Interview: Opera’s Magical Mezzo, Stephanie Blythe, talks about her new musical tribute to Kate Smith, this Saturday, at Weill Hall, and, of course, opera
Mezzo soprano Stephanie Blythe Kate Smith, is renowned in the world of opera for her commanding voice and for her intense immersion in the roles she chooses to sing. Her expansive classical repertory ranges from Handel to Wagner and she garners accolades wherever she performs. In 2009, she was named Musical America’s “Vocalist of the Year.” This Saturday, she brings a new program honoring Kate Smith, the legendary “Songbird of the South,” to the new Green Music Center’s acoustically stellar Weill Hall. Blythe and her accompanist, pianist Craig Terry will present “We’ll Meet Again: Songs of Kate Smith,” a part-concert, part-historical conversation that has been getting rave reviews since it was first performed last year as part of Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series.
Kate Smith (1909-1986), who never took a formal music lesson, sang for WWI troops at U.S. Army camps near Washington when she was just 8. She went on to galvanize our nation’s spirits throughout the Great Depression and WWII with her sumptuous voice and iconic renditions of “God Bless America” and “The White Cliffs of Dover.” She was also closely associated “When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain,” a soothing song which was based on a poem that she had written whose poignant ending, “I’m alone with my memories of you,” resonated with a war-torn America. In her six decade career, she recorded over 3,000 songs and introduced over a thousand songs to America, over 600 of which made the hit parade. At the height of her career, during WWII, she was one of the most popular women in America. Ask any veteran who served in WWII about Kate Smith and you’re likely to hear a story about one of her songs that he or she holds dear.
On Tuesday, Election Day, I had the opportunity to speak with Stephanie Blythe about her interest in Kate Smith and American music and her upcoming opera performances. She’s refreshingly direct and passionate about revitalizing interest in songs from America’s past, both on the part of audiences and young singers who have a generation of disconnection from heroic icons like Kate Smith.
Saturday’s program is a tribute and Blythe is not trying to sound like Smith, rather to honor her through her musical choices. Those attending will come away with memories—there won’t be any commemorative programs distributed that list the songs or their lyrics because Blythe wants her audience active, participating and connected to her. “I’ll be announcing the numbers from the podium and, believe me, most of the audience that I’ve been singing to don’t need a program. They know this material well.” The Kate Smith repertoire has been so popular that Blythe will do a recording of it— “things are in the works”— but there’s no release date yet.
What is the attraction to Kate Smith? Did you grow up listening to your parents’ records of her?
Stephanie Blythe: As I was growing up and visiting my grandparents, back in the 1970’s, my grandfather played her records and listened to her on the radio. I liked that voice of hers. I started listening to her on my own after I started singing professionally. I was very interested in Americana singers of that time period and I became specifically interested in her voice because she was phenomena, a natural untrained instrument, very beautiful and poignant. I also liked the message she sent with the music she chose. Had she sung opera she probably would have been a contralto or a very dramatic mezzo.
What’s her greatest contribution to American musical life?
Stephanie Blythe: Song wise, it’s “God Bless America” which became what it was because of her. The song itself was written in 1918 by Irving Berlin while he was in the military but never used it for its intended purpose, a comedy show. He sat on it and brought it out again for Kate Smith because she asked for it. She wanted a patriotic song for Armistice Day 1938 and he re-worked it and he gave it to her. She sang that on the radio in 1938 and it became her song. Who knows, had she never asked him for a song, we might never have had “God Bless America.”
Kate Smith introduces “God Bless America” to America via Radio on Armistice Day, November 11, 1938
Her identification with patriotism and patriotic themes was famous and endearing. Is it harder to be patriotic in today’s day and age? It seems like acts of patriotism can be misinterpreted.
Stephanie Blythe: I am very patriotic and I actually feel very inspired when I sing this program. This music brings out something very wonderful and communal. It’s hard to be patriotic alone. You actually need a community to be patriotic, which is not easy today because of things like the Internet, which are mainly used alone. That’s almost the first requirement of the Internet—you connect with other people but you are basically alone when you’re doing it. I frequently say that radio was the first social media because it connected everyone through what they were all listening to at the same time. And that’s what is great about concerts today: they bring people together in a wonderful way. So, yes this is nostalgia but it’s also here and in the moment and, in that way, I feel I am being patriotic. I’m glad I have this opportunity to bring people together.
About the program, we’re not expecting you to sound like Kate Smith but rather to honor her through your musical choices. Are your voices at all similar?
Stephanie Blythe: Sometimes yes but, honestly, I don’t actively search for that when I’m singing. I am singing in the same register she’s in though, so, sometimes, there is a resemblance. It just comes from the color in our voices and that we’re both American singers. When I’m singing some of these songs, I feel her very definite presence. I don’t mean that in a weird way. This is how she applied her trade and she was known through her songs and she still very much breathes life into all of these songs.
Are there any of her songs that are challenging to sing or that have challenging passages?
Stephanie Blythe: No, that’s not what these songs are about. Originally, these songs were written so that other people could sing them. They were put on sheet music and available at music stores and meant to be purchased. In those days, people had pianos or an instrument in their home and they played and sang these songs. You can interpolate challenging octaves when you want, and go higher than is naturally written, but these songs were meant for your average person.
Throughout the program, you go from talking to singing, is that hard to pull off?
Stephanie Blythe: It gets easier every time I do it but it’s not the tradition that I come from. We don’t do that in opera. I am very comfortable with that now. It also depends on how the audience feels. When the audience expects a recital, talking is not the norm, except in the end when maybe you do an encore. But this concert is more of a cabaret than anything and it just takes practice.
Prior to Kate Smith’s repertoire, you also sang other popular music. Can you talk a little about that?
Stephanie Blythe: I’ve been singing music from Tin Pan Alley—basically music that was written between 1910 and 1930—in recital for a long time. Now, I am actually doing more American popular songs in my regular recitals as a matter of course. I believe these songs are very much part of our American song tradition and they need to be sung and people need to hear them. I am very keen to get younger singers to sing this music too because it’s a real part of our history.
What have you heard about the new Green Music Center whose concert hall is modeled after Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall? How much of a difference does a great concert hall make for you as a singer?
Stephanie Blythe: I have to be honest and say that I haven’t sung this concert in a bad hall. I’m very familiar with Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall and have sung there many times. I did the acoustic test for that hall before it opened. I just did this concert in Rockford, Illinois, at the historic Coronado Theatre (now called Coronado Performing Arts Center) and actually found it was very appropriate because it was a theatre that had once heard this very music. It will also be wonderful to do this concert in the Weill Hall because that hall is very open and seems very friendly and I think this music will lend itself quite well to that stage setting.
Prior to scheduling, had you heard anything about the Green Music Center?
Stephanie Blythe: Only from Mr. Weill, who I met at a Carnegie Hall function, and he spoke in the most glowing terms.
Stephanie Blythe talks about Opera (live and her HD performances)
Are there any changes in your voice that you’re noticing as you mature? I know that you’ve been adding roles to your repertory, for example, last season at the Met you sang the role Amneris in Verdi’s Aida, which required a tremendous range, with many highs and lows and a great deal of emotional depth. You got rave reviews. And with Ulrica, too, from Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, a role you’ve sung many times, and will reprise shortly at the Met, that part can be sung by a contralto or a mezzo.
Stephanie Blythe: Of course, my voice is changing and I’m in my 40’s now. The voice doesn’t really mature until you’re about 35—it’s changing constantly up until then—and lots of different thing can happen on top of that which can contribute to the voice changing. I actually have been singing Amneris for quite some time now and Ulrica, too, for quite a while. I find while I’m singing those roles, I’m also singing a lot of other stuff too, like early music, Handel. I try to keep my vocal palate as wide as I can just to keep my voice very healthy. My voice has changed and, at this point in my life. I am more in my voice than I have ever been before. I know myself pretty well and bring that experience to these roles as well.
Those of us who attend the MetLive in HD productions are familiar with some of your fabulous roles. We’ll have the chance to hear you sing Ulrica in the Met’s new production of Un Ballo in Maschera on December 8, 2012. How are you prepping for that role and what is special about this new production?
Stephanie Blythe: Actually, I can’t tell you anything yet because I haven’t started rehearsing yet. Dolora Zajick is singing the first five performances and then I come in for the final five.
I know that Fabio Luisi (Principal Conductor, Metropolitan Opera) will be conducting. You worked together in last spring’s Ring Cycle at the Met but this your first time to work on a new production with him. Are you excited?
Stephanie Blythe: Oh yes. I like Luisi very much. First, he’s a lovely human being and a very talented singer’s conductor. He’s very connected to the stage as well as the orchestra and that makes it a joy to work with him.
Do you watch yourself in your HD performances? If so, what do you think? I am also interested in the details, what you do differenty. I am wondering if the makeup is different when you’re doing an HD performance because of the close-ups versus when it’s not being recorded?
Stephanie Blythe: You know, I don’t do anything any differently with those HD performances than I would do any other time. I really like the HD programming because it brings opera to difference parts of the country and the world and to those who would not ordinarily have a chance to see those shows. I generally don’t watch them and I don’t watch myself. I just don’t want to think about that kind of stuff when I’m performing. I think about the audience I am singing to and I just hope that the camera can capture that.
Do they do your makeup differently?
Stephanie Blythe: Yes they do and we’re actually not allowed to wear very much makeup at all.
We’re all thrilled with the announcement that in the next Met Season, Maestro Levine will be returning to the podium. You’ll have a chance to work with him in Falstaff. Are you excited about that?
Stephanie Blythe: I have sung Falstaff with Maestro Levine many times. He has said to me that it is possibly his favorite show. It’s one of my favorites too and I am very excited to have the opportunity to sing it with him again and just to share a performing experience with him again, which means so much. I’ve been singing with him since 1995 and I always love it. I am thrilled for the Met audiences too, who will be able to hear the orchestra under his leadership again.
Thinking about your performance in Falstaff, or those roles that you keep revisiting, how do you go about the process of figuring out how to keep a role fresh and exciting, or how you’ll sing it differently?
Stephanie Blythe: I don’t think anyone who sings any role in Falstaff has that concern. Early in my career, 1996, I sang Mistress Quickly in Falstaff at the Met when I unexpectedly stepped in for Marilyn Horn who was ill. That role has been special—it introduced me to just about every major house and I met my husband at Falstaff in Paris and I have met and worked with just about every Falstaff around. You don’t have to work to make it fresh; it’s one of the most brilliantly written pieces in the repertoire—effervescent, exciting, and challenging musically. The great Marilyn Horn has said there’s not a once of fat on it. It is the leanest opera ever written with not one note out of place. It’s also an ensemble work and whenever a new group comes together to sing it, it changes and evolves.
Do you feel the same way about the role of Fricka (wife of Woton, ruler of the Gods in Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung), which you are synonymous with, and will be singing again in Seattle Opera Company’s August 2013 Ring Cycle?
Stephanie Blythe: I’ve sung that Ring Cycle in Seattle since 2000 and I adore it and I know a lot of the people who I will be performing with. That production is so breathtaking and so brilliantly directed. It is sort of like coming home to do it again and it takes me no time to get back into the swing of things with that piece. Every time you’re introduced to a new person doing a role, because their personality comes through in the drama, it makes it fresh and new and you find a whole new litany of things that are going to be different for you. Everyone comes to the plate with something different—that’s what makes it really exciting.
Dogs are very dear to my heart and I know you have a dog too. My dog just loved Tina Turner. Do you sing to your dog and what’s the reaction?
Stephanie Blythe: Agnes Gooch, my black pug, died this past August. She really loved my singing. When I learned Fricka for the very first time, I used to bring her to my rehearsals. She was just a puppy then and she would fall asleep to my singing and very frequently she would sit under my feet while I practiced. She really enjoyed the sound of the piano and of my voice. She travelled basically everywhere with me.
Details: “We’ll Meet Again: Songs of Kate Smith” is Saturday, October 10, 2012, at 8 PM at Weill Hall, Green Music Center, Sonoma State University, at the intersection of Rohnert Park Expressway and Petaluma Hill Road, Cotati, CA.
Tickets are $90 to $30 and can purchased online (click here) OR by phoning the Box Office at (866) 955-6040. Box Office hours: Monday–Thursday 8 a.m. to 4:40 p.m. and Friday 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. OR In Person at the Green Music Center (same hours as above).
Parking for this Green Music Center performance is included in ticket price. Enter via Sonoma State University’s main campus entrance or its Rohnert Park Expressway entrance (closer to GMC). Park on campus in lots L,M,N and O. For more information, visit gmc.sonoma.edu or phone 1.866.955.6040.
Stephanie Blythe’s Upcoming Performances Mentioned in this article:
Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD presentation of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera—New Production, Saturday, December 8, 2012, 9:55 AM, with encore performance Wednesday, December 12, 2012 at 1 and 7 PM, Run time: 3 hours, 55 minutes. Sebastopol’s Rialto Cinemas, 6868 McKinley Street, Sebastopol, CA. (707) 539-9771. Tickets $23 Adult and $21 Senior (62 and over). To purchase tickets, click here.
Metropolitan Opera: Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera—New Production. Blyth sings the role of Ulrica for 5 performances: Tuesday, November 27, 2012, 7:30 PM; Friday, November 30, 2012, 7:30 PM; Tuesday, December 4, 2012, 7:30 PM; Saturday, December 8, 2012; Friday, 1 PM; December 14, 2012 7:30 PM. For tickets and performance information, click here.
Seattle Opera Company’s Ring Cycle, August 4-25, 2013. Stephanie Blyth sings Fricka, Norn. Click here for performance information, special events and tickets. Online Ticket presale begins Monday, November 9, 2012 at 9 a.m.