LYNNE McMURTRY "Why Song?"
Singing as a profession is famously difficult to sustain. Any one of us who has walked a few steps on this path knows how difficult it is to find representation, to endure the endless rounds of fruitless auditions, to land enough gigs to make it possible to keep going… frustrations abound. But what about when you’ve finally gotten the gig (hurrah!), yet after all the work it took you to get there, it just feels... somehow… unsatisfying?
I know many of my colleagues will say, “Welcome to reality!” Singing is a job, and sometimes it really feels like one. But I don’t want that to be the reason I get up on the stage. Most of us began our pursuit of a singing career because we wanted to move people, to plumb the depths of the human experience through the power and beauty and immediacy of the human voice. We want to participate directly in the most beautiful, heart-rending, and fulfilling moments of our art form.
Maybe it’s just some of the gigs I’ve been getting lately. For example, I was recently in rehearsal for a Beethoven 9. For the mezzo, of course, Beethoven 9 is not exactly a star turn. But knowing that didn’t help when, after the rehearsal, the conductor said to the other singers things like “Lovely job” or “That bit is sounding much better.” In my case, what he said was, “I can hear you.”
Hmm. I think it was supposed to be a compliment… bravo for making enough sound to be heard where other singers might not be. But, really? After the countless hours and thousands of dollars I’ve poured into this career, that’s the reward? I can bring all my skill and imagination to some moments in some gigs, and it still feels like I haven’t gotten to do very much, or show very much to the audience who, blessedly, came to hear our show.
One of the truths about our business is that we’ll all probably sing some music that doesn’t particularly speak to us, in which it seems our own singular contribution is insignificant. With any luck, it doesn’t dominate our calendars. But there is a genre I always return to in which my contribution matters, my voice is always heard, and I can sing about things that matter to me. It’s song, of course, and it’s something I fell in love with early, perhaps out of necessity.
As a young singer, my biggest challenge was living with a voice that needed a lot of time to grow, more than most of my colleagues. Many of my colleagues were ready for YAPs and auditioning for legitimate opportunities. They were working on arias from standard operatic repertoire and were castable. For me, there weren’t very many arias I could even choose from, let alone do justice to. Do you know the 20 most frequently-performed operas containing arias for contralto? It’s hard enough to even find roles!
So instead of arias, of course, I sang songs. I could choose songs carefully. Songs that favored the color of my voice. Songs that were forgiving of my slow-developing upper range. Songs that gave me a chance to hone my technical skills and perform in a way that showcased all the things my voice could do, instead of the things it couldn’t.
Along the way, I discovered songs that not only fit my voice, but fit my preoccupations, my yearnings, and my sorrows. Particularly in songs by American composers of the 20th century I found a sympathetic resonance to my contemporary woes. I remember sitting in the Sibley Music Library at Eastman listening to William Sharp singing “Then” by Marc Blitzstein, and knowing without a doubt that every single word was about me and my life at that moment. Other songs were windows onto other worlds that I felt kinship with: the intoxicating blend of wit, melancholy, and sensuality in Poulenc; the joys and sorrows of courtship, marriage and domestic life in Schumann; the dark glory of sorrow in Mussorgsky.
Singing these and other songs nourished and encouraged me as an artist. With just one singer and a piano, the genre requires you to take center stage. There is no chance that you will feel peripheral, as I did in that Beethoven 9! There is no cover, no shrubbery, no acoustical veil to hide behind. You are a vibrating, completely active participant, whose contribution is essential.
As a singer, I want to participate in the creation of a moment—a moment of grace, of beauty, of humor, of passion—and I want to wrap my audience in that discovery, with every ounce of skill I can muster. I want it to matter that I am the one up there. That it’s MY voice. That it is ME connecting to something important, something meaningful, something that speaks to me so deeply that I need to sing about it. Thank god for the litany of song, which offers up a multitude of possibilities to us all.
Contralto Lynne McMurtry has performed with the Boston Symphony, the Winnipeg Symphony, the Edmonton Symphony, the Okanagan Symphony, Opera Ontario, Edmonton Opera and Manitoba Opera. Lynne is also an active recitalist and has sung at many distinguished song venues, including Tanglewood, Ravinia, and the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields. She is a Founding Faculty Artist of the Vancouver International Song Institute, and has collaborated there on numerous recitals with pianists such as Alison d'Amato and Margo Garrett.
She currently lives and teaches in Fredonia, NY. To find out more about Lynne, please click here.