09 December 2009

ARTIST PROFILE: Tyler Duncan, baritone

Tyler Duncan, baritone

The approach of the end of a year is a time conducive to reflection, to evaluating all aspects of life, giving thanks for things gained and remembering things lost.  The arts community, as any other sector of society, has suffered much during 2009, with institutions throughout the world struggling with the repercussions of the global recession.  Cuts in subsidies, eroding endowments, and the loss of support from patrons facing their own individual economic debacles have led to staff reductions, abbreviated or cancelled seasons, and the disruption of programs.  2009 has likewise brought sadness with the passing of many much-lauded, much-loved artists.  Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of Art, however, is its ability to endure despair by if not being at least conjuring what Emily Dickinson called ‘the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.’  Music transcends adversity by supplying, in a sense, an eternal source of optimism, assimilating all the sorrows of the past in a voice that sounds in the present and reverberates into the future, that (as again Emily Dickinson wrote) ‘sings the tune without the words, and never stops at all.’

Vital to the renewing spirit of music is the emergence of young artists who, honoring and absorbing the traditions of previous generations, reveal anew the hypnotic power of song.  There are musical works so perennially alluring or finely-crafted that they survive without lasting damage prolonged periods of artistic drought, but even the most sublime scores are refreshed by the work of committed, insightful artists.  Every successive generation of singers must face the suspicions of a community that, in many cases, clings to the past, longing for the restoration of a just-within-the-reaches-of-memory Golden Age when, as has often been stated, there were real voices.  Nevertheless, the finest voices of any age are evident to those who hear them, and new facets of singing are revealed.

Many of the ‘new’ facets of singing revealed to audiences during the past quarter-century have, somewhat ironically, been among the earliest jewels of the operatic genre.  Returning to the music of Monteverdi, Cavalli, Händel, Vivaldi, and their contemporaries has created hosts of opportunities for young artists.  Thankfully, the efforts of many younger artists in Early repertory have also lessened the divisive impact of the work of many early Baroque-specialist pioneers: the most exceptional singers of the past twenty-five years have provided compelling evidence that the works of Bach, Berlioz, Berg, and Britten can be sung beautifully and expressively by a single voice.  One of the finest of those adventurous single voices belongs to Canadian baritone Tyler Duncan, an artist as comfortable vocally and dramatically in Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers or a Bach cantata as in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro or Mendelssohn’s Elias.

Born in British Columbia, Mr. Duncan began his studies at Vancouver Community College as a jazz singer.  The transition to classical music was born, in part, of circumstance.  ‘I really wanted to sing but couldn’t get regular voice lessons,’ Mr. Duncan recollects, ‘so [I] switched to classical singing, and that was that.’  This change of emphasis led him to formal vocal studies at the University of British Columbia.  ‘UBC was a place that let me develop at my own pace,’ he says.  Under the tutelage of James Fankhauser and David Meek in voice and Rena Sharon in song interpretation, Mr. Duncan started to shape his career.  ‘I wasn’t involved in that much opera, but focused on song and oratorio [repertory] until my voice was able to handle the “bigger stuff,”’ Mr. Duncan recalls.  His attention to Lieder repertory was rewarded with several prestigious honors, including Third Prize in the 2005 Walter W. Naumburg Foundation Voice Competition (in which Mr. Duncan joined a roster of celebrated prize-winners including Shirley Verrett, Barbara Hendricks, Dawn Upshaw, and fellow Canadian Lois Marshall), a prize from the Wigmore Hall/Kohn Foundation Song Competition, and Third Prize in the 2003 ARD International Music Competition (previously won by Jessye Norman, Francisco Araiza, and Thomas Quasthoff).

Mr. Duncan is conscious of the fact that defining the ‘bigger stuff’ to which he referred can be difficult.  ‘I have always been careful not to take on things that were too vocally taxing for me at a young age,’ he states.  ‘That being said, a song recital can be more taxing emotionally and vocally than many operas, and I tried to do as many of those as I could.’  Among artists whose work strengthened Mr. Duncan’s affection for Lieder repertory, the German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau – celebrated throughout his long career for championing German Lieder in recitals and dozens of recordings – looms large.  ‘My first huge inspiration came from the vast library of Fischer-Dieskau recordings in the library at UBC.  Something in me was very drawn to this repertoire,’ he muses.  Mr. Duncan also cites as an early influence on his perceptions of singing the work of Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel.  ‘I had the opportunity to hear him live in recital several times in Vancouver.  His ability to word-paint in both operatic and song repertoire is one of the things that I love in his singing.’

Participation in a masterclass with the acclaimed Dutch soprano Elly Ameling at the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme in Aldeburgh led to invitations for Mr. Duncan to take part in the 1999 and 2001 sessions of the Franz-Schubert-Institut in Baden bei Wien, focusing on Lieder interpretation by studying with such renowned artists as Madame Ameling, Helmut Deutsch, Hans Hotter, Rudolf Jansen, and Robert Tear.  Whilst continuing his studies in Germany, Mr. Duncan also enjoyed opportunities to work with the remarkable German mezzo-soprano Brigitte Fassbaender and his legendary predecessor in Lieder repertory, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

Tyler Duncan performing in the final concert of the 2001 Franz-Schubert-Institut in Baden bei Wien, Austria

As his career has expanded to include work in both opera and oratorio, Mr. Duncan has pursued a goal of using singing as an intensified means of communication.  ‘Making a text understood through singing in a way that connects with your audience’ is, in his view, the most important aspect of an artist’s endeavors.  This focus on communication not only facilitates deeper interaction with both music and audiences but can also allow a measure of freedom in overcoming the difficulties of particular scores or productions.  Mr. Duncan says, ‘I think if you are true to the text and your interpretation of it, and your technique is solid, you will be heard and you will be seen.  I enjoy both traditional and modern adaptations in opera.  What I don’t enjoy is a gimmick, when a director has one little Idea and builds an entire staging around it. What’s even worse is any production, be it modern or traditional, that doesn’t stay true to the music.’  This applies, to some extent, to singers, as well, he suggests.  ‘Be yourself: you are enough.’

Mr. Duncan has already enjoyed collaborations with many fine conductors (Kent Nagano), ensembles (Montréal Symphony, Philharmonia Baroque, Toronto Symphony, and Tragicomedia), and institutions (Berkshire Choral Festival, Boston Early Music Festival, Halle Händel Festival, and Princeton Festival), and it is within the context of collaborations that he measures the success of his career to date and looks to the future.  ‘I have a long list of conductors, directors and companies I would love to sing for,’ Mr. Duncan says.  ‘I’m hoping that as my voice grows I won’t lose the ability to cover a very broad spectrum of repertoire that includes modern, Romantic, Baroque, and music of all eras.  My goal is to never lose the lyric side of my singing.  One must, of course, sing what fits the voice, and not make the voice fit to what it is not destined for.’  Mr. Duncan launches 2010 with performances that pursue his goal of maintaining flexibility: Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers in New York and Venice, Bach’s cantata ‘Ich habe genug’ (BWV 82) with Toronto’s Tafelmusik, Haydn’s Die Jahreszeiten in Calgary and Houston, Vaughan-Williams’ Five Mystical Songs with Oratorio Society of New York at Carnegie Hall, and Bach’s Matthäus-Passion in Amsterdam and Johannes-Passion at the Baldwin Wallace Bach Festival in Ohio.  His recordings due for release include works by Purcell and Giacomo Carissimi’s oratorio Jepthe on the ATMA label and John Blow’s Venus and Adonis on cpo, a souvenir of the acclaimed 2008 Boston Early Music Festival Production.

 Tyler Duncan (Adonis) and Amanda Forsythe (Venus) in BEMF's production of Blow's VENUS AND ADONIS [Photo by David Walker]

As with virtually all artists of the highest caliber, it is evident in Mr. Duncan’s work that singing is, for him, far more than a profession for which he was suited by natural gifts.  ‘I can’t believe I get to do this for a living and meet such wonderful people,’ he says, one of those wonderful people he has encountered in his career to date being his wife, pianist Erika Switzer.  ‘I do enjoy putting singing away when I’m at home and enjoying some down time, reminding my wife to smell the roses once in a while (all this after practicing, of course), [but] I hope that this is only the beginning.’

The dramatic alertness and sharp but never distracting stage presence that Mr. Duncan brings to his work suggest that the success he has enjoyed in his career thus far is indeed only the beginning.  Built around a solid core, his tone possesses both richness and thrust, qualities that enable him to perform his wide-ranging repertory with integrity.  His pointed diction and commitment to Lieder repertory have already brought comparisons with Fischer-Dieskau, but Mr. Duncan’s timbre is darker, with subtler overtones, and his technique more agile than those of his famous predecessor.  This flexibility allied with the beauty and reach of his voice make Mr. Duncan’s mastery of the Verdi baritone repertory seem certain.

In her aria ‘Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore’ (‘I lived for art, I lived for love’), Puccini’s Tosca expresses an idealized artist’s creed.  In expressing his own views of the nature of his career, Mr. Duncan says, ‘Art, health, and love are as essential in life as air.  When a piece of the pie is missing, we just don’t function properly.’  Mr. Duncan’s performances combine art, the audible health of the voice, and an obvious love for singing; an impressive recipe prepared by a young artist fully in command of his gifts.

Tyler Duncan with his wife, pianist Erika Switzer

Special thanks are extended to Mr. Duncan for his kind contributions to this article and for use of his photographs.

Click here to visit Mr. Duncan’s official website.

Tyler Duncan is represented in North America by Matthew Sprizzo and in Europe by Erika Esslinger (Germany) and Ariëtte F.C. Drost (Netherlands).