Stephanie Blythe: "I can't help but try to connect with people."

Stephanie Blythe: "I can't help but try to connect with people."

Eva Cahen

Stephanie Blythe, the great American mezzo-soprano, will be performing a program of Johnny Mercer songs for the San Diego Opera on October 23 at 7:30 PM at the Balboa Theater.

“I’ve been a great fan of Johnny Mercer’s and I’ve been singing the music of his Great American Songbook for a very long time,” says Blythe. She grew up listening to Mercer’s songs because her father was a professional jazz musician, a tripler playing flute, sax, and clarinet.

“I became very interested in Mercer’s story and the incredible collaboration in his lifetime that made him a central figure in song writing. I also love the fact that he was a wonderful player and a producer and also wrote songs. I find he had an incredible breadth of knowledge and passion for American song. Anyone who exhibits that kind of passion is interesting to me.”

“I can’t help but try to connect with people this way.”

The program she will be performing in San Diego is new, though she has sung some of the songs publicly before. She will be accompanied on the piano by Ryan McCullough, who she says is as passionate about Johnny Mercer as she is.

Recitals are a form Blythe particularly likes because they offer an opportunity to talk to audiences, “enhancing” her connection with them. “The information gets passed on in a new and exciting way,” she says.

“When you’re giving a concert and you talk to the audience about what they are hearing and why you are performing it, it’s different than the audience reading notes. It becomes active communication rather than a passive one. It enhances that communication even more than when you’re performing in an opera because it breaks the fourth wall. When you’re talking to the audience, it breaks any kinds of barrier you have. It makes it more personal, and in my experience, most people enjoy that.”

Singing is Blythe’s way to connect with people. “I sing because it’s what I was supposed to do. I was very fortunate to realize very early on in my life that I was a singer. Everything that I do is about singing, whether it’s teaching, or talking, it is always about singing. I do it because it is what I was meant to do and because I can’t help but do it. I can’t help but try to connect with people this way.”

“The very next time I get to put my drag show on stage, I will be singing rock and roll.”

She says that if she weren’t a singer, she would try to connect with people by “making movies, writing, making speeches, going into politics or doing something that would put me in front of people, connecting with them. This is what I was meant to do so it’s what I do.”

She considers herself “incredibly fortunate” to have the opportunity to do recitals and cabaret shows all over the country.

Blythe arrives in San Diego a month after debuting her role as Don José in the Chicago Opera Theater concert production of Carmen, singing the tenor role while mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton sang Carmen.

“Doing Don José in Carmen was thrilling. It was everything that I dreamed it would be and I enjoyed it enormously. I was very fortunate to work with really wonderful artists. That’s the reason to do it – to have these incredible collaborations with wonderful communities.”

Stephanie Blythe is known for reaching out from beyond traditional opera fare. She sang Don José in her drag alter ego, Blythely Oratonio, and has talked previously about wanting to do tenor roles.

“I’ve been singing Handel and Rossini and Wagner and Verdi and Schubert and Brahms my whole career. What’s the difference if I’m doing that or doing Irving Berlin and Cole Porter and Johnny Mercer and Barry Manilow? It’s all music and it’s all just different styles and I enjoy singing them all,” she says.

“If my voice can sing it, then I sing it,” she says. “What I choose to sing and where I go happens to me very organically. I like that. I manage to do the things that I’m interested in doing, for instance, doing this show on Johnny Mercer. San Diego Opera asked me to do a concert and here’s an opportunity to do a concert about Johnny Mercer, which has been something that’s interested me in a while. That’s organic to me.”

Her repertoire also goes beyond opera and cabaret. “I sing a lot of rock and roll in my drag show. I have an amazing community of artists with whom I work in the drag community, the Bearded Ladies Cabaret group in Philadelphia. The very next time I get to put my drag show on stage, I will be singing rock and roll.”

Blythe is reluctant to talk about the pandemic because she is intent on looking forward, the same direction where her students are looking at Bard College, where she is head of graduate vocal studies. “To talk about how miserable we were during the pandemic doesn’t make us better artists. People were inspired. Art always finds a way. I want to speak positively about the future.”

“It’s all about being a good citizen.”

“Look at what San Diego Opera has done,” she says. “Kudos for what they’ve done. And so many other places have done incredible things throughout the pandemic.”

“That’s what hurt the most about the pandemic, that you couldn’t be in a room with people to do the things that you love doing,” says Blythe.

“When you’re subjected to that for a year and a half, the possibilities of these wonderful things are threatened because people don’t take responsibility being good citizens by putting a mask on their face or getting a vaccination. They are threatening that. It is very personal to me and to all the artists that I work with. We waited a long time to get back on that train.”

“We are at a point right now where things are starting to come back and the last thing anybody wants is to be shut down again. It’s all about being a good citizen,” she adds.

Stephanie Blythe in Concert comes to San Diego Opera’s Balboa Theatre on October 23.

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