Mezzo soprano Fleur Barron returns to Chamber Music Northwest’s Summer Festival, this year appropriately named Poetry in Music. She is featured in the Opening Night performances, June 24 and June 25; a concert of Schubert & Fauré on Thursday, June 29; and in the Festival Finale on July 27 and July 29.
Reviewers have described her voice as meltingly rich, warm and supple, dark, smoky, and complex. A possible explanation for the variations among these descriptions is that she has mastered several kinds of vocal music, both recital and operatic, and several genres including baroque, classical, romantic, Asian, and Middle Eastern. Her upcoming performances as a CMNW Artist in Residence will demonstrate these abilities.
Critics have called Barron a “charismatic star” (Boston Globe) and “an operatic triumph” (San Francisco Chronicle), and the Concertgebouw has given her the designation “Hemelsbestormer” (Skystormer) during its 2022-23 season. That kind of energy was certainly evident in her recent interview with ArtsWatch, and can be seen in her performances in recitals and operas, portions of which can be viewed in any of the many videos available on her website and YouTube.
Two of Barron’s three CMNW concerts include world premieres: Kian Ravei’s Gulistan in the opening concert and Chris Rogerson’s Quintet for Soprano & String Quartet, both of which were commissioned by CMNW as a result of its partnership with the poetry program of Portland’s Literary Arts. These works are identified in the program as “Oregon Poet Prelude.”
Growing up intercultural
Barron is the child of a Singaporean mother and a British father. She lived her first three years in Ireland, where her father–Brian Barron, a well-known journalist for the BBC–was covering “the troubles.” Most of her childhood was spent in Hong Kong. When she was a teenager the family moved to New York, where she lived until a few years ago when she moved to London.
Language has figured importantly in her education, as she learned several languages in addition to English. “My Singaporean family speaks Hokkien,” she said, “which is like a Chinese dialect, and, of course, in Hong Kong they speak Cantonese. I don’t speak any one of those particularly fluently, but I had a lot of exposure to those languages. Of course my upbringing was very Chinese in a lot of ways.” In Hong Kong she went to a French school, where they also had Mandarin lessons every day (two more languages).
Discovering Asian music
Barron said the pandemic gave her a chance to consider how her intercultural upbringing affected her music. “I had a lot of time to reflect on what types of projects I wanted to engage with as an artist, and also what is my artistic responsibility,” she said. She had attended Columbia University, studying comparative literature, and enjoyed research and “looking at the broader context of things.”
Among her mentors were Dawn Upshaw, Stephanie Blyth, and Lucy Shelton, all of whom were pioneers in programming and collaborating with living composers. “During the pandemic, I got really involved in thinking more personally about programming, like what is my story and how would I translate that into a musical experience.” It wasn’t that she wanted to make an autobiography through music, but there were events happening in the world, possibly to a particular community with which she shared an affinity, and she might want to express her feelings about them through music.
“So I had this realization in 2020,” she said, “that in spite of that upbringing I had never performed music by Asian composers and, really, I could only name two or three Asian composers off the top of my head.” She wondered what their music would sound like and realized that she could draw on her research background to investigate who is writing music today, who are the well-known and prolific composers, and who were the up-and-coming composers. She then started reaching out through friends or other sources to solicit scores. In the process she discovered pieces that amazed and delighted her, pieces she felt she could integrate with established “western” pieces such as the works of Schubert.
Barron has commissioned music from several different cultures, which she develops into special programs. For example, she created a program called Home(land), consisting of poetry and music juxtaposing Eastern and Western composers. The program explores themes of home, childhood, and dreams as they relate to internal and geopolitical space. A recital program called Yin Yang is about cultural bridges and personal identity, including songs by Chinese composers and some of Barron’s favorite “yin-yang” songs by western composers such as Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms. Another program, On Belonging, explores Asian identity through works in Mandarin, Cantonese, Uyghur, and English, which features a dancer in addition to cello, piano, and voice. The latter program will be premiered in 2024.
Barron describes her parents as “big classical music lovers” who took her to operas as well as other musical events. As a child she found opera stuffy and traditional, and she was bored. But when the family moved to New York she was introduced to Broadway shows, which she found exciting, so she started taking singing lessons with an eye toward being on Broadway. However, her teacher told her that her voice was inherently classical, and that she was actually an opera singer.
“I was devastated,” she said, “because I really didn’t like opera! So I just stopped singing completely.” Well, almost: She admits to singing in a Bach choir during her freshman year at Columbia, and later she sang the role of Ruth in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance.
Her attitude took a sharp turn when she and her friends started going to the Met after classes. They wore T-shirts and jeans, bought student tickets, and during intermission they would approach people who were leaving and ask them for their tickets. Then they would go and sit in the grand tier. “People would look at us askance because we looked like a bunch of ragamuffins. But it was an amazing experience because I was with my peer group and we didn’t go in with any preconceived notions about how we were supposed to behave, or dress, or how we would respond.”
As a result of Barron’s study of literature, culture, and language at Columbia, opera became more interesting to her, and she thought she should go ahead and try for a degree in music, although she describes herself at that time as “very underdeveloped vocally.” So she auditioned for a master’s degree from the Manhattan School of Music, which was, in her words, “an absolutely terrible audition. I was nervous and terrified and I had no idea of how to dress for an audition, and my repertoire was very weird. I think they took me because I had raw talent.”
Also, she could speak German and French and had studied Russian, which may have worked in her favor. But it was a difficult time. “My masters was very tough for my ego because I was way behind the curve compared to everybody else, and that was a challenge,” she said. “I was used to being good at things, and suddenly I felt way behind. Unlike most things where you feel behind, you can just work harder and you get better. With singing it’s really not like that because the harder I tried, the more tense I would get. So it was a long journey.”
Her academic background and interest in language has drawn her to special projects, like the staging by Peter Sellars of the opera Adriana Mater by Finnish composer Kaija Sarriaho in San Francisco’s Symphony Hall. The actors worked on platforms with conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen behind them. She describes the opera, with its libretto by Amin Maalouf, as “very intellectual, very dense and emotional,” and requiring a level of sophistication not typical of the standard core repertoire. “I think I’m drawn to these types of projects — ones that are meaty and have something to say, that are not just musically beautiful and engaging but also somehow related to what life is about today.”
Music and healing
The recent performance of the Saariaho opera led to a discussion of music and healing. Cast and orchestral members alike were moved by the recent death of the composer during the rehearsal process. Although her death was not unexpected after her long battle with cancer, everyone was in shock. The composer’s 27-year old daughter had been conducting the rehearsals, and both Salonen and Sellars were longtime collaborators with Saariaho. The mother-daughter theme in the opera added to the relevance. “I felt like we were all crying every day,” Barron said, “We were all participating in the grief, something that felt quite transformative. There was a sense that this was a sacred space….”
It seems that there is something unique to vocalists in the realm of healing. “Your body is your instrument, so it’s a very intimate feeling,” Barron observes. “We all have a human voice, so there’s a resonance that is very personal, even if you don’t know the person on stage — or even if I don’t know who’s in the audience. It feels immediately personal.”
Barron stressed the relationship between the words and the music; how language, often in the form of poetry, gives so much additional meaning to the music. The result of this pairing of language with musical sounds is plain to see in her facial expressions and body language, which heighten the intimacy of her vocal recitals.
Expanding the audience
Fleur Barron’s youth and energy seemed to provide a good segue into the traditional worry about the graying of chamber music audiences, although the recent history of Chamber Music Northwest helps allay that fear. Barron was quite outspoken about CMNW’s directors and the organization’s progress. “I do think that Gloria [Chien] and Soovin [Kim] are really people of vision, which is not something you can say about everyone in leadership in the arts. There are people who are good at running stuff but who don’t necessarily have a vision for how to evolve the art form with what is happening in the world.”
She believes that Gloria and Soovin do an outstanding job of this kind of integration. They are young, smart, and have kids, and they have a huge network of musician friends resulting from their careers as performers in other festivals. By no means do they neglect the great masters of classical and romantic music, but they are very effective at integrating them with vibrant new compositions.
Barron talks about a thirst for change that’s taking hold with young musicians. “I think we’re in a phase where many of us are questioning the status quo,” she said. “Like there’s a certain way things have always been done. Well why is that? And if I want to do it this [other] way, why can’t I do it? Oh, I’m just gonna do it!”
“For example,” she continued, “there’s an amazing harpist called Bridget Kibbey and I was at La Jolla with her last year. We didn’t do a concert together but I saw her performance, and I thought, Wow, she’s so awesome! And she felt the same about me and wanted to do something together. Now, there’s not a lot of music for mezzo and harp, but we’re going to find a way.”
There’s no doubt about it: Fleur Barron’s enthusiasm for her work is infectious. And she is indeed a “Skystormer.” But anyone hearing and watching her performance will be struck by the beauty of her voice and her mastery of her art.