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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 presentation.

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 music.

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 Nowhere” performed.

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 between them.

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.

Anne Ozorio

This concert takes place at the Wigmore Hall on 1st June.



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)