The voices of spring


Meredith Monk sings at the Clarice Smith Center in May. (Photo by Babeth VanLoo)
January 25, 2013

Vocal music, they say, is an acquired taste. In Washington, this would be an excellent time to acquire it. To acquire several tastes, in fact, since it’s hard to lump under one heading the range of different music that people are making around town this spring using the human voice.

Let’s start with opera — a term that itself covers a multitude of different musical-theatrical events. On the traditional side, there’s Bellini’s “Norma,” the classic bel canto story about a Druid priestess which, despite its far-fetched setting, continues to ring true with its depiction of a guy leaving his lover for a younger woman. It’s also a benchmark for sopranos, and the Washington National Opera (March 9-24) is presenting a powerhouse: Angela Meade is still finding herself as an artist, but she has been staking out “Norma” since she won the Met Auditions with the aria “Casta diva” in 2007.

The Virginia Opera counters with 20th-century opera, American style: Andre Previn’s operatic setting of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” the classic Tennessee Williams play (in Fairfax on March 1 and 3). Meanwhile, the Washington Concert Opera’s “Maria Stuarda” (April 7) revisits another bel canto work that the Metropolitan Opera just staged in New York — here without sets or costumes, but with the sopranos Georgia Jarman and Brenda Harris, who knows how this stuff should be done.

Then there’s brand-new work in a small theater. The company UrbanArias, in Arlington, is exclusively devoted to short contemporary opera, giving us a chance to experience the ups and downs of the new; this spring they offer the world premiere of “Paul’s Case” by Gregory Spears, based on a Willa Cather story (April 20-28). And WNO continues its new-opera initiative with an hour-long commission by D.J. Sparr, “The Tao of Muhammad Ali (A Ghost Story),” shown in the Terrace Theater (June 8 and 9).

Opera singers will also take their abilities in several different directions. The soprano Christine Brewer, whose Vocal Arts DC recital last fall was postponed because of Hurricane Sandy, has rescheduled it for April 25. WNO’s recital series offers the soprano Diana Damrau (April 8), whose singing has been up-and-down in recent years, but whom I once heard give a great recital despite being crippled by a cold. Also at the Kennedy Center, the Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, who has produced a solid string of CDs through a long career, will offer two different programs, a song recital and performances of Schubert Lieder and Mozart with the NSO, during the festival “Nordic Cool” (March 4 and 7-9). And Dawn Upshaw, once an ingenue at the Met and now better known as an artist who embraces contemporary projects, joins the Crash Ensemble at the Terrace Theater in Donnacha Dennehy’s song cycle “That the Night Comes,” featured on a notable 2011 CD (May 14).

Fans of choral music have their pick of everything from the Renaissance — the ensemble Stile Antico at the Library of Congress (April 17) — to music of today. The Washington Chorus continues its contemporary-composers series with an evening of Tarik O’Regan (June 30); and the Washington Master Chorale has commissioned a piece from Donald McCullough, the former director of the now-defunct Master Chorale of Washington, the current group’s predecessor (March 3).

Then there are what you might call indie vocalists, singers who defy any kind of categorization. The Library of Congress presents an artist whose work could be described as contemporary cabaret, Theo Bleckmann (Feb. 28), and a pair of singer-composers, Gabriel Kahane and Timothy Andres (April 5), who will perform their own songs along with those of other composers, including Charles Ives. And Laurie Anderson meets the Kronos Quartet in the world premiere of a new work commissioned by the Clarice Smith Center, “Scenes From My New Novel” (Feb. 1 and 2).

I’ve saved the best for last. The great Meredith Monk, whose distinctive vocal vocabulary sounds as fresh and original today as it did in the 1960s, is coming to the Clarice Smith Center with her latest evening-length performance piece, “On Behalf of Nature” (May 4), which had its world premiere in January. Monk’s work seems to have been growing richer and more radiant in the last few years, and this piece, which tackles themes like heaven, earth and the environment, is certainly one I won’t want to miss.

READ MORE:

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Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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