EarRelevant’s Q&A with the world-renowned mezzo-soprano in advance of her Great American Songbook concert this Saturday at the Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center.
Mark Gresham | 16 MAY 2019
World-renowned mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe is one of the great American singers of our time. Blyte will showcase her powerful, malleable voice in a celebration of songs from the Great American Songbook, including standards and Tin Pan Alley classics by Irving Berlin, Ross & Hart, Noel Coward, and more when The Atlanta Opera presents Stephanie Blythe and Friends this Saturday, May 18 at the Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center at City Springs. The program will also feature pianist Craig Terry and four guest singers from The Atlanta Opera Studio: Soprano Anna Koźlakiewicz, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Sarian, tenor Justin Stolz and baritone Jonathan Bryan, who have been rehearsing and work-shopping their professional skills with Blythe since she arrived in Atlanta over a week ago.
Although opera is a major part of Blythe’s career, she is equally if not more active in concert and recital. In fact, Atlanta audiences have seen her locally only once in an opera, in her role debut as the Marquise of Berkenfield in the Atlanta Opera’s 2018 production of Donizetti’s comedy, The Daughter of the Regiment but have been more familiar with her performances in concert with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and in recital at Spivey Hall.
As both opera singer and recitalist, Blythe is one of the most highly respected and critically acclaimed artists of her generation. Her repertoire ranges from Handel to Wagner, from German lieder to contemporary and classic American song. Blythe recently released her first crossover recording, As Long as There are Songs, on the Innova label with pianist Craig Terry.
EarRelevant spoke with Blythe by phone about singing, her in-progress workshop residency with the Atlanta Opera Studio and the upcoming concert.
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EarRelevant: Throughout your professional career as a singer,you’ve had one foot in the operatic world and the other in concert and recital, including that vast body of repertoire known today as the Great American Songbook. For you, what is the relationship between opera and that particular historic body of American popular song?
Blythe: When you’re trying to draw the relationship between the Great American Songbook and opera there isn’t a “relationship.” For me, they’re both mediums that are carried by voice. I really don’t call myself an opera singer anymore and I haven’t for a long time. I’m more of an entertainer who sings opera and cabaret, including the Great American Songbook.
EarRelevant: What do you hope to achieve with the workshops you are doing with the Atlanta Opera Studio singer?
Blyhe: For all the young singers that I work with on this repertoire, I’m interested in a healthy, supported beautiful sound and real communication with text, and that’s what the American Songbook is all about: beautiful melodies and really great texts. That’s why that music is held in such esteem in our country, why it’s remembered and why these songs are are sung so frequently. There’s something about that music that attaches itself to us because those songs speak to our own experience, to our life experiences.
When opera does the same, when opera really “gets” people, it’s very similar. There’s something about the music there’s something about the story that’s very familiar to us, even if it’s in another language that’s why La bohème is such a popular opera, because it speaks to our own lives. When you love something you relate to it. As a singer, the best thing I can do is deliver the music and deliver the text as best I can. For me, that’s the relationship.
EarRelevant: You’re working with the Atlanta Opera Studio singers doing workshops and rehearsals in preparation for Saturday’s concert, which features songs from the Great American Songbook. Is this a week-long residency?
Blythe: It’s more like 10 days, actually. I did master classes with them last night, we worked the day before that, a big working session on the music that’s going to be on the concert, and last night I heard them sing arias, you know today we’re going to do more work and it’s all about them getting comfortable with this medium and learning how to communicate with the audience in ways that the opera singers generally are not asked to do, or don’t do. That’s why I’ve been a recitalist my whole career as well as an opera singer, because I love that kind of intimate contact with the audience.
Opera is a remarkable, incredible opportunity for the voice to expand and show what it is capable of doing. There’s something about that music, something about that sonority and the sense of being a part of something that’s larger. In high school and I was a member of the orchestra, concert band and mixed chorus, and there was something about being part of a large ensemble that was so thrilling because we were part of this musical community, this huge texture that was overwhelming and exciting. Some of my most favorite things to do today are Mahler’s Symphonies. I just did a Falstaff in in Dallas, another great example of a huge ensemble work. You feel like you’re part of this extraordinary puzzle.
EarRelevant: That brings me back to working with singers in the early parts of their career. You’ve talked a little bit about that’s what you’re trying to do is get them to open up to other options.
Blythe: It’s to find other ways to connect with an audience. That’s what it’s all about isn’t it? If we don’t connect with our audiences we don’t have a job, you know, but there is something that is very visceral and exciting about singing music in an American theater, that’s in the language f everyone that’s sitting in the audience. singing about topics that everyone knows about.
EarRelevant: One could easily suggest that the classic American musicals of the past are our country’s version of “light opera.” I’m also thinking of opera companies that mount productions of American musicals as part of their regular seasons, perhaps on the one hand the revenue and audience they draw but also so the genre will survive.
Blythe: Some opera companies have. It’s a symbiotic relationship. A lot of this music really thrives in an atmosphere that is “grand.” Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals are huge. They can be enormous affairs. I’ve sung Carousel a couple of times, once with New York Phil and once with Houston Grand Opera, It’s an extraordinary feeling to sing this incredible music with a full orchestra.
The Great American Songbook has always been a very big part of my life, as an audience member and as a creator of it. I’m very eager to teach the style to the next generation of singers and whet their appetite for this repertoire because it’s important that we continue it.
EarRelevant: The very youngest generations of today are largely unfamiliar with that music.
Blythe: And they’re really not familiar with the Tin Pan Alley stuff that is really in my wheelhouse – we’re talking about 1890 to 1930. A lot of those songs are relatively lost. When we pick them up again it’s like, “Oh, why aren’t we singing this all the time?” These are wonderful gems and I also really enjoy getting the audience to sing them. I love when the audience sings along.
EarRelevant: That’s something you encourage in your performances?
Blythe: I have whole recitals that are sing-alongs. Listen: When you go to a rock concert you don’t sit there and clap your hands, you get up and you sing because you know the music. And if you have an audience full of people who grew up hearing Irving Berlin songs, they’re always going to sing. They want to sing. So I encourage them to do it.
EarRelevant: Do you have favorites among the songs on your album, As Long As There Are Songs?
Blythe: I really love all those songs. That’s why I recorded them. A lot of them are songs that people don’t normally do. I also tend to gravitate toward songs that Judy Garland sang, and I also have a cabaret show about Kate Smith. There’s an awful lot of repertoire between those two ladies. For me, it’s like going down the rabbit hole. I’m such a product of the YouTube generation, when I start doing research I can’t believe how many songs I come across.
EarRelevant: All of the tracks from the CD are available for listening on YouTube. Really, if you were pressed to pick just one for our readers to hear, which one would it be?
Blythe: “Serenade in Blue.”
Blythe: I love that song and I love Harry Warren! Harry Warren was one of the great unsung heroes of Tin Pan Alley, he had an output that rivaled Irving Berlin. His music is so extraordinary. “The More I see You,” what a great song, and “September in the Rain” – just one right after another. He had all those early Tin Pan Alley songs and now when I play the ukulele I am able to play a lot of these songs for myself and it’s really a lot of fun.
EarRelevant: Some final words for our readers about Saturday’s concert?
Blythe: I would love people to know that there’s something for everyone in this concert, that it’s a celebration of the human voice and the human condition. It is so appropriate because the music celebrates the voice in such a brilliant way.
The Atlanta Opera is presenting this concert. I really adore The Atlanta Opera. I loved working there and I love working with their young artists. These are four extraordinary singers and we’re going to be singing some terrific music. People will enjoy this concert very much but they will also feel good when they walk out the door. That’s my goal. I want people to feel great when they walk out the door. And when they do, I want them to be singing. ■