Voice... Activated

Classic Arts Features   Voice... Activated
Robin Tabachnik talks to three star singers performing with the New York Philharmonic this season: Angela Gheorghiu, Dawn Upshaw, and Anne Sofie von Otter.

When asked what they strive for, concert soloists invariably say that their goal is "to sound like a human voice" or to produce a "singing tone." Indeed, the instrument that most touches the heart and connects to the soul is undoubtedly the voice; anthropologically speaking the need to sing ranks as a primal urge and is an integral part of all ritual, celebration, and religion. This winter the New York Philharmonic celebrates the voice with three of today's preeminent singers: soprano Angela Gheorghiu, an opera star; soprano Dawn Upshaw, a composer's muse; and mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, who relishes mixing musical genres.

The Romanian-born Ms. Gheorghiu will ring in the New Year on December 31 with one of her specialties: an evening of Italian opera arias. "I do these concerts all over the world," she explains, "so that people may discover in only two hours many types of characters and styles of music. This is very important to me and I really enjoy it, but it is an exhausting process because I try to create a whole character in one aria; usually I have an entire opera in which to build that person. I try to give away all my emotions in that single aria so that the audience gets my whole characterization."

Ms. Gheorghiu is an operatic descendent of Maria Callas: a searing singing actress led by the text, who is uncompromising in her quest for excellence. "I am demanding because I want the best possible result‹what the audience gets is very important to me," she says. "They paid for their tickets and if I am to sing on their stages I want them to be impressed!" She recognizes a kindred spirit in Music Director Lorin Maazel, her maestro for New Year's Eve. "We recently opened the new theater in Valencia, Spain, together, and we did a Verdi Requiem in Munich. He is absolutely wonderful‹so sensitive. He has a great love and respect for opera and I just adore working with him."

In February Dawn Upshaw will sing the World Premiere of John Harbison's MiÔ‘osz Songs, a New York Philharmonic Commission. Ms. Upshaw's soprano is a canary diamond, a sound possessed of sunshine, warmth, and brilliance. Her versatility has allowed her to pursue a career that has encompassed opera, recital, concert, and recording with brilliant results. However, it is for her role as muse to composers of our time that she has won the most acclaim. "Working with composers is, in my opinion, the most vital part of my work at the moment," she says. Her collaborations with Mr. Harbison have been numerous and fruitful, most notably her role as Daisy in The Metropolitan Opera premiere of The Great Gatsby in 1999.

The Milosz Songs, she says, "are poems about relationships. Like most of John's music, the songs are each very different from one another, so that in doing them, I feel like I am moving into different rooms of John's mind. Over the years his work has evolved into something so concentrated that the musical ideas are direct and very, very clear, as if everything has been cleaned! This composition," she continues, "is something that might add beauty, understanding, and perspective to the lives of the listeners. I can't wait to share that."

The Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter comes to the Philharmonic in March for Bartók's one-act opera, Bluebeard's Castle. The artistic credo that has guided her uncanny success in many genres, she says, has been to deny their very existence: "I'd like to pull down the barriers between opera, concert, pop, classical, and jazz. These various types of music can cross-fertilize one another," she declares, "and I approach them all in the same way." Although decidedly light, her voice has a laser beam focus that, coupled with her ability to vary color and dynamic levels, lets her adapt to dramatic literature such as Bluebeard's Castle.

Opera-in-concert, a medium from which many singers shy away, is a favorite for Ms. von Otter; the striking Bluebeard's Castle lends itself particularly well to her purposes. "Bluebeard is less about staging and more about mood, lighting, and temperature," she observes. "The Hungarian is fascinating; a language quite thick, earthy, human, and sexy. It is a very dark, moody piece; depressing, yet erotic and dripping wet!" she says with the descriptive powers of a poet. "That appeals to me. Musically it has a lot of jazz in it as well. I haven't done it for a while, and this time around I won't be as careful," she says firmly. "I'm not going for the lyric approach. I'm saying 'to Hell with it all'‹I'm going to give a little more and enjoy myself!"

Robin Tabachnik writes frequently about the arts.

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