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Interview with Stephanie Blythe

S. Blythe (© Kobie van Rensburg)

American mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe is world-renowned for her powerful voice, musical intelligence, and dramatic prowess. A graduate of the Lindemann Young Artist Program at the Metropolitan Opera and a recipient of the Richard Tucker Award, Blythe has won particular acclaim for her interpretations of Mistress Quickly in Verdi's Falstaff and Fricka in Wagner's Die Walküre. She makes her San Diego Opera debut as Madame Arvidson (Ulrica) in Verdi's A Masked Ball, opening March 8th.

ConcertoNet: How is San Diego?

Stephanie Blythe: Oh, it's beautiful! It's beautiful. It's our first time here and it's really a lovely city. Everyone told me it'd be wonderful and it's completely living up to all of the hype.

CN: I hope you've been given some free time to do some sight-seeing.

SB: Oh, yeah. Well, I'm singing Ulrica so that does leave me some! [laughter]

CN: And how are rehearsals going for A Masked Ball?

SB: Beautifully! As far as Act I, scene ii, it's going quite well. It's a very nice production. I sang this production in Chicago with a different director. That was with Renata Scotto directing. Lesley Koenig and I have been friends for many years so it's a lovely opportunity to work with her.

CN: This production in San Diego takes place in Sweden. Have you done the version that takes place in Boston?

SB: No, I haven't. And this is my fourth production. I guess I've done a production that might have been in Boston, but sometimes you find updated productions that sort of straddle a nebulous place. I may have done some that are sort of nebulous! [laughter]

CN: A sort of non-descript time and place?

SB: Exactly! Yes!

CN: Tell me about Ulrica. This is one of the big Verdi mezzo roles. What do you enjoy in this music?

SB: Well, what I always say about what I enjoy about the role is that it's very economical. It's an exceptionally well-written part. It's a very well delineated part dramaturgically. It's complete. You're not left wanting to know more about Ulrica. She's a catalyst in this piece. You need to have her. She sort of gets everything rolling and gets the story moving in the direction that it's going.

It's wonderful also that this character gets to interact with every single principal character in the show in just that one scene. It's quite nice.

CN: She's a catalyst but she's also relatively mysterious. We know what she does for the opera, but you can have a bit of fun with her in that way I bet.

SB: Oh, sure! Well, it depends on how you want to look at her, if you want to look at her as someone who is the real thing or if you want to look at her as someone who is a con artist, or as Whoopi Goldberg in "Ghost." She's the one who makes her living as a con artist and then discovers that she really has a gift.

In real life this prediction cost her everything. She was finished when this was over because it was a very, very public viewing of a prediction that she gave. And when people saw that it really came true to such a gigantic person politically and historically they were afraid and no one came to see her again. It cost her everything.

CN: Do you find that the historically based operas are more interesting to you? Do you like to dig into the details like that?

SB: I dig into all sorts of details regardless of whether or not it's historical. You have something that you have to dig into in terms of research. There's always something that can inform your performance. Right now I'm preparing to do an opera about Gertrude Stein. There's a lot of research that goes into that! It certainly goes a long way to helping you create a character and it also makes you feel a little bit more responsible for doing your research. It makes you feel more responsible for the character if you're portraying somebody who really existed.

CN: You've really grown into these Verdi Mezzo roles so well over the past several years. How do you find them fitting your voice? Were they roles you wanted to stay away from at the beginning?

SB: To be honest, if you're talking about the bigger girls like Azucena and Amneris, I wanted to wait a long time before I took on either of those parts. And I am still not entirely convinced that they're right for me. I certainly think that I have something to say about these characters and I enjoy singing them very much. But I'm more known as a versatile singer than any kind of particular singer and I'm happier that way. I'm happier not being pegged as a Verdi Mezzo or a Wagnerian. I'm much happier being a woman singer who occasionally sings big Verdi roles.

I enjoy those roles very much. They're very meaty, and exciting, and wonderful, and they're terrifying! [laughter] There's a lot of responsibility that goes along with those pieces and that's why I do them so infrequently. I dot my calendar with those parts. I don't do them a lot.

CN: Do you find the versatility you maintain in your schedule vocally good for you?

SB: Yes, yes, absolutely. I think it's very important for me. First of all it keeps my voice in a much healthier place and I don't want to make it sound bad, but I get bored easily! [laughter] I need to switch it up or I'd get bored. I couldn't be the kind of artist that does the same kind of roles constantly. I feel like I'm a better singer, a better actress if I'm informed by other things, other kinds of music. When I come back to a part that I haven't done in a little while I think it's always better because what I've done since has kind of informed that work again in a new way. That's what exciting about singing for me.

CN: Is there a particular role that makes other roles easier?

SB: Every Handel role I've ever done has done that. Anytime that I need to hit the reset button and go back to singing, and go back to technique, and go back to really having to take a role apart and put it back together, I go back to Handel. It just makes me think more like a singer. It's like hitting the reset the button. It snaps me back to singer reality because you can't get away with anything when you're singing Handel.

You can't sort of sing it. You have to sing it. You can't get through a part like that by emoting like crazy! [laughter] You're just not going to do it! You can try, but not when you're singing four or five arias in one night. You really have to get down to the singing and I've always found that whenever I have to go to Wagner or Verdi, if I precede it with something like Handel or Rossini, it's much better. I just sing it better.

CN: Was Handel a big composer when you were in school studying?

SB: Handel is the most important composer in my life. His music is what made me really interested in singing technique. It's what keeps my voice healthy. It's what keeps my brain healthy. It's what makes me think. It's what makes me think more musically. It keeps me honest.

When I was in school I NEVER would have thought that, never in a million years. All I listened to for pleasure was Verdi. I NEVER thought that I would be interested in early music and then Bel Canto, NEVER in a million years.

"But, Oh, you've got a big voice. You'll never sing Rossini!" I sang more Handel and Rossini in the beginning of my career than I ever thought I would have. I never, ever, ever thought that Handel would be the thing that would sort of bring me to the fore.

CN: Do you think it's a combination of things? Is it the focus on legato, bel canto, sparse orchestration? Just being exposed as a singer?

SB: Yeah! Sure, absolutely. And the same thing with recital. Art song was and is an enormous part of my singing life and that exposure, being that naked in front of an audience is daunting and thrilling beyond belief, really thrilling. Not that the other stuff isn't. I love singing Verdi and Wagner. I adore it! I love singing French opera. I think it's marvelous, but there's something about that exposure, the exposure of the voice that is such a wonderful and beautiful challenge.

CN: Speaking of recital, about a year ago you did a Live from Lincoln Center called "Celebration! Stephanie Blythe Meets Kate Smith," and you also did a recent album, "As Long As There Are Songs." I have to say, the C word, crossover, is so daunting. When I saw your special it didn't enter my mind. You were so good at it.

SB: Thank you!

CN: How did that entire concept come about?

SB: Well, the concept came because the American Songbook Series had been asking me for several years to present a recital for them. And I had been toying with the idea of doing a sort of tribute concert to Kate Smith for many years. I just never thought that I would find the venue for it. She's a singer that I have long admired.

To be honest with you, most of the singers I listen to are popular music singers, singers from say 1920 to 1965. Those are really the voices I spend most of my time with, especially today. I had become a big fan of Kate Smith around the time I was at Tanglewood, that would have been 1993-1994. I started listening to recordings of hers and just being really moved by the way she sang because it was a very, very natural voice. She never had a voice lesson in her life. I thought it was just a remarkable sound, and a remarkable presentation, and I admired her enormously. I had no idea that I would actually write a cabaret! When I went back to American Songbook and gave them this idea, they were so excited about it that we scheduled it and then all of a sudden here I am having to write a cabaret about Kate Smith! [laughter]

It was a wonderful experience. It was my first time working with accompanist Craig Terry. I'd known him for many years. We were young artists at the Met during different times and he is a protege of my recital partner Warren Jones. We came together to do this because Craig has an incredible gift for playing this music. I wrote the script and it went through a couple of different incarnations and we performed it for the first time in 2011 at American Songbook. And they came back to us about a year and a half later and said, "PBS is interested in presenting some of our concerts and we would very much like you to encore the concert and do it for Live from Lincoln Center." I couldn't believe it. You could've knocked me over. I was shocked!

We'd done the concert several times since the debut of it and people really enjoyed it. And the thing I like the most about singing that music is that it's very evocative of a very particular time. It's very nostalgic and I adore nostalgia.

When Craig and I were given the opportunity by these amazing people in Berkeley, John and Helen Meyer, to go and use their studio for a first go at making a recording in their Pearson Theatre with their new Constellation system, these opportunities were very organic. Everything came together in these two projects very organically. They just kind of grew from a little seed of an idea. And I was very eager to do a recording of popular that was not connected to somebody else like the Kate Smith show. This music really means something to me and Craig. It means a lot to us to try and have our own takes on it and it was wonderful to use this unbelievable new recording technology to make this recording, "As Long As There Are Songs."

I think that what you may not know is that I am the child of a jazz musician. My father is a retired jazz musician. He's a tripler, he plays flute, saxophone, and clarinet. He still plays, he just doesn't play professionally. So the music I heard in my house for most of my childhood was recordings of instrumental jazz and my father practicing, which he did every day for at least two to three hours. I've been listening to jazz for a very long time and I am by no means saying I'm a jazz singer AT ALL. I'm just saying that the idea of singing behind the beat and the idea of being free with music is something that I grew up with.

CN: And I think that really comes across in the show and the album. What's so incredible to me, and you used the word organic, is just how organic your singing is.

SB: Oh, thank you.

CN: You're not at all afraid of crossing over your break or singing the entire song in your beautiful, huge chest voice and really belting out the songs. It's the kind of "crossover" singing we don't get a lot of times from classical artists.

SB: It's a very old style of singing popular. It's a really old style. [laughter] To do a big belting sound is more Garland, and Merman, and Smith, it's not the kind of sound people are used to hearing today for one thing. And I think what makes the disc very interesting is that it captures that. Because the way it's recorded captures that very live sound. And it sounds like what it would sound like if you were sitting in front of me and this is what you get. It's an unapologetic kind of sound. And if people like it, they like it, if they don't like it, they don't like it. And I think what is important to me is to make sure that people understand that American Songbook music is our Art Song. It is Americans' quintessentially American song.

I am very adamant that young singers, especially today, sing this music. It needs to be performed. I'm so happy that the Kate Smith show is such a revelation to some young singers that I've come across who had absolutely no idea who this woman was. It's shocking to me. Many people had no idea of the breadth of the repertoire that she did and only think of her as a lady who sang "God Bless America." That was another thing that was very important to me.

Another thing, maybe the most important thing about both of these projects, is that Craig Terry and I had total artistic control. That's something that, in the opera world, performers very rarely have. We don't get to make the choices. We are presented with what someone wants us to do, and we learn that music, and we perform it. Unless you're a recital artist you very rarely get an opportunity to choose what you want to say and how you want to say it. And it was a very nice opportunity also to get to feel closer to the audience than in anything else I do. I think that's extraordinarily important. The closeness to the audience through the music, not through emotive minutia, but through the music that I choose to sing and how I choose to sing it.

CN: What can young singers learn from performing some of these songs?

SB: How to take risks musically in order to say something and how to use text to its fullest effect. A lot of this music is not pictorial. You create the pictures with how you sing the text. It's musically less than, let's say, Charles Ives for instance, John Duke, or Ricky Gordon, or Jake Heggie. The piano part is not as artistically crafted as it is in a true Art Song. So the voice has got to be the storyteller and that's one thing that is really missing from young artists today. They are not storytellers. They do not connect first to text. They connect first to sound and in my opinion it should be the opposite.

I have an art song festival that I started two years ago in Potsdam, New York where I went to school and all we do is American contemporary song for one week. Six singers and three pianists, that's all we do. It's called Fall Island Vocal Arts Seminar. The reason I do that is because I feel that singers need to learn to be able to take risks and they do that through their connection to text and they become better communicators to the audience when they are truly connected to their words. Singing American Songbook repertoire is a really good starting off point for that. And the music is exceptional. So that's why I like that.

CN: Who are some of your favorite singers to listen to in this popular music?

SB: People like Keely Smith, the obvious ones, Sinatra, Dean Martin. Sammy Davis Jr. is my favorite singer of all time and I've said that many times in print. I think he was one of the greatest communicators of song ever. I'm a big fan of Helen Humes. I love Ella Fitzgerald, obviously, the obvious ones. There are so many great vocalists. Vic Damone is one of my favorite vocalists. For me, the most revelatory thing I have heard on Sirius-XM Satellite Radio is 40's on 4. Do you know that station?

CN: I do!

SB: It's the best station ever! You hear some of the best singing on that station. Vaughn Monroe, there's a voice! The very first time I heard Vaughn Monroe I sat up straighter in my chair. That was a PHENOMENAL instrument.

CN: What is it about the old voices where they sound so technically secure, but so personable at the same time?

SB: Because they were being recorded for radio. A lot of people didn't even know what Vaughn Monroe looked like, but they sure knew what he sounded like. Radio was the window to the world for so long. And I think that because people were coming across in recordings it was a completely different way of hearing singers and a completely different way of being recorded. They were doing live recordings. They were singing songs through. They weren't going through and editing the heck out of them and putting them through 8 million filters until you got a sound that you like in the editing room. You got the sound at the mic. And I think that is a really big difference.

Today we are so used to hearing a manipulated sound that when we hear the live thing, the animal, the way it really is, we think, "what is that?" And that's why when I'm listening to classical singers, every time, I will choose a live recording over a studio recording. Every time.

CN: There's also something about a live performance where you get that visceral excitement that you don't get otherwise.

SB: Yeah, there's nothing like that in the moment sound.

CN: What are some of your favorite opera recordings?

SB: Oh, gosh! That really puts me on the spot! There are so many that I love. I would say that most anything that's recorded in the 70's. I just think that in the 1970's, early 80's, there were some amazing opera recordings being made. The people that I listened to the most when I was a student were what I considered to be a triumvirate of singing, Price, Milnes, and Domingo.

In terms of recital recording I will listen to just about anything a baritone recorded. The baritone voice for me is just one of the most exciting, wonderful, pleasing sounds. I think personally one of the best recital recordings I've heard is Bryn Terfel's "The Vagabond." That's got to be one of the best recordings, full stop, that I've ever heard. I think all of those wonderful song recordings that Jessye Norman did in the 80's were just spectacular, just terrific singing. That's what I listened to mainly when I was studying.

CN: If you go back through the 70's and 80's it's really an embarrassment of riches.

SB: It's unbelievable isn't it? It was a completely different idea of the art at that time and what was essential. This music was essential. It was essential to record these artists and thank god they were.

CN: What do you see today with technology in opera? What do you see as the biggest challenge that you as an opera singer face?

SB: I think that at this point we are in a completely different era. There's nobody that will tell you that classical recording is in any good place. It's not. It doesn't sell well. They're not made. Most people don't have recording contracts, and if you have a recording contract, that's unheard of, more power to them. But there's a lot of possibilities with things being recorded live. Just at the Metropolitan Opera alone, we became a broadcast house literally overnight. Not only do we have the "Live in HD," but a gigantic percentage of shows go out live on Sirius-XM. That's really something. Whether or not that's a good thing, who knows? But I think that it's certainly out there and that can't be a bad thing.

CN: I remember the first year they started "Live in HD" and they did a handful. I went to my biggest movie theater in town which would hold 200 people and it was packed. If you didn't get there a half hour early you were sitting in the front row. They just exploded. It has its drawbacks, but it's such a convenient way to see great singers sing great opera.

SB: I know it. Also it creates fan-bases in places you'd never thought you'd have one and that's really remarkable. There's a lot to recommend it, believe me. But it's a different word, it's a different world. Like I said, whether or not it's a better one is questionable, but it's certainly different.

CN: Finally, let me ask you what the future holds for you and what you're looking forward to.

SB: Well, I am very excited because I have a lot of recital opportunities coming up which is wonderful. I am always happy when I get to do recital because I think it's the most intimate contact with the audience and that's wonderful. I have this opera that I'm doing at Opera Theatre of St. Louis this summer which is called Twenty-Seven. I'm playing Gertrude Stein, it's written by Ricky Ian Gordon and Royce Vavrek is the librettist. It's a fantastic piece, really fantastic, and I'm really looking forward to doing that. I haven't done a lot of new opera. I've done a lot of new song, but not a lot of new opera so it's a wonderful, divine challenge. To play this woman is certainly an honor.

I just basically take my career a job at a time. [laughter] I'm certainly very happily employed and I have a lot of wonderful things on the horizon. At the moment I'm just happy to be here in San Diego, really happy.

Matthew Richard Martinez



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