Fior di Diavolo

Strongly founded! A marble tower! 

With those words, arms splayed in a stock gesture of defiance, I launched into Fiordiligi’s first-act aria on a makeshift stage in the winter of 2004. That production, a Così fan tutte (in English) organized and performed by a bunch of over-caffeinated Harvard undergrads, gave me my first opera role—and my first taste of what it might be like to let music this thrilling channel through me while everyone else had to stop and listen.

It was heaven, it was a mess, and it was deeply formative. That Così, more than anything else, pushed me into serious singing training after college. It’s a miracle I got the chance at all; I was a choir nerd, not an opera queen, and my listening habits leaned toward polyphony, Bach, Weezer, Stravinsky, Joni Mitchell. I had no inkling of how legendarily difficult people considered the role. But my friend Jim, conductor of Dunster House Opera, knew I had a sneaky way with coloratura, and one day he pulled me into a practice room with a stack of scores. We sight-read through a dozen iconic Mozart arias that afternoon, and Come scoglio was by far the most fun: I blazed out the high notes and honked out the low, wiggled through the crazy triplets with abandon, and laughed in delight at the absurd melodrama. It was settled.

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Kenneth

Stunned that Kenneth Montgomery died yesterday.

Many knew him much longer and better than I did—but I feel so lucky to have known him for a few years, to have worked and learned and sung in his circle of light for a short while; and I feel heartbroken that I didn’t have more time, that we all didn’t, that a light like his has to go out.

It won’t, of course, not really. We’ll all be carrying it on, consciously or unconsciously. I thought of him often today. I was singing Brahms, Herzogenberg, Schumann and Korngold, and I tried to sing it with the rapture, focus, rigor, and zest that he would have brought to music of such extraordinary beauty. I tried to sing it with the gentleness toward myself and those around me that he would have shown. I tried to sing it with a soft sparkle in the eye, like his.

I will never forget singing Mozart with him—starting with my audition for Don Giovanni with the Orchestra of the 18th Century, one sunny May afternoon in his living room. I had been traveling since six in the morning and arrived late after a massive train delay, breathless and frantic that I’d blown my chance. But Kenneth smiled, sat at his Broadwood, beckoned me into its crook, and began to play. My breath slowed into the humanity I heard in each phrase he played, the compassion for every emotional shift. My love for and indignation on behalf of Donna Anna found a friend and champion in him before we’d exchanged a word about her character or her story: I could hear it in his music, see it in his face. And we kept going. We read arias together for as long as it gave him pleasure.

The picture above by Jan Hoordijk is from the Schauspieldirektor/Magic Flute mashup we did in the fall of 2021. I was singing the goofy role of Madame Herz, a caricature of a prima donna. What strikes me about the photo is that I look so much like myself under his amused smile, despite the exaggeration of the character.

I have all kinds of identity questions about myself to this day. Opera singer? Concert singer? Good girl or femme fatale? Nerd or diva? Singing with him allowed me to be all things at once—a fully realized version of myself as a musician and human, whatever the proportions. I think everyone who loved him felt that way. He was so extraordinarily, boundlessly generous of spirit. For him, all good music was good music; every singer or player was a delightful mix of music-making, soul, and sense of humor; and all stories were good stories, and weren’t we just so lucky to get to tell them?

Kenneth, it was an honor to know you.

child’s pose

Hi from a Rotterdam kitchen table strewn with empty coffee cups, scores of Polish songs I’m learning, and a laptop open to an article about airborne missiles (Russian? Ukrainian? deliberate? accidental?) killing Polish civilians.

Life has felt kind of high-stakes lately. Just me? I don’t think it’s just me. 2022 has been so heavy, in fact, that I ran out of things to say here for a while. It was hard enough to stay present in my work and in my relationships, and no kind of music chit-chat came easily. Music was dwarfed by the enormity of everything else: the pandemic; a breathtakingly destructive European land war; climate inaction and denial; borderline-fascist power grabs; the erosion of individual rights, safety, and autonomy in many places.

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Edison Klassiek for Regards sur l’Infini

I am honored beyond belief to announce that my 2020 album Regards sur l’Infini has won the Edison Klassiek award (category: Best Debut). I offer my most heartfelt gratitude to my partners in this adventure, Sam Armstrong and Frerik de Jong, and to everyone who listened, supported us, and told us what the recording had meant to them.

Never in my wildest dreams did I anticipate that my quirky project would be such a hit. READ MORE

wells of love, lasagnas of protection

There are different wells within your heart.
Some fill with each good rain,
Others are far too deep for that.

In one well
You have just a few precious cups of water,
That “love” is literally something of yourself,
It can grow as slow as a diamond
If it is lost.

Your love
Should never be offered to the mouth of a
Stranger,
Only to someone
Who has the valor and daring
To cut pieces of their soul off with a knife
Then weave them into a blanket
To protect you.

There are different wells within us.
Some fill with each good rain,
Others are far, far too deep
For that.

—Hafez

 

In late March 2021, after all the accumulations of the past year—

after mourning the people who died—

after commiserating with friends who lost loved ones—

after adjusting to the loss of most of my income—

after feeling almost unbearable gratitude for the work I managed to do in spite of everything, and the friends who supported that work—

after watching momentous political upheavals across the world on small screens—

after endless vulnerable conversations about how everything, everything, had been changed by Covid—

after making and re-making plans over and over and seeing most of them cancelled anyway—

after laboring for so long to keep my professional mask from slipping, because I knew that everyone in the performance industry was suffering more or less equally, and no one had any answers—

in late March 2021, after all this, I cried harder than I had in the entire pandemic.READ MORE

the things I am still, a year in, trying to tell myself

Someday, you will recognize how brave you were.

Someday, you will recognize that your grief was reasonable, whether it was connected to a specific loss or not.

Someday, you will (possibly) forgive yourself for your unearned privileges—a home, a few close people, tolerance of solitude, money and food enough, health care—that others suffered and died without.

Someday, you will (possibly) forgive the politicians who dismissed the importance of your life’s work during a crisis that stripped you and most of your friends of their livelihoods even as those politicians continued to ease their lockdown boredom with stuff made by artists.

Someday, you will look back in disbelief at having been able to devote months to a single project, a single album, and you will fully know the generosity of everyone who helped make it happen, everyone who listened and shared and wrote to you to tell you what it meant to them.

Someday, you will know that what you actually spent time on this year—making that album, listening to what others were making at the same time, movies and shows and books and podcasts and radio and streamed concerts, cooking and cleaning and sleeping and bathing and walking and resting and laundry, knitting, keeping a pet rabbit and some plants alive, yoga, learning about houses in general and yours in particular, taking things apart and putting them back together mindfully, clearing away old objects and anxieties, opening your home to two friends for months, opening your heart to many friends’ fear and grief, finding ways of sharing your own fear and grief and also bearing them on your own, huddling for long cold afternoons under a crocheted blanket that was a handmade gift—mattered more than what you didn’t spend time on and felt guilty about.READ MORE

Ruth Falcon, 1942-2020

I was shaken to learn last night that soprano and legendary teacher Ruth Falcon has died.

I was lucky to study with Ruth at Mannes for three years. She was an exacting technician, a force of nature, someone who could be both boundlessly generous and terribly difficult. Although we haven’t been close in many years, it’s hard to believe she’s gone.

I remember our first lesson. I had been accepted to Mannes and was trying to decide on a teacher. Ruth worked me hard for an hour; I felt things unlock that had never been free. The feeling was physical and thrilling, and the resulting sound was one I had never heard come from my own body before, unstable, full of color. After I breathlessly thanked her at the end of the lesson, she told me with satisfaction that she had heard something teachable in my high C during my Mannes audition. Nothing else was good yet, she hastened to add, but we could build down from that pitch. It was my first squirming encounter with her notorious directness, but the thing was, we DID build down from there. In the next year or two especially, she gave me technical tools I am still using.READ MORE

Mahler, Berg, and Schubert with Grammy-winning Ludwig

Most of my concerts this spring, summer, and fall were cancelled. But not this one, which went off last week without a hitch, and thank goodness, because it was a complete pleasure from start to finish. Scroll down to listen to our Mahler and Schubert.

Ludwig is a Dutch chamber orchestra that almost exclusively plays without conductor. (A notable exception is whenever they work with Barbara Hannigan, who sings and conducts; their 2018 album Crazy Girl won a Grammy.) I’ve sung with them a few times before, but this project felt extra-special. It was my first time singing Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, a piece on my wish list for the longest time; it was in TivoliVredenburg, a concert hall in Utrecht that feels like home, for an actual (distanced) audience; and it was one of only a few live performances I’ve gotten to do lately, and perhaps the last for a while. The program also included three of Alban Berg’s luscious Seven Early Songs and a ghostly, stunning arrangement of Schubert’s Nacht und Träume.

But back to the Mahler, which felt almost unbearably poignant under the circumstances.READ MORE

Regards sur l’Infini: Back Story

It’s been a rocky few months for the performing arts, which makes it all the more strange and wonderful to announce my own news: Sam Armstrong and I are making an album.

Sam and I been close friends and collaborators for a long time, but we’ve never recorded together. Now, finally, we’re planning a disc of French songs, titled “Regards sur l’Infini” after a gorgeous early song by Dutilleux. The program is a compact, symmetrical meditation on restlessness and longing, including two complete cycles (Messiaen Poèmes pour Mi, Debussy Proses lyriques) and songs by Claire Delbos, Dutilleux, and Saariaho. We will record in the second week of August in Nijmegen’s stunning Concertgebouw de Vereeniging. Frerik de Jong will be at the helm, and the disc will be released on 7 Mountain Records in November of 2020.

But wait! How did this project evade the jaws of the pandemic?

It didn’t. “Regards sur l’Infini” will be a direct result of the Covid-19 lockdown. Like most performers, I’ve been virtually unemployed since mid-March; although some work is flickering back to life, the industry is still in major trouble. But meanwhile, I’ve been quarantining with a pianist. We’ve been making music together at home all along—at first just to cope with the uncertainty and loss, and later with a defined goal. I’m so glad that the album will serve as a permanent record of this work: a document of deep thought and assimilation and trust, a personal silver lining to a global catastrophe.

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Höchste Lust: music as the opposite of social distancing

it is a necessity to have a plan, a manifesto, an alternative. it’s a question of life and death for our species. as a musician i feel i can suggest the musical poetic angle which is that after tragedies one has to invent a new world, knit it or embroider, make it up. it’s not gonna be given to you because you deserve it, it doesn’t work that way. you have to imagine something that doesn’t exist and dig a cave into the future and demand space. it’s a territorial hope affair. at the time, that digging is utopian but in the future it will become your reality.

—Björk

 

Oh, hi. Weren’t we just chatting? Was it really only last month that I was here on the blog, smugly linking to positive reviews and broadcasts, projects I had in the pipeline? Was it really just a few weeks ago that my first performances were canceled due to the rapid spread of COVID-19 across Europe, and I was hoping (despite more emails and apologies coming in every day) that the loss might be limited to my March and April gigs?

… Well. Here we are, in a different reality. So many people are losing so much, so quickly. I am currently healthy, in a well-functioning country, riding out the uncertainty in a comfortable house with my husband and two close friends (one of whom is a wonderful pianist, so I can even carry on with music at home). I feel fervently grateful for my good luck, and guilty for being so lucky when others aren’t. I don’t know how to be adequately grateful for the doctors and nurses risking themselves every day to care for sick people, or for the public-health folks and epidemiologists who are working to lessen the blow around the world. The scale of it all is staggering.READ MORE

Reinbert de Leeuw, 1938-2020

The world is a less vibrant place today.

The last time I saw Reinbert was nearly a year ago, spring, a jump-in—Berg and Zemlinsky songs in gorgeous chamber arrangements he had made. I had enough notice that I could go to his house in Amsterdam on a sunny April day to go through the music. I had been cramming at home and was quaking in my boots when I arrived, because I was barely past the sight-reading stage with some of the songs, and how could I hope to please him, who knew so much more than I did?

I should have known better, but then I only worked with him a few times. He welcomed me in, made me a coffee, sat in his favorite chair in the sun, and then we didn’t rehearse at all—he talked about the music and the texts for an hour or two with such love, such depth of understanding, and such wonder and humor. He played me recordings and hummed and conducted along, his eyes sparkling at particularly beautiful harmonic shifts. He told me stories. He could not have been more generous. It wasn’t only generosity—this was also of course the most useful preparation together, because everything started from his fierce, uncompromising, entirely romantic commitment to the material, and this was what he cared that I absorb in our short time together, more than musical details, which I could manage on my own. I won’t ever forget that concert, or his spirit, although so many knew him much more deeply and longer than I did.

Rest well, Maestro.

thoughts on an itinerant Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving from me, an immigrant.

Or am I an expat? There’s a huge difference in connotation between those two words. The word “expat” usually implies a temporary state: a state of privileged displacement for a period of months or years, a chosen state of non-integration. Expats might have gone abroad for an interesting job; expats don’t always bother to learn the local language; expats only hang out with other expats. Some people start off thinking of themselves as expats but stay long-term. Some who thought they were moving permanently actually find the transition to a new place too difficult, and return. The word “immigrant” is often used negatively, unfortunately, to otherize people who flee dangerous or hopeless circumstances and try to improve their lives somewhere else.

I’ve lived in the Netherlands for more than seven years, and I’ve gone through multiple bureaucratic processes at the IND (Immigratie- en Naturalisatie-Dienst, the Dutch agency that processes foreigners trying to settle in the Netherlands). I’m an immigrant in the eyes of the law. I wasn’t forced out of my home country by oppression or war or danger, thank goodness, but I am originally American, and now I live in the Netherlands, and I plan to stay. I applied for dual citizenship when that became possible, and now I am “Dutch-American soprano Katharine Dain,” a phrase I put at the beginning of my bio to indicate both my hireability throughout the EU as well as an aspect of my identity. Artists are sometimes put idealistically in a different category—citizens of the world, drawing inspiration from everywhere, etc.—but whether we study abroad (as I did in London from 2004-06) or permanently relocate (as I now have), we’re still immigrants, or expats. We still submit our paperwork at the IND like every asylum seeker. We still grapple with feelings of cultural displacement, loss, and loneliness, and never more so than around the holidays.READ MORE

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

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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