Why Should Tenors Have All the Fun?

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S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate Plus membership. I’m Kurt Andersen and this is the Studio 360 podcast.

S2: The mezzo soprano Jamie Barton sings bargainer and Verdi with equal power and precision and critics as well as fans have gone gaga for her warm robust performances. She’s a rising star in opera. She’s appeared at the prestigious BBC Proms and the San Francisco Opera. And this season she’s playing a grieving man searching for his beloved in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of or fail and your ritzy by look or fail is Barton’s first trouser role. That’s when a young male character is sung by a female singer and it’s a tradition that can heighten the racier elements of operatic storytelling which suits Spartan who is frank about her non orthodox views on sexuality and body image in opera. Burton and pianist Kathleen Kelly have created what they call a feminist recital that turns the tables on gender and music and they sat down with June Thomas of slate to talk about their show and perform songs from it.

S3: Jamie Barton has a personality as big as her voice. Her Twitter bio reads proudly queer opera singer into sci fi drag queens bluegrass social justice equality and cats. So it should come as no surprise that when it came time to put together a classical recital her selection process was both intensely personal and pointedly political. The program that she and pianist Kathleen Kelly developed celebrates women songs by women songs about women and to end the recital a number of love poems that were originally written for men to sing to women. The first of that section is from a song cycle that Maurice Ravel wrote in the early 1930s. Based on the Don Quixote story Barton chose to sing the show so Bois a drinking song in which the tipsy Knight tells a brown haired maiden I drink to joy out of all of the pieces.

S4: This is the one that men have done. This is the one that women have not had access to. The reasons why are because of performance practices. The character itself. But then I started thinking of the story that’s being told in this particular song and I listen. I went to grad school.

S5: I’ve been in a bar. I bet you don’t have to be a dude to get drunk. You don’t have to be a dude to be hitting on some wine and and to to have delusions to to to have a rough evening with some alcohol.

S4: Taking the story right back down to the kernel of truth. This is absolutely an experience a woman can have. There is nothing about this that is specifically male centric. This was the piece that I was like Yeah yeah no no no no I’m. I’m a woman and I’m gonna do this. Was for.

S6: Of us. This of thing sorry throw up your scarves.

S7: It’s not gonna say it’s not a spoiler. You said.

S8: Those guess what it to be honest cinema. Lot of Snipes said it was.

S9: Performing in a recital setting rather than on the crowded stage of a huge opera house. Give Spartan a chance to make a direct connection with the audience. I love reaching out and seeing the people’s faces. I love getting to talk with them at different points. I do mention my own bisexual swaying because by visibility is very important to me and I think it’s really important to put that aspect of it out. But I really do try to let the audience live in the music in their own ways and the difference with this recital and kind of really making a concerted effort to be true to myself in an effort to help the audience step a little closer to being true to themselves is that I get to live this in a way that means something very personal to me. That openness is especially apparent when it comes to those love songs. I wanted to take songs that were written by men for men and for me as a bisexual human experience. Those songs you know experience singing feeds away to a beautiful woman on the grass field it was written by the French composer Albie Tupac in 1882 jukebox glorious romantic music is the perfect setting for a love poem by LA Kaunda Liu in the the setting of the recital the first song of the bent group is the rebel which is a drinking song and so there’s I remember the first time that we did this in Boston and coming off of the drinking song which was always just a lot of fun.

S10: A lot of French but a lot of fun and coming out of that and having the moment of oh now I need to get my heart rate down.

S11: The first page of feeling is just a chord chord chord as if you’re saying something but you don’t want the person who’s sleeping next to you to wake up. So you really have to get to that like inner quiet kind of place. She really was the first to park song I ever heard. And what struck me as just so unique and beautiful was that this is a song that is almost to a scene.

S12: It goes through different pathways different emotional pathways of this person who is sitting on a hill and their beloved is next to them sleeping and they just want to kiss them. This is also the most modern art. Is. In any.

S13: There’s this moment towards the end where the piano just starts to rumble and it just starts to go and you feel this desire bubbling up in this person. This this. Want to be with them and this knowledge that they’re going to protect this person from any harm they get to be the Sleeping Beauty next to the person and be loved and cherished in that moment even while they’re asleep.

S4: Then the Strauss that we end with is actually one that Strauss wrote for his wife on the day of their wedding. I believe it was one of his wedding presence to her. Women do this piece it’s not one that is unheard of in that way but to take something you know that that was really written for a woman for the showing of love and really kind of putting it out there that the showing of love you know can have so many different meanings in so many different ways to it. It just made a lot of sense to be the the final moment on the recital for me. It means something very different to me to be singing for delay or the Ravel or the Strauss. It’s these are different sorts of imaginings. If I think of the Strauss and I think of singing this on a wedding day to my wife that puts it in a different place for me there is a bit of queer pride. There is a bit of understanding that this story is personal to me and not necessarily just something that I’m interpreting from a page of music that personal swing I think gives it a another depth of interpretation. And it’s really cool to quite honestly live in a world where that is possible where I can stand up and say I’m bisexual. This music means something to me even though it was written for straight people. This this music means something to me and it could mean something to so many people out there. I want to break down those barriers because when it comes right down to it I come from a farm in the middle of nowhere. My parents didn’t listen to classical music we listened to a lot of bluegrass and classic rock but like classical music wasn’t a part of my life until college and if I can find connection in classical music that changes my life then I know that people from all walks of life can and I want those doors to be wide open.

S3: Another highlighted the recital is big sister say’s 1967 better known as beauty hurts a setting of a poem by Catherine Daniels. It’s part of the song cycle love. After 1950 by contemporary American composer Libby LARSON It’s a girl power anthem but it’s also a celebration of acquiring skills through repetition and practice which might explain why these professional musicians love it so much.

S4: It is the story of peeling back the layers of socialization beauty hearts I think is a really interesting one because the young girl in there has been told by her sister you know you’re going to have to wear the curlers in your hair and yeah they’ve got these bristles inside that stick and you’re gonna have to pluck your eyebrows and shave you’re going to have to you’re gonna have to put a razor on your skin. You know she’s been told all of these things this is what makes you a woman. And by the end of it the movement for this particular young girl is that she goes from not wanting any of that to being really entranced by the beauty that she sees in the mirror. For me it is the story of stepping out of everything that society and people have told her what she needs to be in order to be a woman. And stepping into loving herself and believing in her own place believing in her own self the style of piano playing is so athletic.

S14: That’s pianist Kathleen Kelly. It’s also kind of machine like there is that aspect of like I’m on this rhythmic train now that I can’t get off. But it’s also virtuosic which says a lot about control it says a lot about how good you are at something today where people are making so many more choices about like how they want to present how they want to be in the world. There’s a lot of power in that moment of how do you want to make yourself look beauty dee dee dee dee dee dee her.

S15: Parents her big sisters mamas in parts.

S16: Thank you. I called my lane key here not having called my lane key here. Around black.

S17: Wrong With side bracelets pricked my scalp like so maybe it’s a beauty.

S18: Sister.

S19: She says I. She puts. Tweezers.

S15: Leads to it. It’s given Smathers Downey landings with skin.

S20: Give me a broad palette to recreate this story with the evil looking pad.

S21: Looking good. The. Hard. Looking gun barrel bombs and. She plucks two leaves it as it’s razor blades and she was a census for. The risk. The. See.

S22: Her it’s being in a small studio with Barton and Kelly.

S3: I got a close up look at the extraordinarily intimate connection they share while performing. They occasionally made eye contact but I could tell that that was just a small part of the signals they were giving and receiving. Can you describe that feeling of collaboration.

S14: So much of it has to do with breath time and breath. Each piece is a collection of languages. The language of the tune and the language of the words if you both know the text you can take a breath and an attitude and a good partner can see where you’re going to go.

S4: It used to be my barometer for if it was a great recital was if I got up there and I sang all the right words and I got all those notes and now that’s really kind of fallen to the back of the list for me. If I get out there and me and Kathy have one of those like insane evenings where we’re on the same page we’re breathing at the same time. I know she’s going to catch me you know and we’re both going to hand in hand give this recital. That’s Jamie Barton and Kathleen Kelly who are touring their recital around the world from.

S23: London to San Francisco to Morrow Georgia. June Thomas produced our story with production assistance from Tommy Missourian and Irene Trudell at WNYC. Thanks for listening and you can subscribe to Studio 360 wherever you get podcasts.