-Stacie Dunlop (above right) performs Rêve doux-amer/Bittersweet Dream with pianist Krista Vincent (above left) at Toronto’s Gallery 345 on February 2nd

1.First of all, what personal reasons compelled you to decide on an evening of Baudelaire set to music by a variety of composers?

Where should I start?  Let’s see…I fell in love with Debussy’s Cinq poems de Baudelaire the summer I coached them in public master classes with Rudolf Jansen at Calgary’s Mountainview Music Festival, and then decided, after putting in all that hard work learning them and performing a couple of them in concert, that I needed to perform the complete song cycle.  This led me on a quest as to how I should program these fabulous yet problematic songs, as they are often not done in recital because of their length and low tessitura, which can make listening to them in a concert setting quite challenging to an audience. So I planned to program them on a concert that would be entirely based on poetry from Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, as well as take them out of the standard recital format and stage them theatrically. And so the search for music began.  While I came up with a few amazing pieces, namely the Carter, Silver and Harvey, there seemed to be very little else that interested me, so I decided to commission the rest of the works on the program. 

2.Why did you decide to go the multi-media route with projected images? 

I have always loved art and theatre, and there is something about “setting the scene” or “creating the atmosphere” through a visual stimulant that greatly appeals to me.  I believe that I was first inspired when I saw a production of Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges at City Opera in NYC, and they used a front screen to project the scenery on, and played behind it. This almost made it animated, and I found the idea thrilling.  In Rêve doux-amer, I like the way the images start out in light and then gradually get darker as the idea of death/sleep is approaching. And then with childhood and sexuality, we explore colour and warmth in the images, which later become dark and static as they once again approach death.  I believe the images also make it more accessible to an audience, helping to tell the story with the addition of colour and light.

3.Along with compositions of, say, Debussy and Carter, you have also commissioned several composers who are Canadian to set Baudelaire to music. Who are they and why did you choose them and what do you feel about the results?

I commissioned three Canadian composers, Juno nominated Newfoundland composer Clark Ross, Tawnie Olson (who is Canadian, originally from Calgary, but now lives and works in Connecticut) and Scott Godin who is back at home in Castlegar, BC.  I met both Clark and Scott while I was at Memorial University, completing my Master’s degree in Vocal Performance and Voice Pedagogy. 

I really loved the quirky/jazzy nature of Clark’s music and knew that he had a lot of experience writing for voice, so I asked him if he would be involved in this project and he jumped at the opportunity.  Clark wrote an extremely lush song for the show, well, for me I guess, based on the poem Le Léthé, which means Oblivion.  In it you feel a sensual longing and I get a warmth in my guts when I sing it that feels as if it taps right into the depths of my soul.  There is actually a new commission for the upcoming shows of Rêve doux-amer as the Newfoundland Arts Council gave us some money for a second piece from Clark, so the poem Les Bijoux, another one of the prohibited poems from Les Fleurs du Mal, will be an addition to our program. It will be premiered at the Newfound Music Festival in St. John’s, Newfoundland on January 26. Needless to say, I am so excited to be able to have a second work by Clark on the program.

I had become good friends with Scott Godin while in school, and we had talked about a future collaboration, so when this opportunity arose, he was also thrilled to be involved.  Scott’s instrument is the piano, and he wrote this intense piece for Krista Vincent, my good friend and fabulous collaborative pianist, based on the poem La Destruction and it is all of what the poem describes and more:  Et jette dans mes yeux pleins de confusion, Des vêtements souillés, des blessures ouvertes, Et l’appareil sanglant de la Destruction!  Translated this means: And thrusts before my eyes full of bewilderment, Dirty filthy garments and open, gaping wounds, And all the bloody instruments of Destruction!”  The rhythmic intensity and creepy thematic material that Scott uses in his piece is just bone chilling.  It plays during a stage of transformation in the show (that’s all I will say about that!) and let’s just say it really helps set the mood for the piece that follows it.

Tawnie Olson was introduced to me back in August, when we were workshopping the show and realized at that time that we were a little short on material. So Roberta Barker, the theatrical director of the show, suggested I contact her, as they were close friends, and it turned out to be an amazing collaboration.  The piece came together over two very short weeks and we communicated by Skype on a regular basis.  Tawnie asked me what I wanted, and I said, I wanted something to end the show with a bang…and it does just that. I don’t want to spoil it for the audience, so that is all I have to say about Tawnie for now.

4. What are the positive and the negative aspects of having a poet’s work set to music, especially poems as famous as those of Les Fleurs du Mal? How can a poem serve both literary and musical masters at one time?

When you set great poetry to music, you have to do it as to capture the idea and enhance it, but without overdoing it.  Not an easy task…

Sometimes composers are successful with this task, other times they are not.  I like to think that all of the composers, living and dead, who are represented in my show, Rêve doux-amer, have been successful at achieving this. 

I think the balance is found when the composer really understands the poetry and that they give it the respect and love it deserves when they breathe new life into it by transforming it into a new medium with their music.

5.  The clips I’ve seen of you performing Pierrot Lunaire are quite exciting theatrically, so please tell us all that goes into a topnotch theatrical performance such as this.

Pierrot Lunaire is an amazing work and the poetry is incredible. Once you get inside of the text, it makes the drama come alive inside of me. How can you not be inspired by the image of a person’s head being smoked like a pipe, or terrified by the idea of beady red eyes staring back at you in the dark?  It is creepy and the music is so intense, and I actually feel as if I’ve just begun my exploration of Pierrot since there are so many more layers to delve into and the dramatic possibilities are endless.  I have an affinity for Schoenberg’s music and was in fact just at the Banff Centre for a six-week residency focusing on two other works by him, the String Quartet #2 (Litanei and Entrückung) and Erwartung…but that is for another time.  As for Pierrot Lunaire, it is the piece itself that is theatrical, and once you get into it, it is like being inhabited by the spirit of the work. The theatricality just happens…flows out of me…I don’t really know how.  But one thing I can say is that a difficult work like this takes plenty of preparation, and I work with amazing coaches and have a great teacher who helps me refine my craft to bring works like Pierrot to life in my body and soul.  That performance was also an incredible collaboration with fabulous musicians living in the Halifax area and Berhard Gueller, the conductor of Symphony Nova Scotia. It was inspirational just to be able to work with them.

6. What do you find enjoyable and what do you find difficult about the texts you have sung in the past and also the poems of Baudelaire?

If I have to sing something that doesn’t move me, it is difficult. That is why I like to be involved in the process of selecting text, but it is not always possible when you are involved in the creation of a new work.  What is enjoyable is when you sing something that really speaks to you, that you can encompass and relate to as your own life experience.  There is a line in Chanson d’après-midi that says: “Mon âme par toi guerie, Par toi, lumière et couleur!  Explosion de chaleur Dans ma noire Siberie!:  My soul, healed by you, By you, light and colour! Explosions of heat in my black Siberia!” This is how I feel sometimes. I am a passionate woman and certain experiences make me come alive with an explosion of heat and colour, especially so when I have been experiencing a bleak period in my life.  Yes, the texts are very important to me and the only thing that I find difficult about the Baudelaire is perhaps not knowing the poetry intimately enough. But it is coming.

7. Likewise, which composers do you enjoy singing and which do you find difficult? Why?

Ah, this is a mean question!  Whose music do I love to sing?  Well, Arnold Schoenberg, György Kurtág, R. Murray Schafer (perhaps one of my favourite composers, and someone who knows and has written so wonderfully for my voice), Alban Berg, Claude Debussy, Francis Poulenc, Olivier Penard (a wonderful young composer from France), John Harbison, Benjamin Britten, Jonathan Harvey, Elliott Carter (who I also find difficult, but that is why I love him), Igor Stravinsky, Samuel Barber, Charles Ives, Xavier Montsalvatge, Gustave Mahler, Maurice Ravel, Henryk Górecki, Kaija Sarriaho

Massenet, Floyd, Puccini, Strauss, Leoncavallo, Mozart and Bellini…I love to sing this music too, but it is somewhat unnatural for me. I seem to have a certain affinity for new works, I want to do it all, because sometimes it is just so satisfying to get out a nice juicy opera aria and honk away. But in reality, my soul does not shine through when I sing more standard repertoire. That is something I have just learned lately about myself.

8.How would you describe yourself as a singer and how have you changed over the years?

I am a singer with an adventurous and passionate spirit, who has a lyric weight voice with a dramatic soul attached to it.  I like anything with a challenge, the more the better, and I want to be moved and move others with my voice through the music that I choose to perform.

I have always been this singer, but in my youth I was not really sure how to deal with all of this. I have this need to create/perform/push myself to the edge, but the voice was not always ready to do this, and the soul didn’t always know what I wanted because sometimes, as I said before, I have been torn by the want and need to be mainstream, and yet the voice inside of me, and the passion in my soul, will only speak through the energy of new works.  I know this now.

9. You seem to like a challenge and by implication you seem to like to challenge your audience, so what are you asking of your audience for the Baudelaire poems set to music?

It is simple, to step into the music with me, follow the story and enjoy the experience.  I am certainly not trying to challenge my audience with this show. This is not an intellectual quest or a lecture but this is entertainment, pure and simple. Mind you, it is high-art entertainment!

10.Which of your personal qualities go into performance and which do you hold back? How do you surprise yourself sometimes when you perform?

I think you always need to hold a bit of your emotions back when you perform, which is not always easy to do. Take Maria Callas for example, she never held back, and so the vocal quality was not always wonderful.  I try not to sacrifice the voice for dramatic intent, but in the heat of the moment, you sometimes just let it take you where it wants to go.  I had an experience once while singing the fourth song from Requiem for the Beloved by Kurtág -it is such a sad but beautiful piece- and as I sang the last note, tears began to role down my face.  I guess to be so “in the moment” that you may not remember what has happened on stage, or to have an emotional experience overcome you, is a wonderful surprise when it happens. It is also rare and I wish that it could happen more often. It is a wonderful feeling to be completely immersed in the music making experience.

11.What’s the cultural value of this Baudelaire production and why should one come to it?

Let’s see. You get great music, combined with art, new creations combined with old, music and theatre, poetry and drama. What more could you ask for?  It is a great show and I hope that people will come and check it out and experience it for themselves and draw their own conclusions as to why this might be of cultural value.

12.What other works will you be doing over the next year and where? 

I sing the role of Tamara in a concert version of Rubinstein’s The Demon with opera Nova Scotia in March.  In April I have a CD release concert with Land’s End Chamber Ensemble from Calgary, in which our all-Schafer CD “My life in Widening Circles” is being released on the Centrediscs label and includes the self-commissioned work Six Songs from Rilke’s “Book of Hours”.  In the fall I will be premiering a new work by Peter Togni with Blue Engine String Quartet in Halifax, and after that I hope to head back to the Banff Centre for a residency that will include Pierrot Lunaire, Kurtág’s Kafka Fragments and further exploration of Schoenberg’s Erwartung, and I also hope to have a performance of Pierrot Lunaire on the 2012/13 concert season at Memorial University’s School of Music.

13. So, as a last word or two, why have you gone this interesting route?

 I was sick and tired of the same old boring “recital” format.  I wanted to do more and to give the audience more, to tell a story. To weave all the poetry together and live a life,  show a life lived, lovers loved, to revisit the memories of a life and re-explore childhood, adolescence, adulthood and death. It’s life lived and experiences experienced through the words of Charles Baudelaire, a poet whose words are as relevant today as they were the day he wrote them. His sensuality is still as fresh and passionate as ever.

Art, music, theatre and poetry are complimentary to each, so why not use them all at once to enhance the experience? Why not weave a story together by following a life through poems written over time, add colour through art and expression to the music through theatre. And by projecting the translations, we also get a bilingual experience (and save a few trees by not having to print up the translations in a program!). 

I guess that I want to add that I feel lucky every time I get up on the stage to bring music to life. I love being able to have the opportunity to perform and to share some of my soul and passion with the rest of the world.  That’s it. I am a very fortunate person that I have a musically passionate life and that I am lucky enough to be involved in the creation of some pretty amazing works.

Rêve doux-amer/Bittersweet Dream at Toronto’s Gallery 345 on February 2nd

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