Stephen Powell: Music is Personal

In a family house full of musicians, opera soloist Stephen Powell spends his quarantine teaching vocal students online, discussing music with two sons – jazz music students and his wife – fellow singer Barbara Shirvis. His breathtaking performance in the newest staging of Norman Dello Joio’s “The Trial at Rouen” opera about Joan of Arc, landed a Grammy nomination for the best opera recording in the 2021 celebration. In the interview, singer discuss his performance, his musical roots and the current crisis of classical music.

You have a very musical family and I imagine that now in the quarantine situation it’s a lot of music, a lot of practicing together with your family members, what is the reality?

Yes that happens on a daily basis. I have two sons, both of whom are jazz musicians and they are in college. Until this last month they were all here, because of the pandemic, and going to college online. My youngest son just went back to school and he is living off campus (?) and doing most of the stuff online. But until then we had guitar in one room and double bass in the basement in the studio we have a piano and my wife teaches and sings as well. So the real struggle would be to find space and concentrate that we could find our own thing. But its a good thing, I would not complain of having too much music. So we worked that out. Its kind of great, because we can congregate in the kitchen or dining room and talk about these things together. Or we have a question, my dad pops every time and asks a question – dad, do you know about this, I have found something online, listen to this guy, look at this video. This great. It’s a wonderful thing to have in your home.

It feels that music brings your family together. It feels like music is a separate world and usually musicians are born out of musician families. For me it’s interesting to ask how the childhood really determines and in general, how..

I think there is not one answer, but for me, I was born into a family that were great music lovers. Whose enthusiasts. My mom played the piano growing up, but she loved opera and classical music, mostly her father, my grandfather, he had season tickets to see the Philadelphia orchestra and opera Philadelphia. He lived 25 35 miles outside Philadelphia. But then they would take a train once a week almost to some kind of classical music event. And on the other side my father loved jazz and big band music. Played the clarinet and saxophone. Between the two of them not only fostered in our home, but they supported my desire to pursue it as a career as well, which is not always the case – oh no, you cannot make a living in the arts, dont do that. Be a doctor, layer, something, but not that. I was fortunate that way. They supported me with lessons, I had piano lessons since the age of 6 and then in school with public education, I had some private lessons. And that’s still some of that, but not so much now. My home environment, my brother and sister were also musically inclined, played the piano, my brother was a singer, a poet, he did a lot of writing. Had that in our home and our family as musical lovers, more than anything it fostered my desire to pursue it, although i was born with it – love to perform and be in it, not just as observer, but as participant. I always wanted that and from a very young age, never considered anything else from life and career. I always had that desire.

It’s also interesting I read you say that you don’t really distinguish music from classical or jazz or popular, also that kind of comes from your family. It’s very interesting to hear how jazz music and classical music can coexist, they are so different.

They are different, except of the fact that and we talk about this a lot, technical facility with the instrument is the same, it’s very high. Even though the disciplines are slightly different and the approach to music is slightly different, or as classical more structured. Jazz is also very structured, but there’s more freedom. I experience this now, with my sons going through jazz programs in studying, specifically jazz techniques and theory. That there’s a tremendous amount of technical facility that you have to have, you have to study. It’s very similar to classical preparation – scales, arpeggios. But the thought processes are different with the improvisation. I marvel at people, I don’t know if you know, Chi Corea (čik korea), he just past away, very famous jazz pianist, I just adored him and watched him endlessly through videos and records growing up, I just couldn’t imagine, how someone could just make that up on the spot. Consistently, constantly. For me that was a marvel. I can read music and did that from a young age and there are jazz musicians that I work with that cant believe I can read music and just play straight away from looking at the notes. For them that’s a marvel. Its just a different, I suppose. But that is the same between the classical and jazz world. But the approach and you get the result is different. I like everything that is good music, the genre is really not that important, if its good, its good. It can be pop, rock, jazz, classical, musical theatre. If its good its good and you can tell. I just enjoy things that exist on a high level and create art, make you think, affect people in whatever way. That you can take away after you heard it, or after you observed it. That’s to me the genre isint the most important thing.

Would you say the good music is something that can be determined only by affect, or does it have some kind of qualities, that you can say are good in your terms.

Its very personal. I aquated to going to art museum and you see a canvas, just all yellow. And I think – is that art? Someone consieved of it, and they thought to do it and I thought feel nothing, so I don’t know, but other people may think, oh that’s genius, prophetic, so to me, I guess what makes something good and worthwhile is technical facility that is underneath, foundation the understanding that of a musical thread, construction, form. For me the big yellow square doesn’t have a form, its devoud of form, so it doesn’t move me. But that’s just me. So I think that and then a message that’s heartfelt, that you see coming from a persons soul, its not manufactured, its not meant to move you a certain way, its just a persons honest expression and that I think we visceraly we know this, we feel it. And when that happens, then that’s something of a high quality. That’s the best way to describe it.

How is it for the performer, you have a piece that was written some ages ago, and you have to create this moment that you take something that is not yours and you have to make it yours in a way that a listener would have its feeling that its real.

Within the classical world, this music that plays back centuries, so the study historical study of performance practice, style of the period, the thinking of the period, where people were historically. I love history, also. Love of mine. If I wasn’t a musician, I would have been a history professor or something like that. So I love to research the context of the piece, if its XVIII centuries Germany, or XVII 1970 france, so you have an idea why they wrote this and what they wrote it for. So historical context is vital, I think. And then connection with the singer, of course we have text, so connection with the text, the charecterisation of the poet and what they are trying to say. Something that is formulaic according to the time period. Baroque, there are some things that are written some type of way and it is difficult to get to the root of the emotion. But it is our job to do so and then to transform it into our own words. Our own vision and then again I go to technical facility. To have that ability to transfer the ideas to the audience, not just the composers, but your own personal take on that. So I think it has a lot to do with historical context, with research and spending the time, not just practicing, but in your mind to formulate why are you singing this piece and what it means to you. And then at the same time convey the original composers ideas. It takes time and care, you have to care enough to do that, take enough time and do the research to do it properly. So I that’s the time in research is the biggest thing. Finding something, not everything speaks to you. Especialy in Baroque there is a repetition of the text, you have to find why you keep saying it over and over. Or strophic verses in romantic art song, you have the same melody with three different verses, so you have to find out different way to sing the each verse and obviously are singing it with the same melody, putting the contrast and phrasing can be different within that. So its up to the artist to do the research and you can tell when someone walks on the stage and has done the research. Again, that time transfers to the listeners, people can tell.

I also heard from other singers that they do the research beforehand and they come to the rehearsal and then they have to forget all the research or then they don’t do the research, because they know that everything will be changed by director.

Well that does happen, depending on conductor and – in those situations, I guess I was mostly thinking about the recital format. But yes, when you are with the conductor, you can be boxed in sometimes. At sense, you can still do the research, and then if you have something interesting to say and the conductor is willing to listen, that is not always the case, sometimes you just don’t have the time, you have rehearsal afternoon and the concert at night, so you do the best you can. But sometimes its difficult, when I was younger, I was less apt to approach the conductor with my ideas, because I don’t want to upset anyone. Now I just talk, because I am older and I think I have something to say and I do it in the nice way and.

How was your research process for this opera for Joan of Arc, story, because I imagine it’s a rich historical context.

Well that’s fascinating, what a historical. When you have a story that everybody knows almost in every culture, Joan of Arc, that’s fame, that transcends culture and society and time, but you know after all research I did, its interesting that when it comes down to it, this is very simplistic, a bunch of old white guys talking down to a young woman. I mean its more complex than that, because she led the army at sixteen, seventeen, which is pretty amazing. So they were threatnet by her, not that she had power and people followed her, but that she was women and back then that was not something normal or accepted. And the power of the church. These men within the church dictating church policy and doctring of people. It was a power play, of course she was right and she was convinced of her way, thinking, belief and it wasn’t false. And they turned it to believe to make her some kind of a false profit or deviant and they twisted things her way and used her power to get rid of her. Pjero Žarson, even though he did it. This is also very inscidious and creepy that these men they bias in their apearence in the way they spoke. They did it softly and within the Cristian curch doctrine and they would scatter verses from the bible around. And no one screamed, there were a couple of moments for my character, where I get angry and say a couple of lines strongly. But most of the time its all very – listen dear, this is not the way it is, I am sorry. And that’s even more disrespectful and nasty. He was a nasty guy and theres a lot of examples of that with people that had power. And she was an innocent, sweet women who believed in her cause. But she was kind of doomed from the beginning in a way, because she was unable to garner support and power for her situation and that time period. However, we still are talking about her five hundred years later. So maybe she did alright. If you see it that way.

I imagine it’s really difficult to try to connect with such a character. Was it a struggle?

With my voice type, baritone I play a lot of bad guys. So I play brothers, fathers or not always the bases get the real villains, but sometimes I get those. So I enjoyed over the years allowing that side to come out in the characters. And its great I can do it on stage and don’t get to do it in real life. I imagine its very lucky thing for singers that we get to play out these characters on stage and in a fantasy world and were a lot of people the drama that they create in their lives is because they have no outlet. That kind of feeling being heard and appreciated and known. The stage gives us a chance and so were lucky that way. It gives you a chance to explore this part of your personality, but then you leave it when you walk out the door. Its actually kind of fun, because its not who you are.

It can be really helpful to see yourself in another way and meet your shadow in another way.

Yeah exactly. It makes you think, uh, I like this too much. Ive done scarpia in Tosca quite a few times. And boy hes a bad fellow and you think – oh, hes so fun to play and then you think – oh, I shouldn’t like this so much. Its as an artist, chance t oplay different characters. I never get the girl, as tenors do, they get the romantic leads. I get sometimes those parts to. So you get with my voice type, variety of parts to do, explore different characters. So I like that.

Does did your voice and repertoire evolved and changed tgrough the years?

It did, I started as a bass baratone and that was mostly because I didn’t have. I was a pianist first, I had my first bachelors in colledge as a pianist, came to singing much later, pursuing it as a carer musch later. I always sang for fun in choir and I had rock band in highschool, I used to play and sing Billy Joel, chose for fine, I didn’t purse it as a career or vocation. And then in my mid twenties I had voice teacher with whom I played with voice lesosns. He convinced me to switch and pursue singing. I came to it a little more late than others. But also I didn’t had any bad habits, anything that I had to overcome. From either singing incorrectly, or bad teaching or anything like that. I was able to develop fairly quickly and then my voice was be close to maturity as baritone anyway. So at the time I was twenty, I wanted to went on and sing professionaly. But at the beginning I start lower as a bass baritone, typical start – Mozart, Bach, then bel canto, then I did my first Verdi roles when I was 32, I did germo for the first time for traviata, then I did ford in falstat couple a years later. Then now I sing Verdi and I did the stepping stones in that repertoire. To make sure that I was that kind of siger. Some people stay with Mozart and bel canto, that’s who they are and that’s great. Sure I shouldn’t pursue, some people persue hearvier repertoire and then they hurt themselves, but I did it very slowly to make sure it was right and it turned out to be good for me. So now I do a lot of Verdi roles. And still do bel canto, not as much Mozart, I wish I did, but firmly within baritone repertoire, I still maintain a little lower extensions so I could do baroque oratorio work, which is usually more bassy, more bass baritone than baritone. So I am still able to do messiahas and saint matjew passion and works of that nature as well. Because I love that, Bach is my favorite composer. So I would really be sad if I couldn’t sing his music.

What would you say helped you the most with the choice of repertoire or in this plan. What were the most helpful things? Because it is a tricky path with the voice and the business side.

Youre right. I was lucky to have two voice teachers, who were very knowledgable about the technical aspects of voice and so they were good  guids for me. I was llucky to have them in a formation of my technique as a good singer. Which is absolutely vital for your career and length of your career to be able to sing for a long time. So those two men were very important, I was very lucky to have them. In addition to them I had a lot of coleagues who I was fortunate to meet and have done it for a while. That I was able to pick their brain as it was and talk to them about what they did and the choices they made, the good ones, the bad ones, the business end of things. Actually I like business, I always did, so I sort of have a idea of some good choices and bad choices about business stuff and didndt make a lot of bad choices in this way. I also wanted to have a family and didn’t wanted to go in any way I could, and be by myself, I wanted to have a balance in my life, so I managed to do that and I mostly had a career in united states, because I was gone six months a year anyway, and if I was going to Europe and Japan and I would be gone longer and if something happened it would be harder to get home, so I just made that business and family choice, very personal one. To do things closer to where we decided to live, so I could have a family. And my wife who was a singer also, she and I travel together, when the kids were young, we brought them with us. Which was hard, a lot of work, but we made that choice, but I think we made the right choice for us, so I am glad we did tah. And now they are in coledge, so there is time to do what I really want to do, so I am going to do recordings. I don’t know if you saw within the research you did, the cd I produced, called American composers at play? That one was my last year big project and my, that turned out very well, so now I have a couple of other ideas to the next recording project. So now I am centered on that, especially when we cant perform live. Hopefuly in the fall and next spring it will be back to normal

Because looking from Europe its very sad to hear that Met opera closed the entire two season for two years and it seem like so sad that there were basically no opera in America.

The difference in Europe and Aemrica in arts is pretty fairly large, because the European countries value the classical arts much more than our country unfortunately. And we have build that in our system, everyone contributes to art and culture and its important to everyone, and so you don’t have to raise money from private doners, from rich people, saying – hey we would like to do magic flute, can you give us 5 mln dollars. That’s what we have to do here. And ticket sales are about one third of a budged and the rest of it has to be gotten elsevere. Because of that when something as oriible as the pandemic happens, theres no government support, it just goes away. That’s tragic and really sad. I really feel the most sad for the young singers who just starting, who just had a debiut at the Met or Los Angeles and its cut short, so they have to start over in a way and its really hard. Im fine, I can get buy and of course, I miss performing a lot, but its little different for me. I had my time. A lot of people decided to leave arts altogether and do something else. Even the musicians of metropolitan orchestra, they have not been handled well. That’s the whole other story, but the administration has not treated them properly. So thirty percent of the musicians have moved New York and left away. Because they can afford to stay there anymore without the job that they had. So now these people, who are great musicians, the orchestra is one of the best in the world, now they are going to have to rebuild. It’s a scary prospect and I don’t blame people for doing what you have to do to survive, if you have to change professions, move to another city. I have friends who lived in New York and now they are in their parents house in Minsesota or whatever, because they cant afford their rent. So that’s sad. But I do believe it will come back. Things have changed as well as a political landscape, which is a good thing and I think that the arts one thing that we saw in the world and in our country, how important the arts are. We relied on them to get through this period. Its TV or movies or some kind of cultural art, entertainment. These things are important and without them we aren’t the same. So I hope that really smart people with a lot of creativity and energy, who are trying to expand on things online and prepare to when we do come back, I think just in a last month or so with the vachines being available, people are starting to have hope, trying to do more things having to reasons. I have work in the fall, so hopefully as things are going well, the fall season will intact. but it is very different between two continents. I sometimes think of Europe as midle aged person, who has gone through life and figured things out and had all the stuff in their young years so now they are wiser, and USA is the tumultuous teenager. It’s a very young culture and we don’t think clearly all the time, we don’t make the best decisions. and were sorts figuring out and you gyus been around 5-600 years and you have figured it out, so.

But everything has its plusses and minuses; I think you know American culture is very lively.

It’s great, it has a lot of good things, I mostly speaking towards the classical music world. You have to embedded engraved into your society and culture and we are still fighting to make it known to people, even for kids to grow up and have it in school, or have some acces, just to be able to play an instrument. The thing is I noticed it’s the same everywhere. As soon as the children are given the opportunity to observe or hear or listen or play, they respond. Its no different than it was three centuries or three decades ago. Its just availability and the opportunity for people to hear and participate. So that’s the thing we have to work on the most.

Are you a bit worried, you go now on a stage next autumn, how do you imagine it will be different for everyone?

From what we hear scientifically, that its going to be around with us, even though we are vachinated, just like with flu. So I think we are going to be a little bit more couscious about daily things, maybe everybody with opera, we still are going to  be standing next to each other. And orchestras are going to be playing next to each other, but just precosciouns of stage will be enough so we could do normal things onstage. We may have to wear masks sometimes, take good care with washing hands and things, maybe that will become the norm, I hope people will be more aware of others. That’s what I hope so much, that more aware of what other people need and how people are affected. In our country it’s a little bit been some terrible display of selfishness, unfortunately, and it’s a little, just makes me sad. I hope that will change a little bit to this pandemic thing. To see that we are all connected, that we all need each other. Everything we do affects someone else, so I hope that happens.

You also mentioned on importance of music education and you are a teacher, how you been teaching during the last year?

Ive been doing online teaching, which is turned out to be alright, I can still hear pretty well as long as the fidelity of the computer and connection is good. Its not the same as in person, of course, But Ive been able to make some progress. Its been able, because some students are in China, Korea, so eleven o clock at night and for me, we have to schedule things. And I feel bad for them, they have to change their whole schedule, sleeping schedule, because they are tsill going to school in the eastern time zone in US, so they have to have a one pm here is three in the morning for them, or so I admire them very much, so they’ve done it and they are keep going and so we been able to do trhat and as far as teaching, I also find it very important to im old chool, when I believe the time to take to get the body into the technique, foundation into your muscles to support this kind of singing, open throught, Italian school of singing in opera, which takes time and to make sure people take the time they need and don’t go too fast. Because our society is so fast, with everything, you look up for something in your phone, its immediate. Its great, fantastic, I grew up going into the dictionary. My dad used to say – get up on the table and go look at the dictionary. Walk into the room, which is still not that big of a deal, but here we have our phones to do us instant everything, to work against those energies from the outside world, so when we are in the studio, we take ourselves ten years back in the studio, relax, learn how to breath and do things in what I believe is the right way. that’s my voice teaching. But as I mentioned the education in music, at least in this country, to provide opportunities for education for school and communities that don’t have arts or music program in them. I am getting more involved in trying to do that. Its very important and not just for people who want to become professional musicians, but its for everyone. Its like playing socker. It doesn’t mean you are going to be a professional soccer player, but its fun and you learn how to work with people and it’s the same thing. So we need it, period. Working to make sure that more people would have that opportunity.

It was very interesting, I read in your biography that you compared the music with the drug.

I was hoping people understood what I meant. It’s a legal drug. It doesn’t have to be your profession, we need people to listen, otherwise we have nothing to do, we sing in an empty room to ourselves. That’s so just the appreciation from music too is so important and I think people are going to the concerts just for that, for the vibrations they feel. How it affects them, their mind and their body. Listening two hours for the symphony, it can change your whole perspective of your whole life. It can affect you to the point that maybe you go home and maybe you are nicer to people or something. or you treat yourself better. It affects your life in such a way, that’s why I say it’s a good drug, we are drawn to it, the vibrations of music they enter the bodies and we vibrate on a higher level. I always feel like that when I am in a midst of feeling. I feel like I am existing higher plain in a sense and who doesn’t want that. That what I mean by the drug reference. The other stuff, no don’t do that.

It’s very interesting, you mention about this truth in music and also this higher truth of being, because with normal drugs its an escape, but music is an escape mixed with real kind of experience.

Yeah, I think it’s a life style or everyday eating the right foods, your body feels better. Geetiing enough sleep, drinking enough water, all those things that just affect your outlook on life, your emotional state, your decisions you make on a daily basis. Its that kind of element to add to your life is to – you can just mix in with everything else. Not a temporary high as with a drug. I think it does alter your body chemistry in a way, music. I don’t know, im sure people had studied that. I have a very good friend, who is a neuroscientist. He teaches in school in boston. We have these discussions about music, what it does to your brain, these studies are very fascinating from a scientific point of view. How the brain and there is something very interesting about those discussions. You asked what happens when you are born into a family. Well your parents were and weren’t musicians. He talked about the genetics so my father and mother loved music, but they didn’t have talent or opportunity to pursue it as a profession. So how about my grandparents. My grandfather on one side was this opera persionato and went to opera once a week. And his father was linguist, he spoke eight languages or something crazy. And then great grandfather on my other side was a singer. So three generations now I am a singer, but it kind of skipped. I think things skip generations, also with sport athletes. I noticed friends, who are not atlhetes, but their father was and now they are athletes. Interesting. So we had those discussions how it works. I am not sure we all know the answers, but its fun to talk about.

Do you sing every day and probably listen music every day. Do you feel like it makes your life experience different or makes you different – more calm?

I think it makes me more calm, it’s a we all have something to go to when we feel we are out of balance. Go for a walk or be outside with a sun. Drink some water, because we are dehydrated. So yeah, music for me and for most people it’s a daily dose, something that I miss it when I don’t have it. if I do a lot of computer work for four hours, I say – oh, I could actually be listening to music while I do this. So I put something on the computer, which is fantastic. And listen and I think – why I didn’t do that four hours ago, now I feel better. So yeah I think it definitely relaxes me and not alters your reality, but changes your viewpoint where you might even be dwelling on something on your mind that was negative, or something with finances and sudently you hear Bach cantata and you are – chu, its fine, that’s stuff will work itself out, because there is bach, thank god, right? So then it really does even you out and make you see things more clearly, at least for me.

Your Musical idols are very different. Bach, Oskar Peterson, Billy Joel and the Beatles.

that’s a good example, of what I have to say is that I identify with people at the very top of their game, whatever the genre, classical or pop, you have Oskar Peterson, who is I think one of the greatest pianists who ever lived, just phenomenal. And also the other thing about these people that they are nice people. I seen them interviewed many times, he is just a nice guy. And that was an example to me, that bvecause you are super talented and you work very hard and you got on the top on your profession, you don’t have to be a jerk. Weve seen a lot of that or we hear that people in that position are really selfish and self centred and they are egotistical and threat people badly and so on and so forth. My experience with people on that level is not true, they don’t need to they are actually very nice people, they maintain humility and I want to emitate that and I found that very attractive about those people. I don’t know about Bach, if he is nice guy or not. Within those classical jazz pop and rock, I found these people the Beatles and Billy Joels. I was drawn to them not just for their talent and their expertise, but the hard work they did, technique they had, foundational technique they studied and worked so hard to maintain. that they are still going strong. Billy Joel is 72 almost and he is still doing concerts¡ So its Paul Mccartney and Ringo Starr. They are great examples of giving yourself truly to the artform and working hard and doing it for the right reasons, not for fame and fortune, but bevuase you need to and you want to sare this joy with other people. And I saw that joy in Oscar Peterson when he played. He had to do it, he could not do it, he was just that’s who he was. I identifies with those aspects of those people and that’s why I admire them, for all those reasons.

Thank you very much for the interview!

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