A mainstream music star taking the stage at Carnegie Hall—even when it’s a pop star of James Taylor’s caliber and even when it’s a Carnegie Hall Perspectives series (which wraps up tonight)—is par for the course. In its twelve seasons, the hall’s artist-curated programs have featured luminaries like Mitsuko Uchida, James Levine and Dawn Upshaw along with David Byrne, Youssou N’Dour and the genre-defying Kronos Quartet.
But for a singer-songwriter like Taylor, there is as much a connection to Carnegie vets like the Beatles and the Beach Boys as there is Pavarotti and Arthur Rubinstein. In a generation where we have classical artists like Corey Dargel and Missy Mazzoli composing and performing their own music, are they really that far off from a singer-songwriter like Taylor? And, for that matter, is Taylor theoretically that far off from composer-performers like Mozart, Ravel or Brahms?
Before Taylor’s mother, Gertrude Woodard, married Isaac M. Taylor in 1946, she herself was a trained lyric soprano who studied at the New England Conservatory with Marie Sundelius, a Swedish-American soprano who was Puccini’s original Monitress in Suor Angelica and Ciesca in Gianni Schicchi (in another oddball connection, Coretta Scott King also studied with Sundelius and, in that time, met her husband).
Before turning to guitar, Taylor studied cello. He ultimately sold the instrument to buy his first guitar, though as biographer Timothy White notes, “[f]our years of classical cello instruction had got him ‘thinking in the bass clef,' and his strong, thin, unusually dexterous fingers and skill at banjo brailing and thumping on sister Kate’s keyboards all combined to mold an uncommon approach to his instrument.” Indeed, Taylor’s upbringing with classical music—brought on by his mother’s love for opera—can be pinpointed as the root of his signature sound.
The closest Taylor got to writing an opera himself was the musical Working (written with several other composers and lyricists, including Stephen Schwartz), and most notably the song “Millworker." Taylor has championed it outside of the musical theater realm and it has the verisimilitude of any great Puccini aria: “Yeah but it’s my life has been wasted/And I have been the fool/To let this manufacturer/Use my body for a tool,” sings the titular female millworker—a far cry from the pastoral scenes of Schubert's mills.
Musically, Taylor is a direct descendant from the folksy American idioms of Stephen Foster—a composer whose works resonate with Americans just as readily as Verdi’s works echo with Italians. (Side note to Thomas Hampson: “Millworker” would make a seamless encore in your Song of America program.)
With opera morphing into musical theater in America, and without wanting to draw forced and tenuous connections between Rossini and Bob Dylan, is it too crazy to think of mainstream musicians capable of selling out a 5,000-seat Madison Square Garden as contributing to our canon of art songs and arias? This year, pop rocker Rufus Wainwright will see his opera, Prima Donna, performed by New York City Opera as part of the River to River festival. Siren-voiced (and –haired) alternative goddess Tori Amos makes her Deutsche Grammophon debut in September with a song cycle entitled Night of the Hunters. And in reading Patti Smith’s 2010 memoir, Just Kids, one learns that the artist doesn’t shy away from her love of Madama Butterfly and Tosca (she plays “Vissi d’arte” as a tribute to her ex-lover and kindred spirit Robert Mapplethorpe).
This is, of course, nothing new. In 1976, Barbra Streisand released a studio album of classical works including Orff’s “In Trutina” from Carmina Burana and Handel’s “Lascia ch’io pianga.” Indie artist Sufjan Stevens is a frequent partner-in-crime to Gabriel Kahane and Nico Muhly, and Jeff Buckley had a famous cover of Dido’s Lament. Some experiments in crossover (if one must call it that) are more successful than others, both commercially and critically. Others, like Todd Rundgren’s cover of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Never Mind the Why and Wherefore on the late-80s TV show Night Music (below) are gloriously ridiculous and perversely sublime. But as I’m asked more frequently why Corey Dargel is considered classical and the Magnetic Fields is not, I wonder if—as Alex Ross so famously suggested in 2004—we should start rethinking the use of the term. Taylor’s music at Carnegie Hall this past week was, to borrow one of Fred Plotkin’s phrases, “opera in every sense.”