In 2006, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe treated the Shriver Hall Concert Series audience to incisive musicality and a downright electrifying voice capable as much of roof-raising power as of exquisite nuance. On Sunday, she returns to town, this time to inaugurate a vocal recital series at the Modell-Lyric that features stellar opera artists.
Blythe got her first operatic taste at 16, when she went with her upstate New York high school class to the Metropolitan Opera. That’s where she would cause a sensation a decade later, stepping in for an ailing Marilyn Horne in 1996 and serving notice that the Met had a promising new mezzo in the house.
Now in her late 40s, Blythe fulfilled that promise handsomely, and not just at the Met. Winner of the high-profile Richard Tucker Award in 1999, Blythe is a vibrant presence at major opera houses in this country and Europe, not to mention with eminent orchestras as a soloist.
The mezzo also regularly makes time for recitals — and putting together interesting recital programs. Her Baltimore performance contains a bit of opera, including a popular aria from “Carmen,” but that won’t be the primary focus.
“If a German singer sings lieder in a recital, or a French singer sings chansons, no one has a problem with that,” Blythe says. “As an American, I like to offer American music. We have better compositions being written, better American contemporary songs right now, than we ever thought possible. I'm very dedicated to promoting that.”
The first half of the program features “Vignettes: Ellis Island,” a remarkable song cycle composed by Alan Louis Smith, who will be Blythe’s piano accompanist in the recital. The texts to the 26 songs in the cycle are drawn from interviews done for the Ellis Island Oral History Project.
“This was a birthday gift Alan gave me for my 30th birthday,” Blythe says. “The pieces are very timely because of issues today. I am a child of an immigrant. My mother was German; my father met her when he was stationed overseas in the Army. And I’m married to an immigrant; my husband [former professional wrestler David Smith-Larsen] is English.”
The songs provide glimpses into the lives of people — different genders, ages and nationalities — who came through Ellis Island in the 1920s.
“These songs resonate with audiences every time we do them,” Blythe says. “It is fascinating to see this journey of people who left everything behind to start something new.”
One of the singer’s favorites is about a girl who can’t believe her good fortune after joining her mother in America.
“There’s a marvelous moment when the mother tells the girl that there are cookies in the kitchen and she can help herself,” Blythe says. “In the middle of the night, the girl sneaks downstairs, gets four big cookies and puts them in her lap. There’s no one on the planet who cannot connect with that feeling of safety and comfort, something so necessary to all of us as human beings.”
Another song recounts the experience of would-be immigrants turned away from their first attempt to gain passage to the U.S. “They were told the ship was overloaded, so they went back to their hotel,” Blythe says. “The ship was the Titanic.”
Blythe and Smith, who run a summer workshop in upstate New York for singers and pianists to explore art songs by living American composers, will devote the second half of the recital to music that immigrants to early 20th-century America would likely have heard.
In addition to a couple of opera arias, selections include “To the Land of My Own Romance” by operetta composer Victor Herbert and popular songs from the days of Tin Pan Alley, including gems by Russian immigrant Israel Balin — better known as Irving Berlin.
For Blythe, singing pop music doesn’t reflect an effort to “cross over.”
“I was there already,” Blythe says. “One of my first influences as the Four Freshmen. I also loved Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Vaughn Monroe and Kay Starr. I always loved popular song, even when I was training as an opera singer. I like music that connects us to our culture and to one another.”
Opera still fuels Blythe’s career; she will perform the role of the evil stepmother in Massenet’s “Cendrillon” (“Cinderella”) for the first time this spring at the Met, for example.