New York native Stephanie Blythe talks about operatic stardom and a bel canto resurgence
Catskills-bred Stephanie Blythe enjoys great success at the Met, where she apprenticed at 23. Paris, London, and Seattle have fallen for her too. A warm, generous and versatile performer with a luscious yet very agile instrument and the rare gift for mastering both comedy and the American idiom, Blythe’s readying a fascinating program honoring one of history’s great singers, Pauline Viardot-Garçia (1821-1910).
This brilliant artist originated music for many of Europe’s major composers and mentored many more (knowing everyone from Chopin to Richard Strauss) and included George Sand among her friends (“Consuelo” is based on the singer’s life) and Turgenev among her lovers. Viardot herself also wrote songs and operettas.
With the engaging Steven Blier at the piano, Blythe will share the bill on March 4 with the fine baritone John Hancock and Oberlin-trained soprano Dina Kuznetsova. In April she remounts the throne of Gérolstein (and sets her sights on the cute Gordon Gietz) as Offenbach’s Grande-Duchesse in Philadelphia. Blythe recently took time for a Gay City News interview.
GCN: Did you always have an agile voice or was it something you worked on? Do you think of yourself as a “bel canto singer”?
SB: I was not born with an agile voice. It came solely through practice of technique. My teacher, Patricia Misslin, showed me that, through scales and exercises, I could develop an ability to move my voice as well as sing with power, [getting it] more powerful through learning how to focus a vowel and sing clearly. It also taught me how to sing softly- and what a thrill that was! When I think of bel canto, it brings to mind very legato lines, a sense of connection and evenness to the voice and a generous amount of fluidity. I try to bring that approach to every style of repertoire.
GCN: What kind of music did you grow up with?
SB: I grew up always hearing music in the house— either Mom playing her symphonic records, or my dad practicing scales on the sax or the flute or clarinet. My father is a very gifted jazz musician, and played as a vocation. I can still hear those scale patterns in my head. It left an indelible imprint on me. I didn’t develop a taste for singers until college. I loved opera singers like Domingo, Horne and Ramey, but then became equally enamored with singers like Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Kate Smith, and my all-time favorite, Sammy Davis, Jr.
GCN: What’s your take on Pauline Viardot-Garçia?
SB: To be honest, this is my first time being exposed to the amazing work of Pauline Viardot, and I am so thankful! Steven Blier has created a phenomenal recital filled with works by Viardot and the composers and poets who inspired her. I am singing several songs of her composition, and as a singer, I can tell you that it is blatantly obvious that these songs were written by a singer. They are terrific and exploit the voice in all the best ways possible. I will be singing in four languages that day—all in a good day’s work.
GCN: What parts have you enjoyed most? Any dream parts, or recordings?
SB: I love to sing most whatever I am singing at the time. That may sound flippant, but it’s perfectly true. I am getting to sing so many of the roles I have dreamed of singing. But I would love to do [Rossini’s] Tancredi, [Verdi’s] Azucena and Eboli, and perhaps [Handel’s] Rinaldo. I would love to record “Carmen,” “Werther,” “Samson et Dalila,” “Dialogues of the Carmelites”— all French, but it is what immediately comes to mind. Of course there aren’t many operas being recorded today [so] I am thrilled I have had the opportunity to record the things I have.
GCN: Many of us have been gratified to see someone praised as a sexy, effective Carmen who’s not the all-too-common “album cover sylph.”
SB: I adore “Carmen. ” I love singing the role, I love being that woman, I love the interaction with colleagues, and the music, that glorious music! I know I’m not every person’s idea of Carmen, but the truth of the matter is that Carmen is a force of nature, not a particular look. I have seen women who have all the physical attributes one would expect a Carmen to have, and still not have the ability to take the stage and be a sheer presence. It is difficult to do. It is wonderful for me when a company takes a chance on something out of the ordinary, and the truth of the matter is that if I’m not everyone’s cup of tea, I am obviously someone’s, because in Seattle, we sold out every show! I’m just thrilled to get to play ladies like Carmen, and I look forward to others, like Dalila. They give me an enormous gift, the opportunity to explore all sorts of aspects of myself as a performer.
GCN: Do you keep your personal/social life apart from your professional life?
SB: Actually, I met my actor/ former pro wrestler husband while doing my debut in Paris as Mistress Quickly. David was the Innkeeper, and brilliant, I might add. In that way, my personal life intersects with professional life. David and I have worked together since and it is always a joy to be on the stage with him. But I do have a very full life outside of work. It’s what keeps me sane and happy. We need to explore other parts of life, not just music. When we do, then we have experiences on which to draw to make our performances real and organic.
GCN: Are you aware of having a gay male and lesbian fan base?
SB: Is there any opera singer who doesn’t have a gay and lesbian fan base? I would be terribly disappointed if I didn’t!
GCN: What do you do for fun?
SB: I enjoy being at home and just spending time with my husband and our little pug, Agnes. David and I love to learn about new things- art, history, cooking. We are also passionate bird watchers. My dream vacation: staying in a cottage by the ocean in the fall, with my husband, my dog, a pile of good books, no TV, and a nice selection of red wines.
March 4 at Merkin Hall.