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How To Prevent Heads From Being Buried In Programs

April 24, 2009

Stephanie Blythe forbid audiences to follow along with the words for the song cycle she performed last night at San Francisco's Herbst Theatre alongside members of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. The American mezzo-soprano asked he event's producer, San Francisco Performances, to refrain from printing out the text from Alan Louis Smith's Vignettes: Covered Wagon Woman in the program notes. She wanted to see our faces, we were told by San Francisco Performances' director, Ruth Felt, at the start of the program. Concert goers were invited to pick up copies of the text, culled from the Daily Journal of Margaret Ann Alsip Frink, a 19th century woman who chronicled the arduous and exciting journey she made with her family from the east coast to the west in 1850, from the lobby after the performance.

The news was greeted by cheers from some audience members. I didn't feel strongly about the decision one way or another. Though the cheers somewhat surprised me as so many people who go to recitals tend to spend their time with their heads buried in their programs, diligently following along with the words. The notes often serve as a crutch for those who find the music boring or confusing. I would have thought that Felt's announcement would have caused more panic than adulation.

Blythe's decision turned out to be a terrific one. I don't think I've ever been able to give such full and undivided attention to the words a singer sings in recital in the past. Even when the text is in English (as it was for Covered Wagon Woman) I tend to glance down at the program notes in order to make out what's being said because the enunciation isn't necessarily very good. But Blythe cares so much about the words that she imbues every single syllable with precisely the right emotional emphasis to communicate her meaning fully to her listeners. As a result, I understood exactly what Blythe was singing. Plus, she was so involved in the character she was portraying -- Margaret Frink, the pioneering author of the Journal from which the cycle's text is taken -- that her acting subtly reinforced the scenes Blythe painted and story she told. I was entranced.

Smith's music also helped the audience to pay attention to the words without needing the crutch of a printed text. The texture of the musical lines constantly changed but whether it was lush and full or sparse and eerie, it never masked the singer and always underscored the emotional content of the text.

I hope more performers take a lead from Blythe and omit textual inserts from concert programs. This makes most sense for English-language songs in the English-speaking world. But it might also work for foreign-language repertoire too. If she hasn't done so already, I challenge Blythe to try this out.


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