Stephanie Blythe: from Verdi to Kate Smith

Considered one of the premier singers of the current generation, award-winning mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe is a much-admired presence in the world’s greatest opera houses and concert halls. Named Musical America’s Vocalist of the Year for 2009, she counts the 2007 Opera News Award and the 1999 Richard Tucker Award among her many honors.

On Thursday, December 11, 2014, as part of San Diego Opera’s 2014-2015 season, Stephanie Blythe and pianist Craig Terry will present “We’ll Meet Again: The Songs of Kate Smith”, a celebration of the songbook of the great American singer whose artistry boosted the spirits of Americans during one of our most trying times of the twentieth century history. Their presentation, titled “Stephanie Blythe Meets Kate Smith”, also was filmed for a Great Performances Broadcast on PBS.

Stephanie Blythe -Un Ballo in Maschera, Metropolitan Opera Photo: Beatriz Schiller/Metropolitan Opera
Stephanie Blythe -Un Ballo in Maschera, Metropolitan Opera Photo: Beatriz Schiller/Metropolitan Opera

EM: Stephanie, we were so fortunate to enjoy your stupendous artistry last season in Verdi’s A Masked Ball and Requiem, and now to welcome you back to San Diego Opera for your wonderful concert. How did you become so passionate about Kate Smith?

 SB: I became passionate about Kate Smith because I became passionate about American song history and American singers. And she is the quintessential American singer. I became very interested in this time period for the music, and she is one of the greatest exponents of that period. I love nostalgia, and this music is very nostalgic. And I just plain admire her. Her story is remarkable, her zest for life and her passion about the country and about performing and connecting with audiences – exceptional. So I became interested because I was studying a lot of singers of this time period. She was the one who really stuck out for me.

EM: In what ways do you feel this performance is significant for San Diego audiences?

SB: I wanted to bring it here because I love the concert, I love San Diego and I love San Diego Opera very much. There is not a single audience in this country that I’ve performed this show for that hasn’t felt touched by it in some way, everyone who hears it. It has far less to do with me and far more to do with the music. It’s very varied and nostalgic. It’s music that harkens to a simpler time. It’s far more than just entertaining, it brought people together in a very different way. This is community music, and so in that way I think it’s extraordinarily appropriate for San Diego Opera, which is existing today because of the community.

EM: Absolutely. And by the way, I wanted to thank you for all of your support for our cause. It means such a great deal to us.

SB: Oh, it’s been a pleasure.

EM: We were so lucky to have you last season for two Verdi events. When I interviewed Lesley Koenig last season she said that the cast for Masked Ball was wonderful, that you were an absolute hoot, and that made rehearsals so much fun.

SB: Oh, I’m very glad.

EM: Are there any particular favorites among these songs in your presentation, or do you have equal passion for them all?

SB: I have equal passion for all this music. It’s remarkable. I just adore it. The music is wonderful because everyone who hears it brings something to it. What I also love about this concert is I’ve never performed it anywhere that I didn’t have at least a half dozen people come to me and say when the concert was over, “Thank you for bringing my mother or my father back to me… you’ve made me remember a wonderful time in my life.” These songs are very evocative and I love them all.

EM: I’m not surprised. I admit to being of a generation at the early stages of my life when I listened to Kate Smith, and it meant a great deal to me and to my parents as well. Having been through trying times with us here last season, how do you see San Diego Opera right now?

san-diego-opera-2015-poster
Courtesy of San Diego Opera

SB: I think the most important thing for this company to do right now, and for its constituents, is to move forward. The positive thing I took away from my time last season in San Diego was that it was a wonderful, supportive, generous company, made up of a fantastic group of people who are all dedicated, organized beyond belief – supportive, generous people who are extraordinarily good at their jobs, and passionate about their art form. I wanted to be part of that. But what I also am incredibly impressed by is that clearly the people of San Diego are supportive of their arts. And that makes me very, very happy. I’m sure San Diego Opera didn’t mean to become a touchstone for community activism in the arts, but it has become that, and I think that’s really remarkable. There’s a lot to be proud of. I think it’s a beautiful organization, I’m very proud to support it, and I’m hoping to continue performing there in the future.

EM: That’s wonderful to hear. We truly appreciate all you’ve done to support our cause and we’re honored to have you come back this season.

SB: Oh, well, the honor is all mine.

EM: I’m sure everybody in the staff will be delighted to hear you say that. We appreciate that so much. Like all those at SDO, and so many others, I am a huge fan of yours. I was fortunate to have been in the Met Orchestra when you were singing there. Do you have any particular opera composers or operas that you enjoy performing the most?

SB: No (laughs). Whatever I’m working on at the time is what I’m loving the most. I have a very diverse repertoire and that is by choice, by design. I love a great many different things. Right now I’m in the middle of Trovatore in Chicago, so right now Verdi is my favorite. And in January and February I’m going to be rehearsing Semele at Seattle Opera, and Handel will be my favorite at that moment. So I’m fortunate enough that I’m never longing for something else when I’m in the middle of doing something.

EM: That’s really an interesting and marvelous take on things. You obviously are very passionate about opera in general.

SB: I’m passionate about music, and more passionate than anything about making connections with audiences. That’s the most important thing. That’s what it’s all about.

EM: Your audiences obviously respond to that, so all I can say is, Brava. It’s interesting that you said you don’t crave anything else when you’re performing one particular opera. Are there any operas that you have not performed that might be on your wish list?

SB: Not particularly. I’ve been asked that question a lot, as you can imagine. I’ve been very lucky to have sung in just about every opera I’ve ever had a yen to sing in. What I’m interested in a lot right now is recital singing, more than anything. I enjoy that. Of course there are operas out there that I would like to do. But the biggest problem with the operas I would like to do is that there are no productions of them. Companies are loath to spend money on something they don’t know will sell, which is a very understandable position, extremely understandable. So there’s a lot of French operas I would love to do, or early music I would love to do, but it’s really up to whether or not there’s a production for it. But in terms of repertoire, shows I’ve wanted to sing, I’ve been very fortunate. Most everything I’ve really wanted to sing I’ve been able to do. In twenty years I’ve been able to sing quite a few operas (laughs).

EM: That’s wonderful, and the way you perform is glorious. I know you keep hearing all that all the time, but I can’t help myself.

SB: That’s very kind.

EM: I’m wondering how you feel about the HD broadcasts.

SB: HD has met a lot of its intentions – to bring opera to places that you wouldn’t normally see it, which is marvelous. And I appreciate the fact that there are places that I have not sung where people know who I am because of, by virtue of, the HD, which is lovely. My family members in Germany have been able to see me perform because of HD. So I’m thankful for that.

EM: I know a lot of people feel that way, especially out here, where we’re all the way across the continent from New York and can’t just get on a plane to go see an opera, so HD is a distinct advantage.

SB: You’re fortunate to have a great company (laughs).

EM: Yes, we are, and we still have one, thanks to all the wonderful people that have kept this opera company going. People like you and like Carol Lazier, who are so committed to our cause and, as you’ve said, all of the support from our community. So we’re still here, the Phoenix rising. I wish I could hear your Trovatore in Chicago. Yours is not an easy role, and it’s arguably the most important role in the opera. I’m quite envious of the audiences that will be able to hear you.

SB: We have a lovely cast, so it’s been a very enjoyable process.

EM: I know it’s going to be another couple of months, but we’ll be eagerly awaiting your performance. Thank you so much, Stephanie, for taking time out of your busy rehearsal schedule today to speak with me.

SB: You’re very, very welcome. Thank you so much.

EM: My pleasure.

Tickets to “We’ll Meet Again: The Songs of Kate Smith” are available at www.sdopera.com or by phone at (619) 533-7000.