NYFOS@North Fork 2022: Day 2

Written by Steven Blier

Artistic Director, NYFOS

In category: Blier's Blog

Published August 24, 2022

This year’s program is called “Gracias a la vida: Songs of Latin America,” chosen to show off the gifts of my two Spanish-speaking singers, César Parreño and Shelén Hughes. But our concert also includes three Brazilian songs in Portuguese, and we’d need a language coach for those numbers. That job fell to me; I’ve played these songs for years, I’ve studied and translated the poems, I know how they should sound. But I don’t actually speak Portuguese, and I knew it would be good to enlist the services of a native speaker to oversee the diction. The question was: who? 
My first resource was a marvelous pianist I met at Ravinia, Lucas Nogara, who recorded the texts for us a few weeks ago. This used to be a laborious task, involving copying cassettes and putting them in the snail mail; but thanks to the voice memo app on the iPhone, this kind of work can now be accomplished in five minutes. I consider this one of the great miracles of the modern era.
I still wanted someone to listen to the singers in real time and go over the poems with a fine-tooth comb. The solution came to me suddenly—my friend Manuela Soares, who lives a few blocks away from me out here on the Island, speaks fluent Portuguese. I asked her for a bit of her time and expertise, and she was delighted to accept.
I did have a few trepidations about this. Manuela speaks European Portuguese, not Brazilian, and the language is pronounced very differently on each side of the Atlantic. It was a bit like asking someone with a deep southern drawl to coach a Frenchman on Gilbert and Sullivan—potentially risky. To prepare her, I shared Lucas’s recordings of the poems so she could hear his pronunciation. And I warned Shelén and César that there might be discrepancies, but not to worry about anything, we’d work it all out.
And there were indeed discrepancies.  Lucas pronounced the word “de,” which simply means “of,” in the Brazilian way—“gee.” For Manuela, it’s “day.” The word “Matinés” was “mah-chee-NASE” for Lucas, but Manuela said “ma-TEENS.” For Lucas, the word “orrores” was something like “oo-HAWR-ees,” for Manuela, “awe-ROAR-riss.” Even when the actual syllables were basically the same, the crunchy peanut butter of Manuela’s Portuguese was not the same as Lucas’s ultra-smooth recordings. 
Fortunately, everyone was prepared for this, and Manuela was able to help ground César and Shelén in the language—and in the process, boost everyone’s confidence, including mine. Her final verdict: their Portuguese was excellent. But she still had one small reservation; she told Shelén: “Look, it’s all in place, but somehow I can hear your Spanish accent. The consonants are a little too percussive, too sharp. We don’t speak that way.” And she read the first line of one of the poems in her transatlantic Portuguese—“Como tão linda está, como tão linda está!” she murmured. “You see, we don’t—we don’t work so hard when we speak, it’s all…” “Languid?” I asked. “Yes! Languid.”

Images, from top:

1. César tearing his hair out, Shelén bowing under the weight of Portuguese, Manuela Soares playing schoolmistress. 
2. Lucas Nogara and me; the Steans Institute at the Ravinia Festival earlier this month.
3. Lessons learned, everyone happy.

I observed Manuela, and I had a brainstorm. “Shelén—sing the beginning of the song and keep your mouth small. Don’t make a big space. Don’t open your jaw too much.” I illustrated what I wanted, crooning the love song like Perry Como wearing a string bikini. Shelén tried it, and—BINGO! There it was! The accent, the cadence, the style, the character, the seduction—the languor! Manuela’s eyes widened. She helped create a small miracle.

We celebrated with foamy drinks on Village Lane.

author: Steven Blier

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Called “the coolest dude in town” by Opera News, master collaborative pianist and coach Steven Blier is the co-founder and artistic director of New York Festival of Song. Here on No Song is Safe From Us, Steven blogs about the NYFOS Emerging Artist residencies, writes the engaging and erudite program notes for our Mainstage concerts, and contributes frequently to Song of the Day.

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