Seen and Heard Interview
Carole Farley – singer and
champion of repertoire. Interviewed by Anne Ozorio
Starring as Lulu is an achievement for any singer, but Carole
Farley debuted in it and has sung it over 80 times. She’s
much loved as an opera singer, particularly in Strauss, but Lulu
is no ordinary role to characterize. I asked her if the experience
had shaped her approach to art song. “I love song,”
she said, “I like the combination of music and drama.”
Songs, for her, can be little operas, with scope for imaginative
On June first, she will be singing a recital at the Wigmore Hall
in London. It’s a very unusual recital, because the pianists
will be no less than the composers themselves, William Bolcom,
and Lowell Liebermann. Ned Rorem was scheduled to come too, but
could not make it at the last moment. Fabio Zanon and John Constable
will also be playing. What a line up of talent! Given the frantic
schedules of musicians these days, I was impressed at the logistics
involved. Fortunately, Ms Farley has known and worked with all
of them for years, and they were enthusiastic about the idea.
The Wigmore Hall is, of course, hallowed ground for composers
and imaginative programming. Moreover, the concert will be a benefit
for ILAMS, the Latin American and Iberian Music Society, and Mr
Holland's Opus foundation, which enables young people to learn
Bolcom, his wife Joan Morris and Ms Farley have been long-term
friends, and she has performed his opera A View from the Bridge.
When she asked if she could explore his songs, he gave her a free
hand to choose. For the concert, and for her soon to be released
CD of Bolcom Songs on Naxos, she chose an eclectic mix, which
showcases the variety of his style. The cycle “I will breathe
a mountain”, first written for Marilyn Horne, based on texts
by eleven American women poets is important art song. Nonetheless,
Ms Farley shares Bolcom’s wry sense of humour and couldn’t
resist his cheeky “The Digital Wonder Watch”. The
cycle of vignettes, “Songs to dance” has never been
recorded before. Even Bolcom had never heard “Costa del
Ned Rorem has written so much song that much of it isn’t
in regular performance. When Naxos started their American Composers
series, Ms Farley asked if he would accompany her. They recorded
in a church in Nantucket, near his home, with beautiful acoustics.
One of the songs they played was “Nantucket” to the
beautiful poem by William Carlos Williams. It was a wonderfully
atmospheric experience in such a setting. The recording sold extremely
well, over 18,000 copies in a short period, but the great pleasure
was to present so many songs that had never been recorded. Lowell
Liebermann also chose particularly beautiful poems: he and Ms
Farley will be performing his Walt Whitman settings at the London
concert. She hopes to sing yet more of his work, perhaps in orchestrated
form because the songs might lend themselves well to that approach.
Is singing with the composer “special”? Even with
Ms Farley’s experience, the answer is equivocal. Some composers,
like Bolcom, give the singer complete freedom. She says she’s
fortunate that the composers she sings with are all good pianist
technically – not all are – and that helps because
they understand technicalities, and that means a good rapport
For Ms Farley song is a living art, with ever developing promise.
Being a naturally adventurous person, she is drawn to new repertoire.
Trained as a musician before she became a singer, she has an ear
for interesting but less well known music. Hence her championship
of living composers, and of the vast, untapped world of Latin
American and Spanish song. She’s fluent in Spanish and appreciates
the riches of Hispanic culture. Last year, she released an acclaimed
recording of the songs of the Cuban composer, Ernesto Lecuona.
Tracking down Lecuona’s work was a major adventure. She
was intrigued by the scope for presenting his understated style.
She approached the composer’s publishers, who sat her down
at the table in the boardroom, and then brought up from the storerooms
hundreds of scores, many of which had not been looked at in 70
years. Later she tracked down more scores, some still in manuscript,
some in Miami, some in New York. She also found a recording of
the composer himself playing.
She developed her approach by studying the composer’s piano
works and texts, but understanding the background was crucial.
In La Comparsa, a procession moves solemnly through a
small town as they still do all over the Hispanic world. Ms Farley
explained, “I tried to get that effect of coming in from
a long way out of town, getting to the central plaza, and then
continuing outwards again”. Placido Domingo’s recording
of the songs with grand orchestration is admirable, but she “wanted
to approach Lecuona in a different way, not as an opera singer,
but as if a lady in Cuba then might have sung them.” So
she took out the vibrato in her voice and used her lowest possible
registers, to create the right atmosphere, keeping the sound simple
and personal. She works her way into new music by playing it on
the piano – even whole operas – then learns the text
and practices it, until the music “cooks”. And it
continues to develop as she develops for a singer sings from “within”.
Ms Farley’s future plans are exciting because of her unique
approach. Research is one of her great gifts. Her ability to go
beyond the mainstream and assess new works is a very special talent
because it “grows” the repertoire, enriching all of
us who love art song. Song, for Ms Farley, is not a closed museum,
but a living, vibrant genre. Exploring its variety can stimulate
its vitality. Among her current projects are the very diverse
works of Franz Schreker and Carlos Gustavinho. Good research needs
dedication and methodology, but Ms Farley brings to it the added
value of practical experience as a singer. What she is doing now
to support repertoire will benefit generations to come. Her appreciation
of Spanish language music in a world where Hispanic culture is
underrated has social value, too. She told me about a concert
she’d given of Cuban songs in Palm Beach. The audience was
responding much more intensely than usual. Then she realised that
for them, the songs weren’t merely songs, or entertainment,
but expressed something of their identity that they recognised.
Song is a basic and direct form of communication, and universal.
Ms Farley, for me, is an inspiration because she understands that
this creativity is the soul of art.
This concert takes place at the Wigmore Hall on 1st June.