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New Artist of the Month: Vocalist Lucy Dhegrae

January 1, 2018 | By Bruce Hodges, Musical America

“It's not about the 'beautiful' voice; it's about what the voice can do,” says Lucy Dhegrae, singer and director of the annual Resonant Bodies Festival. Dhegrae founded RBF in 2013 with the idea of “challenging and transforming the role of the vocal recitalist,” not to mention the listening context of the audience. Singers express themselves freely, with few artistic boundaries or outside input.

The festival is comprised of a series of concerts over a three-day period. Each concert features three vocalists, who curate his or her own 45-minute sets of what is generally unusual, cutting-edge repertoire—with or without other musicians, visual elements, or choreography, as they see fit. The result is a festival humming with the energy of dozens of the world's most creative vocalists, including Dhegrae. She is a savvy administrator and fundraiser as well: Initially a New York City phenomenon, RBFs have now blossomed in Chicago, Los Angeles, Banff, and Sydney.  

Last fall in New York, for example, Hai-Ting Chinn introduced her fanciful Science Project: An Opera with Experiments (her first crack at composition), in which she donned a hoop skirt with orbiting planets, and sang texts by Carl Sagan, while playful graphics on an overhead screen evoked a chalkboard. In 2016, tenor Peter Tantsits, a member of the International Contemporary Ensemble, chose Milton Babbitt's knotty 1961 Vision and Prayer as the centerpiece of a set that included works by William Croft, Anna Thorvaldsdottír, and Pascal Dusapin—with Henry Purcell thrown in as an outlier.

A memorable, sold-out opening to the 2015 festival featured sopranos Tony Arnold, Lucy Shelton, and Dawn Upshaw. Arnold chose an eclectic program of Jason Eckardt, John Cage, and Beat Furrer. Shelton unveiled three world premieres, from Susan Botti, Eric Nathan, and Icli Zitella. And Upshaw showcased a world premiere from Sheila Silver, and a recent work by Shawn Jaeger (who happens to be Dhegrae's husband).

Dhegrae grew up in Lansing, MI. “My great-grandmother (on my mom's side) was a professional contralto,” she says, describing a family fully comfortable being onstage. “My grandmother was a dancer and performer. My mom was always in choirs and took me as a baby to rehearsals. I grew up singing in choirs.

“I got into doing classical voice because I was a kind of failed pianist—I quit piano because of back problems—and began singing late in my junior year of high school, and then started winning prizes. I also did flute for awhile, since if you did marching band, you could get out of gym…[plus] I could play piccolo and tuck it into my pocket.”

She also explored jazz, both on both piano and flute, and played in a high school jazz trio. “Wynton Marsalis came to our high school, Wycliffe Gordon, too. I didn't have a typical singer path.” At one point she even considered going into medicine—specifically laryngology.

Dhegrae holds a BM (2008) in vocal performance from the University of Michigan School of Music, Theater, and Dance and an MM (2012) from Bard College’s Graduate Vocal Arts Program. For the record, she prefers the term vocalist to soprano.

Music is not all that informs Dhegrae's far-reaching mind. She is surprisingly candid about an incident of sexual assault that took place ten years ago, and about the process of putting her life back together. “What happens when you're the victim of an assault is that you're kind of cut off—you have to bring your body back. I did a lot of body-based therapy [as opposed to talk therapy], which made a huge difference. The idea is not to stigmatize healing.”

“I feel like people don't know how to heal, or what is possible.”

She adds, referencing the recent news about James Levine, “When someone who has committed multiple acts of sexual violence goes unchecked, you can bet that there are dozens of people standing by—I’m not talking about the victims—actively looking the other way. It is this culture that we have to change. We all have to be more comfortable speaking out, carrying as Peter Sellars says, 'a zone of justice' around us at all times.”

The incident has inspired her to create a 45-minute piece, based on the best-selling book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, by Bessel Van Der Kolk, MD. Five brief vignettes will be linked with live electronic interludes by composer Angélica Negrón.

Simultaneously, her solo career continues. Last fall she was luminous in two recent works, The Cold Pane (2013) by Shawn Jaeger and Waterlines (2005/2012) by Christopher Trapani, both with the Talea Ensemble. In March 2018 she will make her first trip to India, to appear in the inaugural Panorama Punjab festival. She is also commissioning new works by women, and is a regular with the 21-member new music group, Contemporaneous, founded by conductor David Bloom.

In April 2018, Resonant Bodies will storm Chicago for the first time, appearing at Constellation, a venue aligned with contemporary music and jazz. Among the nine notable artists are Alejandro Acierto, Sophia Burgos, and Pamela Z. In addition, RBF has an ongoing database of contemporary vocal music—currently 868 works and counting, from over 300 composers worldwide.

Dhegrae beams, “I'm proudest of the way that we do the curation, giving freedom to the artists. So often that's not the case. I'm proud that we give the singers control over things they're passionate about. Their performances have energy. They take risks.” And that’s exactly the point.


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