On the Beat

Bird Song in Philadelphia, with Brownlee; DeShong makes her Aix-en-Provence debut as Brittens’s Hermia; bored under a wandrin’ star at Encores!’s Paint Your Wagon.  by BRIAN KELLOW.

On the Beat DeShong sm 615
DeShong: A Midsummer Night’s Dream in midsummer
© Dario Acosta 2015

Tenor LAWRENCE BROWNLEE has always been more of a Miles Davis man than a Charlie Parker man. Nevertheless, for several months he’s been preparing to portray Parker, the great jazz saxophonist and bebop pioneer, in Yardbird, an opera by composer DANIEL SCHNYDER and librettist BRIDGETTE A. WIMBERLY, which has its world premiere at Opera Philadelphia on June 5.

Parker died on March 12, 1955, at thirty-four — the day on which Yardbird’s action is set. Brownlee describes the opera as “a pastiche, a melding together of the many important things in Parker’s life — these changing people and personalities that intermingle. In fact, some of the people shown in the opera never met each other. But because of his addiction to drugs, he is going through all of these in his mind, and his imagination goes wild.” 

“The composer is a jazz musician,” adds Brownlee. “He heard me sing some bel canto, all this melismatic music, these virtuoso phrases. And when I got the score from him, I saw these long lines like jazz riffs — in some cases, they’re actual Parker solos transcribed. For me, it’s going to be a challenge to sing those actual solo lines — to incorporate that into the voice.” Brownlee finds that jazz does have a connection to the freedom and virtuosity of bel canto. “But in bel canto,” he says, “I think there’s more elasticity in the singing. You can take your tempo when it works for you. Jazz doesn’t wait for you. The tempo is the tempo. That’s part of the mastery of jazz, being able to accomplish these mind-boggling riffs and embellishments that are often at breakneck speed.” 

On July 4, mezzo ELIZABETH DeSHONG makes her debut at the Festival International d’Art Lyrique d’Aix-en-Provence in ROBERT CARSEN’s staging of Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. She sings Hermia, which she performed in 2013 to great acclaim in TIM ALBERY’s production at the Metropolitan Opera. She learned the role while a student at the Curtis Institute of Music, studying it with MARLENA MALAS, who once performed it herself. “I think that when you begin working on Britten,” DeShong says, “the tonality just at first can be a little more difficult to approach. But once you’ve learned it, you can’t unlearn it. It’s so beautifully constructed for each character, and once you’ve learned the pitches, it flows with intention. Hermia is written in a wonderful register for me. Having started out as a contralto, I enjoy that lower portion of the voice, and she gets to use it in the most wonderful way.” 

DeShong is well known in the profession for her fierce work ethic. “I am competitive with myself,” she says. “I don’t see any value in trying to keep pace with anyone else. But I want to do better than I did the last time. I think one of the things about a festival that’s wonderful is that there is a more luxurious time-frame in which to work, and the atmosphere can feel more relaxed. You can’t help but feel inspired, and that sense of ease and sense of pace translate to the stage in the best possible way.”

In conversation, DeShong is precise but also measured; she wants to give a well-considered answer, but she doesn’t want to misrepresent herself. She hesitates a bit when I ask her to give an example of a performer who made a deep, lasting impression on her. “I value above everything else an artist who works hard,” she says. “But also colleagues who present themselves in a way that I can access. And I think, of all the people that I’ve been fortunate to meet — I think PLÁCIDO DOMINGO in the Met’s Enchanted Island stays with me. Just seeing the way he works, interacts with people, walks into a room, not as a legend — though he certainly is a legend — but as a man who loves music and supports the people that he works with, with humility and commitment to excellence.” 

DeShong is too concerned with doing the best she can at the moment to spend too much time contemplating what the future of an opera singer may look like. “One thing I do feel,” she says, “is that the art form stands on its own feet, no matter how you see it. On the stage, on the screen, on the radio, on a live stream on your computer. Opera done well needs only to be opera done well. I think no matter how people are introduced to it, it becomes a case for itself. I’ve never met anyone, young or old, who has come to opera for the first time and has walked away saying, ‘I’m never coming back.’ I’ve never met that person.”

KEITH CARRADINE was the chief reason I turned up for the Encores! presentation of Alan Jay Lerner and Fritz Loewe’s Paint Your Wagon at New York’s City Center (seen March 20). Anyone who loved Carradine’s performances in  Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us and Nashville was probably as happy as I was to see him ambling through the role of Paint Your Wagon’s grizzled miner Ben Rumson in such authentic, unaffected style. (His performance of the melancholy “I Still See Elisa” was one of the show’s high points.) JUSTIN GUARINI, as Julio, the Mexican prospector who sings “I Talk to the Trees” and “Another Autumn,” was also an asset to the show. ALEXANDRA SOCHA, as Ben’s daughter Jennifer, tried hard to capture the character’s hoydenish charm, but several of the other women in the cast sounded jarringly out of period — like nasal-voiced KRISTIN CHENOWETH wannabes. I don’t know that there will be any major revival of this show anytime soon; Lerner’s sketchy book all but decomposes in the last act. ROB BERMAN conducted the performance efficiently, but by the end of the night, I found myself thinking about the Simpsons episode in which the family pops in a videocassette of the dismal 1969 film version of Paint Your Wagon and the VCR spits it across the room. spacer 

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Current Issue: June 2015 — VOL. 79, NO. 12