Backstory: Stephanie Blythe
The stupendous American mezzo's career highlights have been paralleled by her coverage in these pages.
by Fred Cohn.
MEZZO STEPHANIE BLYTHE has been an OPERA NEWS cover girl on several occasions—for F. Paul Driscoll’s June 2001 “Blythe in Bloom,” for Jennifer Melick’s April 2007 “The Amazing Stephanie Blythe,” and as part of the cast of Ricky Ian Gordon’s “27,” in a June 2014 story heralding the work’s world premiere in Saint Louis. In 2007, she received an OPERA NEWS Award. But Blythe’s personal ties with the magazine stretch back to her days as an undergraduate at the State University of New York at Potsdam. “Our library kept the issues on file, and I would read it ritualistically, as far back as we had it,” she says. “I followed the careers of young singers, to see how they’re built, and I used it to learn about repertoire. So when I was asked to be featured on the cover, it was a shocking and wonderful event. I like the magazine because there’s not a lot of crap in it,” Blythe says. “Everything is distilled to what it’s supposed to be about.”
Blythe says, “You can’t wait for the world to come to you.” She definitely met the world head-on when she was costumed as Sweeney Todd’s Mrs. Lovett, with Patti LuPone dressed as Jenny in Mahagonny, for the cover of OPERA NEWS's special August 2002 issue “The Crossover Variations” (right). The stage and screen luminaries polled for William R. Braun’s cover story, “Standbys,” offered whimsical wish-lists of dream opera roles. But Blythe, representing the opera community, was dead serious when she talked about her hope of playing Sondheim’s comic villainess. “How can you not want to play Lovett?” she asked.
In 2007, LuPone got her chance to do Mahagonny (as Begbick, at Los Angeles Opera). And Blythe’s subsequent career made her dream seem not so outlandish after all. Her status as one of the world’s leading opera singers has remained unassailable. But she has made decisive strides into crossover territory, singing showstoppers in performances of Carousel and The Sound of Music and bringing “We’ll Meet Again,” her popular tribute to the great Kate Smith, to PBS and concert stages across the country.
So it made sense this past fall that when San Francisco Opera mounted its first Sweeney Todd, the company tagged Blythe as the work’s murderous leading lady. Her Mrs. Lovett was a triumph, winning her praise not only for the clarion power of her voice but for her comic timing and the depth of her characterization. Critic Greg Freed called it “a performance that would be warmly received in any Broadway house.” Sweeney Todd proved to be a career highlight—and a moment that gave Blythe reason to thank OPERA NEWS. “When you want something to happen, you’ve got to put it out there,” she says. “And that cover was one of the ways I did it.”