Soprano Claron McFadden: History, Novelty and Continuity

Claron McFadden
Photo by Sacha de Boer

Claron McFadden sings 17th-century opera; 18th-century opera, oratorio and masses; 19th-century liturgical music; 20th-century opera, classical music, jazz and avant-garde cabaret; and 21st-century music written for a show she developed herself. I’m sure she would sing even earlier opera, but the form hadn’t been invented yet-and, still, she has sung some renaissance polyphony. Among even more eras, genres and styles. Really, the breadth of her musical interests defies a complete list.

McFadden, a native of upstate New York, has lived in Amsterdam for decades. Her most recent New York City performances were in 2012 at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall, but, fortunately, she will be back in Manhattan tomorrow night when she will join a star-studded roster of performers at “Uptown/Downtown,” a gala benefit concert for Abrons Arts Center on the Lower East Side.

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She is taking a short break from dominating Europe (musically!) to participate in the benefit, sharing the bill with Broadway and cabaret luminaries including Ellen Greene, Bebe Neuwirth and Joey Arias. More info about who’s performing and how to get tickets is here; the show starts at 7:30 on Monday, October 14, with receptions and parties before and after for some ticket levels. Hey, it’s a benefit gala-and for a good cause: Abrons Arts Center does great work.

McFadden studied voice at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY, and made her debut on the operatic stage just a year after graduating, cast in Ton Koopman’s production of Johann Adolph Hasse‘s L’eroe cinese (The Chinese Hero) for the 1985 Holland Festival.

She is an elegant and sophisticated interpreter of Bach and Mozart, while also fully embracing music by numerous living composers. The giants of baroque conducting-a list including William Christie and Marc Minkowski-have her on speed dial and some of opera’s most prominent directors-including David McVicar and Graham Vick-regularly clamor for her skills. You can find out more about her prolific and diverse performance and recording career on her Web site.

The singer is just coming off a project that had her teamed up with cabaret star and emcee Sven Ratzke. The pair recorded a CD, Groschen Blues, and took their collaborative act on a successful tour. It is a Weimar-era tribute imbued with a dark, glamorous, carnivalesque atmosphere-smart and fun in equal measure.

For the past year, her primary project has been a multi-disciplinary show of her own conception called Lilith. The performance includes spoken and sung text, piano and electronic music, and video. It is a quasi-biblical allegory-Lilith, in Jewish mythology, was Adam’s first wife, before Eve-about unattainable gender equality, tragic love and God. Reviewers have liberally tossed around words like “splendor,” “spirited and evocative” and “jewel” to describe the show.

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As if that weren’t enough, McFadden has also been involved in the community performing arts collective Splendor Amsterdam (the site is in Dutch; Google Translated version here) that transformed an old bathhouse into a “cultural haven.” The institution is self-consciously designed to bring artists and their audiences together and to inspire experimentation and creativity. The building opened less than a month ago, and McFadden took part in the inaugural festivities with an exquisite and unexpectedly jazz-fusion-y performance of English baroque composer Henry Purcell’s “Music for a While.”

Here’s a clip of McFadden’s presentation at TEDx Amsterdam in 2010. She explains and then performs John Cage’s Aria, a performance that will ruin all other performance-of anything-for you forever.

And now, 5 questions Claron McFadden has never been asked:

1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked about your work?

“Are you religious?” This was asked after a performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion in The Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. The person who asked it said it looked and felt as if I believed totally in what I was saying. I quoted this text: “I will tell you a story that is not true; but you will believe it is true, because I want you to believe it. And when you believe it is true, I will tell you, ‘it’s not true.'” Then I said to him; If I do my work really well, you will believe that I am religious, whether I am or not. I believe that, on some existential level, it is my task as a singer to create the space into which the listener can step, in order to tap into his or her own personal emotional experience. If I imagine how it would be to be “religious,” or an atheist, or in love, or jealous, or bereaved, ecstatic, or whatever, and I try to find a corresponding feeling from my own emotional pool, or imagine how these emotions would feel, then I can (re)create that emotional space, even if that space is in an abstract form.

2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked about your work?

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Two questions come to mind:

1. Can’t you just use circular breathing for that really long phrase? (Circular breathing basically is a technique used by wind players to be able to keep sound constantly going. Unfortunately for singers, the technique occurs above the throat, where the voice box is located. I still wanted to learn it though; anything concerning the breath really fascinates me. I’ve even heard that playing the didgeridoo can help reduce snoring, due to the circular breathing!)

2. This is not an idiotic question, but just a tiny bit naive: “You’ve been performing for so long now, surely you don’t get nervous anymore?” There are so many variables involved in performing, from worrying about getting a throat infection to slipping on the shiny waxed floor of the concert hall, to having my mother in the hall, to not having slept well, to having someone say something hurtful in the sound check, to wanting it to go well so badly that it becomes a struggle to harness all that excess energy…To suddenly spotting the someone you REALLY like in the hall and the hormones kick you back into puberty, with the shaky voice that goes with it! I could go on and on…

3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked about your work?

After a performance of [French baroque composer] Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes at the Opéra Comique in Paris, there was a reception in the foyer. A man approached me and said, “Bravo, you were magnificent, your voice is beautiful, face is so expressive, perfect for ‘soft’ films (that is, erotic cinema!)…Would you be interested?”

4) I hear you’re performing a duet with Joey Arias at the Abrons Arts Center benefit. How did that collaboration come about? Are there any details of what you two have planned that you can talk about? Or is it a surprise?

I have a wonderful working relationship with the cabaret singer Sven Ratzke, and he always said the energy of Joey combined with my energy on one stage would be incredible. And at one of our performances in Amsterdam, I met Joey’s manager, Earl Dax, who’s really nice and totally cool. We had dinner in a little French traiteur and he asked if I’d like to take part in the benefit concert, and maybe do a duet with Joey, to which I said, “YES!!!”. I’m in the States visiting my family in Upstate NY so it all worked out perfectly.

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I think I’ll keep our choice of duet in the air for now-but it’s going to be great!

Claron McFadden - Dreigroschenblues
Groschen Blues
Photo by Hanneke Wetzer

5) When other opera singers do “crossover,” that often means show tunes or over-earnest Leonard Cohen covers-and that’s the best case! You’re an accomplished and sought-after classical singer, but your non-operatic work, such as your Groschen Blues project with Sven Ratzke, has a playful, avant-garde Weimar nightclub sensibility that looks an awful lot like performance art. What do people in the opera world think of your extra-curricular projects?

Performance art √† la Weimar nightclub-that’s high praise which I humbly accept. I’ve always been curious about different musical styles and artistic forms, and was constantly doing funky things during my conservatory years. I would sing Renaissance polyphony on Monday, perform a composition student’s new piece on Tuesday, have rehearsals for the opera on Wednesday and Thursday, sing with the jazz band on Friday, do my funk band gig on Saturday and sing the solo in Fauré’s Requiem at my Sunday church job. The one constant through it all was that I would sing with the same vocal sensitivity and sensibility as if I were singing Mozart or Bach.

I realized quite early on in my musical life that there are many stamps and boxes into which artists are supposed to fit, and it was equally clear I didn’t totally fit into any of them. But parts of me fit into practically all of them. It hasn’t been an easy road, but it’s been an honest one and I see it more like “artistic fusion,” combining forces to really create something new. This century seems to be really hungry for and open to these new artistic collaborations, like Groschen Blues and I’m really excited to be right in the middle of it all.

And Mozart and Bach are never far away in each phrase I sing!

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Bonus Question:

6) Lilith, the subject of your current project, is the mythological figure who was the biblical Adam’s first wife. She was his equal, in contrast to Eve, who was subservient to him. In opera, the soprano, the prima donna, is usually the star of the show. Why, as an operatic soprano, would you want to slum it in a role about gender equality when your status is more traditionally not equal, but superior?

It takes a special type of woman to walk out of paradise in defense of her equality. We’re talking DIVA here!

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