23 April 2011

ARTIST PROFILE: Jonathan Blalock, tenor


Jonathan Blalock, tenor [Photo used with Mr. Blalock's permission]

Alfredo Kraus, a paragon of bel canto grace and one of the most consistent artists of his generation, once said that ‘you have to make a choice when you start to sing,’ that you must ‘decide whether you want to service the music and be at the top of your art, or if you want to be a very popular tenor.’  Maestro Kraus was the rare artist who achieved both of the aims of which he spoke: possessing a technique that enabled him to sing not merely serviceably but superbly throughout a long career, he also earned the admiration of lovers of the tenor voice throughout the world, his repertory encompassing the operatic roles for which he was renowned and many of the tenor roles in the zarzuela repertory of his native Spain.  There is in virtually every artistic genre a sense of the dichotomy of which Maestro Kraus spoke, however, especially in the environment that exists for the performing arts in the Twenty-First Century; the choices that face a young artists of whether to pursue a path that leads to a career as what might be termed a connoisseurs’ artist or one that leads to the perhaps more lucrative popularity of aggressive management and marketing.  Despite his remarks, Maestro Kraus was among the ranks of those singers who are fêted by musical cognoscenti and commoners alike, the natural quality of his voice supported by the exceptional power of his technique.  It was this latter quality that was developed in accordance with those choices at the start of his career of which he spoke.  As anyone who attends performances at any of the world’s regional opera companies or conservatories could attest, it quite frankly is a myth that there are no good voices to be heard now.  There may even be a greater number of promising young singers than at any time in past, especially in the United States, but it would be impossible to deny that there are fewer extraordinary talents and major careers now than, say, in the 1950’s, when Sir Rudolf Bing could call upon an uncommonly fine roster of American singers, old and young, to build casts around his foreign stars.  It is therefore doubly exciting when a young singer emerges who possesses both a fine voice and evidence of a thoughtfully-formed technique.  It is that excitement, along with hints of the vocal and technical acumen of the irreplaceable Alfredo Kraus, that greets performances by American tenor Jonathan Blalock.

Still in the early stages of his career, Mr. Blalock already has to his credit the creations of leading roles in a critically-acclaimed operas, Lázaro in Jorge Martín’s Before Night Falls and Stevie in Michael Dellaira’s The Secret Agent.  The path that led Mr. Blalock to these accomplishment began, as he recalls, in utero.  ‘I loved music from before the time I was born,’ he says.  ‘My mother says that when I was still in the womb, I would kick to the rhythm of her piano playing.’  Opera and concert music were not important influences in Mr. Blalock’s formative years, however.  ‘Music was a powerful force in my childhood.  It was not the symphonies of the concert hall but the hymns of the neighborhood Baptist Church.’  This, along with having grown up in North Carolina, is an experience that he shares with the celebrated tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, whom Mr. Blalock cites as an invaluable influence on his decision to pursue a career as a singer.  ‘My entire perspective turned around when I met Anthony Dean Griffey,’ he says.  ‘His recital at UNCG absolutely changed my life.  He only sang two songs, but he imbued them with more emotion than most performers can mine from three hours of music.’  Mr. Blalock recollects that his earliest musical goals, shaped by his experiences with singing in church, were centered on choral music.  ‘My original goal was to be the next Robert Shaw, conducting choirs and possibly teaching college as well.  I studied piano [during undergraduate studies], and I began training at UNCG for a Master’s Degree in conducting.’  It was important to Mr. Blalock that, in order to prove an effective choirmaster, he understand the voices over which he would preside.  ‘I began studying voice with Dr. Carla LeFevre.  She got some flack for teaching a non-voice major,’ he recalls.  ‘It was sort of against the rules, but I’m glad she gave me a chance.  At first she thought I was absolutely hopeless, but after a few months of frustration in her studio, she looked up at me and said—to her and my surprise,—“You know, I think I would actually pay money to hear someone sing like that.”  I credit Dr. LeFevre with teaching me the fundamentals of singing.  She is still a close mentor, a wonderful mix of teacher, sister, mother, and friend.’

Jonathan Blalock and Wes Mason in the World Premiere of Jorge Martín's BEFORE NIGHT FALLS, Fort Worth Opera, 2010 [Photo by Ellen Appel]

Mr. Blalock reinvented himself as a novice singer at the age of twenty-three, an age at which—as he notes—he had already fallen behind many of his fellow artists.  ‘Most of my peers had been studying voice for seven or more years at that point,’ he remembers.  ‘I had a lot of catching up to do.  I struggled with the thought of pursuing a career that seemed so absolutely egocentric.’  This was also a conundrum with which his encounter with Anthony Dean Griffey proved beneficial.  ‘[Mr. Griffey] shared the story of how he grew up singing in a rural North Carolina church—like me—and originally pursued sacred music.  He spoke of how he dedicated his life to encouraging young singers and to strengthening and preserving music in North Carolina Education for the next generation.  He then ended his session the way he ends every one of his recitals, with a simple but beautifully heartfelt rendering of “This Little Light of Mine.”  An hour in his presence not only made me want to be a better artist but also a better person.  That event taught me that singing isn’t always a selfish art: it can actually cause the world to be a better place.’  This Mr. Blalock also learned from his work with Fort Worth Opera General Director Darren Woods and stage director David Gately.  ‘Honestly,’ Mr. Blalock says, ‘I never had the chance to sing leading roles at UNCG.  I was still so green, and other students in the program were much further along in their development.  But Darren Woods had the guts to take a huge chance on me.  While visiting UNCG to judge a competition, he heard me sing in a masterclass.  He gave me a full scholarship and a huge role—Nico in Mark Adamo’s Lysistrata—at Seagle Music Colony.’  This experience contributed significantly to Mr. Blalock’s understanding of the importance of his stage deportment.  ‘I learned a great deal about how to carry myself on the stage.  I’m generally a laidback guy, but David Gately taught me how to be an Athenian warrior.  It’s always wonderful when teachers and mentors will be honest with a young singer.  While I was a studio artist at Fort Worth, [Mr. Woods] would shoot straight with me.  He would say, “You’re flapping your arms around too much,” or, “You lost your focus and stared blankly with ‘singer eyes’ during that coloratura passage.”  I’m always yearning to improve, but I can’t fix it until I know exactly what is broken.’

Emotional honesty is, in Mr. Blalock’s view, perhaps the most important single quality that a musical performance must possess in order to be truly meaningful—and, in a sense, one of those things that is often broken and in need of repair.  ‘Sometimes I think [that] the best training takes place not in a studio but on the stage.  Colleagues who have mastered their form have taught me by example.  I’ve learned by watching the fragile, hypnotic manner in which Elizabeth Futral descended the staircase in Lucia’s mad scene or the indomitable Wes Mason’s depiction of Reinaldo Arenas as he bravely fought tyranny and sickness with such indescribable strength and passion.’  Building on these examples, Mr. Blalock sets as his foremost goal in singing the fostering of open, genuine communication with his audience.  ‘In my opinion, it is imperative for a singer to know why he or she sings,’ he states.  ‘My number-one goal is to communicate.  It is a challenging task because too many nuisances can get in the way: fear, technical imperfections, health, language, etc.  But my hope is to make every note I sing beautiful and honest enough so that, even if just for a few seconds, someone in the audience can connect with me, forget his worries, and experience deep joy.’  He adds, ‘The most meaningful compliment I’ve received after a performance hasn’t been, “Wow, I was so impressed by what your voice can do,” but, “Your singing touched me deeply.”’  The tools Mr. Blalock employs in pursuit of his goal of establishing communication with his audience are directly related to that core value of emotional honesty.  ‘Before a performance, I always try to forget about everything else and just focus on keeping my singing free and expressive.’  Central to his focus on the freedom and expressivity of his singing is his understanding of the requirements of the music that he sings.  ‘Every physical and musical gesture must have purpose,’ he suggests.  ‘This past summer, before singing the role of Tonio [in Donizetti’s La fille du régiment], I coached some of it with Joan Dornemann [the repsected coach and Assistant Conductor at the Metropolitan Opera, as well as co-founder and Artistic Director of of the International Vocal Arts Institute].  After I sang through the second aria [‘Pour me rapprocher de Marie’], she asked me why I was adding a high C-sharp at the end.  Honestly, I didn’t have a good reason except that I liked it and thought it was impressive.  But, after revisiting the piece, I realized that the text and the music didn’t call for a climax at that point: the intent should have been much more intimate in that moment.  So I did something that was very atypical for a tenor: I decided not to sing the high note in the performance!’  It is this dedication to the emotional core of the music at the expense of the obvious effect that is surely at the heart of the choice of which Alfredo Kraus spoke and which Mr. Blalock makes for his commitment to offering audiences performances that convey an abiding sincerity.

Jonathan Blalock as Tonio in Donizetti's LA FILLE DU RÉGIMENT, Tel Aviv, 2010 [Photo courtesy of Mr. Blalock]

Mr. Blalock cautions, too, that deriving personal joy from the thrill of performing cannot be the sole impetus for pursuing a career as a singer.  ‘It’s not enough to love performing.  You must also love the process,’ he says.  ‘The road to the stage is a long one full of countless lessons, coachings, and stagings.  It takes so much more hard work than I ever could have imagined.  But in the end it provides a joy so overwhelming [that] I could hardly imagine doing anything else.’  That road to the stage is something of which Mr. Blalock is keenly aware and upon which he reflects with insight into his own development as an artist.  ‘Lázaro [in Before Night Falls] was a stretch for me, but I worked extremely hard in my preparation, and I believed that I was up to the task.  People always worry [about whether] a young singer is ready vocally, but most people never bother to wonder whether the singer is ready dramatically.  Tony Griffey taught me the old mantra that says, “Don’t sing to impress: sing to express,” and [that is] possibly the most important lesson I’ve ever learned about performing.’  His senses of freedom, expressivity, and the desire to communicate, along with the security of his technique and plangent beauty of his timbre, have guided Mr. Blalock in choices of repertory.  ‘The role in Before Night Falls provided a wonderful chance for me, but also the great operas of Händel, Rossini, and others provide limitless possibilities for innovative ornaments and cadenzas.  It’s thrilling to sing something that is centuries old and surprise the listener with something never heard before,’ he says.  ‘Comic roles such as Almaviva [in Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia] have been wildly enjoyable for me,’ he continues.  ‘Right now, my voice is most appropriate for the –ino and –ano roles in Mozart, Donizetti, and Rossini.’  ‘Secretly,’ he confides, ‘I would love to sing something tragic where I could bellow passionately and then die on stage.  Something like Cavaradossi comes to mind, but my voice just isn’t the right fit for that.  Hopefully, I’ll be able to eventually expand my repertoire to the lighter Puccini roles of Rinuccio and Rodolfo.’

Jonathan Blalock as Fenton and Kathryn Lewek as Nannetta in Verdi's FALSTAFF, Mercury Opera Rochester, 2011 [Photo courtesy of Mr. Blalock]

The work of young singers will ultimately prove one of the most influential factors in the success of opera in the decades to come.  Directors, especially during the past twenty-five years, have contributed to the debate about how best to shepherd opera through the perils of deteriorating economic conditions and ever-changing fads by creating operatic productions that have generated praise and derision in almost equal proportions, all in pursuit of an elusive ‘relevance’ that will ensure the survival of opera.  Mr. Blalock believes that the future of opera is in many hands, with an examination of the reasons why opera has endured these past four centuries at its heart.  ‘I believe that the viability of opera depends on a number of factors,’ he offers.  ‘I think that opera companies should continue trying to find new ways of presenting the classics.  It shouldn’t be just for the sake of being “hip,” but rather it should be an effort to continue to dig into those treasured old operas in search of new jewels of artistic creativity.  On the other hand,’ he adds, ‘I always appreciate it when companies make an effort to educate their audiences.  When looking at opera with a new perspective, we can truly see how timeless much of it is.’  Fortunately, it is apparent when witnessing any of Mr. Blalock’s performances or listening to his recording of Lázaro in Before Night Falls—an opera that, despite its dramatic situations that are unique to its time and place, is not at all unlike Idomeneo, Stiffelio, or Peter Grimes in its moving depiction of an individual’s isolation and suffering—that he recognizes that the single greatest assurance of the immortality of opera is the continuing collective effort of young singers to make composers’ scribbles on yellowing pages breathe in sighs and snarls that caress audiences’ ears and set their pulses racing.

Jonathan Blalock as Howard Boucher in Jake Heggie's DEAD MAN WALKING, Fort Worth Opera, 2009 [Photo courtesy of Mr. Blalock]

As his comments suggest, Mr. Blalock’s voice at this time in his career is an even, ringing lyric tenor, possessing a richness that fills long bel canto lines with warmth and also a brightness that aids the singer in projecting the sound effectively.  With the centered beauty of his voice complemented by his handsome appearance, Mr. Blalock is a compelling stage presence, and his acting is nuanced without being overcomplicated.  Above all, his singing is an audible blend of natural talent, consummate artistry, and good sense.

‘I’ve seen the way the universal language of music can bring together people of different generations, disparate races, and various cultures,’ Mr. Blalock muses.  ‘When all the elements of a performance combine effectively, it produces a joy so intense that it transcends boundaries of time, language, and religion.’  At the hands of an effective artist, that joy is shared equally by the artist and his audience.  There is an eternal debate about what qualities contribute to the creation of a great artist.  There are singers who possess great voices.  There are singers who possess remarkable skills of interpretation.  There are also singers who exhibit exceptional wisdom in choosing what in some cases may seem narrow repertories.  Alfredo Kraus might have added that there are great singers and also popular singers.  In the early morning of what seems destined to be a long, well-judged, and rewarding career, Mr. Blalock has already acquired the circumspection that inhabits the psyches of the greatest artists.  ‘I think [that] a quote from my friend Jake Heggie’s wonderful opera Three Decembers sums up my feelings [about singing],’ he says.  ‘”What I found on the stage is what every person desires: not escape, but connection.  Greed, pride, and yearning dissolved by the power of dreams.”’  If the power of dreams if what is at the epicenter of singing for Mr. Blalock, it is the power of transcendence that his voice brings to those who hear him.  There is another passage from the work of Jake Heggie that is apt, these lines from his song ‘Facing Forward,’ recorded by Frederica von Stade and Joyce DiDonato: ‘Let it go.  Let it out of your heart.  Set it free.  Let it be a part set apart and maybe then you will see.’  It is with the skill of a master technician and the heart of a great artist that Jonathan Blalock sets free the sparkling tones nature has given him, and it is through hearing that his listeners are made to see.

Jonathan Blalock as Stevie in Michael Dellaira's THE SECRET AGENT, New York, 2011 [Photo by Richard Marshall]

The author’s heartfelt gratitude is extended to Mr. Blalock for his kindness, as well as the candor and thoughtfulness with which he responded to the questions that formed the basis for this article.  Thanks are also due for Mr. Blalock’s kind permission to use the photographs featured in this article.

Please click here to visit Mr. Blalock’s Official Website.

Mr. Blalock will return to North Carolina in December 2011 to sing in Händel’s Messiah with the Winston-Salem Symphony.  Performances are scheduled for 13 and 14 December at 7:00 PM.

13 April 2011

CD REVIEW: CIRQUE–Songs by Auric, Milhaud, Poulenc, & Sauguet (Céline Ricci, soprano; Daniel Lockert, piano; Sono Luminus DSL-92125)


CIRQUE: Céline Ricci, soprano, & Daniel Lockert, piano (Sono Luminus DSL-92125)

GEORGES AURIC (1899 – 1983), DARIUS MILHAUD (1892 – 1974), FRANCIS POULENC (1899 – 1963), HENRI SAUGUET (1901 – 1989): Songs – Céline Ricci, soprano; Daniel Lockert, piano [recorded at Skywalker Sound, Marin County, California, 19 – 20, 22 August 2009 and 23 – 25 August 2010; Sono Luminus DSL-92125]

Comparing the vocal recital discs released during the first eleven years of the new millennium with those that shaped the course of the first century of sound recording is a largely dispiriting undertaking.  It would be easy to suggest that the proportion of recital discs with artistic rather than commercial goals has decreased or that the goals of recital discs and those who plan and create them have changed as the dynamics and demographics of audiences receptive to such discs have evolved, and indeed compelling support for these arguments could be produced without difficulty.  To apply a less complex analysis to the situation, it might said that the joy has gone out of recording recital discs.  When one hears recordings of art songs by Adelina Patti, of Brahms Lieder by Elisabeth Schumann, or—more recently—of overlooked Verdi songs by Dame Margaret Price, it is impossible to imagine these artists as commercially-minded businesspeople with one eye on the till.  These recitals were evocations of the qualities that made the singing of these artists memorable and also valuable souvenirs of their personalities as both performers and individuals.  Except in some few rare cases, it is this essence, the intangible but always audible sense of the mirth of singing, that is missing from vocal recital discs now.  Delightfully, Cirque, this recital of Twentieth-Century French mélodies by soprano Céline Ricci and pianist Daniel Lockert, is one of those exceptions, a remarkable recital in which the experience of performing the music included on the disc is approached with the same direct, uncomplicated delight that might accompany one’s walk along the Seine in the early morning, turned out of a café at the closing hour, the last chill of night clinging to the river, and the smell of baking bread spilling into the streets.

A few words of caution are necessary when approaching this disc.  Listeners wanting or expecting the safe, uninflected singing and cautious, easily-ignored playing heard on so many recent recital discs will be disappointed or surprised in turn.  The singing offered in this performance by Céline Ricci, an exciting French soprano now resident in San Francisco, is authoritative without being stilted or inaccessible for the casual listener.  One lesson learned from recent recital discs is that a Francophone name on the cover does not ensure the elegant phrasing and placement of vowels expected in the heady days of Régine Crespin, Michel Sénéchal, and Gérard Souzay.  In the case of Ms. Ricci, however, the art of French singing as exemplified by the great French-speaking artists of the past, including the inimitable Edith Piaf, not only survives but thrives.  In her singing of each song on this disc, Ms. Ricci displays the instinctive marriage of music to text that is crucial to the effective singing of French mélodies.  Especially impressive is her mastery of the incredibly difficult—even for native speakers of French—application of nasalization as a function of inflection rather than mere pronunciation, a skill that eludes many fine singers but which in Ms. Ricci’s singing sounds disarmingly natural.  Furthermore, Ms. Ricci possesses precisely the sort of forward, bright timbre that unpretentiously reveals the nuances of this music without making of each song a grandiose act of artistic piety.  The Passions of Bach are perhaps meant to be revered: the songs on this disc, gems of their genre though they are, are surely meant to be experienced, to be sung if not actually in the cabaret then with its irrepressible ebullience.  In that regard, Ms. Ricci’s performance is as delightful, intoxicating, and slightly stinging as fine champagne.

The songs and vocal music of Milhaud and Poulenc are hardly unknown, both on recordings and in recital halls.  It is especially welcome to hear the songs offered in this recital (and, outside of France, to hear vocal music by Poulenc that is not associated with nuns en route to the guillotine), however, and the songs of Auric and Sauguet are very welcome, especially in performances as spirited as those offered by Ms. Ricci.  The texts of these songs, composed to verses by poets of the stature of Jean Cocteau (and at this juncture a few words of praise are due to Sono Luminus for the excellent—and sadly atypical—articles in their liner notes about the poets whose words are sung in this recital), are uncommonly fine, equal in linguistic richness and dramatic impact to the Goethe and Heine texts beloved by Teutonic composers.  In a recital that has no misfires, Ms. Ricci’s singing of Auric’s ‘Huit Poémes de Jean Cocteau’ is a superb traversal, both vocally and dramatically, of a sequence of songs that explores the emotional space of a Winterreise with simpler gestures and far more smiles.  In his five-song sequence ‘La Voyante,’ Sauguet proves himself the equal of Poulenc in shaping musical structures around the points made by spiky texts.

Wonderfully pulse-quickening is Daniel Lockert’s account of Erik Satie’s previously-unrecorded ‘Rag-Time Parade,’ a barnstorming piece that will inevitably conjure for American listeners aural memories of the music of Scott Joplin.  Throughout this recital, Mr. Lockert accompanies Ms. Ricci with the symbiosis required to enrich the musical experience.  One danger of this music is that its approachability somehow creates a mirage that suggests that these pieces are easy to play: the unencumbered virtuosity of Mr. Lockert’s playing does not dispel the confusion, his command of the idiom so complete as to make this seem to be music that merely happens rather than having to be rehearsed and performed.  When one is virtually unaware of the diligence and skill deployed in a pianist’s playing, not least in the context of his accompaniment of a vocal recital, one is hearing the work of a first-rate artist.

One need not be a connoisseur of Twentieth-Century French vocal music in order to enjoy this recital.  Admittedly, this is not repertory that one is likely to hear sung by the over-promoted, just-off-the-Tarmac singers whose recitals delight their followers and whose bland recordings win praise in the press.  There is the sense in every note of this recital that this was a very personal journey for Ms. Ricci, one not so much of nationalistic identity but more of individual artistic curiosity and temperament.  This is unquestionably among the finest vocal recital discs of recent years, its novelty and caution-be-damned attitude as thrilling as the firecracker brilliance of Ms. Ricci’s singing.  Most vitally, this disc is simply great fun.