Escaping the Straightjackets of the Past: A Conversation with soprano Kiera Duffy

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When we programmed Arnold Schoenberg's String Quartet No. 2 for this season, we decided to shoot for the moon in the soprano realm. We're still a little astonished that Kiera Duffy agreed to join us, given that the bands that typically lay claim to her calendar include the Berlin Philharmonic, Metropolitan Opera, and the Lyric Opera. In addition to a profound fluency in 20th century and contemporary music, we should say that Kiera is also a most chill hang. Rehearsals have been artistically stimulating, and also gut-bustingly entertaining. Schoenberg's 2nd is a life-and-perspective-altering piece for all of us, so we thought we'd ask her to go a little deeper on the subject.

Join us on February 10th at UChicago's Fulton Hall for SCHOENBERG THE EMANCIPATOR: a FREE performance of Schoenberg's String Quartet No. 2, Bartók's String Quartet No. 1, and Webern's Langsamersatz.


Doyle: You were our first round draft pick (look at me, pretending I understand sportsball), and yet there isn't exactly an abundance of sopranos willing or able to tackle this landmark piece. How did it become a part of your repertoire?

KieraWell, I'm very flattered that I was in the first draft! I like your sportsball talk!

I first performed the piece at Marlboro about 8 years ago. When they asked me to do it, I pretty much died, because I had studied the piece in college and was gobsmacked by it. But the recording that I had heard back then was with the giganto-voiced Evelyn Lear – I just assumed, based on that, that it was a piece that would never be in my rep. I soon would discover, however, that it had been recorded, as much modernist and contemporary repertoire has, by many different types of voices. Not just giganto.

Lucky for me, I got to perform the piece again with the Academy Program
[now titled Ensemble Connect] musicians at Carnegie about 4 or 5 years ago, with your very own Clara Lyon (!), and I just sang it again with the Solera Quartet this past November.

Every time I sing this piece, I am left by more satisfied and more mystified by it.

DA: So, Schoenberg 2. This is like late-Beethoven good. The last movement is nothing short of revelatory. How does a piece this magnificent remain mostly on the fringes of the mainstay rep?

KDI wish I knew. I'm with you on the late-Beethoven good. It is extraordinary and I weep every time I hear the "postlude" of the final movement. I don't know if it's the "Schoenberg" name that scares people away from programming it? I think a lot of people don't realize that this period in Schoenberg's development – 1907/1908 – is not in the language of the much later serial/dodecaphonic stuff, which, I admit, can be challenging to listen to. This work still has one foot in late-Romanticism while also crossing into atonality. And it's that combination that I find so personally thrilling. 

DA: Like Beethoven, it seems that Schoenberg had such a strong aesthetic and architecture in mind that the limitations of the instruments didn't really concern him. What is particularly challenging about the vocal writing in this piece?

KDAs is the case for Erwartung or Pierrot even, Schoenberg seemed to have no understanding of or (more likely) care for issues of balance between the voice and the ensemble. Sometimes the instrumental textures are a very dense thicket of sound through which my (again: not giganto!) voice is trying to peep through. What this means in practical terms is that we can't always obey Schoenberg's dynamic markings exactly as he wrote them (sssh, don't tell Arnie!). The other challenge – also very typical of Schoenberg – is the very wide vocal range. I think the first movement covers more than 2 octaves and the second movement is about the same. You've got to have sufficient color and sound in the low, middle, and high parts of the voice to sing Schoenberg.

DA: You recently joined the faculty at Notre Dame. I would imagine that you are encouraging your students to engage with Modernist and contemporary rep. Why is this important to you?

KDI am, in fact, teaching a course right now on 20th and 21st Century Vocal Literature and Performance Practice (MSM 60449/MUS 40449, in case you were interested...) and I'm absolutely loving it! When I went to school, this rep just really wasn't talked about much aside from a few hours dedicated to Wozzeck and Rake's Progress. But I don't think I'd heard about Ligeti or Stockhausen or Berio or even Saariaho or Ades until well into my professional life. I'm trying to make sure that that doesn't happen to our students, particularly because new music is being programmed so much more than it was even 20 years ago. So there's that.

Doing modernist and contemporary repertoire can be extraordinarily challenging, musically, technically, intellectually (though, to be clear, contemporary music is not always thorny or difficult to listen to), but it is *immensely satisfying* when you feel you have "conquered" these pieces. The other great thing about singing newer music is that you aren't wearing the straightjacket of centuries' worth of past performances. I would lose my mind if I had to sing bel canto. I mean, can you imagine having to sing the Mad Scene from Lucia with Joan Sutherland in everybody's ear or Casta Diva with the spectre of Callas or Caballe hanging around?! Awful!

Finally, I think the opportunity to work with an actual, living, breathing composer is so important. It is the thing I like most about singing repertoire of this time. The collaboration in it. As a performer of western "classical" music, you usually miss out on the genesis of the thing, so to have an opportunity to part of that is so nourishing. And I find it helps me connect better with the canonic composers. You realize that Mozart or Beethoven were also living, breathing people, and their pieces were not inevitable, as they can sometimes feel. 

DA: We discovered in rehearsal that you, Russ and I all have children around the same age. What is the most preposterous or funny thing your son has exclaimed when hearing you practice?

KDOkay, so my kid hates when my husband and I sing. Like HATES it. I don't know if it hurts his little ears or  if it's because we're not paying attention to him (probably the latter). But the second that we make a peep, he screams at the top of his lungs "NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!" And because he is actually running the show at our house, we comply with his demands.