Stephanie Blythe: : With a Song in Her Heart

Stephanie Blythe: : With a Song in Her Heart

Google defines the word mezzo, when used as a noun, as “a female singer with a voice pitched between soprano and contralto.” That appropriately describes mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe by virtue of the classical repertoire that has been the hallmark of her international career.

When used as an adverb, however, mezzo means “moderately.” This definition has likely never occurred to Blythe, considering how she has made a career out of opposite extremes. Her operatic repertoire ranges from Handel and Gluck to Verdi and Wagner. She has recorded Bach arias and the Ring Cycle. She sings art song recitals and the songs of Tin Pan Alley. She performs early music and is a champion of new works by living composers.

Now, in addition to these diverse performance interests, she sets aside time each May for a week of teaching as artistic director of the Fall Island Vocal Arts Seminar. Hoping to instill artistic curiosity and imagination in the singers who participate, Blythe is leading by example, showing them how to build a career without boundaries.

From the beginning, Blythe was conscious of not restricting her performances to a particular Fach or repertoire. “I get bored easily,” she says with a laugh. “I couldn’t imagine only doing Italian opera.”

Though she enjoys singing opera, she believes that singing diverse repertoire serves both her intellectual interests and her vocal technique. “I think I’m a better Wagnerian when I’m singing Handel,” she says. “When I sing early music, everything else tends to fall into place a lot better.”

In fact, her move toward larger repertoire was not necessarily the direction she envisioned going with her voice. Rather, it was encouraged by others. “I love singing the Ring. I absolutely adore it,” she says. “[But] I don’t think I’ll ever sing anything Wagnerian other than Wesendonck Lieder and the Ring. For me, that’s enough.”

As an undergraduate at SUNY Potsdam’s Crane School of Music, her first teachers were adamant that she sing Handel alongside Puccini and Verdi. She says this variety in her repertoire built a healthy flexibility in her voice, thus allowing it to take on music in many different styles.

Agents and conductors were also supportive of this philosophy from the beginning stages of her career. “My agent, Caroline Woodfield, said to me very early on that my voice would be what dictated what I would sing,” Blythe says. “I had long conversations with Maestro [James] Levine about this when I was in the [Lindemann] Young Artist Program, and he encouraged me to switch things up and to maintain not only a vocal flexibility but a stylistic flexibility.”

This stylistic flexibility allows her to explore another realm of music that she is passionate about—the music of living composers. In her mind, performers should program this music for a simple reason: “Because it exists and it needs to be done!”

Blythe believes new music is good for singers because it exercises both the brain and the voice. She also feels that American singers have a certain responsibility to perform the music of our time. “As an American, I can go to Brahms and Wolf and Schumann and Schubert and Wagner and whoever else . . . and we can sing this music because it speaks to the human condition. But there’s certain things that culturally speak more to us,” she says. “When we sing in our own language, there’s something that we can offer that music that we can’t offer when we are translating.”

This cultural connection draws her to the music of the American songbook, as well. Blythe’s album entitled As Long as There Are Songs includes Irving Berlin’s “How Deep Is the Ocean?” and “Always” and Harold Arlen’s “Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home” alongside other songs from the early 20th century. She also performs a cabaret show centered on singer Kate Smith, whose recordings and radio and television appearances starting in the 1920s made her an icon of American popular song.

In addition, Blythe has made forays into musical theatre, performing in The Sound of Music at Carnegie Hall, Sweeney Todd with San Francisco Opera, and an upcoming Carousel with Houston Grand Opera.

She appreciates the visceral reaction and nostalgia this music elicits from audiences. When performing her cabaret show, for instance, it often connects listeners to specific memories. “Every single time, someone comes to me and says, ‘I knew all of these songs. My mother used to sing these. My mother and father used to listen to these on the radio,’” Blythe says. “Whenever somebody says, ‘You brought my mother back to me (or my father back),’ that’s why I do it. That’s really what it’s all about, isn’t it?”

In crossover projects such as these, Blythe adjusts her technique in order to make the vocal sounds appropriate to the style. “It is a belt voice,” she says. “But it’s very supported. If it tired me out or it caused me pain or I couldn’t sing the next day, I’d be worried. But it doesn’t.”

She makes other specific choices, like closing to the consonants sooner and lingering on voiced consonants instead of giving prominence to the vowel, as she does in opera. All of this is intended to help communicate the text in the most authentic way.

Her approach to learning the music, however, is the same for popular music as it is for classical. “Whenever I take anything apart, the first thing I do is start reading that text over and over again,” she says. “I speak it and speak it and speak it.”

This was not always the case in her preparation, however; she has dramatically changed her process over the last 10 years. She used to learn notes and rhythms first before addressing the text, and she has found that many singers she teaches in masterclasses follow the same process. “I tell them every single time, ‘You’re in the wrong direction. You’re doing it in the opposite direction of how the composer did it. If the text is the most important to the composer, why shouldn’t it be that important to you?’”

Even in popular music, Blythe believes the lyrics should be treated with the same significance as poetry, regardless of their quality. “Not all lyrics are great,” she says. “You know, we’re not talking Heine here. Some of this stuff is not high art. But you can find the art in anything and you can do it if you treat it like poetry. When that happens, that’s the difference between singing a song and really presenting an idea.”

While admitting that her approach does not have to be the one path for all artists to follow, she appreciates how it has allowed her to grow. “That is the thing that we all have to learn as performers—as human beings. We have to learn our methodology for ourselves,” she says. “That’s what time and experience and mentoring will do for you. I’ve had a lot of really terrific mentors. This is not something I’ve come up with all on my own.”

Now she has assumed the role of mentor herself as the Fall Island Vocal Arts Seminar enters its fifth season. Each year, after a thorough audition process, six singers and three pianists—ages 23 to 35—are chosen for the week-long program in May. With its focus exclusively on the music of living American composers, Blythe hopes to generate a curiosity and inspire a creative process that will feed their careers in music.

Blythe was a fellow at the Tanglewood Music Center for two summers in the 1990s. With that program’s emphasis on art songs, the importance of the genre was infused in her. “I think [art song programs] are more important than any other training,” she says. “I believe that with all my heart. I think that if you can sing a song convincingly, you can sing any opera role. Obviously there’s a lot that goes into singing an opera role that is more strenuous than singing a song. But the idea of the microcosm of the world in a song can be quite exciting.”

The practicality of studying art song may be difficult for some to realize. Considering that virtually no one can make a living as a recitalist, is an opera singer’s time better spent just focusing on opera? Absolutely not, according to Blythe. “The problem is that not studying song ends up giving your operatic career short shrift,” she says. “It’s hard for singers to be able to take apart an entire opera and analyze it: analyze all of the text, analyze all of the music, figure out theoretically what puts it together, rhythmically what puts it together.”

She believes that if singers can analyze a song this thoroughly, they will appreciate how important the same process is for their operatic roles. “That’s how I was taught to look at a song . . . in a big context. You look at it in terms of cultural history, political history, architectural history, artistic history. Where does this piece fit in? I think that in discovering where great works fit into history, we discover how we fit into history as individuals.”

For Blythe, art song is especially conducive to this kind of self-discovery. “As a singer, there is something about this particular art form that is very spiritual. And when we feel safe and we feel free to take chances, it’s remarkable what happens,” she says. “I have found now my recital work is some of the most rewarding work that I do, and I think it’s because it enables me to have a greater contact with the audience. And that’s what I’m encouraging to happen with these singers in all the kinds of music they sing.”

The plan seems to be working. The feedback they have gotten from graduates of the program has been exceedingly positive. “I had one lovely soprano who said to me, ‘I wish I could go back and do every recital I’ve ever done again after this week.’ I think that’s a wonderful testament to what we’re doing,” Blythe says.

The idea of starting the Fall Island Vocal Arts Seminar had been with Blythe for years, but the timing had to be right to get it off the ground. When Professor Carleen Graham approached her about helping establish the program at the SUNY Potsdam Crane School of Music, Blythe’s alma mater, she was all in.

The next step was getting Alan Smith on board. Director of the Keyboard Collaborative Arts Program at the USC Thornton School of Music, Smith is also a composer who has written songs which Blythe has premiered. “I knew that if I ever started a program like this, he would be the person that I would want to do this with,” she says. “Everything that Alan does with music is created in love, it’s performed in love, it’s received in love.”

The intense week of study and performance is designed to encourage emerging artists to connect to text and to connect to an audience. By holding the seminar in May, singers are able to participate in other programs later in the summer, hopefully drawing on their new perspectives gained at Fall Island as they go.

“Alan said that he wanted the week to be a moment for an artist to pull off the superhighway of their career and then be someplace where there is no pressure and all you can do is just work on honing your skills,” Blythe says, “because once you get started in the career, it’s impossible to take time off to work on something. This is a wonderful, very safe place to do this kind of work.”

Finding the right kind of participant, then, is important for setting the tone of the seminar. Besides submitting performance videos, applicants are also asked to write essays answering questions like, “What does art song mean to you?” “What are you seeking in a musical collaboration?” and “What contemporary American composer’s works do you feel particularly drawn to and why?”

If selected as one of the 24 finalists invited to New York, singers should expect that about half of their audition will be an interview. “We talk to people,” Blythe says, “because it is so very intimate. These guys live on a floor of the dorms for a week together and they study together. They have masterclasses every day.”
The six singers and three pianists finally selected for the program receive full tuition, room, and board at no cost and only have to pay for travel to Potsdam, New York, and any incidental expenses incurred during the week.

Program fellows are asked to choose their own music rather than the staff assigning it. Blythe says this is another important skill she wants to foster at Fall Island. “I want to know why somebody chooses music,” she says. “I don’t want something that a bunch of kids have gotten from their teacher. I want them to build some curiosity. Why did you choose that song? What is it about it that you connect to?”

During the week, the fellows learn and perform a variety of music in masterclasses, individual coachings, and in a final concert. Once a song has been performed in a masterclass, however, it cannot be repeated at the final concert. “The idea is that they take what they learn in the masterclass and then apply that to the final recital work,” Blythe says. “The point is to try to encourage them to be musically and interpretively autonomous.”

The seminar’s mission promises that each participant will explore what it means to be a performing artist in today’s society, which is different for the current generation of singers than it was for Blythe when she was getting started in her career. “I think the hardest thing for singers now is they have so much more crap to filter through to get to the truth,” she says. “There’s so much information.”

Given all the noise and distractions vying for their attention, young singers have challenges unique to the 21st century that older singers did not. “I don’t know if I would be able to get a degree today,” Blythe says. “I mean, I think I would have majored in YouTube.”

She remembers spending hours in her school’s music library going through the card catalog and then sitting and listening to the music she discovered. No longer limited in her options, she says she can easily kill two or three hours on YouTube listening to anything and everything that comes up.

She also relates how the audience has changed given the wide reach of the Internet. “It used to be bad enough to have to do juries and things like that,” she says. “That was hard enough—having your teacher or a couple other teachers give their opinion. But when you have a career, you’ve got a million people shooting opinions at you.”

Despite her role at Fall Island, Blythe is hesitant to accept the label of “teacher.” “I’m not a teacher,” she says. “I’m a consultant. I can diagnose issues and I can try to help in the limited amount of time I’m given.”

She has a deep appreciation for teachers and readily acknowledges the longstanding influence they have had throughout her life. “I’ve maintained relationships with my teachers because they are the most important people. They are guides. Their wisdom and their strength and their support are what get us through how we take these next steps. It can be an incredibly noble profession.”

Given this perspective, she has no intention of building her own studio of students—at least not while she is still actively performing as much as she is.

“I don’t see myself being a teacher until I retire,” she says. “For me, I would need to be available to my students all the time. Because, especially when you’re talking about undergraduates, these kids change on a daily basis. Their bodies, their brains, their emotions are in constant flux. And every time something happens, the voice changes, and they need a Sherpa. They need a musical Sherpa. And I can’t be that as long as I’m performing.”

But she appreciates the opportunity Fall Island gives her to positively influence these students. “If I can give a singer one thing that they can change, one thing that works for them, then I feel like I’ve succeeded.”

That being said, she also believes good teaching will empower singers to self-diagnose. When something goes awry, singers need to be able to take a step back and go through their own checklist of how to fix what is wrong. She wants the singers to be curious about their own processes and reach the conclusions that are right for them as individuals.

“Singers, by virtue of the instrument, are constantly waiting,” Blythe says. “They’re waiting for their teacher to tell them the next step and the next piece. And then they wait for a coach to tell them what to do—here’s the next thing you should be working on. And then they go into the field and [it’s] a director or a conductor or an agent. Someone is always telling you where you should go next, what you should do next. I want singers to be curious. I want them to make their own plan. I want them to be able to look at a piece and go, ‘OK, how do I take this apart? How do I put it back together? And if I like this, what else can I do that is interesting?’”

This self-analysis applies equally well to those in charge of the Fall Island Vocal Arts Seminar as they incorporate new ideas and directions each year. This summer, new works are being commissioned. Composer Tom Cipullo will join the seminar as a guest artist, coaching the fellows on his music. They have also added an auditing program to allow teachers and graduate students to observe some of the classes and activities.

“My career has happened very organically and I’ve found that that’s a good way to be,” Blythe says. “So that’s what we’re really working toward at Fall Island. Every change we make is something that’s very organic and that comes out of our dedication to communication. It seems to be working.”

Certainly each student at Fall Island gets a chance to see the curiosity and adaptability that has served Blythe so well in her performance career. By watching her work over the course of the week, they have the opportunity to absorb many of the same ideals she espouses.

“I’m still learning. I still study,” she says. “You know, the thing that is so interesting about working with singers—especially young singers and emerging artists—is that it just never stops. The process—learning the process—never stops. And as long as we are walking on earth and we are meeting people, we are experiencing life.”

Brian Manternach

Brian Manternach, DM (he/him), is an associate professor at the University of Utah Department of Theatre and a research associate at the Utah Center for Vocology, where he is on the faculty of the Summer Vocology Institute. He is an associate editor of the Journal of Singing, and his research, reviews, articles, and essays have appeared in numerous voice-related publications. /