Singing in English With Tenor Paul Appleby

Friday, March 03, 2017 - 12:00 AM

Paul Appleby in a Met Opera production of Stravinsky’s 'The Rake's Progress.' Paul Appleby in a Met Opera production of Stravinsky’s 'The Rake's Progress.' (Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)

I have been following, and admiring, the work of American tenor Paul Appleby since he was a student at Juilliard. He made his Metropolitan Opera debut at age 27 in 2011 as Brighella in Ariadne auf Naxos and has sung roles there in French, German and Italian. His usage in these languages is excellent, but I have noticed that he has a remarkable skill for singing in English. Following on articles about singing in Italian and French, I contacted Appleby to learn about his approach to English.

On March 3, he gives a recital at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia and will perform the same music for the George London Foundation in New York on March 5. The program includes “On this Island,” a song cycle by Benjamin Britten, as well as songs by Charles Ives and Ned Rorem.

I asked Appleby whether there are distinctions in pronunciation or phrasing he makes when the texts are British or American. He replied, “My goal is always to make the text understood without the listener being conscious of the techniques I am employing. If I were to sing the opening line of Britten and Auden’s cycle, ‘Let the florid music praise!’ with the kind of ‘r’ in ‘florid’ I grew up using in Indiana, listeners on either side of the Atlantic would notice a discrepancy between the origin and content of this English song and my pronunciation of it (Hoosiers don’t usually speak in a manner reminiscent of Auden verse).

“Instead of being drawn into the music and the text, listeners would think about my diction choices, which is the last thing I want them to consider. Whether I am singing an American or British piece, most of the time I use what we call ‘Mid-Atlantic diction.’ It’s a neutral pronunciation of English somewhere between NPR English and BBC English. Think of Christopher Plummer/Bill Lee in The Sound of Music, or Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in anything. But when I sing Charles Ives’ harmonization of ‘At the River,’ that final ‘r’ of the word river must be the chewy American ‘r,’ like the one William Sharp subtly deploys, or I risk obscuring the song’s evocative American origins.”

Appleby recently sang the premiere of a song cycle, “Bride of the Island,” by Harold Meltzer, whom he describes as “one of the best American composers working today.” The texts are by English poet Ted Hughes. Appleby noted that “the texts are British, but the composer, the singer for whom it was written and the audience for whom they were premiered were American. There was nothing in these lyrical poems that evoked a uniquely British milieu — they could be understandably mistaken for Robert Frost — so I elected to employ a more American-leaning diction given my audience.”

Recently Appleby performed Britten’s “Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings” with the Phoenix Symphony and will do it again on April 2 with the New World Symphony in Miami. It was created for Britten’s life partner Peter Pears. I wondered, when music is written for a specific voice, how does another artist approach learning it and performing it?

“Historically speaking, most classical vocal works have been written for specific singers. The difference with Britten’s operas, songs and concert pieces written for Peter Pears is that he recorded most of them and usually did so with Britten accompanying at the piano or podium. Usually, seeking to understand a long-dead singer’s voice through roles written for him is like doing a forensics report with limited evidence. You have the score and historical performance practices, maybe some reviews or pertinent letters from the composer if you are lucky.

“In Pears’ catalog of Britten recordings, we have a document of the real life manifestation of the score by the creators of the works. Although my voice sounds and functions nothing like Pears’ (whose does?), I find that the way Britten wrote for his voice nonetheless suits the contours of my instrument remarkably well too. Pears’ recordings serve as the exemplar of Britten’s vocal style without threatening to unduly influence my actual sound production.”

Appleby appears with British mezzo Alice Coote in Elgar’s “The Dream of Gerontius,” with the Bamberger Symphoniker, conducted by David Zinman on April 7 and 8. “The social and cultural mores of Victorian England inhibited British composers from fully embracing the aesthetics of continental Romanticism, but the pious text of Elgar’s ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ permitted him to create an oratorio of Wagnerian dimensions and impact that didn’t offend the sensibilities of the day. This trick harkens back to Handel’s English oratorios that allowed him to create gripping, violent, and politically charged theater under the guise of religious drama.

“This work provides a moving meditation of death with echoes of Dante and Milton that packs a serious musical punch. The tension between pious restraint and explosive emotion is at the core of the role of Gerontius, and the beautiful text by John Henry Cardinal Newman masterfully balances the extremity of existential angst with the formality of the English language. Given the large orchestration, the diction in this piece must be delivered with tremendous energy and that linguistic intensity drives my interpretation of the role. This is one role that I feel requires a clear British accent because the essence of the piece is inseparable from that elocution.”

One of his signature roles is Tom Rakewell in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress which he will sing at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in July. I wondered whether singing in front of an audience of mostly French speakers would change his approach to the words. “The libretto of The Rake’s Progress is one of the finest in all of opera, but it suffers from an intelligibility problem, including for English-speaking audiences. Its complex syntactical structure makes full comprehension of the text in real time nearly impossible.  Although I try my damnedest with the words, I find I have to create specificity of character and story-telling with my vocalism and physicality to get the character across clearly. In that sense, there is no difference whether it’s for an English-speaking audience or not.”

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Comments [1]

Mary Elizabeth from Vermont

I found Appleby's comments about "The Rake's Progress"—that the language needs to be augmented by tone and acting to communicate, no matter the language of the audience—particularly interesting. Sensitivity to one's audience seems to be a trait that is lacking in much discourse today, and it's fascinating to read the thoughts of someone who has given such insightful attention to communication.

The skillful interview questions and organization of this article are also worthy of note . . .

Mar. 03 2017 07:49 AM

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