A Latecomer to the Opera

12.17.09
Stephanie Blythe
Wall Street Journal

By David Mermelstein

The American mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe can portray a range of characters with compelling immediacy and subtle differentiation. But formidability is a constant whether she is singing the scolding goddess Fricka in Wagner's "Ring" cycle, the vengeful gypsy Azucena in Verdi's "Il Trovatore," or the haughty Principessa in Puccini's "Suor Angelica" (the second of three one-acts composing his "Il Trittico"). It is also a quality that Ms. Blythe herself evinces, for she is blunt and assured offstage, too.

Evidence of that came during an interview last month, a few days before the opening of "Trittico" at the Metropolitan Opera, where she sang not only the Principessa, but also a blowzy and wise Parisian rag-picker in "Il Tabarro" and a grasping matron in "Gianni Schicchi." Sitting in the cramped house pressroom in casual attire suited to the season, her dyed blond hair cropped close, Ms. Blythe, age 40, was reserved initially but gradually warmed to the encounter, even as she terminated certain lines of questioning almost before they had begun.
Those who missed Ms. Blythe's recent operatic hat trick at the Met, in which her richly substantial voice dominated the action and cut through even the densest orchestral playing, needn't fret. She is scheduled to appear even more prominently on Sunday, Dec. 20, as she joins the conductor James Levine and the Met Orchestra in the first of the ensemble's three appearances at Carnegie Hall this season. The program, which also features Mahler's Symphony No. 5, finds Ms. Blythe singing Edward Elgar's five-part song cycle "Sea Pictures," a 25-minute work for contralto rarely presented in this country and almost never with full orchestra. Indeed, the occasion marks the first time she has sung the piece this way.

"There's something larger than life about his music that I really appreciate," Ms. Blythe said defending Elgar, whose stately—some would say pompous—music often gets a bad rap in America, unlike in his native England, where he is still revered.

She particularly admires the emotional contrasts in "Sea Pictures." "You can go from a very simple statement like 'Where Corals Lie,' which is sort of a strophic love song, and then have the big, broad strokes that are in 'Sabbath Morning at Sea' and 'The Swimmer,'" she said, mentioning the fourth, third and fifth songs. "You have huge stories with enormous word painting, and I can't wait to sing that with orchestra, because there will be so many more textures and layers. And it's in English. When you sing in your mother tongue, you can bring something more to the work; there's not that lens of translation. It's right there, immediate—for me and the audience."

Ms. Blythe was raised in the Catskills by a mother who loved symphonic music and a father who played saxophone at various Borscht Belt resorts. But while music was omnipresent in their house, opera was not part of the mix. Instead, Stan Getz and Sergio Mendes ruled the turntable. (The latter's version of "The Fool on the Hill" remains a favorite, as do recordings by Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and two Smiths—Kate and Keely.)

"I never had any exposure to opera until Pavarotti did those stadium concerts shown on TV," Ms. Blythe recalled. "Then I saw 'Tosca' with Plácido Domingo on PBS—that was my very first opera—and I wrote down the lyrics to "E lucevan le stelle" and pinned them to my bedroom tackboard. I didn't see my first live opera till I was 16, which was 'La Bohème' right here at the Met."

She was singing at the Met less than 10 years later, though her route there was indirect. Ms. Blythe had been studying to be a music teacher at SUNY Potsdam when her friend Margaret Lattimore, also a mezzo, inadvertently changed her course. "Margaret was watching opera videos, so I started watching, too, and it gradually took over my life," Ms. Blythe said. "All the videos in our school starred Plácido Domingo, and I became obsessed with him."

In a way, Mr. Domingo became an unwitting mentor to her, for she not only admired his singing, but also his abilities as an actor, or "a craftsman," as she put it. By 22, she had made the decision to pursue a stage career, and by 25 she was in the Met's Young Artist Development Program. She has sung at the house every season since, starting in 1995 when, fittingly, she had a small part in Wagner's "Parsifal" starring Mr. Domingo.

Though Ms. Blythe clearly invests much in her portrayals, she maintains that she is not finicky when choosing her roles. "I've come across very few that I haven't wanted to sing," she said. "If it fits my voice and temperament, then I do it. I've sung a lot of roles, and there are more coming."

Yet the singer appreciates the importance of selecting wisely. "You only get one voice, so you have to be smart about what you choose," she said. "I know there are other girls who look more like Carmen than I do, but I'll tell you something: I sound more like her. The voice is what chooses the role."

Because of her voice type, many of her roles are not entirely virtuous, but this has proved a welcome challenge. "The exciting thing about doing a dark role is finding the light," she said. "There's light in every character, even if it's just in your interpretation. And if you want people to identify with your character, you have to find what is common in all of us."

Ms. Blythe demurs at the opportunity to name roles she has not yet sung but would like to. "I get asked that question all the time, and there aren't any," she said. "If I have any dream, it's that the things I do now I would like to do again, but better. I've sung Fricka a lot now"—a role she repeats when the Met begins its new "Ring" cycle under the direction of Robert Lepage next season—"but I want it to be more layered. I want to take more risks. That's the thing that's most intriguing to me now: to not sit back on my laurels."