Apollo's Fire's “Passacaglia”:
ten minutes with soprano Nell Snaidas
From November 1-4, Apollo's Fire will explore the baroque technique of writing and improvising dramatic music over repeating bass lines in “Passacaglia—Laments, Madrigals & Dances from Monteverdi, Charpentier and Friends.” The program features soprano Nell Snaidas and a trio of male voices (Karim Sulayman, tenor and haute-contre, Olivier Mercer, tenor & Jeffrey Strauss, baritone), an ensemble of strings (Olivier Brault, Julie Andrijeski, Karina Fox), a continuo department of cello (René Schiffer), theorbo and guitar (William Simms & John Lenti), harpsichord (Jeannette Sorrell) and a percussionist (Rex Benincasa).
One of the highlights of each evening is certain to be Monteverdi's Lamento della ninfa (from his eighth book of madrigals) with Snaidas as the lamenting nymph and her male voice colleagues as the comforting trio. Snaidas is one of the most dramatic and versatile singers alive, beloved as a performer of early music, but equally at home in the coloratura repertory and on Broadway. We reached her in Baltimore where she had just taught a master class at the Peabody Conservatory and was “woodshedding” some upcoming music in a practice room before catching a train to Washington, D.C.
Daniel Hathaway: I was interested to read that you are part Uruguayan (am I pronouncing it as they do in Uruguay?)
Nell Snaidas: Bravo, si! My father was born down there and was a professor of Latin American literature and cinema up here at Rutgers.
DH: Are you totally bilingual?
NS: Fluency would be a big claim, but I do alright.
DH: But you certainly have enough of a handle on the culture of Latin America to be a proponent up north.
NS: Thank you. Yes, it was in our home and I listened to the music a lot as a kid. We played mostly Cuban music because my mom, though she's American, spent time in Cuba on a scholarship. Unfortunately, she had to leave early because the revolution broke out. That really put a wet blanket on her plans. But we grew up with a lot of this fantastic music, and also a lot of Tango — Carlos Gardel. I then began singing in a Zarzuela company while I was still in school at Mannes, and that was great training for me. As I got interested in early music, the next obvious place for my heart to go was learn all the music from Spain and then look into the colonial stuff and also sephardic music. Because of all of this, I'm starting my own series in New York just for this genre of music. The opening concert is on November 9, right after Cleveland. Paul O'Dette is going to come down and play some music from a manuscript that was just discovered in Bolivia. So I am trying to push early Latin American culture.
DH: You've built a reputation for being one of the most versatile singers on the circuit — including everything from period music to “Hair” to “Candide”. How do you manage all those various styles? Do you have a switch that you flip?
NS: It's actually more similar than it looks on paper. There's actually a part for a colorature soprano in Hair— you wouldn't know it unless you had done the show. If you know the Hare krishna song, there's this crazy, high obbligato that goes up to a high F, so that was my part. I met and sang for some people who liked my voice, but I also have a high extension. On Broadway, that's very much in demand and hard to find. Some conductors just got to know me and when they needed somebody who could do that they would call me. I kind of lucked into that. I'm not going to do any big Broadway belting — it's kind of still legit singing.
DH: That suits you well for Cunegonde as well. Whose production was that?
NS: That was in Provincetown.
DH: Let's talk about the Cleveland program: all passacaglias! You're of course doing the Lamendo della ninfa.
NS: Yes, what a great piece!
DH: Have you performed that before with Apollo's Fire?
NS: I haven't. I was on a program where that was performed by Meg Bragle, one of my favorite mezzos on the planet, and she was beautiful. But I have sung it at the Boston Early Music Festival with Paul O'Dette's group.
DH: Knowing your acting abilities, will you be doing anything stagey with it?
NS: All of that will be revealed when I get to Cleveland! (laughing) You never know what Jeannette will have up her sleeve, but I'm game for whatever it is.
DH: We'll have to wait and see. What else are you singing on that program?
NS: A very interesting piece by one of the most famous women composers of her century, Barbara Strozzi. She played the guitar and sang for several secret societies and salons. It is a passacaglia, but it's very playable on the guitar. This is a piece about not wanting your love to discover you love them. The title is “I want to die”, but it doesn't really mean that. It has a lot of serious and yet comical possibilities.
DH: Any words about your experiences with Apollo's Fire?
NS: Well it's always great to go to Cleveland because the audiences that come out for baroque music are amazing. I think that's a testament to Jeannette and to her vision. Really the most interesting part of this music is the drama that comes from the texts, and she never lets anybody get away with just singing beautifully. Many other baroque groups — I don't want to say settle for that — but that can be the standard. She's not interested in that. You have to be able to sing well and sing in the style, but she just insists that there be meaning in everything. You can even hear that in the instrumental sound. It's so alive, and there's always the feeling of a dance. Part of that is that she's so multi-talented — she danced as a kid and I think she really feels that in her body. But she's also a linguist — she's fluent in Italian and French, and her German's pretty good — so she knows what every word means from the inside out. I love that, because that's where I connect to the music. I love language and texts and making each language sound and taste different. There's so much opportunity for drama and unveiling of passion in this music; it's great to find somebody who can bring that out as Jeannette does.
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Published on ClevelandClassical.com October 31, 2012
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