No opera glasses needed

Camille Sherman and Damien Geter showcase contemporary composers in Portland Opera’s new online recital series

On November 11th, Portland Opera premiered the second installment of “Live From the Hampton Opera Center,” a series of free, virtual recitals featuring artists who call the PNW home. In Women in Political Life, mezzo-soprano Camille Sherman embodies an array of first ladies and the husband of one late Supreme Court justice. The recital, directed and curated by Kristine McIntyre, features music by contemporary American composers Stacy Garrop and Jake Heggie. Sherman sings in English throughout.

Sherman begins her recital with Garrop’s song cycle In Eleanor’s Words. The songs’ lyrics are adapted from My Day, a newspaper column written by Eleanor Roosevelt from 1935 to 1960. What I like most about the cycle–and in the recital in general–is that it is also a piece of theatre. “The Newspaper Column,” the cycle’s first song, opens with the percussive sound of a keyboard. But the hands of pianist Susan McDaniel are still. Sherman, dressed in First Lady attire, is banging away on a portable typewriter. She turns from the typewriter to the camera. “Washington, September 8th, 1936,” she says, then proceeds to sing about the art of journalism.

Garrop’s settings are deferential to Roosevelt’s prose, utilizing spoken and sung word, and Sherman does a nice job moving between the two. She occasionally returns to her typewriter, where the sounds of the keys join those of the piano, adding momentum to the music in “The Dove of Peace.” For the most part, the songs meditate on social issues, especially citizen involvement in government and the prevention of war (“What Can One Woman Do”), but Words also turns personal. In “An Anonymous Letter,” the third song of the set, Roosevelt describes receiving an unsigned letter filled, to her surprise, with “only pleasant things.” The piano turns plaintive, matching the letter writer’s speculation that “even Mrs. Roosevelt must need morale lifting too.”

I found “Are You Free,” the second song in the cycle, to be the most arresting. The song considers the plight of the American working class, recounting a speech given by William Green (former President of the American Federation of Labor). The piece culminates with Sherman, fortissimo, condemning the American penchant for self-satisfaction. She wonders “whether we ever look ourselves straight in the face, and really mean what we say when we are patting ourselves on the back.” A chromatic ascending line in the piano follows, and Sherman, now hushed, adds:

Somewhere someone must have a quiet laugh

If there is a place where real truth is dealt in.

Listening to Sherman, I began to think how vastly different Eleanor Roosevelt’s communication style to the American people was compared to our outgoing president. The cycle ends with a contemplative Roosevelt seated at her typewriter, ready to begin her next article.

Mezzo-soprano Camille Sherman as Eleanor Roosevelt in Stacy Garrop's In Eleanor’s Words.
Mezzo-soprano Camille Sherman as Eleanor Roosevelt in Stacy Garrop’s In Eleanor’s Words.

We remain with Eleanor a little longer in Iconic Legacies: First Ladies at the Smithsonian by Jake Heggie with words by Gene Scheer. In this collection of songs, Heggie and Scheer imagine four First Ladies: Roosevelt, Mary Todd Lincoln, Jaqueline Kennedy, and Barbara Bush. The first song is from the point of view of Roosevelt, describing a concert given by the contralto Marian Anderson and fixating on the famous singer’s mink coat.

Hands down my favorite song from this selection is “Mary Todd Lincoln: Abraham Lincoln’s Hat,” which depicts Lincoln grieving over the death of her son, William, who died at age eleven. The line “in a world where this can happen, only madness rhymes” is heart-achingly beautiful; on “rhymes” Sherman unfolds into a dizzying melismatic run that echoes the opening section in the piano. Heggie’s word painting and Sherman’s instrument here wonderfully convey Lincoln’s exasperation with a world-turned-to-madness.

Sherman then performs a seamless transformation from Mary Todd Lincoln to Jackie Kennedy, which may have been the coolest part of the program. From Lincoln, her anguished face melts into Kennedy’s hospitable smile. This state of mind is short-lived, however, as the song imagines the president and First Lady choosing outfits before their fatal trip to Dallas. Half-way through the song, we jump ahead in time as the piano plays the same grieving melismatic line introduced in the previous song and Sherman sings:

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Fifty hours later, I walked back into the bedroom wearing the pink Chanel suit he’d chosen

covered in his blood.

Sherman closes the recital with Garrop’s My Dearest Ruth, commissioned by Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s children to commemorate the justice’s eightieth birthday in 2013. An anniversary letter written by Martin Ginsberg to his wife serves as lyrics. Sherman performs the song as a stand-in for Mr. Ginsberg, holding a yellow sheet of lined paper, as if reading from the letter. Viewing Sherman’s rendition is the kind of thing that can bring tears to a listener’s eyes, especially knowing that Ginsberg’s death had occurred less than a month before the recital was recorded. I’m still stuck on Mr. Ginsberg’s words: “The loss of quality simply overwhelms.”

Mezzo-soprano Camille Sherman as Ruth Bader Ginsberg in Jake Heggie's “My Dearest Ruth."
Sherman as Ruth Bader Ginsberg in Jake Heggie’s My Dearest Ruth.

Black music matters

Damien Geter–bass-baritone, composer, PO artistic advisor, and occasional ArtsWatch contributor–commands stage and screen in a blazer, skull cap, and t-shirt reading “Black Music Matters.” Geter begins his December 2nd recital–an evening of music by all Black composers and arrangers—by saying:

It is our hope that you will be inspired by this program to seek out composers you are not familiar with, because there is so much music in the world by so many different types of people and it’s all deserving to be heard.

The opening piece is “Caro Mio Ben” by 18th-century composer Giuseppe Giordani, arranged by Carlos Simon–an indication that Geter’s recital was directing audiences away from the well-worn canon, and a helpful point of departure for opera lovers weaned on La Boheme and the like. While the vocal line preserves Girodani’s original, the piano part, played deftly by Kira Whiting, is influenced by jazz, full of rich harmonies absent in the original.

The second song, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”-music by Howard Swanson, words by Langston Hughes–shows Geter at his bassiest best, his voice matching the imagery of Langston’s text. The speaker of the poem tells us that his soul “has grown deep like the river,” and we find those depths in Geter’s voice.

Robert Owens is the composer featured most prominently in Geter’s recital. Owens’ Drei Lieder für Bariton und Klavier (Three Songs for Baritone and Piano), borrows texts from the German writer Hermann Hesse. Both Owen’s composition and Hesse’s gothic poetry feel suitable to our ever-shortening days. I especially enjoyed one moment in “Fremd Stadt” (Unfamiliar City), when Geter sings “you drop your heavy load, and weep long a bitterly,” sustaining the last syllable of the final word for what feels like an eternity.

Later we get more Owens in The Cottager to His Infant, with words by the English writer Dorothy Wordsworth. There are some hiccups with the subtitles, but Geter’s clear diction ensures we are able to hear every word, even during a coloratura-like run imposed on the difficult sentence: “One wee hungry nibbling mouse.”

Bass-baritone Damien Geter performs with Kira Whiting.
Bass-baritone Damien Geter with pianist Kira Whiting.

A couple Nina Simone arrangements are standouts–had there been an audience in the room, Simon’s version of James Shelton’s “Lilac Wine” would have been a show-stopper. Listening to Geter’s rendition of this song, with Whiting as his bedrock in the piano, I felt the same sense of the “sweet headiness” referenced in the lyrics, especially on Geter’s fantastic crescendos on the line “like my love.” Then, in “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” Geter shows off a falsetto sweeter than any lilac wine.

I quite enjoyed watching Sherman and Geter’s performances. I hadn’t heard any of the music on either program (save “Caro Mio Ben”), and discovered a handful of excellent, previously unfamiliar composers. Plus, the medium of video offers an intimacy one wouldn’t get in a concert hall: shots alternate from the singer’s face to a close up of the pianists’ hands to a wide shot of the entire stage. The camera allows the viewer to see every emotional detail in the singer’s face and eyes–no opera glasses needed.

Considering the price of admission is nothing, this series is an easy way to listen to highly skilled singers perform great music in an intimate setting. I plan on tuning in for soprano Vanessa Isiguen on Wednesday, December 9th  and tenor Martin Bakari on the 16th. But those who are busy Wednesday evenings need not fret: the recitals can be streamed from the Opera’s YouTube and Vimeo channels, and remain available up to a month after the performance.

Bass-baritone Damien Geter.

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About the author

Max Tapogna is an actor, singer, and writer who hails from Portland, Oregon. He graduated from the University of Puget Sound in the spring of 2020 with a BA in Theatre Arts. Max is currently a 2020-21 acting apprentice at Portland Playhouse.

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