A Future So Bright It Can Handle Dark

02.17.08
Stephanie Blythe
The New York Times

DURING the Metropolitan Opera's 2004-5 season, when the mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe sang Eduige in a new production of Handel's "Rodelinda," I was not the only opera fan who thought that here, at last, was the true successor to Marilyn Horne in the Baroque and bel canto repertory.

Ms. Blythe's performance had everything: rich colorings, unforced power, exquisite phrasing and impressively agile coloratura runs, with all the notes executed honestly - no cheating. Soon, it seemed certain, she would be in demand everywhere, as companies mounted productions of heroic Rossini operas that have languished since Ms. Horne left the stage.

But as Ms. Blythe's career has progressed, the field of opera has had to keep adjusting its take on her. In December she sang her first Met performances as Ulrica in Verdi's "Ballo in Maschera," a vocally lustrous and dramatically chilling portrayal of a role far removed from Handel.

Then last month she sang her first Fricka at the Met in Wagner's "Walküre," absolutely holding her own with the great Wotan of our time, James Morris. Again critics, fans and bloggers were abuzz that Ms. Blythe seemed destined to claim the Wagner repertory as well.

It can be fascinating to hear singers stretch in roles for which their voices are not ideal: the soprano Hildegard Behrens, for one. An intensely dramatic artist whose voice lacked the natural heft for Wagner, Ms. Behrens became a captivating Brünnhilde through sheer force of will. But she paid a price; her success was short-lived as her voice deteriorated.

Ms. Blythe, on the other hand, sounds vocally at home no matter what she sings. She certainly understands the dangers involved in selecting repertory.

"You have to be pretty calculating," she said during a recent interview in a cafe near Lincoln Center. "You only get one voice, and that's it. Once it's shot, it's shot. You have to be intelligent and choose carefully."

Most voices, male and female, become heavier, darker and a little deeper as they mature. Ms. Blythe, 38, thinks this may be happening to her.

"I expect eventually to do more Verdi and Wagner," she said. "I think that this will naturally happen. But I don't have any intention to stop singing Handel and Rossini. Or new operas."

It is tempting to focus on Ms. Blythe's vocal technique for clues to her versatility. But the authority of her work also comes from keen dramatic instincts and sensitivity to language, not just in opera but in song. That facet of her career has been on display this season too, during her residency with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

For the society's season-opening program in September at the Rose Theater of Lincoln Center, Ms. Blythe, accompanied by the pianist Warren Jones, gave a riveting performance of "Vignettes: Ellis Island," a 40-minute song cycle by Alan Louis Smith composed for her in 1999. For the society's concert on Friday night at the New York Society for Ethical Culture (repeated next Sunday afternoon), Ms. Blythe will sing the premiere of Mr. Smith's "Vignettes: Covered Wagon Woman (From the Daily Journal of Margaret Ann Alsip Frink, 1850)," for voice and piano trio.

For the first "Vignettes" cycle Mr. Smith drew texts from tape-recorded interviews with immigrants who had passed through Ellis Island when young. Though not notably original, the music was engaging, effective and thoroughly professional. Mr. Smith is a veteran voice coach and accompanist, and the cycle showcased his know-how in writing for the voice - particularly for Ms. Blythe's voice - as well as his ear for color, misty chromaticism and pastiche. Singing from memory, Ms. Blythe created indelible portraits of the immigrants.

When the Chamber Music Society approached her about commissioning a work, she asked Mr. Smith to compose another cycle based on personal accounts. He found a journal by a woman who had crossed from Illinois to California alone in a covered wagon. Ms. Blythe was hooked.

It was unheard of for a woman to undertake this trip on her own, Ms. Blythe said. "Alan's ability to marry the voice and the text is palpable," she added, "and I am thrilled to give people an opportunity to experience this work."

Ms. Blythe has her own compelling ability to marry voice and text. You did not need to glance at the printed text to understand every word in her performance of "Ellis Island."

To promote Mr. Smith's new cycle, she will participate in a symposium with the composer, moderated by Wu Han, an artistic director of the society, on Tuesday evening in the Rose Studio at Lincoln Center. After the last performance she will record the cycle with the musicians. Few new pieces receive such a send-off.

Ms. Blythe sees recital work as not so different from opera. It is still an art that calls for creating drama through music, she said. It is still theatrical.

A native of Mongaup Valley, N.Y., a small town in the Catskills (near where her father once performed as a musician in the Borscht Belt), Ms. Blythe saw her first live opera at 16, when her high school music teacher took the class to the Met for a matinee of "La Bohème." Four years passed before she saw her second live opera.

But meanwhile she watched lots of opera videos, so the art form was fixed in her mind as up close and involving. "My first Tosca was Hildegard Behrens on video," she said. "It was breathtaking."

She studied voice at the Crane School of Music in Potsdam, N.Y. A winner in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, she was invited to join the Met's young artist development program. Coaches and music staffers there were impressed not just by her formidable voice but by her precocious dramatic assurance.

Ms. Blythe has a large-framed physique, something she refuses to discuss on principle. "My career is what it is because of how I sing and who I am on the stage, period," she said. "I don't want to open up that door. That's my business."

Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Met, has said that what he looks for in casting, beyond the given of vocal excellence, are acting ability, charisma and presence.

"I worship the ground Stephanie Blythe walks on," Mr. Gelb said during a wide-ranging interview last spring. Down the road, he added, when the Met brings back its Mark Morris production of Gluck's "Orfeo ed Euridice," he wants Ms. Blythe to sing Orfeo. At the premiere of the production in May, it was sung by the compelling countertenor David Daniels.

The intense way Ms. Blythe prepares portrayals became clearer when she discussed the Met's new production of Puccini's "Trittico" by Jack O'Brien, introduced in April. She played a small but crucial role in each of the work's three one-act operas, galvanizing the stage with three completely different characters. In "Il Tabarro" she played Frugola, who rummages through rags and always has a story to tell. In "Gianni Schicchi" she was hilarious as the scheming Zita.

But it was her stern, overbearing Princess in "Suor Angelica" that especially stood out. As children, we learn, Angelica and her sister were entrusted by their dying parents to their aunt, the Princess. But though the circumstances are never revealed, Angelica has given birth to a son and is forced into convent life. What came through in Ms. Blythe's nuanced portrayal was that the aunt believes herself to have utterly failed in her obligation to raise her sister's daughters properly.

Working closely with Mr. O'Brien, Ms. Blythe was determined not to make the Princess some reproachful monster, as she is often portrayed. There is a complex history to the opera's central relationship, Ms. Blythe explained: "It is about one woman, Angelica, giving up her life because of a mistake she made, and another woman, the Princess, giving up her life because of a mistake somebody else made."

During their scene together, when Ms. Blythe's Princess entered the convent courtyard, she looked pointedly at Angelica's garden, and a rueful expression came over her. Explaining that moment, Ms. Blythe said that the Princess thinks to herself: "Nice life, Angelica. You sit here tending your flowers while I have to spend my life cleaning up your mess and trying to get somebody to marry your sister." The Princess is a sympathetic character, Ms. Blythe asserted, who has devotedly raised Angelica's boy, only to watch him die young.

Ms. Blythe keeps her own garden in Greentown, Pa., where she lives with her husband, David Smith Larsen, a former professional wrestler who is now an actor. She enjoys New York but finds the pace too frenetic. "I'm a country girl at heart," she said. "When we need to be in New York, we rent a place for a while."

After her Fricka, Met fans will be clamoring for more Wagner from her. She has sung Fricka in "Das Rheingold" as well as in "Die Walküre" in the Seattle Opera's "Ring" and will reprise the roles there in 2009. She is considering Kundry in "Parsifal," a role sung by both sopranos and mezzo-sopranos.

She has rejected another touchstone Wagner role, Brangäne in "Tristan und Isolde." The role "sits in the uppermost break in my voice all the time," she said. For now, she added, it would be uncomfortable to sing. "But who knows?"