by Daniel Hathaway
Fresh from critically acclaimed performances at the Met and Hamburg Opera, tenor Alek Shrader will return to the Oberlin Conservatory, where he graduated in 2007, for a recital with pianist Keun-A Lee on Friday, March 1 at 8:00 pm in Warner Concert Hall. That performance coincidentally ushers in ten days’ worth of performances by esteemed singers: soprano Jane Eaglen sings Wagner with the Blue Water Chamber Orchestra on Saturday, March 2, baritones Thomas Hampson and Edwin Crossley-Mercer go head to head in separate recitals at E.J. Thomas Hall in Akron and Baldwin Wallace in Berea on Sunday afternoon, March 3, and soprano Christine Brewer sings on the Mixon Masters Series at CIM on Thursday, March 7, followed by soprano Deborah Voigt on the Oberlin Artist Recital Series on Sunday, March 10.
We last spoke to Alek Shrader in 2009, when he sang Count Almaviva in Rossini’s Barber of Seville with the now-defunct Opera Cleveland (download that article here). “Since then, I’ve worked a lot in Europe”, Shrader told us by telephone, “in Munich and Bordeaux — the majority of my European gigs have been there — and I’ve also worked a few other places: in France in Lille and Toulouse, in England at Glyndebourne, in Germany in Hamburg. But the thing I really consider the high point has been my return to the United States when I sang in Chicago, in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and then in New York with the Met. I made my Met debut last season in The Tempest by Thomas Adès. I’ve hit most of the major houses, and that was always the goal for my career — to work in the States.”
Daniel Hathaway: Did you have fun singing The Tempest?
Alek Shrader: It’s really interesting music that definitely grew on me throughout the entire process. Adès’s music has a modern sound and he’s very good at setting emotions musically. He defines each character with their music. I was Ferdinand, the young Prince — the romantic lead, I guess — opposite the fair young princess played by Isabel Leonard, and our music was really beautiful, very melodic and pleasing in terms of tonality. Caliban, who is something of a twisted creature, had music that was very strange and awkward.
DH: It’s not every day that you get to have the composer of the opera in the orchestra pit. Some people say that composers should never conduct their own music, but I think that Adès is probably an exception.
AS: I would definitely agree that he’s an exception. I think it would become a different piece under another conductor. He was very gracious and incredibly easy to work with, really great for the singers. Whatever we needed from him, it seemed we had the blessing of the composer — because in fact we did!
DH: Makes you wonder what it would have been like to work with Rossini himself.
AS: That would be very interesting. I’ve heard while he obviously wan’t opposed to ornamentation, he didn’t like singers to add too much of that. Sometimes the tradition is to completely rewrite arias to show off your new ornaments, but I’m not sure he would be completely opposed to that.
DH: Speaking of returning to the States, how does it feel to return to Oberlin?
AS: It’s great. I drove into town today just to get my bearings, to see other people and walk around the Con a little bit, and of course we went to The Feve. It feels really comfortable — like homecoming in a way. I love the atmosphere here and I love the Midwest. Oberlin is of course a small, secluded area, but I like the relaxation that accompanies all of that.
DH: Let’s talk about your recital on Friday. It’s a really fascinating mix and there’s hardly a category of vocal music you don’t touch on. How did you put it together?
AS: When I’m doing a recital, I always try to do pieces that I’ve done before that I really love and then some that are real crowd-pleasers. You tend to collect those favorites over the years. Then I try to be as diverse as possible. I want to go from modern music to the 1700s, from German to French, to cover all my bases. And the most important thing when I’m doing that is to try to find something obscure or unknown that is really worthwhile, something that is great music but that the audience has probably never heard before.
DH: Like the songs by Ethelbert Nevin?
AS: Exactly! I’m so happy that I found this guy. He used to be really popular in the 1940s. His face was on a U.S. postage stamp series honoring all the most famous American composers. I came across him because of one of his piano pieces that has this American parlor nostalgia quality that I liked very much. I did a little research and found that he wrote about eighty-five songs as well. I found the music to almost all of them and I picked out some of them that I really liked.
DH: You also have a set of songs by Virgil Thomson, whose music you don’t hear a lot any more.
AS: That’s another discovery I made. I was planning a recital in Kansas City and thought I would put together a set by local composers. He was one of the first I found, and I really liked his songs. I kind of cherry-picked a set of them I think are rare and really good.
DH: You’re also singing the world premiere of an Iain Bell piece, The Undying Splendor.
AS: I met Iain in Los Angeles where he heard me sing in Albert Herring. He just premiered an opera in Europe with Diana Damrau, A Harlot’s Progress, and he’s just coming into the public view. We hit it off and he offered me the songs in case I every wanted to do them. Then this recital tour came up. They’re interesting in their simplicity, sort of like Benjamin Britten. The ambiance is spooky and touching.
DH: You’re beginning your program with your specialité — bel canto pieces by Rossini, Bellini and Mercadante — and all with the same librettist?
AS: This is one of the sets I often recycle but not always with the same three songs. When I was piecing together this group I wanted to have some solid link. These were all written to texts by the same guy, Carlo Pepoli. He was involved politically at the time when Italy was just coming together as one nation and although he didn’t do very much with opera, he was acquainted with all of the composers of the bel canto era. They frequently wrote music to his poems, so I thought we could have a set featuring him.
DH: Another rarity is a piece by Vicente Martin y Soler.
AS: He’s very, very cool. He lived about the same time as Mozart and his operas were often more popular. He and da Ponte collaborated at least twice. The aria that I’m performing is from Una cosa rara, which is an original story by Lorenzo da Ponte. I believe the only other time da Ponte did that was with Così fan tutte. I really like the story, which is about a prince who can’t seem to win the affection of a peasant girl and in order to impress her he decides he’s going to dress up like her peasant boyfriend, although he’s not happy about degrading himself. I actually did the opera in Saint Louis in English. I really like his music and I liked the aria and I’ve never had a chance to perform it until now. I’m going to sing it in the original language on Friday.
DH: Where does the recital tour go from here?
AS: There’s one more stop at Weill Hall in New York, which will be my solo debut at Carnegie Hall. Then I was going to go back to Hamburg, but they graciously agreed to release me from Barbiere. There’s a very interesting project coming up on the West Coast of the United States that I don’t think I’m quite at liberty to talk about yet!
DH: We’ll let that be a secret for now!
Published on ClevelandClassical.com February 19, 2013
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