The last couple of months I spent a significant amount of time in South America, and the majority in Chile. Unsurprisingly, the legacy of the dictatorship is still very present in the politics and culture of the country, and specifically on the streets of Santiago where during the wintertime students and other activists take to the streets.
The culture of protest is alive and well in Chile where students regularly walk out of their university classes, line the fences with classroom seats in artistic demonstration and run in mobs spraying tear gas on the streets. As such I wanted to feature a Chilean folk song that was used in protest.
This was the last song Victor Jara wrote before he was murdered in Pinochet’s 11 September coup in Chile in 1973.
I don’t sing for love of singing
or to show off my voice
but for the statements
made by my honest guitar
for its heart is of the earth
and like the dove it goes flying….
endlessly as holy water
blessing the brave and the dying
so my song has found a purpose
as Violet Parra would say.
Yes, my guitar is a worker
shining and smelling of spring
my guitar is not for killers
greedy for money and power
but for the people who labour
so that the future may flower.
For a song takes on a meaning
when its own heart beat is strong
sung by a man who will die singing
truthfully singing his song.
I don’t care for adulation
or so that strangers may weep.
I sing for a far strip of country
narrow but endlessly deep.
This is a song called “Seriously” written by Sara Bareilles and performed by Leslie Odom Jr. It’s supposed to be an imagining of what then president Barack Obama might have been thinking during the 2016 election but was not at liberty to say. Its a song with fantastic groove and a clear, non-subtle message. There is also an accompanying This American Life episode associated with it, that’s worth a listen. (Act 4 focuses on the song.)
This is a song from the Hamilton Mixtape, which I believe is pretty well known and popular at the moment. (I don’t even totally know, I live in Europe!) It’s a song that is sung by George Washington in the original show and is an insightful, touching song about how history is written.
But in the remix, sung by John Legend and a choir, the song feels, to me, to be more a call to action. More than saying “this is right”, “this is wrong” or “we are better” and “these people are horrible” it asks the question: what will history write about you?
We can all get caught up in the political mess that the US seems to find itself in at the moment. Sometimes voting, protesting, and getting involved seems futile. I get it. But when I think of it in terms of zooming out—wondering how history will view ME—then I feel more pressed to do something. To physically manifest into action what I stand for in spirit. This piece shows to me, in short, the power of song.
For this week, and for a plethora of reasons mostly having to do with coincidence, I’m going to be choosing songs with either political undertones, blatant overtones, or ones that have particular political messages that speak to me.
For my first song I’d love you to listen to “Abortion Is Illegal by Hanns Eisler/Brecht. For me it is shocking that this was written in the 1930s, not because it was necessarily so ahead of its time, but because it could have been written today as well. Aside from the lyrics that point to needing to have children as literal tools of war (and, admittedly, this is a big part of the song), to me this could easily be performed on a cabaret program today and someone might assume it was written in the last decade or two.
The music, though not everyone’s cup of tea, I feel suits the text. It is not beautiful, but neither is the message, and the music plays into the different characters that the singer must portray. I love this singer’s particular interpretation because she understands the narrative quality of the piece as well as the subtle humor woven into the setting. She speaks the text when she pleases which is appropriate to the Weimar Era cabaret style (a particular favorite of mine) and keeps the text at the forefront of our mind, which I believe is the point.
Artist of the Month rings in 2018 with mezzo-soprano Rebecca Jo Loeb. Hailed as “a theatrical performer whose rise to watch” (Opera News), Ms. Loeb is based in Germany and sings throughout Europe and in the US. She recently made a “notable Met debut” (New York Times) as Flora in La Traviata at the Metropoitan Opera. A NYFOS Emerging Artist program alum, who has performed in our Mainstage and gala evenings, Ms. Loeb will return to NYFOS at the end of the month in our tour programs celebrating Leonard Bernstein.
You are an American singer who is now based in Germany. How has this affected your career? How have you adjusted to being an ex-patriot? Do you feel this is likely to be your permanent home base or do you expect to return to the States at some point?
Unbeknownst to me at the time, beginning my career in Germany was one of the best things I could have done. The transition from Young Artist directly out of school or Young Artist Program remains curiously vague to most. No one talks about it. Either you’re swept up by a manager and slathered in opportunities or you somehow, and often for no particular reason, fall flat. Moving to Germany I managed to get a fest job at the Hamburg State Opera quite quickly where I built my stagecraft, my ability to prepare quickly, and technique to sing in larger spaces. Within four years I had more roles than most young signers would dream of under their belt, and thankfully out of the eye of major reviewers. Luckily I managed to keep my contacts in America fairly strong and so every season came back to the US for at least a few concerts. To be honest, I love Germany and my home in Berlin… And especially in this political climate I plan on staying here. My dream is to call both countries my home.
You are known for your acting as well as your singing. Can you outline how you approach this when working on new rep?
I probably couldn’t have answered this question a year or two ago, but last summer I taught at an opera program in Berlin and focused primarily on “How to prepare an aria theatrically” and in doing so really laid out what I tended to do naturally. In school for Opera we’re not really given the tools for how to prepare things theatrically. We take acting (but we essentially do scenes and mologues which are another beast entirely) and then are thrown into some sort of opera studio where a teacher critiques our arias to make them better. But no one ever tells us from the get go how to prepare them theatrically in the first place!
So of course I need to translate, know the text well (now that I speak Italian, French and German this helps) and the situation. Then I ask myself where does the aria begin and where does it end? As in, where do I start emotionally and where do I end emotionally. I can’t begin and end in the same place and make the aria compelling, I believe. Then I ask what do I want? Or, in other words, why do I sing the aria? I always told my students, “expressing yourself” is not an option. Maybe I want to convince someone of something, I want to change my fate, I want to discover what to do, etc. Then I separate each section of the aria into actions (one to three words ideally) of how I get that goal. Pleading, begging, flirting, threatening. Then I decide who I’m talking to. Where I am. Etc. Etc. If I lose focus in the aria it means my choice wasn’t interesting enough. If there’s a passage where I need to think about technique, I pick an action that helps me do that without looking like I popped out of character.
When I’m in an opera it’s naturally much easier. All those things are laid out for you. There the hardest bit is making sure you know what everyone ELSE is saying so you stay honest and continually trying to stay as IN THE MOMENT as possible.
You’ve had some family emergencies and difficult losses during your career. How have you managed performing throughout painful times?
I don’t think it’s easy for anyone in any profession to go through hard times. That being said, as a performer you ideally bring your soul to the table each time you get on stage, and that naturally complicates things. I think the most difficult thing for me was handling my stress. Grief, I once read, keeps odd hours. Not only that, I’d add that it sits dormant inside you even when it’s not actively expressing itself. Performing also heightens ones emotions, stress, and anxiety. The emotional (and physical) difficulties I went through manifested themselves in me as a heightened state of anxiety and feeling , even when I felt supposedly normal. So add the even minor stress of performing and my cup boiled over. Every time. One solution I found was that I actually had to make myself cry before a performance. I had to let some of that latent emotion out in order to have some sort of homeostasis before performing. Worked quite well, actually. And although it was and is difficult, it gave me some interesting insight into how we as humans process emotion.
What projects are you most excited about at the moment and why?
Right now I’m really excited about the show LOVE LIFE that I’m doing in Freiburg, Germany. It’s one of Kurt Weill’s lesser known works and it’s the first proper musical I’ve done in a long while. The part is very well rounded vocally, emotionally, and physically. I get to dance, sing, do hilarious scenes and wear a myriad of fabulous costumes. After normally playing the side character, countless maids, and countless boys, it’s fun to be a leading lady again!
What was the last music you listened to before answering these questions?
Currently I’m listening to a lot of folk music. I recently picked up guitar again (I used to play a bit of classical guitar) and I’ve been relearning old tunes, learning new ones, and arranging some of my own. I’m really into Eva Cassidy, Bob Dylan, and Nick Drake at the moment. Moving forward I wanna bring some more Blues tunes into my repertoire…working right now on a Jazz/Blues verison of GEORGIA ON MY MIND.
NYFOS is devoted to ‘song’ and the wide variety of styles that term encompasses. What is special about ‘song’ to you? Is there anything about this particular form that is significant to you?
When I was in school I sang a LOT of song. We all did. Then after I left school it was basically opera, opera, opera. And because we’re currently in the age of the director (especially in Europe) and there’s sadly just never enough time to rehearse musically you often end up just kind of “making it work”. We make tons of plans with the conductor but once you’re on stage tempos are different, the space makes you often sing differently, and you have staging to worry about, and often the conductor is so (understandably) worried about the orchestra that you end up just making it work. I personally have had fewer truly collaborative moments in performance in opera than I’d like.
In song, however, what you do in rehearsal is more or less the same as what you do on stage. Maybe you have different acoustics to deal with, but that’s about it. You can make magic in the rehearsal and then bring that directly to the stage. A few years ago I did the WIGMORE HALL competition with a wonderful collaborator and friend who I know from MSM and Juilliard. She had been busy for years coaching singers for musicals and auditions and I had been busy in opera. We had so much freakin fun planning a program, rehearsing (in three different countries no less!) and finally bringing it to life on stage. Although we didn’t make it to the finals we did make it to London and then through the next two rounds. Before we went to London, however, we got to perform all of the songs at my apartment in Berlin for a group of friends. It was a real salon moment. And by the end of our three rounds of repertoire we had many of our friends in tears. We had made something magical because we both had created it ourselves from the ground up. You really can’t get that exact feeling in opera.
What is your favorite song? (The Impossible Question)
One of my favorite songs is Ravel’s “Kaddisch”. The text is, naturally, the text of the Mourner’s Kaddisch in Hebrew. Ravel’s setting of the song, I think is just sheer perfection. Additionally, this song has followed me for many years. I learned it in undergrad, but didn’t have the technical facility to really sing it properly. I sang it on my graduate recital at Manhattan School of Music where my mother heard that setting for the first time and it moved her deeply. Many years later, after she died and we were planning the program of her memorial service, my mother’s good friend, who is also a cantor and was to lead the service, asked me if I wanted to recite the Mourners Kaddisch. I remember the idea popped into my head to sing the Ravel; my mom had loved it so much. I said I would wing it and if I wasn’t a blubbering mess then I’d sing it a cappella. Well, I was a blubbering mess. But somehow at that moment a strange calm came over me. I knew I just had to sing it. Funny how important moments like that seem to just happen, as if they always were so. Later my mom’s friend, who had planned the service with my mother before she died, told me that my mom had actually requested that I sing that song, but hadn’t asked because she thought it might be too much. That was a pretty special moment.
What is your ultimate goal as a singer?
I know many singers dream to sing at a certain opera house or to sing a certain role. My goal is a little more internal. I just want to be proud of what I do. Like many artists I’m never satisfied with what I do. Very rarely do I leave the stage and think WOW, THAT WAS GREAT. In some ways this is good – keeps me moving forward. But on the other hand, never being satisfied really sucks! So lately I’ve been giving myself mini goals: One phrase that I’m working on; calm the voice in my head while I sing; stay in character 60 percent of the time. I focus on this one goal during THAT performance THAT day… and if I do that, then I’m satisfied. Maybe if that starts becoming easier then I’ll be able to let those little micro goals go and just learn to be satisfied with what I’ve done. I’d like to sing a performance, know objectively that there is more to work on and yet STILL say, “You done good, Becca.”
I’m going to have to make an admission that I’m positive will get me in a lot of trouble: I don’t really like Schubert. I know he’s meant to be brilliant and the father/king of traditional Art Song but I just don’t get it!! I find his songs often quite boring, musically and dramatically dull, and the texts often bore me to tears (and the few exceptions – for example Erlkönig – are horribly overdone). But last fall Jillian Zack (a wonderful pianist) and I were invited to go to compete in the Wigmore Hall final rounds in London and as part of our programming we had to include in each round some amount of Schubert Lieder. So I grudgingly began a long search to go through pages and pages of music to find Schubert songs that both fit in our program and also didn’t put me to sleep.
In my search I did happen to find one song which very few people know (a YouTube search garners only a few results, for example) but I find it to be absolutely gorgeous, captivating, and original. The song is “An Emma” and it’s a beautiful example of how even a short song can take you on a journey, explore a dizzying array of ideas and thoughts, and leave you both satisfied and wanting more.
When I was in high school I fell in love with the song “How Glory Goes” as sung by Audra McDonald on her CD by the same name. It was one of the first songs that touched me so deeply it made me cry, and it also inspired in me something new–a sense of purpose. After hearing this song I somehow new, deep inside, that I wanted to touch and inspire people in the same way that I had been touched and inspired. I knew that this was what I wanted to do with my life. (Side note: at that point I was drawn more to musical theater and it was only after spending a summer at Carnegie Mellon and getting blindingly bored from the music in musicals and then the following summer hearing Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time as a young artist at Tanglewood that I knew I wanted to be a classical musician.)
But, back to the song. “How Glory Goes” from the obscure musical Floyd Collins by Adam Guettel. It is based on the true story of cave explorer Floyd Collins, who died after he was trapped in a Sand Cave, and the media frenzy that ensued during the attempted rescue. The song is the last thing Collins says/sings before he dies. I loved the text and the music, as I said, when I was younger and didn’t know a whole lot. It affected me on some sort of primal level (as music often does). But now that I’ve lived a bit longer, been very close to death, wondered about life and existence in a way that one only can when one sees the light die from someone’s eyes… well, now I think the song is just damn incredible.
Hear more of Adam Guettel’s music, including new songs, at NYFOS’s Rodgers, Rodgers & Guettel on November 1 and 3, 2016 at Merkin Concert Hall at Kaufman Music Center. Single tickets go on sale July 1 (tomorrow!)
“L’indifferent” is argubly the least well known of Ravel’s three songs that make up his masterpiece Sheherezade. Even so, it garners a good deal of speculation as to the nature of the poem and seems both musically and poetically shrowded in mystery. Although I’ve heard that Ravel originally intended for “L’indifferent” to come second in the trio of songs, I must say I prefer it being last (as it is typically presented) for it leaves the audience often with a slew of questions.
The poem goes as follows:
TES YEUX SONT DOUX COMME CEUX D’UNE FILLE
ET LA COURBE FINE
DE TON BEAU VISAGE DE DUVET OMBRAGE
ET PLUS SEDUISANTE ENCOR DE LIGNE
TA LEVRE CHANTE SUR LE PAS DE MA PORTE
UNE LANQUE INCONNUE ET CHARMANTE
COMME UNE MUSIQUE FAUSSE
ENTRE ! ET QUE MON VINTE RECONFORTE
MAIS NON ,TU PASSES
ET DE MON SEUIL JE TE VOIS T ‘ELOIGNER
ME FAISANT UN DERNIER GESTE AVEC GRACE
ET LA HANCHE LEGEREMENT PLOYEE
PAR TA DEMARCHE FEMININE ET LASSE…..
YOUR EYES ARE SOFT , LIKE THOSE OF A GIRL
YOUNG STRANGER ,
AND THE FINE CURVE
OF YOUR HANDSOME FACE WITH SHADOWED DOWN
IS MORE SEDUCTIVE STILL,
YOUR LIP SINGS ,ON THE STEP OF MY DOOR,
A TONGUE UNKNOWN AND CHARMING
LIKE DISSONANT MUSIC
ENTER ! AND LET MY WINE COMFORT YOU….
BUT NO…YOU PASS BY
AND FROM MY DOOR I WATCH YOU DEPART
MAKING A LAST GRACEFUL GESTURE TO ME
YOUR HIP LIGHTLY BENT
IN YOUR FEMININE AND WEARY GAIT….
Since the subject of the three songs is Sheherezade, one normally assumes that the speaker is Sheherezade herself seducing a young boy. And yet the boy is described in such androgynous terms that one cannot help but wonder why exactly Ravel chose this poem to set. Ravel himself being a sort of sexual enigma and having had no known intimate relationships in his lifetime was often speculated to have been a closeted homosexual. Given this fact, it’s hard not to wonder why he chose to set this song, who this young boy was, and if there was perhaps a deeper message from Ravel himself.
For me, as a singer performing his work, the idea that someone could have been so hidden that he might have spent his whole life putting his emotional and sexual energy into his music touched me deeply. In singing this work, I often imagined myself to be Ravel himself opening his door and heart to a young man whose feminine appearence and walk might have suggested that they were of like minds. I invite him in. I offer him wine. But he passes leaving me still alone, as ever. As he walks on I see him as both everything I want and everything I want to be—while I remain in my doorway, hidden behind the most sensual and touching music.
This song has long been a favorite of mine. It comes from a made for TV film called Evening Primrose which is in no way Stephen Sondheim’s finest, but this song is a gem. For me, it was an incredibly important song in my development as a singer because it taught me how to develop the arc of a song. The melody and harmonies have a definite melancholy quality, and it was so easy to simply delve into that feeling; to allow myself to get swept up by the sadness of a young girl who had lived indoors for so long that she couldn’t even remember what the sky looked like. But then during a performance at the Manhattan School of Music Prep Division, for no reason in particular, I decided to begin the song differently—as if I didn’t know where the song was going nor how sad the whole thing actually was. In this way I learned to let the song lead me and I was suddenly in the moment, discovering the song as it progressed. By the time I reached what is arguably the climax of the song, where the young girl sings “I remember days” as if she hadn’t actually thought about what a day—waking with the sun and letting the darkness curl you back into sleep—actually was. Only in this moment did I finally let the audience see how sad the whole situation was, and it was all the more powerful because it had developed organically.
In light of recent events I would like to start off my first EVER Song of the Day with a song by the band The Dresden Dolls. This band was introduced to me by the illustrious soprano Brenda Rae as we drove back together from a summer at Central City Opera. As it would happen, years later we would both end up holding fest positions in Germany (she in Frankfurt and myself in Hamburg) and singing together once again in Ariadne auf Naxos, but at the time we were both Young American Artists coming off playing mother and daughter in The Ballade of Baby Doe and jamming to the alternative rock/cabaret duo, The Dresden Dolls. Although the group has many more edgy and uniquly musical selections to offer than the one I’ve chosen, this song resonates greatly with the current political and social climate we find ourselves in (on both sides of the pond, I’m afraid). I’ve been a fan of Amanda Palmer’s deep androgynous voice for a while, but it’s her fearlessness as an artist, entrepreneur, and musician that I think truly sets her apart from the rest of the bunch. In “Sing” she calls upon everyone to communicate in a way “that’s like touching except you don’t touch” and like “talking except you don’t talk. You sing.”
She asks us to “sing for the bartender, sing for the janitor…sing for the children shooting the children…sing for the president, sing for the terrorists…sing for the kid on his phone who refuses to sing…” I guess I chose this song because I couldn’t have said it better myself.
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