To celebrate NYFOS’s 30th Anniversary Season, Song of the Day is featuring some selections from our commercial recordings, along with excerpts from the notes that accompanied them. Inspired by last week’s celebration of William Bolcom at our NYFOS@Juilliard concert, here is an excerpt from Steven Blier’s program notes for Bastianello and Lucrezia, NYFOS’s double bill of comic operas, commissioned from composers John Musto and William Bolcom, with libretti by Mark Campbell.
Although Bastianello’s libretto was the first to be written, the first music we received was the score to Lucrezia. This Machiavelli classic was the second idea Bill and Mark had for their opera; they initially considered a play by Johann Nestroy called The Talisman, about a town with a prejudice against redheads. But they both felt it would need more than one act and a larger cast to work. Machiavelli’s La Mandragola was Mark’s next idea, and he eventually convinced Bill that the idea had legs. “I liked it because it was centered around a woman,” Bill told me, “and (in our version) a woman who comes out on top. I had only one proviso: I wanted to set it in Argentina.” Why? “Well, I wanted to write a zarzuela…as imagined by the Marx Brothers.” I wondered if Bill was aware of how much Spanish and Latin American music NYFOS has programmed over the last two decades—and if he knew of our programs dedicated to Spanish light opera. “Oh! No. Well, that’s a plus, then!”
Indeed, Lucrezia melds the smoldering musical worlds of Astor Piazzolla, Osvaldo Golijov, Federico Moreno Torroba, and Enrique Granados with the comic sensibility of an American screwball comedy. In Lucrezia, Bill and Mark created something I have longed for: the first zarzuela packed wall to wall with great tunes and great jokes. Having played so much Latin music, I was aware of the many styles Bill used in this score—and not all of them Spanish. The overture recalls Raymond Scott, the genius of American cartoon soundtracks. But soon there are Lecuona-style tangos (Lorenzo’s first aria), then fierce Andalusian bullfight music (the duet for Ignacio and Chucho), elegant scenes that recall Granados at his most refined (the final duet for Lorenzo and Lucrezia), scintillating waltzes à la Rosenkavalier (the duet for Annunciata and Lucrezia), fiery jotas (Lucrezia’s “potion aria”), a section that I could swear is a sly tribute to Ned Rorem (the beginning of the bedroom scene), gestures that recall Rossini and Verdi, and an hommage to James Brown. Throughout, there are wonderful harmonies redolent of American jazz.
I commented to Bill that his evocation of Argentina had a lot of Spain in it. He explained, “No, the piece is neither intrinsically Argentinean nor Spanish. All those cultures shared their dance rhythms, there was always a lot of trading around. Tangos and habaneras started in Cuba and quickly migrated everywhere. I’m not into the authenticity of it—I’m into the fun of it.” Bill saw Lucrezia as part of a larger tradition. “I once saw some Yiddish operettas—I couldn’t understand all the words, but the situations were the same as in all light entertainments: mothers and daughters, marriages, philandering guys. They were hugely enjoyable, and that’s what I wanted.” — Steven Blier
Lucrezia’s aria “An Admirer”, sung by Sasha Cooke
I thought talking about living composers not yet featured on NYFOS programs would be enough to minimize the list of people I’d love to include—nope! Not the case. So I will have to let it go for now and pick up the topic another time because without a doubt, there are more composers to be talked about who excel writing for the voice—and thankfully so! Most recently, I’ve had the great joy of working on music by some well established composers but today I wanted to focus on someone relatively new on the scene with a powerfully unique ‘voice’. Lembit Beecher and I went to Rice University together years ago but didn’t really see much of one another. Skip ahead to about a decade later and the crowded but intimate East Coast classical scene and then the even smaller ’new music’ scene within that. Lembit had finished up his studies at Harvard, Rice and University of Michigan and headed to Philadelphia for a three-year residency with Opera Philadelphia. What struck me first about his music was not only the organic, often folklike style but the intense personal feeling in his writing. It feels imperative. It makes sense then that he would be drawn to writing for the voice. It’s not to say that all music in any instrument isn’t personal but the fact that no voice sounds like another is certainly something to be accentuated. There is also of course the incredible gift of text! The first piece of his that I heard (and watched) was And Then I Remember based on WW2 stories of Lembit’s Estonian grandmother Taimi Lepasaar. Here Lembit incorporates something from his family history—a potent, emotional story that’s ‘in his blood.’ In this short clip, I love how immediately one sees the impact ‘music’ makes to ‘word.’ We hear the voice of his grandmother speaking about her memory and then the singer giving those same words new feeling and meaning. The music heightens the emotion as it is so essential to do. Why else do we attend a concert but to have our heart opened?
Then Lembit completed his first full-length opera I have no stories to tell you.Once again, like the composers I mentioned from previous days, writing an opera appeared to be an immediate and natural extension of himself, seemingly unimpeded by the obvious challenges involved. This never ceases to amaze me—the sheer scope of putting together a musical, dramatic, orchestral, narrative, often choral, scenic and emotional world. The clip speaks for itself. As Lembit describes it, the opera “mines the aftereffects of war through the story of a soldier’s return home from an extended assignment on the battlefield.” It comes from the 2014 premiere by Gotham Chamber Opera with libretto by Hannah Moscovitch, conducted by Neal Goren.
This week I wanted to look at composers not yet featured on NYFOS programs who have exceptional ‘voices’ in the contemporary realm and more specifically, ones with a natural facility writing for the voice in particular. In Laura Kaminsky’s case, her entree into the opera world would not only have tremendous impact in the classical, social and artistic scenes, but she also would introduce a subject matter so current that soon thereafter it became a cultural obsession—the experience of being transgender.
Opera was, it seems, a gentle and welcome place for that conversation to get started. This was 2014, so before we met ‘Caitlin’ Jenner and shortly before Transparent premiered on Amazon. The setting was ripe and since its premiere at BAM, it has been produced in nearly a dozen cities here and abroad. That is unique for new music! You’d think Laura would need to have written an opera beforehand to have had such a slam dunk but it wasn’t the case. The same goes with David Bruce’s full-length opera Nothing and Joby Talbot’s Everest. They all had an immediate facility in the art form, a genre considered by many to be the most difficult—opera, the synthesis of so many forces all at once. This is certainly part of the reason there is a lot of BAD new opera…it’s just so damn hard to pull off. Laura teamed up with phenomenal, Pulitzer-prize winning librettist Mark Campbell (whom I first met with NYFOS doing the premieres of his two operas, Lucrezia by Bolcom and Musto’s Bastianello, both comic masterpieces) and librettist/filmmaker Kimberly Reed, on whose story the opera is based. The union of these three great minds could not have been more serendipitous. When my husband baritone Kelly Markgraf and I first read through the libretto, we were in tears. So on multiple levels, the work was profound. Laura had heard Kelly and I sing together four years before at Symphony Space while she was the Artistic Director there. She asked us on the spot if we’d consider premiering an opera of hers—the idea for it hadn’t even yet been fully conceived. In the final product, the male and female singers would represent the male and female aspects of the protagonist Hannah. Kelly’s part (the male) was more prominent in the beginning of the piece and by the end, the mezzo (female part) had fully taken hold. So on that level as well it was a revolutionary idea—two sides of the same person played by two different singing-actors. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen that in straight theater OR opera. Then for Kelly and I, a married couple, to explore this uncharted, potent and highly emotional material together was one of the greatest privileges of our lives. Every now and then with new music, you get the feeling you should be pinching yourself. So forgive me for being biased!! In the following video, you’ll see clips from the protagonist’s experiences in ‘Paper Route’ ‘Sex Ed’, ‘The Perfect Boy’ where Hannah-before tries to do everything athletic she can to make herself fit in as a boy, ‘To Know’ where Hannah-before hears the word ‘transgender’ for the first time on TV (Kim and Mark brilliantly never actually mention the literal word) and the final vignette ‘Norway’ where Hannah-after fully embraces herself and takes a brave step forward as her true self, ‘As One.’
Contemporary music is alive and well and as my father has remarked often, opera houses are commissioning a surprising amount of music—why is that? You’d think with limited budgets and a fluctuating economy that opera companies would do the tried and true stuff—avoid taking chances. And yet, they are. People, and particularly donors, love to be a part of the creative process and have a say in the direction opera is going. I think that’s a big part of it, but it also seems to be our way of making the art form relevant. I’ll never forget the feeling waiting in the wings before curtain call in John Adams’ Doctor Atomic. At the very end of the show, when all the music has stopped, one hears the voice of a Japanese woman asking for water, a looped pre-recorded track. Eventually this dissipated into silence, which seemed to last an eternity. The audience could hardly breathe. The awe and shock felt in the room was so palpable it reached all the way backstage. Sometimes I had to wait in another area just to avoid the intensity of that moment.
Although we have many extraordinary composers writing right now, it’s my feeling that very few compose well for the voice. When NYFOS asked me to contribute to the blog this week, my gut for whatever reason wanted to explore this topic. I wanted to mention composers whose work is moving and has a knack for unleashing and accentuating the voice’s unique powers. And when I heard the music of David Bruce, I was struck! Here was a composer who had that open channel to the heart and somehow understood how the voice could help him illuminate that. I was so struck that I went out of my way during a recording job in London to see the premiere of his opera Nothing at Glyndebourne. I walked away with the feeling that it was the best premiere I’d ever seen. (More info can be found here.) It was so good that I have trouble even putting it into words—everything cohesive, potent, organic, raw and ‘operatic.’ I was riveted and never once thought about an interval or a pattern or orchestration. But since this is NYFOS, it makes much more sense to share with you a clip from Bruce’s song output. My buddy and fellow mezzo-in-crime Kelley O’Connor sings this ravishing song “Bring Me Again”, the last in the cycle That Time with You, premiered in 2013. You can’t help but feel warm listening to it.
It doesn’t always require a prolific song composer to write the best vocal music. Of course there are many that do! But I’ve been surprised to discover composers that just have that ‘thing.’ It’s almost like becoming an opera singer—many can ‘want’ to do it and learn everything that’s required but in the end, you still must be born with that ‘thing.’
It’s hard to put into words what makes a great composer for the voice and believe me, I’ve tried to unlock the code. One might say the words should flow as organically as they do in speech. Or that the line should come from the soul, in the way that only a voice can do. Of course we’ve all heard the complaint about ‘no melodies’ or that nothing from the opera could be ‘hummed on the way home’ as it can of course with the majority of our most beloved and frequently performed operas. So as far as today goes, the definition of great vocal music has changed or at least composers are exploring different avenues of expression. Ultimately I find that it always comes back to emotion. If there isn’t a palpable feeling that comes from the music itself, then for me, it’s not meant to be sung. One might ask what the difference is between stage dialogue and sung lyrics—what does music do to raise it to the next level? Why is music necessary? For me, it’s a new dimension of feeling. I’ve performed incredibly ‘clever’ music with great patterns, orchestrations, witty rhyme schemes or far-reaching angular dissonances. But if nothing has been felt, then it might as well be an intellectual exercise, an experiment in what the voice can do—and that can be interesting, don’t get me wrong! Melody in the traditional sense also isn’t necessary. That has surprised me and maybe that’s why this is difficult to decode. Great vocal music, tuneful or not, somehow illuminates the human experience and all the emotion that comes along with it.
So enter Joby Talbot. For the most part, Joby hadn’t written much vocal music when I met him. Like Caroline from yesterday, he’s done some crossover work and also written for countless movies, ballets and stage pieces. His Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was the first full-length narrative ballet score to be commissioned by The Royal Ballet in 20 years. Not as much for the voice when Dallas Opera commissioned him for 2015. Gene Scheer had an idea for an opera and the two of them immediately hit it off. (If there’s a Song of the Day week devoted to librettists*, Gene would be at the top of that list.) He is a magician when it comes to word and emotion and the simplicity that often allows them to serve one another so well. Joby and Gene completed Everest, based on the tragedy that happened on Mt. Everest in 1996. I was asked to play the wife of Rob Hall, one of the two expedition leaders that day who perished. In part of this clip, I am pregnant with Rob’s daughter whom he will never meet. In the chilling final scene, over the radio heard to every climber on the mountain that day, Rob suggests the name “Sarah” for their daughter. The clip shows a few small moments in the opera but more importantly it shows Joby’s unique ability to channel that ‘feeling’ so immediately. At times, it’s the frigid isolation on the mountain, the panic, the longing to be home or the revelation of summiting. Often with beautiful (and very tuneful!) melodies, sometimes minimalist—like soundscapes or piercing orchestral sounds, Joby’s music goes straight to the heart. The reaction to this opera was tremendous and for me it was one of the most moving premieres I’ve been a part of, successful because of its power to make people feel.
*Sasha, you are invited to do a week of Song of the Day devoted to librettists anytime! — NYFOS
Contemporary music is my favorite genre to perform.
I recall the time I first had that feeling and even felt some pride in the epiphany. Being unique or different suddenly seemed empowering. I loved that audiences never knew what to expect, literally couldn’t arrive comparing it to past performances or whatever performance practice or the various ‘great singers’ who did it better. I relished the element of surprise and thereby, freedom. I would start to say it in interviews—more than anything else, I love singing contemporary music etc. That relationship would later change somewhat and with time, I’d discover the hardships that sometimes come along with singing too many premieres in one season, for instance, or learning music that wasn’t always as ‘vocal’ as I’d like. Maybe this is why I think there are very few composers who understand and write well for the voice. But back then, I had started my graduate degree at Juilliard and it had a certain glow. Whether it was the composer colleagues I’d met, many of whom asked me to learn their music, often with about a week’s notice in advance, or Joel Sachs who introduced me to surprising composers like Beeson, Schnittke, Dallapiccola or Erikson, I suddenly was busy with many notes to learn! I also had the life-changing privilege of meeting Steve Blier and beginning what would be weekly sessions with him over my two years there. That time together also gave birth to an incredible friendship, one that has kept me afloat over the years. Steve has been an anchor emotionally, musically and spiritually and our sushi dates have gone on for ten years now. But around the time we met, he had a cancellation on one of the NYFOS programs and I got to step in! Talk about an introduction to NYFOS. Not only did I get to sing alongside Carolyn Betty, Bill Sharp, Michael and Steve (!), but I met Ned Rorem after the performance, met Jamie Bernstein, discovered Paul Bowles’ music and lived the unique, intimate journey of what it’s like to work with NYFOS—my life changed and quickly so. Following that, through NYFOS, I would also meet Bill Bolcom, John Corigliano, Mark Adamo, John Musto, Harold Meltzer, Paul Moravec, and Mohammed Fairouz among others. As fate would have it, my epiphany was immediately rewarded. And with Steve, I experienced so many amazing musical epiphanies, life-changing ones, many of which involved new music.
Long story short, or long story long, this week I thought it would be nice to celebrate that love and bring to the fore a few composers with truly unique and ‘vocal’ voices that HAVEN’T yet been featured on NYFOS programs. That also helps me simplify my list since NYFOS has done so many contemporary works and premieres! 🙂 So let me start with Caroline Shaw. I can have the fan girl moment and say we went to Rice together—same class actually, back when she was just incredibly brilliant and a violinist. Now a Grammy-winner and the youngest recipient of the Pulitzer, Caroline is doing unbelievable, truly revelatory things with music. She won the Pulitzer in 2013 for “Partita for 8 Voices” written for the vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth. I highly recommend you listen to the whole work and after you hear this movement, I doubt you’ll be able to resist. The piece speaks for itself but to use Caroline’s words, “Partita is a simple piece. Born of a love of surface and structure, of the human voice, of dancing and tired ligaments, of music, and of our basic desire to draw a line from one point to another.” During our Baroque music history class at Rice, it should be noted that our prof insisted we learn the dance component on our feet—literally a bunch of music majors divining the difference between the Allemande, Sarabande, Courante and Passacaglia—the titles of the four movements in Caroline’s amazing piece. As a singer, I can’t help but pay special attention to composers whose music and lyricism naturally unwind or spin outwards. The best composers for voice make you forget they’re composing at all. I believe if we are thinking about the vocal writing, then it didn’t work. It should be raw, emotional and human rather than mechanical, intellectual or “innovative.”
The song is surprising when you don’t know how they’re achieving it, but it’s also fascinating to ‘watch’ the process…
Sasha Cooke walked into my studio at Juilliard twelve years ago, bringing songs from Fauré’s La chanson d’Eve. My life instantly took a turn for the better. From the beginning Sasha had That Sound—I describe her voice as the love child of Janet Baker and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson—rich, intense, somehow fruity and folky at the same time. I knew I wanted to be one of her musical partners for life, also sensing that I would have to share her with a lot of other folks. (Thank God I had learned to be polyamorous as a musician.) I got to see her pretty much every week, and we formed a strong bond as musicians and as friends. (I sort of introduced her to her husband Kelly Markgraf a few years later, but that’s another blog.)
Sasha soon made her New York debut with NYFOS in a program about music’s great patronesses: Godmothers of Song. She was replacing a Swedish singer who canceled at short notice. At the time I was furious, but now I bless that Scandinavian mezzo for giving Sasha the opportunity. She sang beautifully, and that night led to a bunch of other appearances with us, including the world premiere of two one-act operas with libretti by Mark Campbell: Bastianello, with music by John Musto, and Lucrezia, with music by William Bolcom. This was one of our biggest commissions ever, and we needed our A-list players.
Both of those operas gave Sasha a chance to exhibit her first-class chops as a comedienne (where did she learn such perfect comic timing?), and playing the title role in Lucrezia she also got a rare onstage opportunity to be a sexpot. Sasha’s character is married to a seedy older man who prefers the company of prostitutes to that of his wife. His neglect is reaching crisis proportions—not that she loves or desires her husband, but according to the rules of marriage he is her designated bed partner. Lucrezia is in luck: she gets wind of a young man who desperately wants to sleep with her, and unbeknownst to him becomes privy to his elaborate scheme for seducing her. This allows her to get control of the situation. Lorenzo, the young man (played by Paul Appleby), puts on the garb of a fake traveling padre who comes to take her confession on a street corner—he runs a business called “Confession on Wheels,” and the wheels in our performance turned out to be my mobility scooter making its theatrical debut. Lucrezia uses the opportunity to confess her sexual desires in exquisite detail, including exactly how she would like to make love, how long between bouts, and her favorite cologne (Sandalo). Paul, of course, played the scene like a master, writing down each of her requests until he was just scribbling circles on the page with his eyes rolling to the back of their sockets. Since Lucrezia takes place in Argentina, Bill Bolcom wrote Piazzolla-tinged tangos throughout. This tune sounds like a parody of “Makin’ Whoopee”—which is 100% appropriate.
Sasha has gone on to conquer the world with an unusual career that leans towards orchestra, chamber music, and recital gigs more than most of her contemporaries. Conductors flip for her—I remember Alan Gilbert coming up to me after she’d sung Britten’s Spring Symphony with him at the New York Phil, and blubbering, “Steve, this is MAJOR! I mean, this is MAJOR!” I answered, “Oh, yes, of course. But she was major when she sang the premiere of ‘Dr. Atomic’ with you at the Met” “Oh, she was fine…but…this is more MAJOR. I mean, she’s ARRIVED.”
This past June, David Gockley stepped down from his post as Artistic Director of San Francisco Opera, and there was a gala concert in his honor. Susan Graham canceled her appearance a few days before the gig, and Sasha flew in to replace her. She inherited the place of honor: the second-last aria in the program, which was Dido’s aria from the last act of Berlioz’s Les Troyens. She triumphed. I was in San Francisco just after the performance and the place was still buzzing about Sasha’s singing that night. Mark Morash, the Music Director of the Opera Center at SFO, walked into my studio and was almost speechless about what he’d heard. “I mean, Steve, she was…she was…INCREDIBLE. She had a slow aria at the end of a long evening, and I thought, ‘Was this a good idea?’ But the sound that poured out of her! And…the phrasing! The eloquence! The way she handled the space! Time stopped!”
I cleared my throat, remembering that she had been turned down for their young artist program twelve years earlier. Worse than that: when I asked Mark later that day how her audition had been, he could not remember anything about it. I let a moment pass before I said, “You remember, Mark, of course…” He cut me off. “I know. I know. I KNOW! I have nothing to say, no defense. We make mistakes. But she was…GREAT.” “Major?” “MAJOR.”
One of my dearest friends from my time at Juilliard is Sasha Cooke, a mezzo who should be very familiar to NYFOS audiences. Her vulnerability and honesty comes to life in this early performance of her, of Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis.
The poet Louÿs composed Chansons de Bilitis after traveling in Italy in a “Parnassian” style. The poems are actually pseudotranslations—in the orginal collection of poems, he fraudulently claimed that they were translated from Greek, and even invented a fake archeologist who features in the book. The songs are famously erotic, and singers now tend to present them in a rather sultry tone—but this actually goes against Debussy’s intentions. The singer who he selected to premiere the piece, Blanche Marot, was actually selected for her virginity. She later related an anecdote between Debussy and her mother:
“Tell me, Madame, your daughter is not yet twenty? Good. It’s very important, because if she understand the second song, “La Chevelure,” she won’t sing it in the right way; she mustn’t grasp the true brazenness of Bilitis’s language…” My mother set Debussy’s anxieties at rest and everything went splendidly.”
Roger Nichols, Debussy Remembered (Portland, OR: Amadeus Press, 1992), 59.
Translations by Pamela Dellal
La Flûte de Pan
Pour le jour des Hyacinthies,
Il m’apprend à jouer, assise sur ses genoux;
Nous n’avons rien à nous dire,
Il est tard: voici le chant des grenouilles vertes
For Hyacinth’s day,
He teaches me to play, sitting on his knee;
We have nothing to say to each other,
It is late; now the song of the green frogs
Il m’a dit: “Cette nuit, j’ai rêvé.
“Je les caressais, et c’étaient les miens;
“Et peu à peu, il m’a semblé,
Quand il eut achevé,
He said to me: “I dreamed last night.
“I caressed them, and they were mine;
“And little by little, it seemed to me,
When he finished,
Le tombeau des Naïades
Le long du bois couvert de givre, je marchais;
Il me dit: “Que cherches-tu?”
Il me dit: “Les satyres sont morts.
Et avec le fer de sa houe il cassa la glace
The tomb of the naiads
Along the woods covered in frost, I walked;
He said to me: “What are you looking for?”
He said to me: “The satyrs are dead.
And with his iron hoe he broke the ice
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