Arwen Myers is one of Portland’s top-tier sopranos. With a radiant voice and impeccable technique, Myers has been delighting audiences ever since she arrived in the Rose City eleven years ago. At Portland Baroque Orchestra’s season finale, she sang two Mozart arias that practically took your breath away. More recently, Myers was heard in Third Angle’s performance of Philip Glass’s 1000 Airplanes on the Roof (read David Bates’ review here).
On June 3 and 4, Myers will be the featured soloist with the Oregon Chorale in a concert that features a recent oratorio by Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds. In the fall, Myers is also on tap for the Portland Baroque Season opener, which will celebrate the ensemble’s 40th birthday and its new artistic director Julian Perkins.
So, it is time to catch up with Myers to find out more about this superb soprano.
Oregon ArtsWatch: I thought that Myers is Scottish. Is your family name Scottish?
Arwen Myers: No. I have Dutch and English heritage on my dad’s side and Cuban on my mom’s side. My mom and her family lived in Cuba until the revolution, and there are a lot of crazy stories about when they left when it started. One of my cousins had to hide rolled up bills in pill capsules and stuff them into a pill bottle. My grandmother met a man at a hotel bar to exchange money, and he got arrested as she was walking out of the lobby. She went home and hid the money inside sanitary napkins.
My dad’s family were Dust Bowl farmers, and I still have relatives involved in cattle ranching (I’ve been vegetarian for 20 years, so I see the irony) and also in seed. My parents met at the University of North Texas, where they both studied classical voice. The Cuban and the Okie! They actually met singing Britten’s opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream! My dad experienced some success in Austria and Switzerland, but after I was born, they settled in Augusta, Georgia, where he ran a dry-cleaning business and my mom taught music at Augusta College. My dad passed away when I was 16 years old.
OAW: Did you sing before you learned how to talk?
AM: It actually all happened at the same time! I was a hyperlexic kid, and I could read the alphabet when I was in daycare. Apparently, I read the word “baby” out loud from a newspaper before I could walk. There’s also a story that I sang Jingle Bells during a plane flight when I was eleven months old. I sang all the words and all of the notes perfectly. The other passengers wondered what was happening!
OAW: Tell us about your musical studies.
AM: I went to the Jacob School of Music at Indiana University. I did my undergraduate degree with Alan Bennett, a big Bach and Lieder singer, and then my masters with Patricia Brooks Havranek – with more of an emphasis on opera. I also received a Performer’s Diploma. So I have three degrees in modern voice performance with minor in Early Music, which was a good combination. I was there for seven years–which was plenty!
OAW: Your emphasis is on concert singing rather than operas. Why is that?
AM: I haven’t done a ton of opera because it is not the rhythm that I want my life to have. For opera, you have to be gone three or four weeks at a time. Concert singing only involves a week at a time. I also love Early Music and new music, and there’s so much incredible concert music in both genres.
OAW: How did you get to Portland?
AM: The summer before I finished my degrees, I did a big road trip to Portland with my best friend, mezzo Laura Beckel Thoreson, who is from Vancouver – and lives there now. I loved it here, so I decided to move out here after school. That was eleven years ago!
OAW: This coming weekend, you’ll be singing Ēriks Ešenvalds’ Passion and Resurrection with the Oregon Chorale.
AM: One of my favorite pieces! It loosely tells the Passion story about Christ’s death, although it doesn’t draw from Biblical text; it uses other text sources. It’s scored for chamber orchestra, choir, and soprano soloist. The soprano soloist isn’t any one character from the Bible, and she doesn’t narrate the Passion like a Bach Evangelist would – her texts are wide ranging.
Ešenvalds’ harmonies are very beautiful, and he draws heavily from chant traditions like Byzantine and Gregorian chant in this work. It’s not an atonal piece, but it has some modal writing because of the chant. He has written a lot of choral music, and he has developed his own sound. My first entry is a wild passionate monologue that comes out of nowhere, and there’s an extensive unaccompanied chant section later in the piece. It’s a wonderful piece, and the soprano part is all over the place in a fun way!
OAW: When you have tough entries like in this piece, how do you find the note that you start with?
AM: There is usually something from the ensemble that will cue you – you know, that you go up a step or a 3rd or down a 5th or whatever from one of the prominent notes, or you know where you are in the harmony. It just depends on the piece and what comes before you. It is a challenge with new music, which can be complicated. I don’t have perfect pitch, so there have been a couple of times I’ve used a tuning fork before entrances – hopefully subtly.
In learning my music for a concert, I also have either a full score or a vocal score to study – so I can see the harmonies, figure out where I come in. Then in rehearsals, I can focus on musicmaking, ensemble, and music decisions, and telling the story. It’s the fun part!
OAW: Where will you be singing after the Oregon Chorale concerts?
AM: Later in June, I will sing at the Charlotte Bach Festival in North Carolina, which I do most years. Then I have a nice break until October when I sing the season opener with Portland Baroque Orchestra!
OAW: Do you have a day job?
AM: Yes, I’m the Director of Communications & Marketing at Trinity Cathedral. It’s a great job! Trinity is like three or four separate nonprofits under one roof in a lot of ways, so my job involves a lot of problem solving, organizing, and strategizing. I do a lot of writing and copy editing, and I built and manage the website, write Google ads, head up the social media – things like that. It’s nice to be able to use a different side of my brain for my non-singing work.
I also sing with the Trinity Cathedral Choir, where I do some solo work – but I really like to get my choral fix there. I started singing in choirs at church as a three-year-old under my mom’s direction, so I have a strong background in Episcopal Church music. I feel so lucky to continue to do that! Church choirs also consist primarily of volunteers, and it is great to make music with them! The intergenerational makeup of the choir is important, and we don’t get enough of that in our lives.
OAW: So through the pandemic, you were able to sing at Trinity online?
AM: Yes, we used just a few singers at the Cathedral for the services that were livestreamed to YouTube. We were masked and standing many feet from each other, which was unusual, but I was able to keep making music. I had colleagues and friends who were completely shut down during that time.
OAW: Do you have any favorite composers?
AM: Bach, Bach, Bach! And Monteverdi and Strozzi are some of my favorite early music folks. I love Mozart, and there are so many great modern composers that I can’t name just one. I’d leave someone out!
OAW: Do you play instruments like piano?
AM: I play “functional” piano, and I actually studied recorder at IU for a while. I haven’t played in years! I should get out the Telemann concerto books, but I’m really rusty.
OAW: What are some of your hobbies?
AM: Portland has a really great Lindy Hop community, and I recently got back into swing dancing. This summer, I’m looking forward to hiking in the UK. I’ll do the Pembrokeshire Coast Trail in September. It’s 186 miles in Britain’s only coastal national park – along the southwest coast of Wales. In the UK, they call it “walking,” even though it’s really strenuous sometimes. But instead of camping, you stay overnight in a tiny inn above a pub or in someone’s home. I did a shorter hike last summer in Wales and loved it. So this will be a longer jaunt.
OAW: Will you pick up some the Welsh language?
AM: I learned some basic words like hello last year, and some of the nature words you see a lot on maps. Maybe I can add to my vocabulary!
I went to choir camps as a kid, and my first trip overseas was actually to Wales. I heard some terrific choirs there – lush singing by amazing community choirs. My name is also from the Lord of the Rings – my parents were nerds – and the language it’s from is heavily based on Welsh. I feel very connected!
OAW: I would like to hear you in a program where half of it is Baroque and Early Music and the other half contemporary.
AM: That would be wonderful. Maybe there would be a chance to do some of Caroline Shaw’s music in the modern half.
OAW: I have heard that she has moved to Portland.
AM: Cool! That’s amazing.
OAW: She told me in an interview that she really likes the moss in the Pacific Northwest.
AM: Come for the food and stay for the moss!