Stephanie Blythe: An Exhortation to Sing
Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe invites you to sing along in a lively concert of favorite American songs on Saturday, January 23. Below, Stephanie Blythe shares her thoughts on the shared experience of music making.
“Sing, America!” is an invitation, an opportunity for the performers and the audience to take one more step together in an effort to share the experience of performing, of making music. It’s an opportunity to have a personal encounter with songs that captured moments of our shared culture that reflect who we were and who we are. Throughout history, group singing has served an important function: as a way to pass oral traditions, to bolster the courage of fighting men and women, to support athletic teams, to share spiritual beliefs, to protest an injustice, to teach children, to celebrate a nationality, to entertain. In every instance, group singing has a very specific agenda: to create a community and sense of solidarity.
I remember where I learned to lead a group sing-along. It was at White Lake Covenanter Camp—a place run by my church that I attended first as a camper, then eventually as a counselor. Singing was a major part of our duties, as many of us did not only lead fun songs in the mess hall during meals or at the evening campfire, but we also learned to lead campers as well as our home congregations in four-part a cappella Psalm singing, which is a major component of our worship service.
I can’t recall the exact song I led the first time—it may have very well been “Down By the Old Mill Stream,” “The Grand Old Duke of York,” or “The Lord Will Light My Candle.” What ever it was, the feeling that group singing engendered in this awkward, nerdy, over-vocal teen was a sense of belonging—a feeling of joy that overwhelms the senses when voices are raised in the unanimity of song. That feeling is visceral for me, and I know it is for many, many other people as well. It is such a palpable feeling that it becomes a passion for some. In my case, it led to a career.
When I became a professional opera singer, I was 24. The process was overwhelming and incredibly fast. I barely knew what I was doing, but I found myself in a wonderful situation as a Young Artist at the Metropolitan Opera. As a young singer, I was totally immersed in opera and art song—I don’t think I can adequately describe the sensation of singing with a magnificent orchestra or a brilliant pianist. The flips that your stomach does when you are standing just behind the curtain and the stage manager gives you a preparatory warning that your entrance is seconds away ... The chills that come when you reach the end of a magnificent Mahler symphony, and you join the chorus in an exhortation of life eternal … These moments are indescribable! But I can tell you that the feeling of singing with the audience gives me just as much of a thrill.
I began singing Tin Pan Alley songs around the year 2000. My dear friend, mentor, and colleague Alan Louis Smith had written me an astounding song cycle for my 30th birthday called Vignettes: Ellis Island. The cycle is based on interviews collected by Paul Sigrist for the Ellis Island Oral Histories Project. These interviews revolved around the personal journeys of 20 immigrants, and the songs tell the stories in their own words. The cycle is so very specific in its topic and tone that for a moment we struggled over what to program alongside it. Then it suddenly became very clear to us that we should perform the songs that they would have heard in their new country in the early 20th century.
We offered five terrific Irving Berlin numbers: “If You Don’t Want My Peaches,” “You’d Be Surprised,” “Always,” “I Love a Piano,” and “What’ll I Do?” We also included nostalgic songs like Ray Henderson, Buddy DeSylva, and Lew Brown’s “If I Had a Talking Picture of You,” and cheeky ditties like “Go On and Coax Me” by Andrew B. Sterling and Harry Von Tilzer. It was that concert that made me curious about the music of Tin Pan Alley and the notion that this music was performed not only by professional artists, but primarily by folks in their own homes, reading sheet music at the piano in the parlor. This was active as well as passive entertainment.
After debuting this recital with Alan at the piano, I continued to tour it over the years with my collaborative partner Warren Jones. We offered this concert many times in several cities across the country, and even utilized the Tin Pan Alley portion of the concert in other programs. The songs were always welcomed with big smiles and often knowing nods of recognition. But one thing happened every single time we performed “Always.” Mouths across the audience would move along with mine as I sang—sometimes soft humming or singing would occur. Hands would reach for each other, often a tear would be wiped away. It became clear to me that this precious, shared moment could be more—that we could raise our voices together with Berlin’s words:
“I’ll be loving you, always.
With a love that’s true, always.
When the things you’ve planned,
Need a helping hand
I will understand, always.”
It took a few years and a few other experiments with group singing in recital to convince me that this could be offered on a larger scale, as in a whole concert. I realize that this isn’t a new idea, of course, but it was a new concept for me as a recitalist. Years after singing “Always” for the very first time with Alan, we presented it together again in a complete sing-along concert in the summer of 2014 at Tanglewood, with several piano and vocal fellows of the Tanglewood Institute. As we opened the concert with Berlin’s gem, I felt the energy of the crowd raise in anticipation of joining in with us. I looked out at that sea of smiling faces and felt the community forming. It is an experience we adore and are so grateful to share with you this afternoon. Thank you for being a part of this event. We invite you to raise your voice in song, and above all to have fun. “Sing, America!”
|Saturday, January 23 at 2 PM
Sing along with Stephanie Blythe in a lively concert of favorite American songs. You’ll raise your voice to the rafters with the always delightful mezzo-soprano in such classics as “Oh, You Beautiful Doll,” “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” “By the Beautiful Sea,” and other favorites. It’s fun for the entire family, a great way to beat the winter doldrums, and you’ll be able to tell your friends, “I sang at Carnegie Hall!”