Modern muse: world-renowned mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey, poised to breathe new life into the title rôle in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Charles Gounod’s seldom-heard Sapho on 18 November 2018
[Photograph by Richard Dumas, © by Alpha Classics]
Opera is an invigorating, inspiriting, infuriating amalgamation of serendipitous circumstances, fortuitous mistakes, unflagging ambitions, and missed opportunities. With cyclical imprecision that mimics all of life’s most rewarding pursuits, operatic trends are as changeable as weather, the musical climate reacting with varying conviction to an enormous array of stimuli. So prominent was Charles Gounod’s Faust in the annals of the first decade of the history of New York’s Metropolitan Opera—it was with a performance of Faust that the MET was inaugurated on 22 October 1883, and Edith Wharton’s 1921 novel The Age of Innocence begins with a bemusedly satirical account of New York society’s fondness for the piece—that the new company’s venue was known as the Faustspielhaus. After being performed by MET forces in Philadelphia and Chicago, Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette became the first French opera to be sung in its original language at the Metropolitan. Aside from a short-lived double bill that bizarrely partnered Philémon et Baucis with Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, four performances of Mireille in 1919, and accounts of the oratorio Mors et vita and the motet Gallia, Gounod’s popularity with MET audiences has been sustained by Faust and Roméo et Juliette.
It is often folly to extrapolate conclusions about broader tastes from the endeavors of a single entity, but, in the case of global interest in the music of Charles Gounod, the MET’s concentration on two of his operas at the expense of his other scores is generally reflective of the fate suffered by the composer’s music, particularly outside of his native France. Though his lesser-known operas have started to emerge from the shadows, some of them—La nonne sanglante and Le tribut de Zamora, for instance—having been both performed and recorded in recent seasons, the commercial domination of their ubiquitous brethren remains unchallenged. Far from the exalted stage of the MET, both Faust and Roméo et Juliette have been produced by Charlotte’s Opera Carolina, but, regardless of an encouraging venture into unfamiliar repertory with a staging of Rachmaninoff’s Aleko, further exploration of Gounod’s œuvre has not transpired. Whether in Paris, New York, or Charlotte, an opera company’s foremost goal must be to give audiences what they will pay to hear, but the enduring vitality of opera relies upon occasional initiatives by opera companies to lead audiences into new niches of repertoire.
Amongst the most welcome operatic trends of 2018 is the initiative that brings Virginia-born mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey back to Lisner Auditorium to sing the title rôle in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Gounod’s rarely-presented first opera, Sapho, on Sunday, 18 November 2018. First performed by the famed Opéra de Paris in Salle Le Peletier on 16 April 1851, Sapho inducted its thirty-two-year-old composer into the contentious community of opera in the French capital, in which environment he would pursue success for the next three decades. Prior to the genesis of Sapho, much of Gounod’s artistic energy was devoted to the study and composition of liturgical music, and, despite having won the prestigious Prix de Rome with his cantata Fernand in 1839, the young composer pondered abandoning music and taking holy orders. The obstacles to its resounding notwithstanding, a musical voice as affecting as Gounod’s cannot be silenced.
Hearing Kate Lindsey sing affirms that hers, too, is a voice of irrepressible eloquence and zeal. Though well established in a busy, widely-acclaimed international career, Lindsey continues to approach performances with wonderment and inquisitiveness, whether she is singing a rôle for the first or the fiftieth time. Stylistic adaptability is widely demanded of younger singers, but Lindsey wields musical versatility with uncommon prowess. Since her 2005 début there as Javotte in Massenet’s Manon, she has been heard at the Metropolitan Opera in parts as diverse as Mozart’s Cherubino in Le nozze di Figaro, Zerlina in Don Giovanni, Second Lady in Die Zauberflöte, and Annio in La clemenza di Tito, Tebaldo in Verdi’s Don Carlo, Wagner’s Rhinemaiden Wellgunde in both Das Rheingold and Götterdämmerung, Nicklausse and the Muse in Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann, Humperdinck’s Hänsel, and the Kuchtík in Dvořák’s Rusalka. Only weeks ago, she returned to the origins of opera in its modern form as a period-appropriate but dangerously seductive Nerone in Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea at the 2018 Salzburger Festspiele. Not surprisingly, a singer with French diction as impressive as this singer’s has also portrayed Siébel in Faust and Stéphano in Roméo et Juliette, enhancing these scores’ appeal to today’s listeners.
Che soave zeffiretto: mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey as Cherubino (right), with soprano Anja Harteros as Contessa d’Almaviva (left), in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro at The Metropolitan Opera in 2007
[Photograph by Ken Howard, © The Metropolitan Opera]
A pinnacle in Washington Concert Opera’s three-decade history is Lindsey’s fiery singing of Romeo in Bellini’s I Capuleti ed i Montecchi [reviewed here], the musical richness of which she rivaled with her depiction of Léonor in the company’s 2016 performance of Donizetti’s La favorite [reviewed here]. Created in 1840 by Rosine Stoltz, the latter rôle was also sung with great distinction by celebrated mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot, whose encouragement after an auspicious meeting in early 1850 induced Gounod to contemplate the composition of an opera. Viardot increased the persuasiveness of her motivation by renegotiating her contract with the Opéra de Paris for the 1850 - 1851 Season to include a stipulation that Gounod must be commissioned to write an opera. The commission was duly issued, a libretto was obtained from eminent man of letters Émile Augier, and the eventual composer of Faust and Roméo et Juliette immersed himself in the legend of history’s earliest female lyric poet. The presence of Viardot and tenor Louis Guéymard, who would go on to create rôles in La nonne sanglante and La reine de Saba for Gounod, in the cast of the opera’s first production was insufficient to capture the public’s attention, but discerning ears noted a talent for writing for voices that merited espousal and nurturing.
Learning the title rôle in Sapho for Washington Concert Opera’s performance, in which she will be joined by tenor Addison Marlor as Phaon, soprano Amina Edris as Glycère, bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana as Pythéas, and baritone Brian Vu as Alcée, under the baton of WCO’s Artistic Director Antony Walker, Lindsey is conscious of the influence that Pauline Viardot exerted upon the opera’s inspiration and genesis. ‘Viardot was absolutely committed to the dramatic nature of any piece she performed. She worked with Gounod from the ground up on this work,’ Lindsey recently said of Sapho. The individuality of her artistry is apparent in Lindsey’s work, but her renowned predecessor’s legacy in the propagation of Sapho looms large in her study of the part. ‘They wrote to each other constantly, as he lived in her country house, composing, while she was traveling and singing abroad,’ she said of Viardot and Gounod. ‘[Viardot’s] fingerprint is all over the score because she was such an essential element to the opera’s creation. Most specifically, she asked that the final aria [the oft-recorded ‘Ô ma lyre immortelle’] be modeled directly from Gounod’s beautiful “Chanson du pêcheur.” She found his original version of the opera’s conclusion too fragile and feeble for the character of Sapho, so she suggested this change, which Gounod readily embraced. Now, of course, it’s the most known music from this opera, so I suppose her instincts proved correct!’
Instinct is a vital component of Lindsey’s artistic constitution, and she has examined the disparities among Sapho’s plot and Twenty-First-Century perceptions of duty, integrity, and gender rôles with exceptional clarity and insight. Gounod’s and Augier’s tale of a woman who first forgives a man who betrays and curses her without full cognizance of the reasons for her actions and then ends her own life provides plentiful fodder for critics who revile opera’s dated sensibilities. Such censures are not wholly unjustified, Lindsey feels. ‘There probably is a chauvinistic element to all of this because [of] the social and cultural environments around which this opera was conceived and built,’ she admitted, but she went on to fervently articulate her confidence in Sapho’s timeless pertinence. ‘At the conclusion of this piece, I think most people would feel that Sapho is the character with the deepest level of integrity and conscience, which I think makes her incredibly strong. Her decision to sacrifice herself in order to protect the person she loves and to whom she must be loyal represents deep self-awareness and integrity.’ Sapho’s deeds are perhaps not palatable for modern audiences, the mezzo-soprano conceded, but the emotions that drive her are palpably, even painfully, relevant. ‘No, not many people would do that sort of thing today in the name of love, but, in a modern context, it’s not unlike what we ask from the military and many others in their willingness to sacrifice for love of country, cause, or conviction.’
Though Sapho will be performed in concert, a revealing aspect of Lindsey’s preparation for the performance is her erudite scrutiny of Sapho’s dramatic parallels with other rôles in—or soon to be in—her repertory. ‘[One] character I’ve been thinking a lot about recently is Orlando, based on the Virginia Woolf novel. In a year, I’ll be performing the rôle of Orlando in a new opera at the Wiener Staatsoper, so this character is on my mind a lot,’ she shared. She identifies a strong connection between Sapho and Orlando. ‘In the novel, Orlando is a poet in addition to being a character who seems to have eternal life, living on from generation to generation in a constantly-changing world. Not only that, Orlando begins the novel as a boy and then, many years later, he suddenly wakes up one day as a woman. There’s no doubt that Virginia Woolf, in writing this, was exploring layers [in] her own identity, and I’m fascinated to continue to examine and reflect upon this writer and the character of Orlando through whom she spoke.’ Lindsey’s observations suggest that, in a sense, this is a journey that began two-and-a-half millennia before Woolf’s lifetime with the historical Sappho‘s ‘Ode to Aphrodite.’
L’imperatore deviante: mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey as Nerone (rear), with soprano Sonya Yoncheva as Poppea (front), in Claudio Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea at the 2018 Salzburger Festspiele
[Photograph by Maarten Vanden Abeele, © by Salzburger Festspiele]
It is tempting to presume that débuting a new rôle in concert is more congenial than singing it in a fully-staged performance, but Lindsey is mindful of the formidable challenges of forging a complete characterization without the benefits of scenic support. Daunting as this is, this adventurous singer is excited by the chance to find the character within the score rather than fitting the music to a director’s concept of the rôle. In the context of Washington Concert Opera’s performance, she stated with zest, ‘it’s all about the music. The drama derives entirely through the union of musicians on stage, and as singers we have to rely on our voices to convey the emotional and musical subtleties, which can sometimes be overshadowed in a big, staged production.’ This is not to say that Lindsey is immune to the thrill of the proverbial smell of the greasepaint, of course. ‘I certainly enjoy the big productions, which fill most of my schedule,’ she continued, ‘[but] it’s tremendously refreshing to return to the absolute essence of the music, especially in a new and less-familiar piece.’
In the 167 years since the first performance of Sapho, the opera’s fortunes have improved little. Many singers have included Sapho’s ‘Ô ma lyre immortelle’ in recitals, both on stage and on disc, but few of them have been advocates for Sapho. The score lacks the effortless emotional engagement of Faust and Roméo et Juliette, but its many musical and dramatic virtues can be very rewarding. To what can the neglect to which Sapho has been subjected be attributed? ‘I must say [that] I’m perplexed about this,’ Lindsey opined. ‘The only thing I can surmise is that it’s a rôle that really demands everything from one’s vocal range. For a mezzo, it is “death by high B” from the very start of the piece. For a soprano, perhaps it asks for too many moments of sustained lower-voiced passages.’
Lindsey is not the sort of singer who accepts an offer to perform a rôle simply because the notes that the part requires are in the voice. Offers to sing Sapho are unlikely to ever be plentiful, making Lindsey’s decision to participate in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Sapho an uniquely precious gift to Capital-Region opera lovers, but the rôle has still more attractions for this intrepid singer. ‘Well, Sapho is a woman, for one,’ she laughed. ‘For a singer who mostly plays trouser rôles, this is nice because subconsciously I find that there can be a different way I might approach the execution of a musical line or text based on the nature of the character.’ With Lindsey, though, the essence of any rôle is found in the composer’s music. ‘I enjoy the nobility with which [Sapho] is composed,’ she said. ‘In order to sing this, the voice has to be open, open, open! It’s a good lesson for me in that regard, as I don’t get so many opportunities to sing this sort of bel canto repertoire. It’s a real physical release to let the voice free in the currents of long, flowing, and soaring lines. Musically, it’s incredibly beautiful, impassioned, and poignant, and it contains multitudes of “goose-bump moments”.’
As Washington Concert Opera’s performance aims to prove, Sapho possesses all of these qualities, validating her status as a worthy sister to Faust and Roméo et Juliette. Washington Concert Opera patrons already know that incredible beauty, passion, poignancy, and an abundance of goose-bump moments are trademarks of Kate Lindsey’s artistry.
Passionate poetess: mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey, star of Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Charles Gounod’s Sapho on 18 November 2018
[Photograph © by Rosetta Greek]
To learn more about Kate Lindsey’s career and upcoming engagements, please visit her official website.
Please click here to obtain more information or to purchase tickets for Washington Concert Opera’s 18 November concert performance of Sapho in Lisner Auditorium on the campus of The George Washington University.
Sincerest thanks to Ms. Lindsey for her thoughtful and thought-provoking responses to questions for this Spotlight.