Girls of Summer
STEPHANIE BLYTHE tells F. PAUL DRISCOLL about her passion for the music of Kate Smith.
Blythe at Lincoln Center's Kaplan Penthouse, 2012
© Beth Bergman 2012
If you weren't lucky enough to snag a ticket to Stephanie Blythe's sold-out American Songbook concert tribute to the legendary Kate Smith, take heart: this month, Blythe and her collaborator, pianist Craig Terry, are taking their Kate Smith show on the road. On June 24, at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington, MA, Berkshire Cabaret will present Blythe and Terry in We'll Meet Again: The Songs of Kate Smith. The team brings their tribute to the Ravinia Festival on July 2, with more dates planned for the fall of 2012.
Blythe's summer also holds two concert performances of Il Trovatore with Deutsche Oper Berlin in June; teaching work, including an evening of art song based on the poetry of Emily Dickinson, with the fellows in the Vocal Arts Program at Tanglewood; and Dido and Aeneas with Mark Morris at Lincoln Center's Mostly Mozart Festivalin August. But the Kate Smith project is especially dear to Blythe, who says that her fascination with Smith, the Virginia-born pop singer who was one of broadcast radio's superstars in the 1930s and '40s, began "after I graduated from college, when I started to listen to more music of the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s — I realized that I had missed out on a lot of wonderful performers, Kate Smith being one of them. She was the one I glommed on to, very quickly. I found out that she and I had a very similar attitude to singing, as well as a similar outlook on life, about certain things — certainly not all things, but some things. I had this idea in the back of my mind for years that I wanted to do something to celebrate Kate Smith's contribution to the musical life of the United States — and I just put the idea out into the ether. And the opportunity to do it came [in 2011] when the American Songbook series from Lincoln Center wanted me to do a concert. When I said that I would be interested in doing [a program] around the songs recorded by Kate Smith, they were thrilled with this idea. And it just went from there — it built and built."
Blythe's tribute is not an impersonation or an imitation: the mezzo makes no attempt to look or sound like Smith. "I sing the songs that she sang, and my tribute is paid to her through the song selections that I make. And I do quite a bit of informative patter about her, which I have written myself. The program did not take any time at all [to put together], because Craig has an amazing affinity for this music. He plays stride piano like nobody's business. He loves this music — he loves this time period. We listened to a lot of songs that Kate recorded — she made more than twenty-two hundred recordings. We chose things that really, really got our motors racing — songs that were part of her philosophy of life and also that salute some of her earliest work.
"We include two songs from Flying High, the [1930 Broadway] show that connected her with her very famous manager, Ted Collins, who put her on radio and made her a recording star. One is called 'Red Hot Chicago,' which is one of the hardest songs to sing, actually. It's a really upbeat song — very, very broad. It's a big barn-burner. I tell you, the hardest thing [for me] to do during this concert is to stay calm, because this music gets me so excited. Part of the reason that I talk so much throughout this evening is that I have to calm down a bit before I begin the next number."
F. PAUL DRISCOLL