degrees in Music (performance and composition) and French. This fall, Keara will attend Westminster Choir College to get her masters in sacred music with concentrations in piano and composition.
Nathan Gunn: The Process of Art Song By Griffin Candey Of the many charms of the central Illinois cornfields where I attended graduate school and now subsequently live and compose, one of the most notable is the presence of the Gunns – Nathan and Julie, both of whom are professors at the University of Illinois. Every opera student here seems to have a first Gunn-sighting story – mine was nervously walking into my first coaching with Julie, hoping that I wouldn’t botch too much of my German, and almost running squarely into Nathan. They have been terrific mentors to my colleagues and I, and their practical experience prepares us for a practical life in music. They were recently named the new directors of the program here and are already implementing many new ideas, including the addition of a musical theatre major and a season to reflect the changing dynamic of professional opera houses. Nathan graciously agreed to let me interview him about his relationship to art song. Unable to catch him in person between his runs of Il Barbiere di Siviglia at the Chicago Lyric and Dallas, I caught up with him on Skype. Let’s start sort of basic – what are the main differences and similarities, to you, between opera and art song? I find that it’s mostly that they’re on a much different scale. Opera is more of a team sport – it’s like football in a big stadium, with a lot of people involved – whereas art song is more like gymnastics, or maybe like dance. It’s more of an individual effort. And opera is sung theatre, and there’s a story that you’re all preset to follow, but with art song, it’s a story that you tell by yourself – or, with the help of the accompanist, maybe four to five others in a chamber setting, tops. That smaller scale allows the expression to be more individual, more keen.
Some more well-known singers sometimes do recitals in larger halls or opera houses. Do you think that art song is as effective in those sorts of spaces, and do you do anything to alter the presentation in those circumstances? I don’t think that it’s quite the same. I understand why it’s done, logistically – there are some great singers, and a lot of people want to see them, so putting on recitals in the 2,500-seat houses is sometimes necessary. But I don’t think that it is really the same kind of communication – art song is really less about the spectacle. When I’ve had to perform in those situations, it’s definitely vocally different. I have often transposed songs up to accommodate the larger space and a larger audience. In communicating the text, I often have to paint with a bigger paintbrush, paint in bigger strokes, to convey all that I want to convey.
The relationship between the text and the music is also somewhat different for both: in creating operas, the libretto is often a more fluid thing, and it changes as the project progresses – with art song, the poetry comes first and, aside from some small tweaks, is usually pretty fixed and very rarely altered.
Describe one experience with Art Song that stands out in your memory as being particularly special. The first time that I sang a recital with John Wustman, which was my senior recital – I sang Die Schöne Müllerin, and it was the first time that I couldn’t go through the entire program in my head, so it was really a leap of faith. Art song was really what brought me into music, from the beginning. There was another time for a concert in New York, also Die Schöne Müllerin, that John got sick and Julie [Gunn] had to fill in at the last second, literally the day before. She was transposing music on the spot, because our copy didn’t have everything in the keys in which I sang it – it was pretty impressive.
you’re trying to get at with art song – honest communication. Is that different from opera? Do you think that you can achieve the same thing with an opera? You can, but there are a lot more cogs that have to fall into place. Again, it’s a team sport, so everyone has to be on the same page at the same time. I know that you’ve done a fair deal of new music, both art song and opera. How involved are you in the creation of new song cycles? Usually not at all. I usually receive the song cycles when they’re already completed. Then, once I have them, I very rarely alter them. If I do, they’re just minor things, transpositions or smoothing out of some melodies to make the text speak – and in most every case, the composer is completely fine with the changes, and is happy for the feedback. I’ve sung plenty of composer’s songs – the one that comes to mind (and who often flies under the radar) is Frank Ferko. He has similar tastes in religious poetry as me, and his music is incredibly singable. I’ve always enjoyed his work. I’ve also recorded plenty of things by Gene Scheer, Ben Moore, and Jake Heggie, among others.
More recently, I sang a concert of four Ives songs at the Academy of Arts and Letters in New York. They had purchased and transported the room, which was the actual room that Charles Ives composed in – they brought it to New York to preserve it, not a thing in it had been altered – and we performed it on the piano with which he composed. It was pretty surreal. There are always moments on every recital that just ‘feel right,’ when everything’s speaking – and those examples were times of mustering up the courage to go through with it and bring the performance to that level. Some of the best art song work that I’ve done with Julie has been in spaces without the best piano or when I wasn’t in perfect vocal health – but those times are usually the times when you the music really breaks down barriers and you perform the most honestly. That’s really what
When some people think of vocal music, they often lump it into art song and opera, but there is plenty of middle ground – longer pieces with bigger orchestrations, sometimes all on a single poem. Specifically, I’m thinking about the recording that I have of you singing John Adams’ The Wound-Dresser. When you
prepare longer pieces like that, do you find the preparation different? Is it more like operatic character development than the average art song? That Adams piece – that’s a great piece. That, and John Harbison’s Fifth Symphony, they’re both long-form pieces. It’s the same with Jennifer Higdon’s “Dooryard Bloom,” which is also Whitman text. And yeah, the preparation definitely shares some similarities to character development for an opera. In these, it’s less of a full story as it is just a soliloquy – we see this character, we’re not sure why he’s there, he shares part of himself with those listening. With Harbison’s Fifth, it really was a sort of character development, because you’re playing Orpheus, and you’re following his storyline throughout the piece.
the words, past their meaning, into how their presented by the composer. The meaning of the words is as important as how they’re presented. You even have to get into how the word fits, physiologically – we know what “Liebe” means, but you have to get into how it fits into the text, its meaning in the moment, what it meant to the composer. Do you think that the characters in those longer Schumann/Schubert cycles (the protagonist or narrator) are built into the cycle, or does it come from how you read and connect to the cycle? …I know that that’s a bit of a schmaltzy question. No, I know what you mean. I think that the interpretation always comes somewhat from how you emotionally connect with the text and the cycle. And that’s the nice thing about those cycles, is that you can sing them your whole life and sing them differently over and over again. We become different people, and so the poetry means different things to us as we change.
Do you find that that sort of development is similar with the longer, best-known cycles of Schubert and Schumann? It is sort of the same yeah, in thinking about it as a soliloquy. It’s funny, people always lump those two together, but I find Schumann and Schubert to be essentially night and day. I find Schumann to be much closer to – probably to Wolf, surprisingly enough. And Schubert I equate much more closely with Brahms, or maybe Ives. With Schubert, the text is the absolute key, and because it’s often somewhat strophic, you need to really dig into the text to draw out what the composer is trying to say with how they set it.
Here’s another sort of fluff question: if you had to pinpoint a favorite cycle (or two, or more), which would you pick? Is Schöne Müllerin close to your heart, it being your first cycle? Die Schone Mullerin is definitely one, and Winterreise. Dichterliebe, too. I’ve always liked Mahler’s Song of the Wayfarer. Kindertotenlieder just makes me depressed – it’s hard for me to enjoy that one.
With Schumann, as with Wolf and Mahler, the music is often so rich and beautiful that you can, you know, kind of phone it in by simply making pretty sounds. But in those, just as much, it’s essential to stick to the meaning of
When you make recordings, do you have to adapt your voice to that? I really don’t, no. If the repertoire is a little more casual, more cabaret-style, I may
transpose the songs down a bit in order to keep it all below the passaggio, but otherwise, I don’t alter much. I did make a recording once that was “Great Voices Sing John Denver,” and I sang his “Calypso,” which gets up there pretty high [squeaky demonstration of high part] – I just took it down the octave while the chorus sang the melody.
On that note – are there any particular challenges or benefits to singing in English? For me, personally, I think that the aspirated consonants are the most difficult – they really mess with the vocalization, they get in the way. Aside from that, I love singing in English, and I do it quite a bit. It’s my mother tongue, you know, so I can really bring subtleties to the text that I simply can’t do in other languages.
Griffin Candey is both an opera performer and composer. As a tenor, he performs a great deal of Mozart and Rossini, as well as classical oratorio; as a composer, he strives to create and establish a more approachable, communicative form of opera. Maurice Ravel is his spirit animal.