My friend Becca Jo’s challenge to stop telling her what performances I didn’t like, and instead show her what I did like, has stayed with me. Ever since our conversation last Friday I’ve been pondering: where does my own heart lie? What is my musical home base? I’ve played everything from blues to Berlioz, Sondheim to Strauss, Tom Waits to Virgil Thomson.
But I think my home base is Italian bel canto.
It’s not surprising. My first love was Gilbert and Sullivan. It wasn’t the excitement of the patter songs, which dazzled me but also made me a little uncomfortable (should grown men be quite so…prissy?). No, it was the Italianate ballads, the big tunes, that spoke to me when I was 7. I eventually graduated to “The Magic Flute” and then the big kahuna: Joan Sutherland’s double album “The Art of the Prima Donna.” I had never imagined virtuosity of this kind—blazing coloratura; full-voiced climaxes up to high E; rapid, lawn-mower trills on command; breath control that seems superhuman.
Music is about lots of things, but I got hooked on the primacy of melody very early. Playing lessons for the Juilliard voice guru Dan Ferro cemented that Italian ideal in my spirit when I was just 22 years old. The odd thing is that I actually don’t much like the bel canto repertoire anymore. Operas by Donizetti and Rossini have lost some of their appeal, especially in the hands of their current exponents. But part of me remains rooted in those principles of vocal and verbal nuance, tonal beauty and expressivity. It’s strange to say it, but whether I’m playing Kurt Weill or Bessie Smith or Hugo Wolf—or Verdi– I’m still led by the throb of Callas singing “Norma,” Sutherland dashing off “La sonnambula.”
More thoughts to come this week. For now, imagine 11-year old Steve putting a monophonic LP on his Steelman phonograph, and hearing this for the first time: “The Soldier Tir’d of War’s Alarms,” by Henry Arne, sung by Joan Sutherland. The rest is history.