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Lessons from a rising star: Kiera Duffy takes on The Metropolis Ensemble challenge
by Elisabeth Avery for Vocal Area Network
Posted April 6, 2008

Kiera Duffy (photo by Steven Laxton)The young singer's dilemma:  Two vastly different works: Esa-Pekka Salonen's Five Images After Sappho and Ravel's Trois Poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé. One, a contemporary piece, that floats on the upper end of the scale, fractured by wild harmonic leaps and buzzing syncopations, its fragmentary text still unexplained by the best of scholars. The other, a wisp of pre-WWI symbolist textural smoke propelling a voluptuous mezzo sensibility aloft on an inscrutable text, exhaling an ultimately restrained expression of longing, supplication and agony. Both masterpieces of undeniable beauty, demanding a mature vocal virtuosity. Underscore them with an instrumental ensemble comprising New York's finest young musicians, all known for their soloistic brilliance.

This is the dilemma devoutly to be wished by any up-and-coming singer. But, how does one meet the technical demands of idiosyncratic pieces such as these? We asked soprano Kiera Duffy.

KD: Well, to a certain extent I am singing with two different voices. The tessitura of the Salonen is high and suits my voice, while the Ravel is low — more for a mezzo. I have been listening to myriad recordings [of the Ravel]...obviously there is a "sexiness", a lushness of sound that Janet Baker so easily achieved. Since my voice is quite high, I don’t naturally create that sound; and, I have to be careful not to manipulate my voice into something artificially dark or "mezzo-ish.

EA: Admirers of Esa-Pekka Salonen have said that he composes for the best-sounding range for each instrument. Does this hold true for the voice in Five Images After Sappho?

KD: Yes. The Salonen is gratifying to sing. It is much more in my vocal comfort zone. I've recently been doing quite a bit of contemporary music, including that of John Zorn, Elliott Carter and Pascal Dusapin. These composers tend to work in extremes, in tessitura, in rhythmic structure, in harmonic structure (if there is any structure--haha!). With this experience, Salonen's vocal writing is quite comfortable for me, and although the rhythms are challenging, they are by no means next-to-impossible to master. Also, idiosyncratic as the Sappho songs are, for the most part, they have a certain harmonic "center.”  The third and fifth movements are probably the most difficult, tonally speaking. (Hopefully I’ll master them by the10th!)

EA: Is mastering them a matter of perfect pitch or extended rehearsals?

KD: Hopefully not a matter of perfect pitch, because I don't have it!  I rely a lot on muscle memory, in addition to repeated aural work. After a while, even the most atonal passage starts to sound like its own idiom. Little tricks help, too. For example, if a passage has big leaps like a 10th, I'll practice singing the intervals in inversion (the 3rd). Although, I can only do this to a certain point and then I really need to practice the pitches where they actually lie in order to get that muscle memory.

EA: Esa-Pekka Salonen describes the original Sappho fragments as a few little poems with smatterings of words with large empty spaces in between, but full of "…the tremendous energy of suffocated sexuality and vibrant eroticism." And before Salonen, Ravel was similarly seduced by Mallarmé's cryptic, symbolist Trois Poèmes. Frankly, I need Cliff's Notes to decipher them. How do you approach difficult text like this?

KD: I know what you mean — what the heck was Mallarmé smoking? The way I research poetry depends on the specific poems.  Generally, I get an initial intuitive sense, then I do some reading.  For these, I found a lot of fantastic articles in various nerdy academic journals, as well as specific articles on Ravel's setting. Particularly in Mallarmé's last three poems, I found the intellectual side REALLY helped my intuition! Mallarmé apparently loved the sounds of words, sometimes more than their innate meaning.

EA: What about the expressive aspects of Ravel’s music?

KD: One of the challenges I find with this piece — as someone who is more comfortable with the emotive, outwardly expressive sensibilities of the German repertoire — is that although it has a certain Germanic expressionist feel in terms of tonal language, it is quintessentially FRENCH… The implication for the performer being the notion of suggestion: To exercise a certain emotional restraint. Also, the sounds of Surgi in particular, are not the sounds one thinks of when one thinks of Ravel. Certainly the piece is a departure for Ravel. It is very chromatic but somehow (at least to my ears) not exactly dissonant. Nothing in these songs ever sounds out of context or awkward. Every line, despite extreme chromaticism, maintains those hallmarks of Ravel's genius — elegance, clarity, structural precision and a shimmering quality.

EA: Metropolis Ensemble dedicates itself to presenting both emerging composers (and performers) and unique, underplayed classics masterpieces. Your career seems to echo this dual track. What led an opera singer to work with people like Elliot Carter and John Zorn?

KD: I was just trying to get work wherever I could, and the work I was being asked to do happened to be the more avant garde. I was a pianist all my life and one of the numerous benefits of that was I developed a pretty reliable ear. I sight read easily and learn music quickly, so I got the reputation for being someone who did repertoire that not a lot of other singers were interested in doing. It's funny, I got into this music for pragmatic reasons, but now I practically need it for artistic reasons. It pushes me technically, dramatically and sometimes psychologically. I get a tremendous sense of accomplishment and satisfaction from doing these sometimes insanely hard pieces. Also, I LOVE being part of the collaborative process with composers. I think everyone has had moments when they wished they could phone Mozart and ask him what he was thinking when he wrote a certain line, or what tempo he really liked, etc. Working with living composers obviously affords you that luxury.


The Metropolis Ensemble was founded by Artistic Director/Conductor Andrew Cyr with the mission of presenting music as a living art form: one that is continuously renewed via dialogue between past and present composers, and today’s performers and listeners. To that end, programs provide vital support to living composers by encouraging and commissioning the creation and performance of new works; by presenting musical masterpieces from the past along with the present; and by taking this mission into New York City's schools to educate the next generation of composers, musicians, and listeners.

Philadelphia native Kiera Duffy is the recipient of a 2008 Sullivan Foundation grant and a finalist in the 2007 Metropolitan Opera National Council auditions. Duffy is enjoying a flourishing concert and operatic career in repertoire spanning from Handel and Praetorius to the new sounds of Elliott Carter and John Zorn. Her 2007-08 season includes Despina, Così fan tutte and Tebaldo, Don Carlo (Tanglewood Music Festival — James Levine, conductor); Dew Fairy, Hänsel und Gretel (Opera Company of Philadelphia); Praetorius’ Christmas Vespers (Early Music Ensemble); Apollo’s Fire and Messiah (Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra); Despina (Opera Naples); Ellen, Lakmé (Tulsa Opera). Other appearances include the Bicentennial Concert of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia; Beethoven Mass in C, (Palm Beach Symphony); and soprano soloist in Carmina Burana (California Symphony and the Reno Philharmonic). Her season ends with Ghita in Vicente Martín y Soler’s rarely performed opera Una Cosa Rara (Opera Theatre of St. Louis).

LOOP: THE CONCERT
Thursday, April 10, 2008 – 8:00 PM
The Times Center
242 West 41st Street (at 8th Avenue)

Features the world premiere performance of Piano Concerto by Metropolis Ensemble's Wet Ink Composer Resident Ryan Francis (b. 1981) with pianist Anna Polonsky.
Three 20th Century masterpieces: Ravel's Trois Poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé, Esa-Pekka Salonen's Five Images from Sappho with soprano Kiera Duffy, and Satie's Sports et Divertissements, arranged by David Bruce and narrated by Mike Daisey. Buy tickets online: www.metropolisensemble.org. Wine reception during intermission.


Elisabeth Avery writes about medicine and music. She is an unabashed fan of The Metropolis Ensemble, Music & Arts at St. Michael's Episcopal Church on the Upper West Side, and VAN.


Content Contact: Elisabeth Avery.
Revision Date: April 6, 2008.
Technical Contact: Steve Friedman.

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