By Martin Bernheimer
She’s a singer of extraordinary versatility, and her warm, well-balanced mezzo rides effortlessly over the most formidable orchestral climaxes. Influences? As a student, her “absolute role model” was Plácido Domingo, but now she listens to recordings of Dean Martin “all the time.”
Stephanie Blythe is a singer of extraordinary versatility, an artist who makes the most difficult challenges seem easy, a singing-actress who magnetizes attention and defines character without resorting to cliché. Her tone is big, warm, lush, well-balanced throughout an exceptional range. She savors a whispered pianissimo as much as a rousing fortissimo, and, even better, knows how to bridge the extremes. She is smart and sensitive, also earthy.
Blythe makes her mark without pretense and apparently without ego indulgence. At 39 she knows what she is doing.
She happens to be something of a maverick. She defies easy classification. She enjoys quirky esoterica. On different occasions she has been regarded as a lyric mezzo-soprano, a coloratura bel-cantist, a Baroque filigree specialist, an elegant operetta chanteuse, a crusty comedian, a poignant tragedian, a probing modernist, a deep contralto, a pungent dramatic mezzo, even a quasi-soprano. She brushes aside questions of Fach.
“I’m just a girl singer,” she declares. She isn’t being coy. Coy is not in her repertory. “I sing the music that is good for my voice. I would love to sing Sieglinde. It’s not that big a stretch. I just sing what’s comfortable.”
Her career at the Metropolitan Opera began in 1994, out of sight if hardly out of mind, as the ethereal voice in Parsifal. Modest cameos, mostly maternal, followed. Within two years she replaced Marilyn Horne as the hearty Dame Quickly in Falstaff, and comprimaria assignments receded. “The progression,” she says, “was absolutely perfect.”
She became an exceptionally lusty Baba the bearded Turk in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress and a searing Jocasta in his Oedipus Rex. She became an impassioned Cornelia in Handel’s Giulio Cesare and a dignified Eduige in his Rodelinda. Another Wagnerian excursion found her majestic yet sensuous as Fricka in Die Walküre. She exerted glorious thunder as Ulrica in Un Ballo in Maschera (no register breaks, no tessitura problems). She dominated Il Trittico playing three tough women, one quaint, one stern, and one funny. This season she contrasts the noble pathos of Gluck’s Orfeo with the twisted witchery of Ježibaba in Dvorák’s Rusalka.
Away from the Met she has exuded mock-sexy charm in Offenbach’s Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein with L’Opéra Français as well as the Opera Company of Philadelphia, where she also conquered the florid challenge of Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri. She has confounded skeptics with the allure of Carmen in Tulsa and Seattle, and as we spoke was grooming another proto-temptress, Saint-Saëns’s Dalila, for Pittsburgh.
“This is a freakish season,” she admits. “After Samson I go to Phoenix for—are you ready?—Katisha in The Mikado.” We weren’t ready. “They were going to do Rake’s Progress,” she explains, “and I will go anywhere to sing that. But they felt they couldn’t sell that show, and asked if I would do Katisha instead. I said sure.” Even now she has no problem straying from prestigious paths. “The location doesn’t matter. It’s not about the money.”
She laughs at a remark about her wild repertory choices. “Thank you! That’s my whole career. When I was still in college I put together this audition package: Baba the Turk, ‘Dopo notte’ from Ariodante, Augusta’s aria from Baby Doe, and ‘Ah! Que j’aime les militaires’ from La Grande-Duchesse.” Unconventional, indeed, and revealing.
Much of her summer was devoted to Verdi in Seattle. “It’s like singing with the family,” she says. Her vehicle, ultimately triumphant, was Amneris in Aida, which she had attempted once before, in Pittsburgh. Four performances had been scheduled, but illness made her miss the first three. “That was a real drag,” she recalls. “Amneris is the hardest role I have ever sung. It’s not just the schrei, it’s the schande.” One can tell she grew up in the Borsht Belt. “Amneris is ridiculously difficult emotionally. Wrenching. Dangerous. I can’t get overwrought because that would go straight to the voice. There isn’t one moment when I’m not thinking of technique when I sing this role.”
More Verdi looms. Having ventured Azucena in London two seasons ago, she is eying Eboli in Don Carlo. “It is on my absolutely list.” For all her versatility, she is careful to keep that list selective. She likes Fricka in the Ring, not Erda. Brangäne in Tristan? “No, thank you, but maybe Kundry in Parsifal.” She might try Klytemnestra in Elektra and would love to sing the Amme in Die Frau ohne Schatten. But she rejects Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier. “Oh, God no! I have sung a lot of roles people told me I really would not sing. But Octavian really is not me.” She pauses. “I could sing Rosina in Barbiere di Siviglia, but she’s not really me either.”
Her objection to Rosina probably involves the character’s kittenish qualities. Blythe, after all, is a stately cat. Her physique may also explain her disdain for the boyish Octavian. “I don’t talk about that issue,” she says. “The minute I do, that’s what people will talk about.” Then she talks about it. “If you bring weight into a conversation, all of a sudden that’s the issue. If someone wants to take a chance and cast me in a role that is unconventional physically for me, I applaud them. They recognize the fact that I can probably bring something to the role. When I was given Orfeo at the Met you could have knocked me over. I have seen people who are half my size do a role and look the part and not inhabit the part. The first time I sang Carmen I was terrified that I would walk onstage and people would go ha-ha-ha. But that’s not what they did. You go on and offer people what you can. If they like it, they like it, and if they don’t, they don’t.”
Blythe is noncommittal when asked about possible role-models: Horne? Ebe Stignani? Giulietta Simionato? Fedora Barbieri? Margarete Klose? “I have been impressed with all of those people at one time or another,” she admits, “but I really don’t like comparisons with other singers.” Nevertheless, she seems pleased when it is suggested that her voice most closely resembles the great Stignani’s. “God bless you. A mezzo has to have an even voice. That’s the hardest thing.” She does identify one influential artist, and—surprise—it isn’t a mezzo-soprano.“The only singer I listened to constantly as a student was Plácido Domingo. He was my absolute role model.”
She says she doesn’t play many opera recordings any more. “Right now I listen to one singer all the time: Dean Martin!” Her pop predilection comes naturally. “When I came to this profession I thought I’d be a Broadway singer.”
It all began when she was a student at Monticello High School, near her home in Mongaup Valley, New York. “I was so fortunate. This school had one of the best music departments ever. I did everything—choruses, bands, theater. They put on a musical every year and I got to do Once Upon a Mattress, Guinevere in Camelot, and Dolly Levi. I just loved being onstage.” Theatrical training? “Well, I always acted out my favorite shows in the bedroom in front of a mirror. Does that count?” Opera did not materialize for her until she got to the Crane School of Music at SUNY Potsdam.
Although she has reached the peak of her profession, some gaps remain. “I’ve been singing for 15 years,” she says, “and I’ve yet to sing in Chicago, Houston, or San Francisco.” Europe? “Only Paris and Covent Garden so far.” Stephanie Blythe insists that she doesn’t fret over sins of omission. She doesn’t seem to insist too much. There is time. “I adore the fact that I basically sing in my own country,” she says. “My career has been pretty full. I’m doing alright. It’s all on my own terms.”
Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Martin Bernheimer covers music in New York for The Financial Times and Opera magazine.