Sunday, January 30, 2011

Backstage with John Mac Master (Part 6)

I want to introduce one of the other performers, Jamie Van Eyck, mezzo-soprano, who has performed all over the United States, as well as internationally.  She studied at Boston’s own New England Conservatory, and is very happy to be back in town for her work with Boston Lyric Opera.

John: It's been great to meet you, and to work with you in 'Emperor' where you play the Drummer, and we have some great interactions. But you also play the principal role in The After-Image, a piece commissioned by BLO from composer Richard Beaudoin, who lives here in Boston. Can you tell us a bit about the piece?

Jamie: The After-Image was written in 2010, specifically as a companion piece to The Emperor of Atlantis, or Death Quits.  It is a 20 minute work in three scenes.  I play The Daughter, and I begin the show by sharing with the audience a very special photograph of my father, who has passed away.  The composer, Richard Beaudoin, was inspired by the fact that in spite of the chaos and terror of war and, of course, Ullmann’s death, his compositions were able to survive due to their ability to be preserved in fixed form, on paper.  Similarly, when a person is gone, we can preserve their memory on paper in the form of a photograph, and this can actually sustain their presence in the world a very real and powerful way.  The role of The Photograph of The Father is played Kevin Burdette.  As I become more and more focused on his photograph, I become aware of my father’s presence and can almost hear his voice.  Beaudoin set text based on poetry and letters written by Rainer Maria Rilke, Friedrich Rückert, and William Henry Fox Talbot, and wove it all together in the form of sung and spoken lines for The Daughter and The Photograph of the Father.  The Daughter describes fleeting images of people and places and the importance of capturing them on paper (photograph paper) so that they can be held, unchangeable, in our hands and hearts.  The text sung by The Photograph of the Father expresses ethereal thoughts on life and death.  The effect is quite striking, as the Daughter conjures up the memory of her father through his image, and they are able to sense one another in a way that seems very real to them both.  The piano is the instrument that represents The Father, and as The Daughter, my companion instrument is the clarinet.  Beaudoin chose his instrumentation based on those available to him in the Ullmann opera, and then ultimately chose to write for an even smaller quartet of instruments, including clarinet, piano, violin, and cello.  He intentionally wrote for the same small ensemble used by Olivier Messiaen in his Quartet for the End of Time, which was written while Messier was being held by the German army as a prisoner of war in World War II.  The parallels between The Emperor of Atlantis and The After-Image are many, though the two works couldn’t be more different, visually and sonically. 

John: What is it like to create a work for the first time?

Jamie: Creating a work for the first time is a really exciting opportunity for a singer, but it comes with some special challenges.  There is an incredible freedom that comes when studying a work that has never been performed before.  There are fewer rules about the way it “should be done” because there is no history of performance upon which to judge it.  The character is all mine to create, and as long as I stay within the boundaries of what the composer has written, none of my choices are “wrong.”  As wonderful as this is, a brand new piece can be more difficult to learn and digest than a piece which others have studied, written about, performed and recorded.  None of these valuable learning tools are available to me.  Nor is there an opportunity to study the work with a vocal coach or teacher who is familiar with it and can share their experiences and offer artistic guidance.

In the actual performance of the piece, I have an even greater responsibility to the audience than I might in a piece that’s more frequently performed.  As singers, Kevin and I need to present the text and our intentions with as much clarity and strength as possible, so that the audience can fully grasp the work on first listen, as they’ll have no prior experience with it.  Of course this is also a great responsibility for our stage director, David Schweizer, and he has very creatively designed The After-Image so that it can impact the audience in a significant way, and then immediately flow into The Emperor of Atlantis.  The most exciting part is that we get to perform for an audience who has no pre-conceived idea of the work.  They come in with very open minds and a great deal of curiosity, because they have no idea what they’re about to see or hear.  This is a unique opportunity to provide them with a completely new experience.

John: What is singing new music or contemporary music like? Do you approach it differently from singing Verdi or Puccini or one of the other traditional "Greats"?

Jamie: Contemporary music can be a challenge to learn, depending on the writing style of the composer.  With certain new works, it’s taken me the better part of a day just to work through a few pages of the score.  It can be a long process just to master the pitches and rhythms; however The After-Image isn’t written with this kind of complexity in the vocal line.  Beaudoin’s piece is tonal, and the vocal lines rise and fall in a very musical way, but in a way that is different from the Romantic Era, Italian composers that you mentioned.  As a singer, you have to try to get into the musical world of each composer and understand his or her musical language.  Unless the piece calls for unusual vocal techniques, I approach the singing in the same way I would approach a work from the standard repertoire.  My goal is always to sing natural, musical lines, because that expresses the most to the audience.

Kevin Burdette and Jamie Van Eyck in a technical rehearsal for The After-Image. Photo by Julius Ahn.
Read John's backstage posts or see the show for yourself!

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