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