NYFOS@North Fork 2022: Day 4

Written by Steven Blier

Artistic Director, NYFOS

In category: Blier's Blog

Published August 26, 2022

As Stephen Sondheim wrote— “Bit by bit, putting it together.”  This means patting every song into place, changing the running order (just in time to meet the print deadline), and, inevitably, a raft of Last-Minute Transpositions. Today we decided to take yet another song up a step,  making a total of four that are suddenly in new keys. Transposing at sight is a skill that has endeared me to singers for years. I once played a Met audition for a major singer who suddenly got cold feet about the high C in the Bohème aria; he didn’t have printed music for the lower key, but I took it down a half-step, he nailed the aria, and went on to sing 202 performances with the company.

If I know a piece well it’s not so hard to change the key, especially in rehearsal where I can fake it till I make it. The payoff has been enormous: the four transposed songs in our show instantly went from black-and-white to color.  I knew this might happen, since I’d hired Shelén without ever having heard her sing.  It made sense that higher keys might suit her better, but I had no idea how much better! She sprang to life in the most extraordinary way when her Brazilian tango went up just one step. Before, she was demure, Now, she was dangerous. 

Shelén and César are flying. Now I have to get my act together for Sunday’s show, and I know that I will  get a little more confused when 100 people are staring at me. I only have about 15 or 20 minutes of alone time every day to patch up the spots that are falling apart. I recently had a visit with my college piano teacher Alex Farkas.  When I went off on a tear about something that was making me anxious, he looked into my eyes and quietly said, “Trust yourself, Steve.”  Three simple words, and I plan to live by them—at least till Sunday. 
Shelén and César are both native Spanish-speakers, and you’d think that they wouldn’t need any language coaching from a gringo like me. But Spanish is a tough mistress, spoken in different ways throughout the Hispanosphere. In Argentina, the double-l and the y are pronounced either “zh” or “sh,” depending on whom you ask. “Yo”—meaning “I,” of course—is pronounced “zho” or “sho”;  “llorar”—normally “yorar” for these two—needs to be “zhorar.” We all agree these sounds are intrinsic to the Argentinean songs, and I end up being the unlikely diction police for the Guastavino and Piazzolla songs. 

The problems don’t stop there. Our encore is from the other side of the Atlantic—a zarzuela duet, “Caballero del alto plumero” from Moreno Torroba’s “Luisa Fernanda.” Here we hit a bigger snag, Castilian Spanish turns the “s” sound of words that contain “ce,” “ci,” and “z” into that familiar “th” we’ve all heard (and sometimes mocked). It’s second nature for “Cathtilians,” but it tends to drive Latino people around the bend. A phrase like “graciosa y dulce voz,” which ought to be sung “grathiosa y dulthe voth,” is likely to come out in a tangle of misplaced lisps and hisses, followed by an embarrassed smile as they catch my disapproving eye. I have faith that they’ll master it, but frankly who cares, when they sing the duet so brilliantly? 

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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