Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Music feature: Singer O'Connor finds career on contemporary path

Mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor.

By Greg Stepanich

Kelley O'Connor would like to spend some time pursuing her passion for cooking in the house she just bought in her hometown of Fresno, Calif.

But for the time being, the world of contemporary classical music has plenty for her to do.

Most notably, O'Connor is currently championing the Neruda Songs, a five-song cycle written by the American composer Peter Lieberson for his wife, the celebrated mezzo Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, who died at 52 in 2006 of breast cancer.

The songs have become a special document of creativity and love, and they draw on a similarly inspired document, the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda's Cien Sonetos de Amor, written for Neruda's third wife, Matilde.

"I find that if I really invest in them, and in their message, people have a really great response to it," said O'Connor, 29. "It's not just because of Lorraine and Peter, and their story. The songs are timeless and beautiful, and I've gotten lucky enough to sing them."

O'Connor, a mezzo-soprano, said the songs are about mature love, and that gives them a special kind of depth. Still, it was daunting to be picking up the mantle of the pieces, which were associated with Lorraine Lieberson, and which she recorded not long before her death with James Levine and the Boston Symphony.

"I was a little worried about it," O'Connor said of meeting the composer. "I did have to prove myself to him. But after I sang them in Chicago, he told me, 'They're yours,' and stopped coming to performances."

O'Connor has appeared several times in South Florida, twice with the Cleveland Orchestra in Miami for the Bernstein Symphony No. 1 (Jeremiah) and the Beethoven Ninth, which was later recorded. She also sang the Ninth last season under Itzhak Perlman at the Festival of the Arts Boca, and she'll return to that festival March 10 to sing Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky, which will be performed as a backdrop to the 1938 film by Sergei Eisenstein.

It's the first time she's sung the Prokofiev score, and while the music suits her dark voice, the language is proving a challenge.

"The sound is a very Eastern European sound, and it fits my voice. But Russian is very difficult to sing," O'Connor said, noting that she will be singing with the Russian National Orchestra, "and that they might know what I'm saying."

The RNO will be led by Constantine Kitsopoulos, and the choral parts will be sung by Miami's Seraphic Fire. O'Connor said she has fond memories of singing with Perlman at the Boca festival, which is sponsored by her management company, IMG.

"I had a great time. I always love the Beethoven Ninth," she said, which she has recorded with the Cleveland. "And to sing it with Itzhak: he's such a legend in our world. Just to even meet him was a special thing."

Growing up in central California, O'Connor first sang in school choirs and community theater, but it was during choir work at the University of Southern California that she developed the skill that would help her become a sought-after artist in new music.

"I did voice there, but it was in choir where I really developed my ear," she said. "That really helps me with contemporary music. I wouldn't be able to read this music without it."

A key break for O'Connor came when she was asked to sing the trouser role of the martyred Spanish poet Federico García Lorca in Ainadamar, an opera by the contemporary Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov.

O'Connor said the experience singing and then recording the opera was a life-changer for her, especially because of the changes demanded by director Peter Sellars, which required Golijov to compose new music, some of which O'Connor had to learn in a very short time.

"I really love being able to create on the spot. It's much more liberating as an artist to work with a living composer, to have things written for you, for your voice," she said.

O'Connor sang in the original Tanglewood production in 2003, in the revised version for the Santa Fe Opera in 2005, and on the subsequent recording of the opera, which won two Grammy Awards for 2006: best opera recording and best classical contemporary composition.

But O'Connor more often appears at orchestra concerts, not on stage, and she said she has her Ainadamar co-star, soprano Dawn Upshaw, to thank. It was Upshaw who has created a modern model for singers as contemporary music advocates rather than opera divas.

"Dawn Upshaw was a pioneer in doing this, and now it's not frowned upon," O'Connor said. "My road has gone this separate way, and now it's OK."

In December, O'Connor will sing Hippolyta in the Chicago Lyric Opera production of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream, but the rest of the year takes her to much of Europe and North America for performances of the Neruda Songs in Edinburgh, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Canton, Ohio; Beethoven Ninths in Budapest, Athens, Chicago, New York and Oklahoma City; a Mahler Third in Milwaukee and a Mahler Eighth in Nashville; and a St. John Passion in Calgary.

O'Connor would like to do some more Mahler, in particular the Kindertotenlieder and the Rückert Lieder, but she's also open to the idea of doing some jazz.

"You know, I love singing in Spanish," said O'Connor, who can sing the E below middle C comfortably. "But I'm also Portuguese. I'd like to find someone to set some songs in Portuguese: it's such a beautiful language, and it would be great to do."

In her free time, she'll be looking forward to hosting dinners for her fellow musicians at her new house in Fresno.

"My mom's ready for me to get out of her kitchen," she said. "I can't wait to have singers over. We love food and socializing. It's a great luxury, and now I have my own place."

Kelley O'Connor will appear Wednesday, March 10, with the Russian National Orchestra at the Festival of the Arts Boca, in a performance of Sergei Prokofiev's score for Alexander Nevsky, directed by Sergei Eisenstein. The film will be shown on a giant screen during the performance. O'Connor will be accompanied by the Seraphic Fire concert choir; Constantine Kitsopoulos conducts. Also on the program will be La Belle Dame Sans Merci, a new piece by the philanthropist and composer Gordon Getty. 7 p.m., Count de Hoernle Amphiteater, Mizner Park, Boca Raton. Call 866-571-2787 or www.festivaloftheartsboca.org.

A Kelley O'Connor discography

Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125 (Deutsche Grammophon 477 7132-6). With soprano Measha Brueggergosman, tenor Frank Lopardo and bass René Pape. Cleveland Orchestra/chorus, directed by Franz Welser-Möst.

Golijov: Ainadamar. (Deutsche Grammophon 477 7165-5) With Dawn Upshaw, Jessica Rivera and Jesus Montoya. Atlanta Symphony Orchestra/chorus, directed by Robert Spano. (Click here for sound samples.)

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