Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe is considered to be one of the most highly respected and critically acclaimed artists of her generation. Ms. Blythe has sung in many of the renowned opera houses in the US and Europe including the Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Seattle Opera, Royal Opera House Covent Garden, and the Opera National de Paris. More than 200 appearances in 28 roles, including Fricka in Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, Azucena in Il Trovatore, Madame Arvidsson in Un Ballo in Maschera, Amneris in Aida, Orfeo in Orfeo ed Euridice, Mistress Quickly in Falstaff, Cornelia in Giulio Cesare, and the Princess in Suor Angelica. Ms. Blythe was named Musical America’s Vocalist of the Year for 2009. Her other awards include the 2007 Opera News Award and the 1999 Richard Tucker Award. This season, Ms. Blythe returns to the Metropolitan Opera for the new production of Falstaff and makes her debut at the San Diego Opera in Un Ballo in Maschera. She also appears in concert with the New York Philharmonic, tours the US with Les Violons du Roy, and will be presented in recital in San Francisco and Princeton. She recently published, in collaboration with pianist Craig Terry, a tribute album to the Great American Songbook, As Long As There Are Songs.
First of all, why this repertoire shift from opera to popular music? Who or what inspired you to leave your “comfort zone”?
Singing songs form the Great American Songbook is only a shift of styles for me- I have never considered them out of my comfort zone. I think that it is a great honor to be an American singing what I consider to be true American Art Songs. As far as the style, I have been singing musical theater on and off my entire life, and I am the child of a jazz musician, so this music has always been in my wheelhouse. Helen and John Meyer have given Craig Terry and I the extraordinary gift of an opportunity to do the kind of recording I have always dreamed of doing.
Technically speaking, what is the difference in the way you use your voice when singing classics from the Great American Songbook vs. singing opera? And within the genre of opera, is it difficult to switch gears between Wagner, Gluck, and Handel? I imagine transitioning from your formidable Fricka to those delicate Baroque lines – it must be pretty challenging.
I am asked this question quite a lot, and I always give the same answer. Technique creates a foundation for singing, and provides to tools sing various styles of music. I do not change the way I sing to accommodate Handel or Arlen, Wagner or Berlin. It is the same voice, just a different style.
For those of us who are too young to know, who is Kate Smith and how has she inspired you?
Kate Smith was one of the great American singers of the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. She recorded more than 2200 songs during her lifetime, helped galvanize our nation through WWII through her radio and personal appearances, and became a fixture on radio and television during the height of her career. Her name was synonymous with America, mostly due to her connection with the Irving Berlin song “God Bless America”, which she debuted for her radio audiences on Armistice Day, 1938. She inspires me because she was a true human being with a glorious, natural instrument, who had a great way with a song and with her audience.
You’re to sing the role of Getrude Stein in Twenty-Seven, a new work that will have its world premiere at Saint Louis Opera. This must be very exciting for you, especially since you have an English degree. Tell us about the process of creating this new role. How much creative input do you have?
I am thrilled about bringing this wonderful new work to life- I have been a great admirer of Ricky Ian Gordon’s work for some time, and getting to know him personally during this time is one of the greatest benefits of this work. I have been given an enormous amount of input in the work, even in the choice of the topic, which was the subject of many conversations between Ricky, the director James Robison and myself. It was their idea to go to Stein, and I loved it. She was an extraordinary woman, full of complexity and contradictions, and the folks surrounding her were no less interesting. It will make for a very fascinating bit of story-telling, and I can tell you that the music and libretto (by Royce Vavrek) are truly wonderful. The libretto is extremely Steinian in rhythm and timber, and is gloriously dramatic as well as very witty- musically, there are moments that will absolutely take your breath away in its beauty.
Any favorite works by Getrude Stein? Can you give us a recommended reading list to prepare for this opera?
The most important and best read is “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.”
As everybody knows, your signature role is definitely Fricka. Is there another role, among the ones you have played so far, that is particularly close to your heart? Is there a role you wish to play sooner or later that you haven’t played yet? And why?
I don’t know if I would call Fricka my signature role- though I can certainly say it is a role I have done with some frequency. I love the character and her music, and I look forward to singing her whenever I have the opportunity. Isabella (L’Italiana in Algeri) is certainly a role that is very close to my heart, as well as La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein, Cornelia (Giulio Cesare) and Mistress Quickly (Falstaff). I would love to take a stab at Tancredi in a staged version. I have sung it in concert and just loved it. The music is just so glorious, and it has a couple of duets that are a total joy to sing.
Who are the singers you look up to as models and inspiration?
The list is too long to give in complete form, but a few would be Placido Domingo, Martina Arroyo, Marilyn Horne, Phyllis Curtin, Kate Smith, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, Annie Lennox, Freddie Mercury and David Bowie.
Is there a singer you would like to collaborate with and haven’t had the chance yet? And if so, why? As far as opera, I would love to sing a role opposite Jonas Kaufmann. He is such an extraordinary singer and interpreter of roles that I think it would be a glorious experience toreally rehearse a piece and bring it to life with him. In a more popular vein, I would love to make an American Art Song disc with Billy Joel- songs of his creation. He is one of the truly great and authentic voices of American music in this or any age.
In times of economical crisis and recession, Art seems to suffer more than any other sector from public financial cuts and poor ticket sales or lack of other forms of ecocomical support. In your opinion, why do rulers think Art has to be sacrificed for economy’s sake?
Because they do not understand the essential nature of art. I would like to take a poll of how many of those in government took part in arts eduction as children. Who played in the band, sang in the chorus, painted or sculpted, etc. I think that even they would be unable to deny the difference that kind of education made in their lives. Art is born in a classroom, from the imagination and ingenuity of teachers, who guide young minds to discover their individuality, expressed musically or otherwise. When arts education suffers, our industry bleeds responsively. This is a world plagued by famine, wars, poverty, pollution, human and environmental exploitation: all this clashes with the number 2014. In your opinion, how artists could make a difference? Which contribution can they give to improve this situation? How can they make an impact on their audience?
By providing the real means of connectivity- through their art. Art is the only thing that knows no boundaries-economic, age, race, culture, what have you. Anyone who experiences a great song, symphony, opera, ballet, painting, sculpture or the like is capable of having a reaction to that work – it is what brings us all together despite anything and everything. Being part of that which can bring us together is a gift and a blessing, but most importantly, a responsibility.
Finally, if you were granted one wish… What would you ask for?
A free, easily attained cure for cancer.
In collaboration with Alice Zhang