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CHRISTMAS IN DENMARK – an Armchair Study

December 12, 2013

Right now my life is consumed by three things.  Wait, of course there are more than three things, but there’s an interesting convergence of these particular three things – VOX 3’s Half Spent was the Night, VOX 3’s upcoming Danish festival (I’m participating in the opera, Nielsen’s Maskarade.  I play an aging madam of a brothel.  You should come check it out.), and HOLY COW, here comes Christmas!  This afternoon it occurred to me, how do the Danish celebrate Christmas?  Do they have any uniquely Danish traditions?  Since I work in a library, I decided to engage in a little research.  Here are a few things I found.

Santa Lucia celebrationAccording to my research, the entire month of December is focused on the coming Christmas holiday, though it is unlikely the festive buildup focuses on shopping quite as much as it does here in America. However, the Danes might mark the four Sundays of the Advent season by lighting the candles on an Advent wreath on those days.  They may also observe the countdown by lighting a calendar candle.  In 1935, this candle was introduced as something one could make at home with the children, but since the early 40s it has also been produced commercially.  As you can see from the image, as the candle burns, the days to Christmas burn away!  Very cool!

On December 13th, Danes will celebrate St. Lucia’s Day.  This holiday originates in Sweden, but was imported to Denmark in 1944 by the Föreningen Norden (Nordic Association).  Officially, it was a way of promoting light and goodness in a time of such extreme darkness, but it was also a subtle protest against German occupation.  The celebration is dedicated to St. Lucia of Syracuse, an early fourth century Sicilian saint of which little is known.  A medieval compendium of saints’ biographies says that while seeking help for her ailing mother and angel appeared to her in a dream.  As a result of the dream, she became a devout Christian and was executed when she refused to give up her virginity to her husband. Anyway, I digress.  In the early Swedish tradition, the oldest girl of the household dressed in a white dress, red sash, with a wreath of candles on her head and served a breakfast of coffee and special buns to the family.  In modern times, there might be a public procession of Lucias, and boys may participate as well.  In Denmark, the holiday is used by schools to mark the start of the holidays, and Danes will likely be sure to attend church services on the Sunday closest to December 13th.

Christmas trees became a common part of the holiday by the 19th century.  Interesting fact, the colors of the decorations will generally be red and white as a result of the growing national consciousness of the 19th century.  Traditionally, the tree is decorated on Christmas Eve, and Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Boxing Day (December 26th) are observed as holidays with most of the shops being closed.  Up until the modern era, the Christmas season began on Christmas Eve and lasted until Candlemas on February 2nd.  This led to a wonderful social season of open houses and festive meals.

An 1889 engraving of a Danish woman preparing Æbleskiver

The Christmas Eve celebration will kick off with a meal.  The traditional rice pudding is served warm as a starter, or cold with cherry sauce as a dessert.  Whoever finds the whole almond in their pudding gets the almond present- usually a marzipan pig.  After dinner, the tree is lit and presents are distributed.  Originally, a pixie, or old farm leprechaun, or household god, who dates back to the pre-Christian era, brought the presents.  In the 19th century however, Father Christmas arrived.  He literally arrived when Danish-American immigrants sent postcards depicting Father Christmas to family back in Denmark, and gradually he took over the role of gift giver from the pixie.  Æbleskiver are another holiday treat, a traditional Danish pancake with a spherical shape, like a popover with a pancake texture.  These are served around Christmas time with gløgg, Scandinavian mulled wine.

Now, since St. Lucia’s day is coming, I will prepare for it by learning the Danish version of a traditional Neopolitan song!

INTERVIEW WITH COMPANY MEMBER LAURA PINTO

December 6, 2013

Laura-PintoVOX 3 company member Laura Pinto will be busy this season!  Upcoming VOX 3 performances include the holiday concert Half-Spent was the Night, a baroque concert as part of our Danish festival in January, and excerpts from Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande for the lecture recital with Richard Stilwell, Shadow Into Light.  She’s also planning a recital of early Italian baroque music with longtime friend and Apollo’s Fire cellist/da gamba player David Ellis.

When did you first start singing? 

It sounds like a cliché, but I’ve always enjoyed singing. Growing up, my home was saturated with music. On long car rides, my family would sing songs in harmony and cumulative songs like “Ho Ro the Rattlin’ Bog.” I was the biggest ham out of all my siblings, though. I used to put on star-shaped sunglasses and perform for my parents on the “stage” of our hearth.

No one else in my family is a professional musician, but we all share a deep love for music. My dad plays guitar and has a lovely non-classical voice which I still find to be one of the most soothing in the world. My family often provided music together for masses at our church when I was growing up. We always had a piano in our house (my three siblings and I all took lessons), and my parents took us to see musicals, the ballet, and the Cleveland Orchestra at every opportunity.

When did you realize you had a gift for singing opera?

When I was in high school, I attended a summer program where I was lucky enough to start taking lessons with Helen Todd, a fabulous soprano and the general director of Sugar Creek Symphony and Song. The handful of lessons I had taken with other people up until that point hadn’t exposed me to opera, so when Helen threw it at me as a challenge, I absolutely devoured it and I fell in love instantly. Even though I had never focused so much on technique before, in many ways it felt natural, and I could tell that classical singing suited me better than the other styles I knew and loved already.

When I had been taking serious voice lessons for a couple years and it was time to apply to colleges, I decided to apply to music programs with the intention of being a professional singer. It took some encouragement, though– I went to a small private school where there are more doctors from my graduating class than artists. Helen helped me realize that music could be more than just an avocation.

What is your biggest accomplishment to date?

I was thrilled to make my Chicago debut with the Haymarket Opera Company’s acclaimed production of Dido and Aeneas earlier this year. It wasn’t the biggest role I’ve ever had, but it was fun to receive feedback from strangers that my character was a memorable part of the show, and it was particularly exciting to break into the Chicago scene as a professional after having been here as a student just a few years earlier.

What is your favorite opera? 

La Traviata will always hold a special place in my heart. Though I’m not a Verdi soprano, I performed in the chorus of a Traviata production when I was in college, and it was during that show that I was first told a family story that would become one of my favorites. My grandma told me that, as a young woman, she saved up her money to see a touring Met production of La Traviata. She was so touched by the live music that she made up English words– describing something she did every day– so that she could always remember it. Over 60 years later, she was able to sing to me, “Shut the light off, shut the light off.” I had the most magical moment when I listened to the entire opera for the first time and recognized that melody as the duet “Parigi, o cara.” I’ve shared that story many times since then, because I think it’s a great reminder of how moving opera can– and should– be.

Is there some venue where you have always wanted to perform?

I’ve always wanted to perform in my grandpa Vito’s hometown of Palermo, Sicily. He loved opera, and I remember hearing him sing Neapolitan songs like “Santa Lucia” when I was a child. He grew up in a time and place where opera and pop culture were not mutually exclusive, and I think we can learn a lot from that.

What types of music do you like to listen to besides opera? 

I grew up listening to a lot of 70’s folk music, and I still listen to Joni Mitchell a lot. Some of my other favorites are Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, Elliott Smith, and Sufjan Stevens. My husband Mike is a jazz guitarist, so I love listening to the music he writes and performs, as well as the musicians he’s introduced me to, like Bill Frisell and Luciana Souza.

What is involved in being a professional opera singer? 

I consider myself a professional classical singer. To make a living singing exclusively opera, one generally travels for 80-90% of the year. I do sing in some operas professionally and I love doing so when the right opportunities come my way, but I also do a lot of recital work, oratorio, early music, and other projects which help me maintain a better sense of balance in my life with the same amount of artistic satisfaction.

These days, rehearsals and performances often take the place of conventional practice time, but I do still take lessons occasionally and I seek feedback from a trusted circle of other professionals when I have any technical challenges. The rest of my practice time is spent learning repertoire for upcoming gigs.

Maintaining solid technique and vocal health are extremely important to being a professional singer, whether on the local or international level. Most people are not willing to pay to hear someone whose voice sounds like a work in progress, so having the respect for yourself and your audience to always offer a great product is essential.

 You became a mother this year!  Congratulations!  And we’d all love to know how that affected your singing?

Being pregnant didn’t affect my singing as much as I thought it would, but it did present unique challenges each step of the way. Energy was the challenge during the first and third trimesters in general. For most of the middle of my pregnancy I felt great. It was only towards the very end when the effort required to inflate my lungs against my belly was greater than any beneficial appoggio boost from the extra weight around the waist. Also, a psychological challenge that I– and I think many female singers in my position– experienced was the sense that I would have to prove to people that I still wanted singing gigs. Some of my auditions during that time weren’t as authentic as I would have liked, but performing was great fun.
In the postpartum months, I’ve had to regain the strength of my breathing apparatus and also learn to operate on far less sleep. These were pretty significant challenges at first, but it’s amazing how adaptable our bodies are.

FISH OUT OF WATER: Professional and Personal Musings from VOX 3 Members

November 15, 2013

fishoutofwaterOur upcoming cabaret centers around experiences when you really feel out of your element, sometimes humorously described as ‘fish out of water’ moments.  In the life of a performer, there are many times when one feels like a fish out of water. By the very nature of their work, performers must enjoy challenging themselves, but it is not uncommon to have an Achilles’ heel – some situation or condition that puts you out of your comfort zone. It could be dancing or singing in a language you’ve never sung in before…or perhaps your costume exposes a little more flesh than you like to expose.   I decided that it might be fun to interview our members and hear about their moments!

Tell me about a moment in life where you really felt like a fish out of water?

Meghan Guse: My family’s first day in Tokyo was about the most surreal moment I’ve ever had. My dad had been there a few weeks ahead of us, so even though we had just gotten off of a 12 hour flight, he insisted on ferrying us around Harajuku. For a ten-year-old kid from a small town in central Illinois, I have never felt more out of it! I couldn’t read anything, the food was “weird,” and everything was fast-paced and crowded.  You’ve never lived until you’ve been shoved onto a subway car by station employees wearing white gloves.  We all got the hang of it pretty quickly, but wow, that is still my most fish out of water experience!

Ashlee Hardgrave: I’ve always felt a little out of water. Growing up in the rural south, I was in the minority because  a. I didn’t own livestock or participate in 4H and b. our home had a paved driveway.  However, I vividly remember being invited to join a very elite sorority my freshman year of college. Fall grades had come in, and once the sorority heard about my 4.0 GPA, they came knocking. I was told it was an exclusive offer afforded to few, and IMPOSSIBLE to turn them down, so I joined and went to my first meeting. Holy crap. I walked into a sea of monogrammed letters, glittery necklaces, and so much pink that you’d think a Pepto Bismol factory exploded.  So much blonde hair. So much mascara. So much “wait, you watch the news? Why?” I did it to prove a point, and some of the girls were very nice, but I bailed the minute their meetings conflicted with my rehearsal schedule. I still have one of their beer koozies 🙂

James Morehead: I guess I’ve always felt like a fish out of water, and honestly, you kind of get used to it. Growing up always presents its challenges for everybody, but I was always the puzzle piece that didn’t have a spot; the American growing up in Germany, the white, poor kid in the high school ghetto, the gay man at church or the Christian at the gay bar… it never seems to end. Let alone artistically. Since I play everything, and I mean everything, classical musicians question me as well musical theater people. Is it really so bad that I improvise as well as sight read!?

 Do you feel that singers are often challenged to push the boundaries of their comfort zone?

Brian von Rueden: I think there’s a balance, as a singer, between pushing the boundaries and excelling within given constraints.  Often, it takes a boundary-pusher to get noticed – there is a visceral thrill of someone giving 110% in a performance.  Or the media may devote more ink to describing a controversial production (opera singers naked on stage! Violetta doesn’t really die! Parsifal wears black studded leather!) than a well-executed traditional presentation.  The headlines just aren’t as engaging.  But that is simply the world we live in.  YouTube has oriented us to a culture where 15 seconds of “WOW” are more palatable than 2 hours of wonderful.  As a consequence, I think singers feel some pressure to find ways to make their performance the best, the freshest, the edgiest – some kind of superlative.  The problem is that so much of classical voice is about training and technique.  It is incredibly hard, I think, to find ways of giving the illusion of utter abandon while remaining squarely in the proper technical place.  Those known for exciting stage characterizations, like French soprano Natalie Dessay, may develop technical problems from pushing the envelope too much.  But most good teachers will say: You know your voice.  You know what you can do.  Give what you can, but don’t push it.

James Morehead: Yes.  I’m not a singer but I challenge singers all the time. Everyone will find those moments and push through. I’ll gladly hold their hand and coach them through and push them when the time feels just right.

Ashlee Hardgrave:  In most classical music, no. In VOX, yes. Singers are often asked to know their “type” for casting, so you’re asked to determine (and sometimes alter yourself to define) which of these oddly specific boxes in which to fit. Once it’s determined, many can find it a challenge to consider leaving it for growth or maturity. You cling to the identity you’re given, and automatically rule out opportunity beyond that box. I think that’s one of the things I value about VOX. With art song, it’s less about if the soprano looks like she can play Mimi. It’s about telling shorter stories, stories that could be told by both Mimis and not-a-chance-Mimis alike. You can be anyone you want, or multiple ‘anyones’ in a single program. We are given permission to “go there” and take risks in ways that many singers aren’t.

Do you enjoy pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone?  For example, do you really get excited about the challenge or do have to ‘talk yourself into it?

Brian von Rueden: I am an introvert and a nester.  I feel at my best when I can work hard within well-known and established systems.  To be able to attack a new project or change a routine, I really have to do a lot of mental preparation and research.  Eventually I can talk myself into enjoying that new thing, whatever it may be, but it takes a while.  I’m much more comfortable behind the scenes; when I’m on stage or even networking at an event, I really have to assume a different persona.  It’s in many ways like play-acting the role of someone who thrives on an audience’s energy or a stranger’s conversation.

Kelsey Harris: I do enjoy pushing the boundaries of my comfort zone. I like the challenge, and the reward for succeeding in trying something new is always great. For example, in grad school I had to do a scene from Poppea with a scene partner that was not the most desirable. We had to be very physical in this scene, which wasn’t easy for me. My director had to have a talk with me and said to “peel back the layers of the onion” in really going into detail why my character was doing the things she was doing, and more importantly, to just “play” like children do. I do have to talk myself into doing things I’m not comfortable doing, but will always try it and do my best!

Tell me about a moment in your music performance life where you felt like a fish out of water?  Did you learn anything from that experience? i.e. were you surprised by a previously unknown boundary, had you feared it, and then found it to be not so bad…?

Brian von Rueden: When I was auditioning for the Sinfoniechor at the Semperoper Dresden, I was asked to bring two contrasting pieces.  I had recently worked up a set of Tchaikovsky songs for a recital, so I wanted to do one of those.  Not a lot of singers I knew were singing in Russian at that point, so I was proud of the work I had done, learning the IPA, coaching with a Russian speaker, and so forth.  It didn’t dawn on me until after I finished singing that these folks had grown up behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany, and had been forced at some level to learn Russian.  So, essentially, here I was: a youthful, blissfully ignorant American, singing in a language the adjudicators almost certainly knew better than I did – and it was a language associated with a lot of (at the very least) complex associations and emotions.  It was perhaps the first time I considered the cultural context of the music I performed: how people’s background may color the experience of the music (positively or negatively).  It had less to do with personal boundaries, per se, and more with the ongoing experience of being a foreigner and learning the ropes…but it turned out to be a valuable lesson that shaped me as a person.

Meghan Guse: I was asked to sing some seventies pop tunes at a vow renewal in college. Nothing like trying to bring out your inner Dan Fogelberg after months and months of only classical singing! It wasn’t as bad as I expected, but I should have worked harder on not sounded so “classical.” Vibrato is not always appropriate! Live and learn!

Ashlee Hardgrave:  I once performed in an opera where I had to belly dance. I learned, rather quickly, how to eat only apples and work out a LOT. I did end up pushing my own comfort zone musically as well, and it was a fantastic production. I was more than happy, however, to return to Mozart and carbohydrates afterwards 🙂

INTERVIEW WITH ASSOCIATE MEMBER MEGAN COOK

November 12, 2013

Megan CookAssociate member Soprano Megan Cook is a  workhorse this season with VOX 3 Collective, featured in the cabaret A Fish Out of Water, as the ringleader of the ‘shy’ maidens, Dorthe, in the opera project Maskarade, and in the ensemble for December’s holiday concert Half-Spent Was the Night.  She is interviewed by our Chair of Education and VOX 3 Company Member, Catie Huggins.

Q: When did you first start singing? Has music always been a part of your life?
MC:  Music has been a part of my life from a very early age. I’ve pretty much been singing my whole life. One of my first memories is singing “Castle on a Cloud” from Les Miserables over and over again.

Q: When did you realize you had a gift for singing opera?
MC: When I was about 23. I was double majoring in Musical Theater and Choral Music Education and had to give a recital in order to graduate. It was a shock to me that I could not just sing musical theater songs (as was my norm) to fulfill this requirement. So I sat down with my teacher and we tried to find things that fit my non-traditional, non-trained “classical” voice. The whole experience was very trying because I did not have the technique to accomplish what I felt I should be able to show off. When all was said and done, I was approached by a musician I had a lot of respect for and he told me point blank that I needed to think seriously about singing opera. Needless to say I was floored, but I took his advice.

Q: Did you grow up in a musical family? Does anyone else in your family perform?

MC: My parents are both music educators and I guess you can say that the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree. I have an older brother who is a professional trumpet player and subs with the Houston Symphony, a sister-in-law who sings regularly with the Austin Lyric Opera and Conspirare Ensemble, and a younger sister who toured internationally with the Tony Award Winning Show BLAST!. So yes, music runs in the family’s blood!

Q: What is your biggest accomplishment to date?

MC: I am not sure if it’s a big accomplishment- at least, it’s not an opera-related accomplishment, but it’s pretty cool.  this summer I was asked to sing the National Anthem for the Taste of Chicago concert with Robert Plant. It was the most surreal experience- hanging out with a guy from Led Zeppelin!

Q: Would you say singing opera is as much about performing/acting as it is about singing?

MC: I would definitely agree with that statement. Opera has to be about entertainment as well as beautiful singing. One without the other leaves the audience confused and wanting something more. The era of “park and bark” type staging no longer works. We live in world with endless entertainment possibilities at our finger tips, if the singer does not find a way to engage the audience, then the audience won’t come back.

Q: What is involved in being a professional opera singer? How often do you practice? How do you care for your voice on a daily basis?

MC: Well this is a loaded question! There is so much that you do to prepare yourself to be an opera singer. Countless hours of practice, coachings, lessons, language classes, audition prep and then of course auditions. I call it my second full time job. Physically, I practice everyday for at least 30 minutes. Luckily, I work downtown close enough to the Harold Washington and can get into a practice room on my lunch break. Mentally, I feel like I am always practicing. I am constantly thinking through technique or phrasing, text or character choices. Chances are if you catch me mumbling to myself, it’s practice related.

In my opinion, Megan was really cool about the whole Led Zeppelin thing.  For one thing, she also got to meet Aston Kutcher and Mila Kunis who were backstage waiting for their friend Robin Thicke to perform later.   She also neglected to mention that she got to eat with them back in the green room, and that they were really friendly! I would have loved to share  have met Meg Griffin!

Be sure to come out and see Megan and many other talented VOX 3 folk at Fish out of Water!

TIN PAN ALLEY TO BROADWAY, AND BEYOND

October 11, 2013

By Brian von Rueden, edited for the blog by Catie Huggins

From the end of the 19th century into the early 20th century, Tin Pan Alley, a literal row of music publishing houses in New York City, cranked out popular tunes by the likes of George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, and Harry Warren. Their tunes could be heard wafting through the boroughs from radios or seen on the big screen, sung by Bing Crosby, Ethel Merman, or Dean Martin.

Although many of the singers of this era became iconic, (ok, they became LEGENDARY!!! *cough* “Judy Garland”) the song itself was more important than the performance – no one voice or personality “owned” a song. In fact, in the era of Tin Pan Alley, from about 1890-1940, a song’s popularity was determined not by the number of records sold, but by the copies of sheet music sold. You heard a tune and you liked it.  It was possible to purchase it, take it home, and learn it yourself.

During these years, like today, there was a variety of styles in popular music: you had sentimental love ballads, syncopated tunes meant for dancing, funny nonsense songs, music influenced by African- American or Latin cultures… In short, Tin Pan Alley does not mean just one sound. This is why we have chosen to call this program Broadway, Barbershop and Ballads. These were some of the ways that Tin Pan Alley tunes became popular: performed on the stage, harmonized by barbershop quartets or other informal groups, or sung at the spinet in a home salon.

Let’s take a moment for a legend.

In the 1890s, Ragtime became the first popular type of music craze since the waltz. Usually in 2-4 time, characterized by syncopation, emerging from the minstrel show/ coon song tradition, where often white showmen imitated people of color.

Before the 1890s, there were no publishers of “popular music,” and certainly no one made their name by writing words and tunes. Existing music publishers printed only classical music, generally from Europe. Sometimes a printer of paper effects, like stationery, might print a short song with a lavishly illustrated cover. This was usually meant as a souvenir or extravagant romantic gesture, than to convey the musical contents. These trash tunes would often be hawked by traveling salesmen, who eventually realized they could produce better material themselves for minimal investment. So, traveling salesmen in alexanders-ragtime-band-222x300Milwaukee, Detroit, Chicago, Boston, St. Louis, and of course, New York, set up shop. These fellows created the first “song factories” which sought an audience for their musical product. And to get people hooked, they needed to promote their tunes. Anywhere was fair game: bars, vaudeville houses, nickelodeons, and beer gardens, lobster shacks, brothels- anywhere there was an audience looking to be entertained! First the publishers made the rounds themselves, plunking out music and singing themselves wherever a piano could be found. Later, they hired “pluggers,” pleasant but pushy fellows whose job was to promote music wherever they could.  It is the sounds of these pluggers, playing away at bad pianos to grab the attention of passersby below, from which Tin Pan Alley got its name.

Was Tin Pan Alley an actual place? Over the course of 30 years, New York City’s popular music publishers moved uptown, following the theater district. In the 1880s, publishers were clustered around the Bowery in Lower Manhattan. In the 1890s, west 28th street attracted 5 of the major publishers. This is the stretch of road that has been memorialized as Tin Pan Alley. But between 1903 and 1908, publishing houses moved 250px-tinpanalleyagain, to west 42nd street. In the 1920s, another shift came, so that the district was centered between 42nd and 56th, where The Great White Way of Broadway’s theaters is still found. The Brill Building, built in 1931 at Broadway and 49th street, gave popular song writers a permanent home. Named for Morris Brill’s clothing store on the ground floor, the upper levels housed Mills, Famous, Fisher, and Irving Caesar music, some of the most famed of the day. The energy was there, and stayed there until the advent of rock-and-roll changed the industry.  With the rise of the rock-and-roll, people were less able and therefore less likely to recreate that music in their home.

Another influence in the music of this era came from the cultural traditions of Eastern European Judaism.  George Gershwin was born to first generation Jewish immigrants living in New York.  Born Jacob Gershowitz, the name was changed to fit in better when he sought a musical career.  And indeed, much as there were separate songs and styles for black and white musicians in the 1950s, as rock and roll came on the scene, Jewish musicians faced a choice either to quietly hide their roots to achieve mainstream success, or languish in the clubs of Borscht Belt resorts with their own people.  A good example of this is “Bei mir bist du schön.”  Written in a vaudevillian style for a 1932 Yiddish musical called You Could Live, But They Won’t Let You, the song functioned as a dialogue between two lovers.  In 1937, Sammy Cahn heard the piece performed in a Harlem theater, and then bought the rights for $30.  He outfitted it with new English lyrics and trendy swing rhythms…and the song grossed over $3,000,000.  The wit and melody from the Jewish cultural tradition heavily influenced writers including Gershwin and Berlin, but the indebtedness would not be widely realized until much later.

The music of this era is certainly memorable!  -the songs have stood the test of time, becoming standards of the repertoire.  Today, these songs belong to all of us.  We may fondly recall a our favorite iconic performance, but many musicians still feel compelled to create their own interpretation which shows just how deeply this music still moves us.

(From the Puppini Sisters 2007 album ‘Betcha Bottom Dollar’)

Mi Querida Tierra, Mi Querida Música: My Beloved Land, My Beloved Music

September 13, 2013

By Magaly Cordero

Magaly Cordero and family

Soprano Magaly Cordero (left) with her family – three generations of Ramirez/Cordero ladies.

I was practicing for the upcoming VOX 3 Collective concert of Latin American song, Pueblito, Mi Pueblo, when my mother ran to me. With tears and awe in her eyes, she exclaimed, “I can’t believe you are singing ‘Siboney!'”

I was surprised by her reaction. Why is my mother, a native of the Dominican Republic, so touched by this Cuban standard? Has Ernesto Lecuona‘s music been adopted by all Latino-Caribbeans? What made my mother’s reaction so remarkable was that I did not share it initially. Sure, “Siboney” is a beautiful song. Certainly, I have fallen in love with all of Lecuona’s music that I have sung. However, with the exception of “Siempre en mi Corazon,” I did not grow up listening or knowing his music. His music does not incite a visceral reaction of home for me. However, upon listening to Lecuona’s songs, I did have a strong sense that it is somehow familiar, a part of me. I connected to it quickly as I yearned for a deeper understanding of my heritage.

I was born to a Cuban father and a Dominican mother in Miami, or La Pequeña Habana. Spanish was my first language. I grew up stumbling to the rhythms of salsa, merengue, bachata, and son. I am in constant search of the perfect ropa vieja, arroz con pollo, or congri. Whenever I hear someone with a Cuban accent in Chicago (where most Latinos are of Mexican descent), I instantly want to engage them in conversation. Today, one of my greatest passions and aspirations is to raise my daughter bilingually, so I speak to her exclusively in Spanish.
My Latino heritage is a major part of how I grew up and who I am. However, as someone who has only lived in American soil (including Puerto Rico for three years), I often feel that my connection to my roots is vague or incomplete at times. I want to know more, and I want it to be an integral part of my everyday life.

Lecuona's AndaluciaThis is where the music comes in. When I sing the music of my fellow Latinos, I feel a kinship to their melodies, rhythms, and lyrics. Sure, I don’t have to fiddle too much with word-for-word translations or diction when I sing in Spanish, so that helps. But there is something else happening, too. Singing the music of Latino composers gives me a glimpse into what they saw, what they experienced, and what they loved. Moreover, I have the sense that this is my music. I am not just relaying a story when I sing these songs. I am telling my story.

Lecuona’s “Andalucia” vividly describes a beautiful land and a deep yearning for its “suelo encantado” or “enchanted soil.” Similarly, “Siboney,” which refers to a Cuban village or even the entire country in general, expresses feelings of loss after leaving a beloved land. My mother has not stepped foot in her homeland for over 36 years, so I grew up seeing this special form of mourning. Though it is hard to define exactly, I also share a sense of loss. Like these two pieces, I have the same desire to visit and breathe the air of my father’s homeland. Unfortunately, due to current political situations, I may never be able to do so. Its music will have to do for now.

INTRODUCTION: An Interview with Katy Compton

August 22, 2013

Katy ComptonQ: When did you first start singing? Has music always been a part of your life?
KC: I can’t remember much of life before singing! I have extensive home video evidence to prove that I have loved making up crazy songs and dances pretty much forever. I also grew up attending a church where the whole congregation sings hymns a capella, which got me singing from an early age.

Q: When did you realize you had a gift for singing?
KC: In fifth grade I tried out for the school musical, Scrooge. I had just started taking voice lessons a few months prior to the audition, and as I sang I felt incredibly confident. Looking back, I think something about it just felt right, like I was doing what I should be doing. To this day, I recognize that same feeling of confidence at times when I sing, and seek opportunities where I know I will experience it. That’s when I know I’m truly using the gifts God has given me.

Q: Where did you study music?
KC: I studied general music at Florida College, a school that had around 500 students. The small size meant I got a lot of performing opportunities, which was invaluable. A couple of years later I got my Master’s in voice from Florida State University.

Q: When did you decide to become a professional singer?
KC: That decision has been a slow one for me. I think I really decided to go for it during the second year of my M.M. I had the opportunity to perform one of my dream roles, Helena in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. That experience really got me excited about singing opera, and through that and encouragement from some wonderful teachers, I began to think a lot more seriously about performing.

Katy Compton in "The Music Man"

Katy Compton (and sister) in a 1993 production of “The Music Man”

Q: Did you grow up in a musical family? Does anyone else in your family perform?
KC: My family loves to sing, and I remember weeknights when we’d sit together and sing hymns before bed. My mom was a cellist and initially studied music in college, but gave it up when she encountered college music theory! My younger sister has a beautiful voice, and we grew up having a blast performing together in voice recitals, show choir, and community theatre musicals.

Q: What is your biggest accomplishment to date?
KC: I don’t know about big accomplishments, but I am proud to say I just finished singing the role of Pamina in The Magic Flute with American Chamber Opera! It was a wonderful learning experience, and I feel blessed to have gotten to know this beautiful opera so much better.

Q: Where is your favorite place you have performed and why?
KC: My hometown has a beautiful Chautauqua building that was built in 1902. At age eight I began performing in community theatre productions there, which continued through high school. I learned so much and made some of my best performing memories there.

Q: Is there an opera you have not performed and would like to star in?
KC: I haven’t done Le nozze di Figaro yet, and I would love the chance to sing both Susanna and the Countess. Not in the same production, of course! But I do hope to have the chance to sing at least one of these roles in my career.

Q: What types of music do you like to listen to besides classical? Who are some of your favorite non-opera artists/bands?
KC: I’m a die-hard Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel fan. I’ve been known to crazily wail ABBA tunes. And I couldn’t live without some country every once in awhile. Some of my favorites are Miranda Lambert, Brad Paisley, and the Dixie Chicks.