astride a comet

We’ve all read Khatia Buniatshvili’s bio, right? If you haven’t, treat yourself. She’s a pianist (apparently a good one—I’ve never heard her), and her bio is riveting. It lends itself well to dramatic recitations over dinner; it could be a drinking game. The last paragraph is particularly great: “Khatia Buniatishvili, shining pianist at the height of her abilities, came into this world in a shower of light during the summer solstice. On a human level, she is attracted more to equinoxes, being smitten by justice and seeking day and night in equal share.  By lifting one’s eyes skywards one might notice her playing hide-and-seek with either Venus or Mercury. The cosmos is her garden and it is in its movement that she feels alive, astride a comet.”

Maybe we should all rewrite our bios! The thing is, hers is working on some level—I’m talking about her. Although they’re necessary, bios are generally the worst, somehow both boring and irritating. I’ve been a professional performer with a bio (written by me, about myself) for about fifteen years, and the genre still makes me cringey and self-conscious; either it’s too detailed and list-like, which is dry, or too descriptive, which is braggy and subjective and easily veers toward the ridiculous.

Look at Khatia, though. What if we stopped worrying and embraced the epic? What if we pulled a Spaceman Spiff, a Stupendous Man, and channeled our inner hyperactive six-year-old as we talk about ourselves in the third person? This industry thrives on individual responses to individual work. It’d be one thing if there were objective, peer-reviewed, double-blind, clinically-tested measures of quality in performance, but there just aren’t. We’re all flailing about in the emotive soup together, seeking day and night in equal share, playing hide-and-seek with Venus or Mercury. (Has Khatia played Vivier or read Calvin and Hobbes??) Maybe we should all be taking more risks, in our bios, in our repertoire, in our lives!

On that note, happy Equinox, everyone. Don’t worry, I’m not actually going to write a new bio that begins “we join the fearless SPACEMAN SPIFF, interplanetary explorer extraordinaire, out at the farthest reaches of the galaxy…”READ MORE

breathe

Hi from France.

At the end of summer 2018, my partner and I planned six days of hiking in Germany as our only real vacation of the year, which had been very stressful. Four days in, I got an urgent message about a jump-in, and after some discussion, sadness, and a final lovely evening together, I left early to take the job. Ever since, I’ve felt I owed my partner a real vacation.

I didn’t realize how much I also owed myself one. Now, a year later, after ten days of hiking in the Pyrenees and a week at a yoga retreat in the countryside near the mountains, I finally remember what it’s like to not feel close to burnout. It’s the first time in ages. I almost don’t recognize myself.READ MORE

several lovely reviews, plus the Choc de Classica!

I’ve been slow to post reviews this spring, but I’ve had particularly kind words about several recent performances, and I’m delighted to announce that Damask‘s debut album, O schöne Nacht, has received a prestigious award: the Choc de Classica.

Here is an excerpt of the glowing review of Damask’s disc (translated from the French): “Brahms’ writing, which weaves voices together so naturally that each seems born of the others, is a perfect fit for the spirit of Damask Quartet, an international vocal ensemble founded in 2014 in the Netherlands. Katharine Dain’s agile, round soprano, the voluptuous and vibrant mezzo-soprano of Marine Fribourg, Guy Cutting’s flexible and lustrous tenor voice, and the deep warmth of baritone Drew Santini are all portals to the composer’s shimmering sound-world. From pianist Flore Merlin’s first arpeggios, Brahms’s Vier Quartette Op. 92 envelop us in the warmth of the night, its romantic possibilities and its sensuality.” The review will be in the June 2019 issue of Classica magazine. We are so pleased that our hard and careful work has been consistently rewarded with great press since the CD was released in the winter; receiving such an award feels like a real milestone.

In April, I jumped in for an ill colleague in songs of Zemlinsky and Berg in Austria’s Osterfestival. It was an utterly beautiful experience—the meeting of musicians, repertoire, location, and concentrated atmosphere was inspiring, and I couldn’t believe that it was all put together on such short notice. The Kronen Zeitung agreed (translated from the German): “Alban Berg’s ‘Seven Early Songs’ [were] sung by soprano Katharine Dain, who made these strange melodies seem completely natural with her vocal coloring and soulful dynamics. In Zemlinsky’s ‘Six Songs after Maeterlinck,’ she and the musicians meshed the simplicity of the vocal line with sensual instrumental sound.”

And in May, I sang my first Brahms Requiem. The Boston Musical Intelligencer wrote a nice piece on the concert, including the following: “Brahms surely was thinking of his late mother while composing the fifth movement, Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit (You now have sorrow), a rare expression of tender consolation set for solo soprano with the chorus largely in an accompanimental role. The soloist’s very first phrase is a stern test of the singer’s breath control, a long ascending and descending melody that is entirely exposed over a silky cushion of muted strings. Katharine Dain was appropriately seraphic, seemingly beyond the tiresome bodily necessity of breathing, and the strings were equally ravishing. As with the earlier baritone solo, the interplay of soloist, chorus, and orchestra was handled sensitively, with exemplary balances and unanimity of expression. Dain had an especially radiant moment ascending to a high A at “[I] have found great comfort,” and the ending was sweetly maternal (“I will comfort you, as one whom his mother comforts”), capped by a celestial high pianissimo chord in the wind instruments.”

on ambiguity, Donna Anna, and growing up

Sometimes, when I was an undergraduate at Harvard, I’d walk through campus on a brooding overcast day and spot the towering steeple of Memorial Church (usually quite imposing, a striking white spire against the brilliant blue of a New England sky) receding into the muted light, its sharp contours softened and made less visible by the texture of the clouds behind. For some reason, I’d feel an unexplainable pang of satisfaction whenever the steeple was the same color as the sky.

What was it about that image of the gently receding spire that I liked so much? I’m still not sure. It’s a lofty wooden affair that always looks like it’s just gotten a fresh coat of white paint. The church itself is brick, dignified and columned and grand, and it anchors one of Harvard’s grassy quads. I’m looking at the church now as I sit on the massive stone steps of Widener library opposite. It’s a windy spring afternoon, and several banks of clouds have already scuttled across the sky; in a short period of watching, I’ve seen the steeple change moods several times according to its backdrop.

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Berg and Zemlinsky at the Osterfestival

I’m jumping in for an ill colleague at Austria’s Osterfestival in the heart of the Alps. The program is Berg’s luscious Sieben frühe Lieder and Zemlinsky’s little-known and absolutely gorgeous Maeterlinck Lieder, performed in an arrangement for chamber orchestra by Reinbert de Leeuw. Reinbert (the founder and conductor of Asko|Schönberg, the Netherlands’ most storied new-music band) also conducts the performance, which features players of the Belgian ensemble Het Collectief. I wish my colleague a speedy recovery; my adrenaline is high as I dive into this gorgeous repertoire that evokes the world of Klimt and Art Nouveau. (It was almost exactly four years ago that I jumped in for a recital in the Concertgebouw’s Kleine Zaal in similar repertoire of Marx, Korngold, and Strauss; read the glowing review of that performance here.)

coming to light

… as heimlich [familiar, homelike, or surreptitious, secret] progresses through its shades of meaning, it eventually coincides with its opposite, unheimlich, which the German writer Schelling defined as “the name for everything that ought to have remained … hidden and secret, and has become visible.” … In the annals of etymology, where heimlich and unheimlich reveal themselves as one and the same, we find the secret to this very particular kind of anxiety, Freud tells us, which arises from the encounter not after all with something new and foreign but rather with something familiar and old from which the mind has been estranged by the process of repression. Something that ought to have been kept concealed, but that has nevertheless come to light.

-Nicole Krauss, Forest Dark

Y’all, it’s been a WINTER: ten weeks of intensity, of newness and of return, of hibernating and of shedding—of things long concealed or suppressed that have nevertheless come to light. I’ll elaborate, but first, here’s a summary of how that’s manifested in my work since the beginning of the year.

Right after the start of 2019, I went back to France—Reims, this time—for the last Konstanzes of the Clermont-Ferrand production of Entführung. It was so wonderful and so sad. I performed the opera both better (I can really sing the role now) and worse (as old habits clashed with new ideas and upswellings of feeling) than ever before. It was the end of many stories, the beginning of others, both a celebration of what the team has made and experienced together over the last year and a vulnerable bringing to light of new aspects. I’m deeply mourning it, and I’m also happy to take everything it’s given me into new projects, to move on.READ MORE

Entführung diaries: Memories


My year of Konstanze has ended. I’m sure I’ll revisit the role, but saying goodbye to her now, and to this unforgettable team and production, was so hard. I have spilled so much (virtual) ink here talking about the process, so I won’t do that any more; I’ll just leave some images here of one of the most absorbing, beautiful, challenging projects I’ve ever done, with thanks and kisses to everyone involved (including many not pictured) for the memories, the laughs, the wine, the probing moments, the hard questions, the gâteaux des rois, the walks, the hugs backstage, and the chance to grow so much–together and individually.

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O schöne Nacht is out!

At last, the release of Damask’s album of vocal quartets by Brahms and his contemporaries has arrived! The disc is available directly from us or from various online distributors and is now also downloadable on iTunes; other releases will follow. We have had several nice reviews already: “a perfectly executed, imaginative recital” (OpusKlassiek); “a remarkable fusion of timbres and palpable collaborative energy” (ON Magazine). We are thrilled.

in which my brain bids 2018 a relieved goodbye

Happy end of 2018, friends.

It’s been a hard one for many of us. For me and my work, there have been moments of almost unbearable intensity, both good and bad, and stretches that were entirely business-as-usual. Typically, the latter periods bring stability and groundedness, but sometimes this year they did the opposite, which was to wind me up so much with feelings of banality and wheel-spinning that I occasionally wanted to quit everything and hide under the bedcovers for a month or two and emerge only when I had cried out all the feelings and knew what I wanted—which, needless to say, never happened; so I kept going, didn’t quit, cried on the train sometimes, and always did my job creditably, I think, even when I was seething inside. Finally, I’ve had a week or two over the holidays to hide out in the house and truly rest, taking a real break from work for the first time in a year or more—knitting, watching movies, listening to podcasts, cooking, enjoying the company of a few close people, and finally, remarkably, enjoying my own company—and that, simply, turns out to have been the main thing I needed. I’ve been sleeping through the nights instead of awake for hours with anxiety or disorientation. Early this morning, I excitedly texted a menu idea to a friend with whom I’m celebrating tonight, and got back the following response: “I’m glad that after having a turbulent year, the thing you’re thinking about lying awake at night is food and friends.”

A year ago today, the above photo was taken in France. I was a few weeks into the life-changing time in Clermont-Ferrand, the production that has most defined the year for me and shown me the direction I want to go. (Even though I don’t completely know what I want, I’ve learned that I want at least this: doing a lower volume of work at a higher level, not burning out, and being paid better for higher-quality preparation.) The photo looks idyllic, doesn’t it? It was a gorgeous, sunny New Year’s Eve with recent snow, my husband was visiting, and a generous member of the opera chorus took us up to hike the Puy de Dome. It was spectacular. When the photo popped back into my feed this morning, my first feeling was nostalgia for that moment, for those weeks. It seemed like a simpler, less confusing time.

But then I began to remember some of the feelings from that time that I’d forgotten about, or pushed away. READ MORE

Coconuts and connection

While lying in a hot bath one chilly November morning in Seattle, trying to soothe my jet-lagged body before a concert and catching up on back issues of the New Yorker, I read the following:

“What are you doing? I don’t mean what are you doing with your life, or in general, but what are you doing right now? The answer, in one respect, is simple enough: you’re reading this magazine. Obviously. From a certain economic perspective, however, you’re doing something else, something you don’t realize, something with a sneaky motive that you aren’t admitting to yourself: you are signaling. You are sending signals about the kind of person you are, or want to be. What’s that you say—you’re reading this in the bath, or on your phone in bed, or otherwise in private? Well, the same argument applies. You are acquiring the tools for a ‘fitness display.’ … Fitness displays ‘can be used to woo mates, of course, but they also serve other purposes like attracting allies or intimidating rivals.’ So there you go: that’s what you’re doing, there in the bath with the magazine. Your rivals are right to feel intimidated.” (John Lanchester)

Intimidated! I burst out laughing and sank deeper into the water, and my eyes rested on my chipping toenail polish: a saturated, dramatic dark blue, most of which was already worn away. The blue might be a signal, too, it occurred to me (rivals, feel intimidated!), and the lack of maintenance yet another (I’ve had too much on my mind since the summer to think about my toes).READ MORE

What it takes to make an album

Almost as soon as I came back from my epic 2018 summer of travel and work, before I had time to learn where the light switches were in my new house or to recover from jet lag, I plunged straight into a completely full-on project that’s been consuming me every since: the making of the first Damask album. I’ve been involved in other people’s recordings before, and I’ve recorded short sessions of demo material for myself, Damask, and other groups; but this is a full-length commercially available album with full creative control, made to showcase our work, and it’s one of the most absorbing, satisfying, time-consuming, and expensive projects I’ve ever personally undertaken. The learning curve has been steep and the work load has been heavy. It has given me huge respect for everyone who is still involved in recorded sound and for all the greats who came before—the artists but also all the other hundreds of people who work unbelievably hard to make this sort of project happen. Now that we’re preparing for the album’s release, I finally wanted to write something to describe the whole experience up to now. I had NO idea what was truly involved, and I was blindsided by many aspects of it (in mostly good and some bad ways); I am SO SO SO incredibly excited for the end result, but also would love for the process to be more transparent, as I have realized how many misconceptions exist about recordings, how they get made, and what they represent to both artists and listeners. So, off we go!READ MORE

Gubaidulina with the New European Ensemble

In early October I sang on several concerts honoring the composer Sofia Gubaidulina with the New European Ensemble. I first encountered her magisterial Hommage à T. S. Eliot at West Cork Chamber Music Festival several years ago; I couldn’t believe the sheer force of the music and the sympathy of the text setting. It was a huge pleasure to revisit the piece with these stellar players, and we got an excellent review in the NRC:

“In Hommage à T.S. Eliot (1987) liet sopraan Katharine Dain de volle reikwijdte van haar stem horen: quasi-spreekgezang en met lucht omklede fluisteringen in de laagte, via expressief uitgespuugde lettergrepen, tot vlammend hoge uithalen.”

(“In Hommage à T. S. Eliot (1987) Katharine Dain let loose the full range of her voice: quasi-sprechstimme and airy whispering in the low range, syllables expressively spat out, to eviscerating, flaming highs.

My first Cunégonde

I’ve been singing the showpiece “Glitter and be gay” for years, but finally I got to sing the whole role of Cunégonde in Leonard Bernstein’s Candide in Banff. This role is a keeper; I had so much fun getting to know her, finding her unique physicality and voice, and being as much of a diva as possible. The Calgary Herald reviewed the whole show positively and had these kind words about my performance:

“Casting Katharine Dain’s dark-hued Cunégonde was the right choice for the outdoor performance. Dain has a faithful and solid tone throughout her entire range, and a mature, modulated coloration that is truly enviable. There has been a swing of late toward light lyric/soubrette-styled performances of the role the past 20 years, but Dain reminded us what the richer lyric coloratura fach ought truly to sound like in her tightly controlled performance of the epic cavatina/cabaletta Glitter and be gay. Bernstein’s parody of Marguerite’s “Ah! Je ris, de me voir si belle” in Gounod’s Faust, satirized the addiction to jewelry and Cunégonde’s incapacity to resist it. Dain pulled off the cynical, saucy line “If I’m not pure, at least my jewels are!” disturbingly well.”

Watch a video of the whole aria here.

Strength

“How much time we wasted, she wrote, believing that things came to us as gifts, through channels of wonder, in the form of signs, in the love of men, in the name of God, rather than seeing them for what they were: strengths that we dragged up from the nothingness of our own depths.” –Nicole Krauss, “Seeing Ershadi”

I encountered the above quote in the New Yorker while reading in the middle of the night in Rouen. I haven’t been sleeping well in 2018 (work, anxiety, jet lag), with many hours awake in the dark. So I was happy to read this lovely short story about a dancer, which beautifully articulated so many ambiguities and doubts so well: mostly, that careers in the arts are not usually the pure artistic journeys people think. They are hard work, occasionally successful, full of rejection even when things are going well, generally not paid much, full of humdrum days just like any other job. Intermittently they give huge highs—personal, artistic, social—that keep us going through the harder moments.

This one quote from the story—“strengths that we dragged up from the nothingness of our own depths”—hit me strongly and has stayed with me. When careers in music work out, I’m learning it’s usually because someone managed to find something particular about themselves and make it indispensable. It could be an especially beautiful sound, or quick musicianship, or an affinity with a certain repertoire, or unusual facility with language and text, or good stage ability, or striking physicality, or being rock-solid reliable, or something else or a combination. (This is in addition to all the other things you need for success–hard work, patience, and a huge amount of luck. Opportunities come so arbitrarily and we can’t control timing. When careers don’t work out or are slow to start, it absolutely doesn’t indicate a lack of talent or work, often just a lack of luck. There have been moments that I’ve felt very fortunate and also moments when I’ve cursed the universe as I compared my own trajectory to others’. But I do think that whenever it does work out, it’s because someone found their own particular strength or set of strengths and optimized it.)READ MORE

Praise for Konstanze in Massy

I was very happy to read the following review on Olyrix after our final Entführung of the season in Massy:

“Également lauréate du Concours international de chant de Clermont-Ferrand 2017, Katharine Dain est la révélation de cette soirée. Sa voix ample et soyeuse, ses phrasés souples et son timbre chaleureux se révèlent dès son premier air (“Ach ich liebte, war so glücklich“, acte I). Son interprétation subtile semble donner envie à l’Orchestre de l’Opéra de Massy (et au chef Dominique Rouits) de se surpasser.READ MORE