This interview of Stephanie Blythe took place in her dressing room, preparing for the final dress rehearsal of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel” at the Houston Grand Opera, whose facilitation of this interview is deeply appreciated.
[Below: Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe; edited image, based on a publicity photograph from stephanieblythemezzo.com]
Wm: Let me begin this interview with my “traditional” first question. What are your earliest memories of music and of opera?
SB: My father is a retired jazz musician, and there was music in the house all the time. My mother was a classical music enthusiast. I would hear Beethoven’s symphonic works, but not a lot of opera. My dad was not fond of singers, but I was exposed to lots of music through him.
My music teacher, Dominic Dorio, was teaching us the Beatles’ song Maxwell’s Silver Hammer (from the Abbey Road album). I was playing my dad’s Beatles’ albums on his stereo and came upon Sergio Mendes and Brazil 66′ cover of Fool on the Hill from the Beatles’ Magic Mystery Tour album. I was mesmerized by its rhythms. I also came to love the Four Freshmen’s song Day By Day. I’m still a great fan of the Four Freshmen.
Then, when I was in junior high, I watched a Live from the Met performance of Puccini’s “Tosca” and asked my mother to write the title of the aria E Lucevan le stelle out for me. I posted the aria’s title to my message board so that I could memorize how to say it. To this day, if I were permitted to sing any role in all of opera, it would be Cavaradossi in “Tosca”.
Wm: What was the first live opera performance that you experienced in an opera house?
SB: I was 16 and was in a choral group at Monticello High School in Mongaup Valley (Upstate New York). We took music theory and music history. Our choral teacher, Martin Banner, would take a group of kids on field trips in New York City. We went to see Puccini’s “La Boheme” at the Metropolitan Opera (with tenor Luis Lima, whose performance I loved) and Mahler’s First Symphony at Carnegie Hall.
Wm: Those are formidable experiences for high school music students, quite a rarity these days.
SB: Monticello High School had incredible formative training. We would do a play and a musical every year. I was in the orchestra, the stage band, the mixed band and women’s chorus. My dad still was pushing for me to be a flautist (but after my debut in opera at the New York Met, he came around and agreed with my career choice.)
My desire for performing was the result of attending this high school for the arts. I discovered that I loved musical comedy.
[Below: Katisha (Stephanie Blythe, left) has her own ideas as to how The Mikado (James Morris, right) should govern Japan, in the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s 2010 production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado”; edited image, based on a Dan Rest photograph for the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]
I watched every Gene Kelly and every Judy Garland movie, and loved the song and dance men. The comedians Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon were inspirations. I watched great comediennes like Gracie Allen. I love old movies.
That’s where a lot of my interest in being onstage came from. I would re-enact comedy scenes from movies in my bedroom, pretending that I had my own talk show.
Wm: What were your first experiences on a stage before a real audience?
SB: I was in an English class and we were invited to try out for Mary Rodgers’ musical comedy Once Upon a Mattress. I got permission from my folks, tried out and was cast for the role of Queen Aggravain. (As Aggravain, I learned the secrets of how to sing in 5/8s time as required for her song Sensitivity.)
Wm: Were there other musical roles that you performed in high school?
SB: I was Guinevere in Lerner and Loewe’s “Camelot” and I was Dolly Levi in Jerry Herman’s “Hello Dolly!”, which I got to reprise several years later. My first chance to sing Nettie Fowler in Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s “Carousel” came just a few years ago when I had the good fortune to sing it with the New York Philharmonic in a beautiful semi-staged production, with a glorious cast.
[Below: Stephanie Blythe is Nettie Fowler in the New York Philharmonic staging of Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s “Carousel”, later shown on Public Broadcasting System’s “Live from Lincoln Center” series; edited image of a production photograph.]
Wm: We are talking an hour before the dress rehearsal for Houston Grand Opera’s performances of the Bob Ashford production of “Carousel”. What are your thoughts about this work?
SB: There are a lot of folks that pooh-pooh this musical because the character Billy Bigelow has at some point hit his wife Julie. There is the line that if you love someone a blow will feel like a kiss.
I’ve had a conversation with Director Bob Ashford about these lines by Hammerstein and what they mean in the context of understanding how Julie and Billy relate to and feel about each other. The lines are not taking a moral position on male-female relationships. They also need to be understood relative to the time period in which the story takes place. It is not an excuse – violence is never to be tolerated – but the time period is significant.
The scenes between Jigger Craigin and Mrs Mullin are frightening to watch, but incredibly well-developed.
Wm: Let’s talk about your role debut as Mrs Lovett in the Lee Blakeley’s production of “Sweeney Todd” at the San Francisco Opera [See Review: Searing Performances by Brian Mulligan and Stephanie Blythe for San Francisco Opera’s First “Sweeney Todd” – September 12, 2015].
SB: Working with Lee Blakeley in “Sweeney” was a life-changer for me. I really loved singing Lovett, working with Lee Blakeley in his great production. He was really wonderful. Lee is a great, an unbelievable director. Lee knows how to inspire his artists, and works hard to help us be the best communicators possible. I truly enjoyed the sessions we spent working on dialogue. They were some of my favorite rehearsals!
Wm: Explain how a director nurtures his singers.
SB: I remember working with pianist-conductor Warren Jones, who said “If you don’t love singers, don’t do this”. The voice is a personal instrument. If you are an artist whose instrument is a flute, your flute doesn’t get sick. But if you are an artist whose instrument is your voice, when your body gets sick, your voice reacts to your body’s illness. The body, as the rock star Prince noted, is itself an instrument, an extension of your voice.
A director who nurtures his singers is aware of each singers’ personal instrument and what a psychological toll it takes to keep the body and voice healthy. Being a nurturer doesn’t mean that you don’t challenge your artists. On the contrary, I think that challenges are what makes us better than we were the day before.
[Below: Stephanie Blythe is Ulrica in the Metropolitan Opera’s 2007 production of Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera”; edited image of a Beatriz Schiller photograph for the New York Metropolitan Opera.]
Wm: It’s your experience that among Blakeley’s many talents is his ability to process all of the physical and vocal information about his singers and present them in a way that is dramatically and theatrically effective.
Blakeley has been exploring the classics of American musical theater in productions for the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris and elsewhere. Are there other musical theater roles that interest you?
SB: I would like to do Bloody Mary in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific”. Like Nettie Fowler’s You’ll Never Walk Alone in “Carousel”, Bloody Mary has a show-stopper in Bali Hai. I also really like Aunt Eiler, in Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma”, although she doesn’t have a big number, but she is another “salt of the earth” role that I would love to play.
I wouldn’t mind singing the title role in Jerry Herman’s “Mame”. I love the orchestration with a banjo. I would love to do Ruth Sherwood in Bernstein’s “Wonderful Town”, whose score I love.
However, I’m very glad that I’ve had these opportunities in “Sweeney Todd” and “Carousel”.
Wm: The first time I saw you was your role debut as Dalila in Saint-Saens “Samson et Dalila” at the Pittsburgh Opera. [See Blythe Leads Impressive Role Debuts in “New” Pittsburgh “Samson et Dalila” – October 18, 2008.] The Pittsburgh Opera’s general director, Christopher Hahn, encouraged me to come to the Benedum Theater to see it.
SB: That was such a terrific and exciting run of performances. I so loved my colleagues. I would love to do Dalila again.
Wm: Your Samson was Frank Poretta, whom I’ve seen elsewhere, but I also saw his father, who was also named Frank Poretta, in Thomas’ “Mignon” at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. (That was a while ago.)
SB: The elder Poretta was a grand gentleman, who regrettably died last year.
Wm: There are a few French operas that are being performed more often recently than in the past 30 years or so, but I think the inherent theatricality and audience appeal of late 19th century French opera is underestimated.
SB: I’m a great fan of the French repertory. I’ve done the title role of Offenbach’s “Grand Duchess of Gerolstein”.
I think one problem is that there are not a lot of productions of French operas currently available. Opera houses are reluctant to put their money into new French opera productions which they worry may not sell well.
It might take more time to develop audience interest in these operas. I would love to see Meyerbeer’s “La Prophete”, Donizetti’s “La Favorite” and Massenet’s “Thais” and “Cendrillon”. These operas could create enormous interest, but to get this done, you need to have artists who can sing the roles and also that have box office appeal.
[Below: Fricka (Stephanie Blythe, right) explains to her husband, Wotan (Mark Delavan, left) why he can’t do what he wants to do; edited image, based on a production photograph for the New York Metropolitan Opera.]
Wm: Whole periods of opera come into or fall out of favor with operatic managements. Both the French repertory and verismo opera (other than Puccini) are underperformed these days, while several baroque operas, that were almost never performed when I first started attending opera as a junior high school student, seem no longer to be rarities.
SB: In college, my voice teacher Patricia Misslin taught me how to sing baroque music. I still believe that singing baroque music the best way to learn technique. Baroque vocal music is like the etudes for the voice. It is certainly as helpful as sitting at a piano and singing scales.
I’m probably happiest when I’m singing baroque music, which I love for many reasons, especially the improvisatory nature of it. This probably has something to do with growing up in a home with a jazz musician – hearing rhythm and improvisation was a big part of my childhood.
Wm: I very much enjoyed hearing you sing the roles of Juno and Ino in Handel’s “Semele” at the Seattle Opera [Review: Blythe, Rae, Shrader Sizzle in Seattle Opera’s Saucy “Semele” – February 25, 2015.]
SB: I quite frankly haven’t had enough of “Semele”. I would sing Juno and Ino anywhere. I haven’t sung nearly as many baroque operas as I would like too, although I think I’m not always the type of voice that early music practitioners are really looking for. Handel’s “Xerxes” also interests me.
I enjoyed doing Eduije in Handel’s ‘Rodelinda” at the Met in 2004. It was extraordinarily fulfilling but made more so because Director Stephen Wadsworth and Conductor Harry Bicket wrote new recitative to fill out the character, even adding an aria from another opera.
[Below: Stephanie Blythe as Eduige in Handel’s “Rodelinda”; edited image of a production photograph, from www.stephanieblythemezzo.com.]
Wm: Of all the changes in the operatic repertory in the past few decades, one of the biggest surprises to me is the contemporary ubiquity of full cycles of Wagner’s”Ring of the Nibelungs”.
It was Stephen Wadsworth who created Seattle Opera’s wonderful production of the “Ring of the Nibelungs” that so closely followed Wagner’s stage directions and had such a beautiful look. Your Fricka to Greer Grimsley’s Wotan was so beautifully done. I regret that the Seattle Opera has chosen not to revive it, and hope that some opera company chooses to buy it from them and mount it again.
SB: I’ve worked extensively with Wadsworth, whom I met at the Young Artists program at the Metropolitan Opera. Working on that Ring Cycle was one of the most important things I have ever experienced. It introduced me to a work that has become very dear to my heart, but also introduced me to some of the dearest, most important friends of my life.
Wm: Lee Blakeley earlier in his career was an assistant to David McVicar. You were Azucena in McVicar’s production of Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” in San Francisco and Chicago [see Verdi’s New Champion: Nicola Luisotti’s Transformative “Trovatore” – San Francisco Opera, October 4, 2009 and Review: Golden Age Verdi Singing for Lyric Opera’s “Il Trovatore” – Chicago, October 27, 2014].
SB: I’ve never worked directly with McVicar, but I have been fortunate to have taken part in “Trovatore” productions in which my colleagues were all character-driven. The first time I performed it was in 2007 in the Royal Opera House Covent Garden’s Elijah Moshinsky production with Marcelo Alvarez as Manrico and Nicola Luisotti conducting.
[Below: the Count di Luna (Dmitri Hvorostovsky, right) is suspicious of the apprehended gypsy woman Azucena (Stephanie Blythe, left) in the 2009 production of Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” at the San Francisco Opera; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Azucena is a phenomenal role. She is a lady I dreamed of singing for many years, and I have loved inhabiting that character. There is so much depth to her – such a full backstory that affects every line she utters. And through everything, her story is so distilled – such a well-developed sense of vengeance.
Wm: You have made your mark in contemporary American opera as well, playing Gertrude Stein in Ricky Ian Gordon’s “27”.
We are in a phenomenal time for contemporary American opera. I created the Gertrude Stein role in “27”. I have always been a big fan of Ricky Ian Gordon, who really understands the voice and how to develop a character.
[Below: Elizabeth Futral (above, left) is Alice B. Toklas and Stephanie Blythe (below, right) is Gertrude Stein in the 2011 production of Gordon’s “27”; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph for the Opera Theater of Saint Louis.]
I’m a strong believer in Jake Heggie’s operas and his libretti written by Gene Scheer. I believe that Heggie’s and Scheer’s “Moby Dick” will hold its place in the repertory. I’m also a huge Philip Glass fan because there is something mesmerizing about his music that makes me want to hear it more. I saw his opera “The Voyage” five times.
I am the Artistic Director for the Fall Island Vocal Arts Summer Program associated with SUNY Potsdam’s Crane School of Music. We use contemporary American song to help young artists connect to text in a more intimate and personal way. The idea is that if we use their own language to cultivate this communication skill set, then they can transfer that knowledge to every other language in which they perform.
Contemporary American Song helps build American audiences as well, because they immediately connect with the text without needing a translation. The more an audience sees themselves in a work, the more the work will mean to them.
After all, the audiences that were contemporaries of Handel, Mozart, Verdi and Puccini had different points of view than contemporary audiences.
Wm: Yet, especially with Mozart, Verdi and Puccini, both the music and the stories remain accessible. All of them (including Handel) produced works that have an inherent theatricality that good stage directors can make interesting to present day audiences.
I think that some of the 20th century opera composers lost their way because they concentrated on musical theory, rather than producing theatrically interesting works with accessible music. Composers who might have written great operas, but were interested in pleasing audiences, put their talents to musical theater. Several of those composers produced successful works that have retained their popularity.
These works prosper from big voices, large orchestras and theatrical productions, which major opera companies can provide them.
SB: Opera is the total experience of words, music and drama. If the soprano recites the words that Tosca sings in Vissi d’arte it will not have the same effect as singing them. Puccini’s music gives the words more heft and dramatic power.
Wm: Where do you call home when you are not traveling?
SB: I live with my husband in the Pocono Mountains of New York. My husband is an Englishman whom I met in 1999 when I made my debut at the Paris Opera in Verdi’s “Falstaff”. We have a minivan which we drive everywhere in the country, so we can have our Boston Terrier with us as much as possible. We like keeping our little family together as much as possible.
Wm: Thank you for allowing me to interview you.
SB: It was my pleasure!