NYFOS logo

Terrence McNally

Librettist/lyricist Mark Campbell, originally scheduled to be our Artist of the Month, has chosen to relinquish his title to the late Terrence McNally and offers an appreciation of his colleague’s work.

New York Festival of Song recently asked me to assume the mantle of their April “Artist of the Month.” I asked NYFOS if I might give up my dazzling tiara to the late Mr. Terrence McNally and write an appreciation of his work in opera and musicals. While some of you may quibble that McNally has never written an art song per se, I would argue that the drama he created in his stories generated some of the best musical moments of the last fifty years. And anyway…New York Festival of Song is never just about songs, which is one of many reasons the organization is so vital to our cultural life.

I wasn’t close to McNally and knew him really only as a colleague. However, we did briefly strike up an acquaintance when we were in residence together at the White Oak Sundance Theatre Lab in 2004. I had sauntered by him in a pair of perhaps too abbreviated shorts (it was Florida in May!) and McNally declared: “nice gams.” I was flattered. Later that day, I was impressed. Mr. McNally was one of a few guest theatrical luminaries that had been imported to White Oak to assist with a work I had created with my two collaborators. After a, shall we say, less than successful reading, he went right for the truth: “I don’t get the feeling that the three of you sat down and decided precisely what this story is about.” 

This sounds like a pretty obvious, simplistic statement…but it’s actually everything. Today, so many theatrical works—especially operas—often fail because creators haven’t asked that very crucial question about the story they’re telling. Audiences are forced to rely on program notes to answer the annoyingly big “why?” that dangles from the proscenium because the composer and librettist (or book writer and lyricist) failed to. And because of that, songs from these works die a painful and inconsequential death. Mr. McNally proved again and again that the basis of a good song in an opera or musical is in the story and was therefore able to get such fine music and lyrics from his collaborators, which included Jake Heggie, Lynn Ahrens, Stephen Flaherty, David Yazbeck, John Kander and Fred Ebb. 

I saw McNally and Heggie’s Dead Man Walking in 2002 at New York City Opera and it, along with Sondheim and Wheeler’s Sweeney Todd and Corigliano and Hoffman’s The Ghosts of Versailles, pointed me toward a career as an opera librettist. Before that, I had been a musical theatre lyricist who kept leaning timorously toward opera. I’ve made no secret of my love for Sondheim, and it seemed to me like opera was an extension of what he was doing dramatically and musically—but I had the misperception that opera was elitist, pretentious, irrelevant, humorless, and…well, dull. Heggie and McNally’s work beautifully confounded my bias: the libretto and music are in perfect alignment with the story and the result is galvanizing. 

More recently, McNally joined a coalition of librettists that Michael Korie and I formed with the Dramatists Guild to help all us pesky librettists gain some parity in the industry—something Mr. McNally believed in passionately. One our missions is to help librettists achieve proper crediting for their work. To that end, Korie and I created a short film called “Credit the Librettist.” In an outtake from this film, McNally says: “The biggest problem with contemporary opera is the librettos. They’re not done by people with a sense of theatre. A lot of them sound like they were written over the telephone…you don’t feel the sweat of two heads bumping together. And I really believe passionately that a strong libretto is the basis of a strong opera.”

One quality in Mr. McNally’s work I admire is his political activism, especially for the LGBTQ+ community. There are arguments against the death penalty, racism, homophobia and class inequality—among other issues—in his musical works. But he doesn’t deliver them in screeds. They are found in story, in humor, in character, in situation, in detail. And that’s how they grow so beautifully into song.

By now, you’re probably weary of reading the following quote from McNally’s play Master Class, voiced by his somewhat fictionalized portrayal of Maria Callas. But it just feels too right not to repeat it now, when April has truly earned its title of the cruelest month:

“I’m not good with words, but I have tried to reach you. To communicate something of what I feel about what we do as artists, as musicians and human beings. The sun will not fall down from the sky if there are no more Traviatas. The world can and will go on without us but I have to think we have made this world a better place. That we have left it richer, wiser than had we not chosen the way of art.” 

Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum

Composer Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum previews her upcoming NYFOS Next evening, discusses her approach to collaboration, and more as our Artist of the Month.

Hear Nora’s work on NYFOS Next: Laura Karpman & Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum on March 25.

You, along with Laura Karpman, are co-curating an evening of our NYFOS series this March. Can you tell us about the program you’ve come up with and what led you to include the pieces you’ve decided to present?

AND STILL WE DREAM is a concert that looks through a feminist lens at history and into the future. It profiles powerful people who have each made important contributions to expand equity and opportunity. Our concept is about erasing time, so you have this contemporary immersive visceral connection with these amazing women who come to life through music. 

Let me break it down — Through the voices of soprano Jennifer Zetlan, mezzo-soprano Devony Smith, we experience Susan B. Anthony in conversation with Elizabeth Cady Stanton in Laura Karpman & Kelley Rourke’s And Still We Dream. In my piece, we hear Sojourner Truth weave with Maria W. Stewart on the tongue of poet Lynne Procope. Kathryn Bostic focuses us into a space and power in her regal WomanSong. Ida Up Front, Laura Kaminsky and Leah Maddrie is a powerful discussion about fighting for justice. And Define “Woman” by Laura Karpman and Kai-Lilly Karpman, explodes out the words we use to describe and question gender. Michael Barrett has described this program as a music and poetry slam. I think he’s right about that.

The program includes a new song from you; can you give us a preview of what we can expect in this piece? What were your inspirations as you composed it?

Many moons ago, I co-founded VisionIntoArt with the great Paola Prestini (who has gone on to blow up what we know to be contemporary music, collaboration, and interdisciplinary art!). Poet Lynne Procope was an important voice in VisionIntoArt. I always loved the way she built language – rhythmic, driving, exciting, super personal and expressive. When Laura (Karpman) and I started growing out this program, Lynne was the first person who came to mind for this new piece. Lynne created this beautiful language out of 19th century words, and together we developed what I’ve been calling ‘shadow call and response.’ So it’s not just successive back and forth of soprano and poet trading words, but words and voices also shadow each other. I really like the marriage of spoken and sung words. Each person carrying the next.

I read a piece you wrote for Indiewire about attending a residency at the Sundance Lab in 2014 and was stuck by your excitement over the ability to work closely in person with sound designers (and all the other professionals that help a film’s sound take shape) on your projects there. Have you been able to recreate this kind of close collaboration in any of your film scoring work since then? If not, how do you use technology to compensate for physical proximity as you work toward a shared vision?

I am extremely fond of collaboration. I think the deeper you can go working with another person, you ideally get to a point where the music is working with the music, the sound with the sound, the words with the music, the sound design with the score. So it’s no longer about you but the stuff itself asserts its own voice and your job is to listen. My wife, Laura Karpman, and I collaborate all the time too. It’s pure joy. We fight about meters (as every married couple does?) and know each other well enough to work out ideas on the page, in a timeline, in the studio. And when I’m collaborating with someone who isn’t local (which is most of the time), yes, technology is our friend. I am constantly sending sounds, playlists, recordings, ideas back and forth.

Collaboration seems to form a through line in your career, from co-founding the multimedia-focused production company VisionIntoArt to the creation of Ask Your Mama to your work on film scores. Can you speak to what you’ve learned about working with other artists, and what makes a successful artistic partnership?

Collaboration isn’t about agreement. Collaboration is about willingness to get your fingernails dirty. Reject it. Love it. Get in there. And if everyone has that same point of view from the start, you can make something really unique and exciting.

Are there any projects coming up that you are particularly excited about and would like to share (other than NYFOS Next, of course)?

I just scored this wickedly cool project directed by Catherine Hardwicke for Quibi, a new content platform that is set to launch in April that takes cinema and delivers it as short-form pieces. Can’t wait for everyone to check it out.

What was the last music you listened to before answering these questions?

Last piece I listened to was music that is being composed in Laura and my studio.

When you aren’t making music, what is your favorite way to spend your time?

Hanging with our amazing son and taking our dogs for walks. I also infinitely enjoy excellent food.

NYFOS is devoted to ‘song’ and the wide variety of styles that term encompasses. What is special about ‘song’ to you? 

Song is the purest music. It is the quietest and most intimate. It’s how we all start out as children and what connects us no matter what language we speak. It boils any instrument down to the human instrument. I think I’d like to live in a world where people only sang. 

What is your favorite song?  (Qualify your answer to this possibly impossible question as needed.)

I can’t even begin to answer this question. “Send In The Clowns” by Stephen Sondheim; “Black Anenomes” by Joseph Schwantner, Britten, Bernstein, “Ask Your Mama” by Laura Karpman, “Happy Birthday” by Patty and Mildred Hill, old sacred music, ok it is too hard to answer this question!

Laura Karpman

Composer Laura Karpman talks about the process of writing music for tv and her new work inspired by Susan B. Anthony & Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Hear Laura’s work on NYFOS Next: Laura Karpman & Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum on March 25.

On your upcoming NYFOS Next program is a new work from you for mezzo-soprano and two pianos; can you give us a preview of what we can expect in this piece?

Of course! It’s a tour de force for one mezzo-soprano who plays both the roles of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, two 19th century suffragists, who both, along with many other women, birthed American feminism. They had a remarkably intimate friendship and shared many thoughts, dreams and insecurities with each other. In some ways, they were two heads on one body…

You create music for an especially wide variety of contexts, from the concert hall and opera stage to television, movie, and even video games scores. How does your composition process change as you create music for these different media formats?

It really doesn’t change. I am the same composer, same musician, same thinker in every genre I work in. Obviously, the requirements of every project are different, some in technical and some in creative ways.

Can you walk us through a typical timeline for your work on a score for television or a movie? What do you have access to as you begin the project?  How involved are you with adjusting the music to synch up to a final edit of the work?

Every project is different, but the craziest is episodic television, so let’s talk about that. Sometimes, you look at a script, but most often you spot the project, which means deciding where exactly the music should go. Then you have as much as a week, but sometimes only 3 days to write 30-45 minutes of music. The music then gets sent to the editor, and then to the executive producers, sometimes, the network, then changes must be made and the music must get recorded, mixed and delivered, sometimes in a matter of hours.  

You studied with composer William Bolcom, a great friend of NYFOS, during your undergraduate program at University of Michigan. Is there anything that you particularly remember from your time with him? 

I loved his spirit and I loved his music, especially his work with his wife Joan. We worked, believe it or not, mostly on Fux counterpoint.

You’ve performed as a singer, notably a jazz singer, at points in your career. Is this still a part of your life?  Do you ever compose with yourself in mind as the performer?

Most unfortunately, I always do! And I have things that I do that are so easy for me that are hard for others, but mostly vice a versa…and then I send them demos of me singing that are completely wretched. I am so glad that I can sing a little – it comes in handy not only in my film work, but very much in my vocal writing.

Are there any projects coming up that you are particularly excited about and would like to share (other than NYFOS Next, of course)?

I’m working on two television series that I can’t announce just yet, but I am incredibly excited about them both. I have several opera and musical theater works that are in development that deal with big social issues.

What was the last music you listened to before answering these questions?

I just landed from the Peabody Studio Orchestra performance of my work ASK YOUR MAMA. It was one of the most beautiful, spirited performances of any kind that I’ve ever been to. The students and young professionals gave everything they had to this piece, and it touched me to my core.

When you aren’t making music, what is your favorite way to spend your time?

There are so many things I do, from advocacy work for women in music, to skiing, to a walk on the beach. But the most important thing I do is spending time with my son, my wife, and our two mismatched dogs.

NYFOS is devoted to ‘song’ and the wide variety of styles that term encompasses. What is special about ‘song’ to you?

There is no music-making that is more elemental than singing. I think ‘songs’ can be anything, from art-song to rap to great poetry.

What is your favorite song?  (Qualify your answer to this possibly impossible question as needed.)

I can’t answer this question. Fast responses include: “Happy Birthday” by Mildred Hill, “Early in the Morning” by Ned Rorem, “Lush Life” by Billy Strayhorn, the quartet from Midsummer Nights Dream, “Blackbird” by The Beatles, everything that my friend Taura Stinson writes.  I loved working with my friend Raphael Saadiq on his album and contributing strings to Sinners’ Prayer…And then there’s Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, Kendrick Lamar…

Theo Hoffman

Baritone Theo Hoffman, an NYFOS Emerging Artist alumnus and member of NYFOS’s Artist Council, answers our questions on growing up in Manhattan, upcoming productions, and the significance of the word ‘song’.

Hear Theo perform with NYFOS on tour to Tucson, AZ in Killer B’s on January 30.

While still a student at Juilliard, you helped conceive of one of NYFOS’s most popular shows, Schubert / Beatles; what sparked this idea?

Working with Steven Blier in my formative years as a young musician was crucial in many ways, but in particular, our work opened my mind to the possibilities of adventurous programming. The NYFOS mission is an antidote to the idea that classical programming has to be contained in a genre box. Once you break down the stigmas of genre, the programming possibilities become endless. The Beatles’ output represents a continuation of British/European song tradition, which has immediate ties to someone like Schubert. We found that these songs— in form and function, were very complementary.

You grew up in Manhattan; how did the abundant cultural opportunities here shape your development as an artist? What (or who) most influenced you?

To be honest, I was truly adverse to any culture as a young child. My parents would try as they might to get me to a museum, and I’d admittedly be kicking and screaming all the way. I don’t know what changed, but once I entered LaGuardia High School, I became obsessed with classical music. My choir director, Jana Ballard, was the person who showed me the genius of Mozart, and I still feel immensely connected to the inspiration she gave me.

Lately you’ve been doing a lot of work in Los Angeles. How are you finding life on the west coast? Do you have a sense of where you might like to settle eventually?

Freelancing in Los Angeles is wonderful. LA Opera has become a home company for me. It’s invaluable to feel absolutely comfortable at a company; from knowing the technical and administrative staff, to forming a relationship with the LA audience. That all being said, LA is not my home. Freelance singers are in a unique position in that they can choose anything, so the amount of choice I have at the moment is somewhat daunting. In an ideal world I’d probably live in the Hudson Valley. I work in major downtowns so often, I think I need to be based somewhere very pretty.

Are there any upcoming projects on your calendar that you are particularly excited about? (Other than our Killer B’s tour, of course.)

This season I get to do my first St. Matthew Passion, which is a piece that was deeply important to my late voice teacher, Sanford Sylvan. I am really looking forward to delving into a piece that mattered so much to him. He always said “you don’t get rich singing the St. Matthew Passion, you just get happy.”

What was the last music you listened to before answering these questions?

DAMN. by Kendrick Lamar.

When you aren’t making music, what is your favorite way to spend your time?

I am admittedly really bad at spending my free time. I find myself feeling very restless if I’m not working on something, and I usually make a point to go to the opera as much as I can to see my peers perform. I do try to fill time in between gigs getting out into nature as much as possible, and have been doing a lot of road tripping recently, which is a great way to see the world and enjoy the unique structure of the freelance schedule.

NYFOS is devoted to ‘song’ and the wide variety of styles that term encompasses. What is special about ‘song’ to you?

“Song” is a great word because it is all-inclusive as opposed to specific and exclusive. If we are sharing song, we are deciding to be part of a tradition that long preceded western classical music tradition, and harkens back to some of the fundamental roots of what makes us human.

Joseph Li

Pianist and vocal coach Joseph Li answers our questions on his most frequent advice to young singers, how he repairs cracked nails, why you won’t find him on Facebook, and more.

Hear Joseph perform with NYFOS in Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do: Songs of Gay Harlem on December 12.

Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you got into vocal coaching?

Like I imagine with many of us pianist/coaches, I started taking lessons pretty early (age 4) and took that piano solo path all the way through my undergrad years at Manhattan School of Music. I had some excellent teachers along that path – Sharon Van Valin, Duane Hulbert, and Phillip Kawin. Part of my education at MSM was being introduced to singers – Raymond Beegle took a particularly keen (and PATIENT) interest in my development in vocal repertoire while I was still a performance student there.

After hearing me play an audition for a singer colleague of mine, Tom Muraco asked me to let him know if I wanted to make that my career – which I realized I did, and he spent both years of my master’s degree in Vocal Accompanying at MSM patiently training me in that craft.

In short, I got into vocal coaching under the shepherding and guidance of the best in the business, and fell in love with singers and their powerfully insane world on the way.

You work with a lot of young singers as a professor and coach at young artist programs. What advice do you find yourself giving most frequently to the singers you coach?

The most frequent advice I give proved to be the most difficult and critical advice I received during all my schooling: slow down. Bring in two immaculately prepared measures rather than an entire page of poorly prepared ones. Take music apart rather than trying to digest it whole. Assume that mistakes are a given and that your method of practice is specifically aimed at not rehearsing and repeating the same mistakes for hours on end.

Also, quit beating yourself up. The more brain space you devote to beating yourself up, the less you have for the feedback your time with me is for.

You’ve quickly become one of Steve’s favorite collaborators. How did you two begin working together?

We began working together during Wolf Trap Opera’s 2016 summer season – I had been tasked with preparing the singers on his show. In the middle of that process my mom passed away after a brutal fight with cancer (I’m not sure there’s another kind of fight with cancer) and I remember very clearly Steve being there for me, so an extremely intimate bond was established very early on in us knowing each other.

Without having heard me play a note, he asked if I’d partner with him on two pianos for the following summer’s Wolf Trap program, Four of a Kind. Throw in some Piazzolla and Gershwin and I found myself the perfect person to make the best kind of artistic trouble with.

You made your NYFOS mainstage debut last season in W. C. Handy:  The Birth of the Blues and are returning this season in Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do:  Songs of Gay Harlem.  What draws you to this repertoire?  How did you develop your technique for playing blues and other more popular styles?

I developed my technique for blues and jazz like I hear one develops their golf swing – spend the first few years creating a world of suck, and spend every year after that becoming just a wee bit less terrible.

I started with high school jazz band at Blanchet High School in Seattle, WA. After years of listening to the greats like Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, Oscar Peterson, and so many others do their thing, and years of figuring out what was what, I found myself in a place where I could basically say, “Well, OK. I think I finally know what a G7 chord means.”

What draws me to this repertoire? You don’t need written music to express your soul. You have a wealth of the past to draw upon in a single moment of spontaneously forging your own voice, your own sound. It’s the first thing I play when I sit down at the piano.

The last time a pianist was our Artist of the Month, she shared her habit of using Krazy Glue on the tips of her fingers when her skin cracked in the dry winter months. Do you have any secret hacks for keeping yourself in playing shape?

Yes! The Krazy Glue trick is awesome. Also, for when your nail splits, especially after lots of hard practice and having had to trim your nails, and when playing something even softly hurts when you press down into the key…

You need two items: 1) a vial of New-Skin liquid bandage, and 2) a cotton ball.

Apply a thin layer of New-Skin to where your nail ends against the skin, tear off a small strip of cotton and glue it into place. Blow on it to dry for a minute or two. Glue another small strip of cotton on top of that and blow dry for another minute. Repeat until you’ve formed an artificial callous of sorts over the nail and where it meets the nailbed.

If you let that dry overnight, you’ll be able to play as hard and loud on that thing as you want in the morning. It immobilizes the split nail and conforms to your finger shape in a way that tape doesn’t. It’ll stay on there for another day or two, depending on how much practicing you do, and it’ll give the nail time to heal while you’re at it.

Credit Dr. Duane Hulbert, who taught at the University of Puget Sound for 30 years, for teaching me that trick when I was an undergrad there for two years!

What was the last music you listened to before answering these questions?

Alice In Chains’ Man in the Box and Stone. Hey, Seattle.

When you aren’t making music, what is your favorite way to spend your time?

Fly-fishing. Fishing in general. Exchanging texts with my brother on the Seahawks. The Mass Effect video game franchise. Sitting in a coffee shop and doing nothing but people-watching. Not being on any form of social media. #introvert

Yes, you have no social media presence! What gives?

I have too many unanswered questions about what we’re doing on social media and why. “Social” implies some kind of relationship – are we really on social media for relationships? Are we listening to one another with open minds and empathy? Are we really winning the cost-benefit of happiness vs unhappiness in the social media arena?

The most valuable lesson I learned from one of my “conversations” with someone on a Facebook thread was when I flat out asked the person whether they were more interested in being right or actually being in some kind of relationship with the person on whose thread we were exchanging. They responded that they would rather be right. I thanked them for their candor and ended the conversation there.

Don’t we all know what happens when two people in a relationship are fighting and one or both can only focus on why they’re right? Has seeking the truth become synonymous with seeking confirmation that we’re right? Do you enjoy making music with someone who values being right over your artistic partnership?

Let’s be actually present with each other. Let’s fight the good fights without losing our shared humanity in the process. Until we prove that social media truly draws us closer to one another, I’ll respectfully decline.

NYFOS is devoted to ‘song’ and the wide variety of styles that term encompasses. What is special about ‘song’ to you?

That would have been hard to articulate until this past summer, when Steve mentioned that songs are, in essence, dreams. Now that I think about them like that, songs take you somewhere beyond yourself, with you actually having very little control on where that journey takes you. There’s something simultaneously thrilling, calming, and terrifying about that.

What is your favorite song?  (Qualify your answer to this possibly impossible question as needed.)

Of traditional classical art song, my favorite would have to be Frühlingsglaube by Schubert. I don’t know if I have the words to articulate why, but it has something to do with the unapologetic, unabashedly vulnerable lyricism in the vocal line and the beauty in simplicity throughout. I feel like it’s the perfect answer to the noise we’ve collectively wrought upon our world and each other.

John Brancy

Baritone John Brancy answers our questions on his connection to the music of Kurt Weill and how he created his much acclaimed recitals about WWI. John returns to NYFOS on November 19 in a concert versions of Marc Blitzstein’s No For An Answer & Kurt Weill’s Der Silbersee.

We are especially thrilled to have you, a recent Lotte Lenya Competition winner, in our Weill/Blitzstein cast next month. What draws you to the music of Kurt Weill?  

Kurt Weill’s music has had a long standing presence in my life as a singer. Steve Blier first introduced me to this special composer when I started at Juilliard. Steve and I performed a program of “standards” and classics from the American Songbook at Caramoor when I was 18. I’ll never forget that experience, and always remember “Love Song” by Weill. “Love Song”, which comes from his work Love Life, is a big starry ballad sung by the Drifter character. As a stand alone piece its most effective as an 11 o’clock number or when you’re trying to drive home a specific message. That love is all we need and without it, what are we anyway? I’m drawn to the music of Weill because it doesn’t always need to be pretty or lush — most of the time it’s gritty, real and to the point. I can deeply appreciate Weill’s political angle and I respect that aspect of his music and work.

You, along with pianist Peter Dugan, have created two popular recital programs centered around World War I and its aftermath. How did you and Peter conceive of these programs?

The key to developing these programs was through the discovery and ultimately the deep love for the repertoire and composers of the time. The more we dug into the music and history of composers like George Butterworth, Maurice Ravel, Francis Poulenc, and Ralph Vaughan Williams (to name a few of the famous ones who fought) we found pieces and/or cycles that either were written in response to the conflict of WWI or in some unique way, prophesied its coming. 

When we discovered some unsung works by Carl Orff, Rudi Stephan and Oley Speaks, we were inspired further to consider more adventurous programming. Ultimately our programs were made up of 90% 20th century music and almost all of the composers experienced conflict from WWI in some way. When we began touring these programs (A Silent Night: A WWI Memorial in Song and The Journey Home) we never thought we would have accomplished what we did. Over the four years commemorating the centennial anniversary of WWI, Peter and I performed at the Kennedy Center, Carnegie Hall, Alice Tully Hall, the Smithsonian Insititute, the US Naval Acadmy, West Point Academy, and Arizona Opera, just to name a few of the highlights. 

We performed for veterans and their families along the way, as well as disabled veterans. This was the real purpose of this tour, to connect with the people who have sacrificed their lives for a just cause and remember the fallen. 

What was your collaboration like as you selected the repertoire and fine-tuned your interpretations?  

Peter and I match one another really well throughout the programming process. Normally, I’ll throw a whole bunch of songs in the mix and get super ambitious with the programming. Peter definitely brings us back down to earth and ultimately helps to fine tune final programming. 

All of our programs feature original arrangements of popular tunes, as well as solo piano repertoire. This is quite a task for Peter, however he really shines in this area. We frequently get asked for Peter’s arrangements of Danny Boy and Where Have All The Flowers Gone? And Peter even starts The Journey Home with a solo piano arrangement of Holst’s Jupiter

We were really able to grow together as a collaborative duo throughout the four year long journey. There were certainly stressful and intense times along the way, but it taught me that Peter and I are meant to have a life long collaboration in song and original, adventurous programming. 

What advice would you give a young singer trying to build more recital work into their careers?

As a singer, I think there are a few really important points to consider if you want to begin working on more song repertoire and make it a consistent part of your career. First and foremost, it is key to be a good collaborator and listen a lot, not only to the music but also what the pianist has to say about their interpretation and ultimately how the song should be paced. I don’t think a Song partnership is a static, one size fits all sort of thing. Every relationship will be different and you may have several pianists you like to work with. The most important thing to bring to the table in any situation is listening! 

The other point to really consider is original, adventurous programming. I learned this from the master himself, Steve Blier. Now I implement it every opportunity I get to perform song. Don’t get me wrong, I encourage all young singers to explore the tried and true cycles. But what’s harder, and ultimately even more rewarding (both from a financial standpoint and an artistic one) is to devise programs that are entirely unique to your experience, what you believe. Another way of approaching the programming is to deliver it for a hyper-specific audience. If you can find a way to program songs for groups of people, that resonate with the overall thematic material, then you’ll set yourself apart from the crowd and find unique opportunities to share. It may seem scary and difficult at first to go down this road, but I encourage all young singers to do it!

You seem very attuned to the non-musical aspects of building a career in music, such as networking and marketing your work. How do you think about investing in these elements of the business?  

As a performer, presence is everything. In our field, it’s not easy to stand out and it can also seem a bit daunting when trying to build the image you want to convey to the world. Social Media can be a great tool, but it can also be a means of distraction and confusion. I have aimed to make my social media experience about my artistic pursuits and occasionally I like to throw in bits and pieces of my personal life and journey as well. One thing that has really helped me market my work has been to try and see my life before it happens and develop a plan for content. I know now that you can’t predict what life will throw at you day to day. But, you can aim to try and produce things in advance, which will hopefully give you something to anchor into when it comes time to promote your work. For me, excellent video content is a very important and essential item to have, and is definitely something worth investing time and resources into.

Like many of our artists, you are on the road more often than not. What are your travel must-haves? 

One of the hardest aspects of living on the road is needing to stay healthy come performance time. One thing I must have with me are my Host Defense Immune boosting supplements, very high count live probiotics and 50,000 IU D3. These three supplements taken together have been so effective at warding off colds and sickness the past two years. Knock on wood… but I haven’t had a cold in almost 2 years! 

What helps you feel at home when you are away for weeks or months at a time?

Something that really makes me feel at home in the apartment I’m renting is burning palo santo incense and playing singing bowls on YouTube. I get into a meditative, easy mind set and can feel like I’m in a safe and familiar place. I also like to make it a priority, from Day 1 to find a gym and yoga studio. I make movement a priority in my life, it brings mental clarity and helps me with my breathing and focus. 

What was the last music you listened to before answering these questions?

I recently saw and heard Christian Gerhaher and Gerald Huber at Alice Tully Hall perform songs of Mahler. After this concert I’ve been listening a bit to the Lieder Eines Fahrenden Gesellen which I hope to someday get the opportunity to perform with an orchestra!

When you aren’t making music, what is your favorite way to spend your time?

I always enjoy yoga, working out and cooking as daily activities. But I’m also very keen on developing projects and creating new opportunities for future collaboration with my friends. I love to work with my super talented friends on exciting new projects and explore what is possible in music and content creation. I’d love to be involved with the creation of new work and maybe even something that can be streamed online or at home on your TV.

Are there any upcoming projects on your calendar that you are particularly excited about? (Other than our Blitzstein/Weill double bill, of course.)

I’m excited to return to Opera National de Bordeaux to perform the Brahms Requiem, as well as sing Handel’s Messiah at the US Naval Academy in December. I’m also slated to return to Pacific Opera Victoria in one of my favorite modern operas — FLIGHT by Jonathan Dove! I have more exciting projects to announce very soon as well. 

NYFOS is devoted to ‘song’ and the wide variety of styles that term encompasses. What is special about ‘song’ to you?

Song is what keeps the world sane. To me, singing and song are what keep us going, especially in the darkest of times. I hope that as I continue to perform songs and present them to audiences throughout my life, I can help people in their dark moments, lifting them up. I also hope to bring new and exciting works into this crazy world.

What is your favorite song?  (Qualify your answer to this possibly impossible question as needed.)

This is an incredibly difficult question to answer. But as of recently, my favorite song is by a young composer and solo artist Jacob Collier. The song is called “In the Real Early Morning”. I believe Jacob Collier is one of the greatest composers living today and his music maybe very well by as important as the likes of Paul Simon or perhaps, Schubert. 

Justin Austin

Baritone Justin Austin answers our questions on his transition from boy soprano to baritone, having opera singer parents, and what’s so special about ‘song.’ Hear Justin sing some of those special songs with NYFOS in Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do: Songs of Gay Harlem on December 12.

You began your singing career as a successful boy soprano soloist. Can you share with us what your transition to a baritone was like?

My transition from soprano to baritone was actually some of the best times of my life. As a boy soprano, the moment when your voice drops is somewhat devastating. I’ll never forget my voice dropping in the middle of a performance I had. I was premiering a new opera about the historic American businessman Alonzo Herndon by composer Sharon Willis.  I played the character of young Alonzo in the first half, then older Alonzo’s son Norris Herndon in the second half. Towards the end of the opera, there is a beautiful duet between older Alonzo and Norris. To my surprise (and everyone else in the house) I started the duet a soprano and ended it a tenor. What to do after my voice dropped started to weigh on my 11 year old heart. I enjoyed being a singer more than anything on the planet and it was seemingly snatched right from underneath me. THEN the world renowned Boys Choir of Harlem came to town on their U.S tour and that was the moment that changed everything for me. Watching these young men deliver a program of Schubert and Mozart then move to the soulful sounds of Fats Waller made my thirst for a musical future great. By the end of their show, after a stunning solo by now tenor (then 14 year old soprano) Antoine Dolberry, I knew what I wanted to be next for me. The Boys Choir of Harlem was so many things for me, but to answer your question, it was the perfect transitional tool for a boy soprano who finds his voice somehow leaving while the passion for the art form keeps growing. I moved down to tenor for about a year, then transitioned to baritone by the time I began my studies at the Laguardia Arts High School in NYC. 

Did you find ways to continue to work as a professional musician during those intermediate years before an adult operatic career became viable or was that primarily a time to focus on study and training?

The intermediate years before my adult career consisted of extensive training as well as professional opportunities. Most of the professional opportunities were in the pop world singing backup for artists such as Aretha Franklin, Elton John, Lauryn Hill, 30 Seconds to Mars, and Sean Mendez. 

You grew up with opera singer parents; did you always know that you would follow in their footsteps? How did seeing their lives help prepare you for your career?

In a lot of ways having opera singers as parents was such a gift. It exposed me not to just the art form at a young age, but the lifestyle as well. It was the greatest gift I could have ever received other than the gift of song itself. So many things about the lifestyle that frustrate a lot of my colleagues actually give me great joy because it makes me feel at home. Even today, the best sleep I get is on an airplane. As far as knowing I would follow in my parent’s footsteps, it honestly took a very long time for me to know with confidence that I was even able to follow in their giant footsteps. The first time I felt that I might be up for the task was about a year ago. I honestly have always wanted to continue their legacy, but I, of all people, knew how challenging the road ahead of me would be. I saw the difficulties of being a singer played out in front of me like a current Netflix series; The endless training, seemingly wasteful financial investments, loneliness, disappointing family members, having an irrational relationship with normal aspects of life like rejection, etc. But the one challenge that was hard for me to swallow was the fact that other people’s opinion of my opinion would determine almost everything I wanted to do. How can I feel confident that I can do something when it doesn’t even feel like my decision to make? Then about a year ago I realized the joy in not having control over everything. I started to think of the process itself as a collaboration. The “product” that I’m “selling” isn’t mine to own. It’s produced by a collection of people working together for the purpose of sharing. How beautiful is that?! It was that thought that “sealed the deal” for me. 

Other than your parents, do you have any particular artists that you view as role models? In what ways do they inspire you?

Other than my parents, I have many artists that I consider my role models. There are some that I’ve never met like Bryn Terfel, Lawrence Brownlee, and Gerald Finley, that are, in my opinion, the epitome of artistry and professionalism. I’ve also been honored and privileged to have some historic singers mentor me including my incredible voice teacher Catherine Malfitano as well as George Shirley, Thomas Hampson, Stephanie Blythe, and my personal operatic hero Kenneth Overton. These extraordinary individuals are, without a doubt, why I grew into an artist that believes in themself and what they have to say.

You are involved with a number of charitable organizations; what causes are especially dear to you? How do you use your talents to further these goals?

I am so happy to be involved in a number of charitable organizations. I am a firm believer in helping each other as humans. I think that everyone has something to share that could help someone else. I made it a point to use my talents for charitable causes early in my career to show my colleagues and peers that you don’t have to be rich and famous to give back. The causes that are closest to my heart are ones that provide living essentials to certain people in need; water wells in Kenya, food pantries in New York/New Jersey, and funding for children’s hospitals and church organizations around the USA. I spent time as a teenager living in a homeless shelter with my mother and it gave me a new perspective on life. With the help of the church and music, we were able to rise from that situation and grow. Giving back to these specific organizations is a way of showing gratitude, but also to perpetuate the sort of help I needed once upon a time.  

You have a close relationship with the versatile composer and pianist Damien Sneed. What draws you to his music?

I indeed have a great relationship with composer, conductor, and pianist Damien Sneed. I think his music and artistry in general resonates with me because we have similar beliefs and experiences. Both of our families have strong roots in Augusta, Georgia. He spent time working with the Boys Choir of Harlem. He studied at the Manhattan School fo Music and is now a professor there. He even has done major concerts with my mother, Alteouise Devaughn. Damien and I met in 2013 on tour with Wynton Marsalis. After spending every day with him for 3 months, we became good friends. We made our Carnegie Hall debut together in 2015 in Wynton Marsalis’ Abyssinian Mass (which will be in the Lincoln Center White Light Festival November 21, 22, and 23, 2019 featuring myself as one of the soloist and Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra conducted by Damien Sneed) So it was very appropriate for us to collaborate on my Carnegie Hall solo recital debut in 2017 where we premiered his piece “I Dream A World.” His music is rich with history yet full of hope for the future. After that magical night at Weill Recital Hall, there will always be a space reserved in my heart for Damien Sneed.  

Are there any other composers you’d particularly like to work with?

I absolutely adore new opera and the difficult but rewarding creative process involved in building a show that obviously has no tradition yet. There are a number of composers I love working with and I hope I continue to meet more that are just as excited about creating as I am. Fortunately, so early in my career I have already managed to premiere operas by composers Sharon Willis, Odaline de la Martinez, Jack Perla, and Ricky Ian Gordon with another Ricky Gordon opera coming to NYC in the spring. I am currently working on a relatively new opera premiered in 2007 entitled Glory Denied by composer Tom Cipullo. I am extremely excited to work with Mr. Cipullo who will be joining the production next month. New music has really found a place in my life and my heart. There really is something about having almost full creative liberty that I really love. Lots of my colleagues are overwhelmed with the responsibility of invention when it comes to new music but for me, it’s not just extremely rewarding, it’s fun.

What was the last music you listened to before answering these questions?

The last music I listened to before answering these questions was the oratorio The Ordering of Moses by Nathaniel Dett. What a piece! 

NYFOS is devoted to ‘song’ and the wide variety of styles that term encompasses. What is special about ‘song’ to you?

What is special about song to me? Wow! So many things, but there is one thing that I appreciate about song that I can never seem to articulate, but I will try. I feel that song is extremely special. As a singer you have to constantly be mindful of not just what you are giving, but how it’s being received. After all, communication is key. That being said, I think song is more raw and honest communication vs something like opera. Opera is honest, in my opinion, however I feel it needs to be a different kind of honesty that is considerate of all of the many people in attendance that the performer may or may not even be able to see. Singing or not, when you address a big group of people, there is a way you communicate where something as simple as being heard and understood has to be a primary concern. When a part of your brain is constantly trying to remember certain presentational techniques, it really can distract from the communication. Song on the other hand, for me, is more direct. It’s like a conversation with a best friend. You’re not thinking about being heard or understood. You know each other well, so you feel comfortable talking any way you want and go into every little detail without even thinking about it. You’re finally able to focus just on the content and connecting that other person to it.

What is your favorite song?  (Qualify your answer to this possibly impossible question as needed.)

As impossible as this question may seem, I actually do have a favorite song. I don’t think there is a song that I would consider to be the “best song” but my favorite song is “Vallée d’Obermann” by Franz Liszt. I actually wrote about how that came to be my favorite song on NYFOS’s “Song of the Day” blog last October. Check it out! 🙂 

Sari Gruber

Soprano Sari Gruber answers our questions on her path to music and long history with NYFOS, as we anticipate her return to NYFOS this November in Blitzstein’s No For An Answer and Weill’s Der Silbersee.

If my research is correct, you’ve been singing with NYFOS for over 20 years! How did you first get involved with NYFOS?  Are there any moments from your concerts with us that stand out as especially meaningful? 

Every concert I’ve had the joy of working on for NYFOS has been meaningful to me. If my memory serves me correctly, my first NYFOS concert was Ned Rorem’s “Evidence of Things Not Seen” for the Chicago Humanities Festival in 1998. I had known Steve Blier as a vocal coach during my Juilliard days, and was convinced he disliked me. Profoundly. (The inner dialogue of an insecure young singer can be brutal.) It goes without saying that I was shocked he hired me. As I was preparing the Rorem with Michael, I was on one hand delighted to delve into Ned’s work with him, but terrified that Michael, also, was on to the fact that I was clearly not qualified to sing with NYFOS. Somehow, I managed not to get fired, and had a most memorable concert with Ned, himself, in the audience and speaking with him afterwards. It was not until Steve and I were working together very closely in 2007 that we discovered that we had both, inexplicably, been terrified of each other for more than a decade, and that this is what we had misinterpreted about each other for a decade. What a revelation this was for us both — also the portal to the deep intimacy of a treasured collaborative relationship.

As a highly process-oriented singer, I always derive the greatest satisfaction from the evolution of interpretations, the weaving together of the program’s story line, and the collaboration with Steve, Michael, and my singer colleagues. Much of this creative process takes place in the comfort of Steve’s living room, where the hours of intense craft are peppered with teatime, cookies, joviality between sets, and marvelous camaraderie with friends old as well as new. There are few places in this business where one can comfortably go out on an artistic limb (or make – gasp! – a mistake), and this is one of them. Rolling out a new twist on a song in this environment brings honest critique as well as praise from all in attendance, rejuvenating the artist with each iteration and rediscovery of the song. Naturally, this translates to the stage palpably for performer and audience alike. I always feel like the concert hall is the extension of Steve’s living room, filled with the extended NYFOS family.

There have been so many personal discoveries and victories for me along the way, aided (sometimes abetted) by my colleagues. Whether it’s FINALLY getting that tricky Sondheim lyric (“Country House” still gives me PTSD), exploring in-the-moment tenderness of Schubert’s phrasing in “Im Frühling,” or truly reigning in the revengeful power of a woman singing “Norwegian Wood,” I always feel acutely alive and in the moment as a singing actor while onstage for NYFOS programs. Having been born a tragedienne at heart, but with a light lyric soprano voice, I had easily been relegated to “dusting” and “dying” on the operatic stage. I cherish the many moments NYFOS has stretched my dramatic and vocal muscle, moving from a psycho-sexually twisted “Golden Babies” by Bolcom to Porter’s vulnerable come-hither torch song “Please Don’t Make me be Good.” Here, I get to explore all the other personalities and capabilities denied me by Fach, but gifted to me by song and NYFOS.

I’ve heard a rumor that you earned your undergraduate degree in biology. Can you share how you shifted focus toward a career in the arts?

Well, I was SUPPOSED to! I matriculated at Yale, hoping to get my degree in Biology so I could eventually go to med school, while doing as much theater as possible on the side. There were so many wonderful activities to participate in, so I immediately I joined an a capella singing group focused on jazz, and performed in a couple of musicals. By the end of my first year, Organic Chemistry was throwing a not-so-minor wrench into my medical aspirations. Furthermore, I discovered that successful bio majors were shoveling coffee grounds into their mouths to pull all-nighters and some went so far as fudging with others’ lab experiments. It was just too competitive, so I decided to become a lyric soprano instead. (Rim shot)

At the beginning of my sophomore year, I got a call from contralto Lili Chookasian, who had just joined the faculty at the Yale School of Music. She had heard me sing an audition, and called me that evening to say, “Honey, you have no idea what you’re doing, but I’m going to teach you how to sing.” Over the next three years, after changing my major to Music and Theater Studies (both non-performance majors), I sang six full recitals in dining halls (with Rob Berman and later Andrew Gerle at the piano), performed the Witch in “Into the Woods” and Kate in “Kiss Me, Kate,”  and ultimately formed an undergraduate opera company in order to perform Susanna in “Le nozze di Figaro” as the basis of my senior project in Theater Studies on the relationship between music and words, a breezy 60-page tome. (I am happy to say that Opera Theatre of Yale College — nee Yale Undergraduate Opera — still exists, and over the past 25 years has given numerous professional singers their first operatic experiences.) In three years, Lili whipped me into technical shape enough to get me into Juilliard, and I had the great privilege of attending Tanglewood the summer after graduating from Yale to study art song. I was somewhat art song obsessed by this time. After listening to NYFOS’ recording of Arias and Barcarolles over and over, it’s no wonder I was terrified of the legendary Steve Blier when we met for coachings at Juilliard…

Given your background, what would you advise a young musician who is on the fence about pursuing a degree in music?

Be sure to study something besides singing and music. Live a little. Actually, live a lot. If you don’t have life experience from which to draw as a singer, you don’t have much to say in your song. Most of all, if you can think of anything else you would enjoy doing for a living besides music, DO THAT. If you cannot live without giving over the entirety of your soul, body, and bank account to music, then godspeed.

You’ve had particular success singing two of the most iconic roles in the operatic repertoire: Susanna and Musetta. How do you approach these characters, which have such a deep performance history? 

I always try to find the strength in the characters I play, and if I cannot find it (which is rare) I cannot sing the piece. I am simply not good at faking anything onstage, or, frankly, in real life. Both of these women, who by now seem like BFFs, are able to survive and triumph over their circumstance through intelligence, ferocity, passion, and kindness. Above all, I treasure their honesty as I see it, and hope that my understanding of their profound humanity minimizes the coquettishness sometimes demanded in both roles. Both roles have helped me understand parts of myself I might never have had a chance to explore otherwise, and I am forever grateful to have spent so many hours doing so with the likes of Messieurs Mozart and Puccini who shared a love for these marvelously complex women.

Your spouse has had a long career in arts administration. Has his perspective informed anything about how you’ve managed your career or how you view the opera industry more broadly? 

My husband, Bill Powers, Managing Director at Pittsburgh Opera, has been the single most grounding force in my life. I entered this profession never expecting to find true love or true partnership, and in him I have been so blessed to find both. This is not a career for the faint of heart, onstage or off; not only have we survived the demands of a brutal business, but we have a happy family and a blissful life which we work very hard to maintain. He has some of the best “ears” in the industry (if I may be so bold), and has a wealth of knowledge, particularly with developing young artists. His 25 years in opera administration have seen tremendous change in the industry as well as the art form. Witnessing his adjustments (and sometimes struggles) with these changes has been immensely eye-opening to me. I get to hear the nitty-gritty of what REALLY happens behind the scenes in a way that most singers have no understanding of. We singers have it so easy in comparison to the administrators, who often work for weeks without a single day off and can be on call 24/7, depending on the neediness of the artists in town or the eccentricities of Board Members. As a singer, it is a humbling reminder that our individual performances could quite literally not happen without an enormous team helping us.

What was the last music you listened to before answering these questions?

A voice student singing “Cara Sposa” from Handel’s “Rinaldo.”

When you aren’t making music, what is your favorite way to spend your time?

I am an avid perennial gardener. I started gardening when my husband and I were having problems with infertility, and I desperately needed to grow something because at the time I could not grow a child. Since that time, even after having our daughter, my garden has been a place of refuge and peace, and I am sure to have something blooming 8 months out of the year.

NYFOS is devoted to ‘song’ and the wide variety of styles that term encompasses. What is special about ‘song’ to you? 

Song holds my heart as a singer. Song activates all my passions for words and music together, without the contextual crutch of opera. Musically and spiritually, song is home, where I go to church, where I feel most alive. NYFOS brings song together in a broader sense than any other classical organization, in that it draws on many musical genres for its programming. With Classical music, Musical Theater, Jazz, Blues, and Rock (among others) placed on an even playing field, I realize that good music is good music, and as a singer, I have something to bring to all of it.

What is your favorite song?  (Qualify your answer to this possibly impossible question as needed.)

Whatever I am singing at the time. The other answer might be, “All of them.”

Matt Boehler

Bass Matt Boehler answers our questions on his background as an actor and journey toward composition as our Artist of the Month. Matt is returning to NYFOS on later this month in Manning the Canon in Orient, NY and NYC, and next season in Lyrics by Shakespeare (single tickets available July 8, but you can subscribe now!)

You are active as both a performer and a composer. How do you balance those different disciplines as you move through your career?

It’s taken a long time for me to give myself permission to put the word “composer” in the same paragraph as the word “singer” in my biography. However, now that I’m in the everyday practice of both writing and singing, doing more than one thing doesn’t seem unnatural. It’s not a binary situation, where either I’m a singer, or I’m a composer, and that’s it. It’s developing into a pleasant co-existence where both disciplines feed the other. After all, the idea of being a performer and a writer is nothing new—back in the day, it worked for Bach and Moliére, and it works just as well now for Caroline Shaw and Lin-Manuel Miranda. Ask your friendly, neighborhood troubadour—she’ll tell you all about it!

As far as scheduling time for working on specific projects—singing or writing—I’m still just figuring it out as I go. When I’m home, I make time to work. When I’m on the road, I make time to work.

You trained formally as an actor before earning your degrees in music. What made you decide to shift your artistic focus?  

It was a gradual shift, and, in hindsight, it makes absolute sense. Before I decided to pursue theatre in college, I loved classical music. Then, at school, we were encouraged to take voice lessons so that we’d have greater versatility as actors. It was there that my first voice teacher, Jerry Benser, gave me a great technical foundation, and introduced me to the world of opera and art song. After school, even though I was working a lot in different corners of musical theater, I realized there were things that I had to offer that served opera better than musical theater and straight theater—because of my height (6’7”), I’d often get “typed out” in musical theater and straight theater auditions; in opera, my height is an asset. Musicals don’t have much repertoire for real bass voices; in opera, you always need a bass for something. Opera and song are at the crossroads of these two things I love: music and theater.

Does your acting training impact your approach to singing or to writing music for the voice?

Yes, and yes. In every way.

You are part of the original cast of Manning the Canon and have been back for each revival, including this month’s iteration in Orient, NY and at The Center. What’s special about this show to you?  

This is a program that is near and dear to my heart. I have so many good memories of this show, both on stage and off. I’m so grateful to Steve for putting together a program of songs that not only celebrates and embraces queerness, but is full of songs with such rich terrain for us performers to explore. To be a gay man, and to be performing this particular program in New York during the recognition of the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall riots, and during World Pride—it’s very moving, and very humbling. I can’t wait to make music with these boys.

Your brother is getting married this month! Will you be singing at the wedding? Does your family often get to hear you perform?

I will be singing at the wedding, and then I’ll be dashing off to our first performance in Orient…that very evening! 

Every now and then, yes, my family gets to hear me perform. I’m on the road a lot, though, so it’s often difficult to meet up. But I’m close with my family, and I’m always so happy when they are there.

What was the last music you listened to before answering these questions?

Right now, I’m joining Steve for a concert here at Wolf Trap, along with nine other fantastic musicians. I’m immersed in our particular world at the moment, and we have our first concert in a few hours. That is the music that is ringing in my ears at the moment. It’s great fun, and we’re ending the first act with the beginning of Kalmán’s operetta, Arizona-Lady, complete with all sorts of pastoral, barnyard sorts of noises. 

Speaking of barnyard noises, this is a little piece of bizarreness that I’ve been unable to shake off of my recent playlist—it’s from an “operetta for guitar and daxophone”:

When you aren’t making music, what is your favorite way to spend your time?

With friends, with family. Life is short, our music ends too soon.

NYFOS is devoted to ‘song’ and the wide variety of styles that term encompasses. What is special about ‘song’ to you?

A song can contain a whole world. It’s storytelling, and storytelling combined with music has a way of moving us that defies explanation. There’s nothing like it, songs are magic.

What is your favorite song?  (Qualify your answer to this possibly impossible question as needed.)

Okay, I feel I can wriggle out of this one a little bit by just limiting this to one genre. As far as art song goes, that’s pretty easy. It’s Montparnasse, by Poulenc. (I fawned over it during my turn at song-of-the-day a while back.) And Scott Murphree will be singing it on Manning the Canon in just a few weeks!

Laura Kaminsky

Composer Laura Kaminsky discusses her hit opera AS ONE, facilitating new works from women composers, and what she’s been reading lately in our Artist of the Month interview. Witness the world premiere of her collaboratively created song cycle AFTER STONEWALL in NYFOS Next: Laura Kaminsky & Friends on June 11 at The LGBT Center in NYC, co-presented by New York Festival of Song, Five Boroughs Music Festival and The Center as part of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising and PRIDE.

(photo by Rebecca Allan)

Since its debut in 2014, your opera As One has become the most frequently performed contemporary opera in the country. What has your experience been of the different productions?  Have any surprised you in their approach to the material? 

It has been a joyful ride, seeing the many different productions of AS ONE following the BAM premiere, which was so sensitively directed by Ken Cazan. Some have been close in spirit and aesthetic to Ken’s, but there has been a wide range of approaches to the work. We’ve had no sets to elaborate sets, no costume changes for Hannah to a plenitude, physical stillness to highly choreographed staging, and much more. To date there are close to 40 singers who have played Hannah, and so the emotional insights brought by these artists have led to many different Hannahs, yet, at the core, her true spirit always shines through. This, I believe, is due to the brilliance of Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed’s libretto and the way that they sculpted her character, giving her true dimension: heart, mind, humor, vulnerability.

How ‘hands on’ are you with the performers when you are able to attend rehearsals?  What do you tend to look for in performers of your work?

It depends, of course, on each production. It’s always great when a company brings Mark and Kim and me into the process early on, to talk with the director about their concept, and then with the two singers playing Hannah. Those dialogues often help clarify details about how best, and most sensitively, to portray her. The strongest performances are those where the singers go beyond the notes, and even beyond the words, to seek a deep understanding of Hannah’s path to self-acceptance. It is those truly generous artists who go deep who bring a veracity and vulnerability to Hannah that stick with me over time. And there have been so many. I am forever grateful.

You are curating an evening in our NYFOS Next series on June 11 featuring two collaboratively created song cycles including contributed music from several composers. What draws you to creating works via this method? How did you decide which composers to include in our newly commissioned work After Stonewall?

The first cycle on the program, FIERCE GRACE: JEANNETTE RANKIN came about when I was invited to have a program of my music at the Library of Congress after receiving the Koussevitzky Award for my Piano Concerto. The staff was concerned that only a tiny fraction of the music holdings in the collection were by women. I thought that if I proposed a concert of work by a number of women, that would help the statistics. Then Laura Lee Everett at Opera America approached me, Kitty Brazelton, Laura Karpman and Ellen Reid (just awarded the Pulitzer Prize this month!), along with librettist Kimberly Reed, about a commission to recognize us as the most-often supported artists by OA’s Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation’s grants for Female composers, as OA wanted to commission a work from us. I proposed that we premiere that work at the LOC, and that led to a great experience for all, with Heather Johnson and Mila Henry giving our Jeannette life. The more women, the merrier! And the better for changing the statistics. It’s a thrill, now, to bring FIERCE GRACE to the NYFOS Next concert; this time it will be presented as a staged dramatic monodrama, with Kimberly Reed directing.

When NYFOS approached me about curating the June 11 concert, I thought to create another similar work—one librettist, several composers, and for this project, all identifying as lesbian—on a theme relevant to the 50th anniversary of Stonewall. I reached out to my friend, the extraordinary poet Elaine Sexton and proposed that she write a series of poems on the theme, and when she accepted the commission, the rest fell into place. Her cycle of poems, AFTER STONEWALL, is exceptionally moving and perfect to be set to music. As for the composers, Laura Karpman and her wife, Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum, immediately said yes, as did Jennifer Higdon, Paula Kimper, and Kayla Cachetta, a former student of mine who is just completing her doctorate at UC Berkeley.

After Elaine delivered the poems, which she knew would be sung by three voices, there was a lot of discussion with Michael Barrett and Jesse Blumberg about which poems worked best for which voice, the order of the series, and which composer would be invited to set which poem. After making some preliminary decisions, I invited each composer independently, sending her the poem I thought was the best fit, and for which voice(s). Everyone was excited to participate, and everyone delivered their scores on time. Shockingly refreshing!  And they are beautiful. I think we have a glorious evening in store.

You’ve received two awards from the government of Poland; how significant is your Polish heritage to your life?  Does it influence your music?

Ha! My connection to Poland is not because of my heritage (I am a first generation American; my dad was born in the Bronx; my mom is from London), but because of my work there (in the late ‘90s, I was director of the European Mozart Academy, then based in Poland, an organization dedicated to keeping the musical life of Eastern Europe healthy after the end of the Soviet Union), and my partnership here in New York with the Polish Cultural Institute; during the 8 years I worked at Symphony Space, I often collaborated with PCI’s music program officer, Ania Perzanowska, to bring Polish music to the U.S., including a multi-national festival that involved Polish music and musicians titled Wall to Wall Behind the Wall: Music from the Soviet Era, and a Chopin Bicentennial project.  

Besides NYFOS Next, what are you working on at the moment? Are there any upcoming pieces or performances that you are especially excited about?

Right now, I am working on revisions to my fourth opera, HOMETOWN TO THE WORLD, with my long-term collaborator, librettist and filmmaker Kimberly Reed, that we recently workshopped at San Francisco Opera. It’s a commission from a consortium co-led by Santa Fe and San Francisco Opera, and is scheduled to premiere in fall 2020. HOMETOWN is about the largest ICE raid in US history, at a kosher meat packing plant in Postville, Iowa, in 2008, that devastated the community; the opera takes place in the aftermath of the raid.

Upcoming as of today’s writing are AS ONE’s with Opera Idaho and Eugene Opera, then, here in New York, with New York City Opera/American Opera Projects, as well as THE FULL RANGE OF BLUE, a chamber work that Hub New Music will be performing soon at Connecticut Summerfest, and then the PIANO QUINTET, with Ursula Oppens and the Cassatt String Quartet at the Seal Bay Festival in Maine.

What was the last music you listened to before answering these questions?

Yesterday afternoon, I took my mom to the New York City Ballet and the last piece on the program was a favorite, the Shostakovich Piano Concerto No. 2 in F Major, Op. 102, played brilliantly by Stephen Gosling.

When you aren’t making music, what is your favorite way to spend your time?

Just being with my wife, Rebecca.  Sometimes I like to sit in her studio while she’s working—she’s a painter, and currently is preparing for an exhibition that opens at David Richard Gallery in Harlem the day after our NYFOS Next concert, so there’s a lot of time in her studio these days.

Also reading—I am just finishing Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, and have begun Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time; walking—either in the city or in nature; looking at art, mostly with Rebecca; spending time with friends.

NYFOS is devoted to ‘song’ and the wide variety of styles that term encompasses. What is special about ‘song’ to you?

The human voice. Lyrics that need to be sung, not spoken. Music that needs to give those lyrics their full depth and lets them pierce the mind and heart in indelible ways.

What is your favorite song? (Qualify your answer to this possibly impossible question as needed.)

This is truly impossible to answer. Different songs go through my head at different times and for different reasons. But if I had to point a finger at “favorite,” I might say that I turn to Sondheim most frequently. Please don’t ask which song!

New York Festival of Song • One Penn Plaza • #6108 • New York, NY 10119 • 646-230-8380 • info@nyfos.org