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Monday, February 6, 2017

Stephanie Blythe Sings Dido

Mark Morris Dance Group in Dido and Aeneas. Tim Rummelhoff
By David Hsieh

“Opulent” and “majestic” are words frequently mentioned when people hear mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe sing. Since winning the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in 1994, she has been at the peak of her trade on opera and concert stages. New York has been her artistic home base for 20-plus years. This March, she finally appears at BAM in an iconic role—Purcell’s Dido in Mark Morris’ Two Operas, which pairs Dido and Aeneas with Britten’s rarely performed Curlew River. Here she talks about the role, Morris, and other musical favorites.

David Hsieh: “Dido’s Lament” is the most famous aria in the opera. Is it also your favorite passage?

Stephanie Blythe: It is certainly one of them. It is probably the first aria that I ever heard. “Dido’s Lament” is used as the premiere example of “ground bass,” so it is part of every music history curriculum. The bass line is so evocative—it brings the performer and the audience along for the emotional ride, and it does so with so few notes. One of the things that makes it so special, and indeed the opera so special, is its economy. The story itself is very compact, and Purcell allows it to remain so—the arias and the ensembles are all distilled to their beautiful essence.
 

DH: You also sing the Sorceress in this production. Some singers create special voice effects for this role. What’s your take on her? Do you sing it differently from Dido?

SB: This is the only production of this work in which I have participated, though I have had the honor of singing in it more than once. I don’t think that it is necessary to produce special vocal “effects” to differentiate between characters. They have slightly different ranges, and the text is clearly coming from two very different people. I think that the way I articulate the text for Dido and the Sorceress really does enough to separate the characters, but it is really Purcell who does the lion’s share of work to delineate characters.

Stephanie Blythe. Photo courtesy Opus 3 Artists
DH: Singers naturally would like to take some liberty in tempo, phrasing, and embellishment. But dancers need to know what to expect musically for their movements. How do you balance the two in this production?

SB: It is very easy when you have the choreographer conducting right in front of you. Mark Morris is the perfect person to be in charge of the proceedings. He has choreographed this production, danced in it, and now conducts it as well. He is the perfect leader. He is extraordinarily musical, and because he feels tempo in his body, he has a terrific idea of what a singer needs to create a beautiful, meaningful line while maintaining the right arc and tempo for the dancers. He also has an incredible memory for tempo, which must surely come from dancing and choreography. Believe me, it isn’t only dancers that need to know what to expect tempo-wise—we all do! I also really enjoy Mark’s conducting. He has a wonderful technique, and knows how to communicate what he needs from the entire ensemble. He knows how to find drama in music, and how to make the greatest impact with the least amount of chatter—he gets right to the heart of things very quickly, and I adore that.

When I have worked with him as a director, as when we did his production of Orfeo at the Metropolitan Opera, I really appreciated the eye that he brings as a choreographer. He made observations about movement that I had never thought of before, and he also made me think of the way we fill time on stage when there are no words—how to connect moments through physicality or through the lack of it. He made me think about stagecraft in a different way, and I have been able to utilize many of those ideas again and again.

DH: You have a wide repertoire from Bach to Sweeney Todd’s Mrs. Lovett to new commissions. How has your repertoire changed over the years? What are the roles you would keep singing for as long as you can?

SB: I have sung a wide range of repertoire from the very beginning of my career, and after more than 20 years, I don’t see that changing. I still enjoy singing early music very much, and I have plans to continue doing so for the length of my career. It is incredible healthy for the voice, and so wonderfully rhythmic. I still love bel canto operas, Verdi, and Wagner, and I have been so fortunate to have songs and even an opera written specifically for my voice—there is just so much music out there! I do have several favorite roles, all of which I am still singing, and even adding some over the next few years. I consider myself lucky that I have always felt and still feel that my favorite work is what I am doing at the moment.

DH: You have done recitals in which you speak the text before each song instead of providing them in the program or using surtitles. Did you find the audiences listen to you differently in that way?

SB: Recitations in my recitals are now a matter of course. I find that it does drastically change the way the audience experiences the recital. It gives the audience a chance to react to the poetry before hearing how the composer reacted to it, and in doing so, creates an active rather than passive audience. People listen in a different way. I have had many young singers try this method in their own recitals, and they have had the same results. I don’t advocate that this is the only way to present text in a recital—it is the way that works best for me and my collaborative partners.

Mark Morris: Two Operas comes to the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House March 15—19. Tickets still available.

David Hsieh is a publicity manager at BAM.

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