Ahead of the release of ‘Regards sur l’Infini’, with pianist Sam Armstrong, soprano Katharine Dain shares her influences and inspirations, and the experience of creating this album while in quarantine
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
My decision to try singing professionally came relatively late – at the end of my university studies. But certain encounters before then were crucial, even if I didn’t know it at the time. I had a passionate and encouraging high school choir director and an unusually gifted first voice teacher. I was borderline obsessed with Ella Fitzgerald, Joni Mitchell, and a scratched LP of Britten’s Ceremony of Carols. As a teenager, I heard, incredibly, one of Leontyne Price’s last recitals in my North Carolina hometown. In college, performances of the St Matthew Passion and Così fan tutte were utterly formative. (Fiordiligi was my first opera role—good thing I had no idea how tough it was when that plan was hatched in a practice room with the friend who conducted the shows!)
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
My instrument is my body, so it is always in flux, and my identity as a singer has gone through many transformations as a result. Think of the hugely different expectations (and stereotypes) of people who sing early consort music, or virtuosic operatic roles in staged productions, or avant-garde repertoire full of extended techniques, or intimate songs with piano. I’ve done all of these professionally. Each comes with its own physicality, jargon, social codes, areas of assumed knowledge, and musical and performative habits; shifts in my repertoire always seem to trigger a corresponding identity crisis. Also, singing is affected hugely by illness, grief, stress, travel. It’s tough not to equate your whole sense of self-worth and value with what your body is producing at any given moment. Repertoire, health, physicality – it all feels terribly personal, and I’ve had some difficult years when nothing seemed to be working and I didn’t know whether I would ever sort it out.
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
I’m exceptionally proud of the CD I am releasing this month, Regards sur l’Infini, a collection of French songs by Messiaen, Delbos, Dutilleux, Saariaho, and Debussy recorded with pianist and long-time friend Sam Armstrong. I’ve had the programme in mind for a long time, but our decision to quarantine together at the beginning of the pandemic lockdown gave us an unprecedented opportunity to rehearse and assimilate the music together over a long period.
One of my favourite live projects last year was singing Donna Anna with the Orchestra of the 18th Century in the Netherlands and Belgium. I’ve known and loved the music for so long, but with a period orchestra and a deeply sympathetic conductor in Kenneth Montgomery, the shapes and shifts in that extraordinary score were as transparent and arresting as I’ve ever managed.
Which particular works do you think you perform best?
I am endlessly fascinated by the explosion of idiosyncratic expression in vocal music from the first half of the 20th century – Schoenberg, Strauss, Messiaen, Britten, Barber, Stravinsky, Poulenc – and in more contemporary scores. But I also find that Handel and (especially) Mozart feel utterly like home to me, and more so with every passing year.
What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?
I write, I read, I cook, I knit, I walk, I make friends with strangers, and I ask too many questions!
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
I get strongly possessed by certain composers and styles. When that happens, I’ll expend a huge amount of energy (for years at a time, if I have to) seeking out ways of singing the music. Sometimes the game has to be very long indeed – I knew that there were certain roles that I would be perfectly suited to eventually (Konstanze, Donna Anna), but it took a decade to sing them how I wanted and to find the right opportunities. In the meantime, repertoire also finds me. I learn quickly, so I’m often called for jump-ins on scores I’ve never learned. I’ve discovered some incredible pieces this way: jewel-like Lieder of Marx and Korngold; an oratorio by Luigi Nono that is devastatingly powerful; perfectly balanced songs with chamber ensemble of Ravel and Zemlinsky and John Tavener. Other times, trusted colleagues recommend me for repertoire I wouldn’t necessarily choose, but their confidence makes me braver and the resulting work makes me stronger. This has happened in recent seasons with Berlioz, Strauss, and Wagner.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
One of my favourites is the Concertgebouw in Nijmegen, a glorious hall with a stunningly warm acoustic in the east of the Netherlands. I performed there as soloist with orchestra twice in the 2019-20 season before the pandemic shut everything down. This summer, while the hall stood empty, Sam and I recorded our album there over three days. After months of practicing in the boxy acoustic of my living room, it was a pleasure to lean into the generosity of the space. I was reminded just how much the venue contributes to the artistic and musical result; our CD feels like an equal collaboration between singer, pianist, producer, and the atmosphere of the hall.
What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?
I’ve performed a lot of concerts throughout the United States for an outreach organization called the Piatigorsky Foundation, including many concerts for school-age kids. That work has convinced me that any conversation about increasing classical music’s visibility must start with prioritizing education. Kids are the most open-minded audiences of all, if the music is presented in a thoughtful and charismatic way. The slashing of school culture budgets has done more harm to this art form than anything else, and I think any effort to improve the situation has to be focused there first.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
There was that time I performed in a bar in Wyoming, and we were literally taping the upright piano back together until minutes before the performance began. I think a pencil and some rubber bands were involved.
As a musician, what is your definition of success?
Many years ago, an unusually wise teacher pitched this question out to an opera scenes class. Every student had to answer individually; most said they wanted to be working in top-level opera houses or represented by a prestigious management agency. When my turn came, I said, a bit hesitantly, that I wanted to be making great music with good and smart people. The teacher gave me a shrewd look and said: that’s achievable; you’ll do it. He was right. My understanding of that goal – making music at a high level, with people I like and respect – has become more nuanced over the years, but it’s still the guiding principle in how I make decisions about what work to accept or pursue, and it’s still how I know if I’m satisfied with the job I’m doing or not. It can be achieved in many situations and at many levels of development, so there have been moments all along when I’ve known I was getting what I wanted, whether the external markers of success (fancy contracts and management) were happening for me or not.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Patience; curiosity. The process of becoming a professional musician (whatever that means to you) will likely be long, vulnerable, and full of rejection. Your curiosity and love for the music is sometimes the only thing keeping you moving forward. If you lose that, you’ve lost the most precious thing you have, so keep that flame alive. Keep listening. Keep exploring. Keep your heart and mind open and vulnerable. Keep caring for yourself.
At the beginning of the Covid-19 lockdown in mid-March 2020, Katharine Dain and Sam Armstrong, long-time friends and collaborators, decided to quarantine together. The period of lockdown lasted much longer than anyone anticipated, and the enforced months of isolation at home allowed for unusually deep and slow exploration of repertoire for voice and piano.
‘Regards sur l’Infini’ is released on 27 November 2020 on the 7 Mountain Records label. With this album of French songs centred around Olivier Messiaen’s Poèmes pour Mi, American-Dutch soprano Katharine Dain and British pianist Sam Armstrong have constructed a meditative programme that also includes Claude Debussy’s complete Proses lyriques as well as individual songs by Henri Dutilleux, Kaija Saariaho, and the little-known Claire Delbos, a violinist and composer and the first wife of Messiaen. More information here
American-Dutch soprano Katharine Dain is a musician of insatiable curiosity, active in opera, orchestral repertoire, oratorio, and chamber music in Europe and North America. After taking the top prize in the Clermont-Ferrand Competition (in which Diapason called her a “revelation”), Dain debuted as Konstanze in a production of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail at the opera houses of Clermont-Ferrand, Avignon, Rouen, Massy, and Reims. Other recent highlights include Mozart’s Donna Anna with the Orchestra of the 18th Century under Kenneth Montgomery, orchestral song cycles of Dutilleux and Berlioz with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Ryan Bancroft, Brahms Requiem with Cappella Amsterdam under Daniel Reuss, Mahler’s Fourth Symphony with LUDWIG, and songs of Berg and Zemlinsky with Het Collectief under Reinbert de Leeuw at Austria’s Osterfestival. A passionate promoter of chamber music and song, she is a co-founder of Damask Vocal Quartet, whose 2018 debut album “O schöne Nacht” won France’s Choc de Classica award and universal acclaim in the press. Dain holds degrees from Harvard University (Boston), Guildhall (London), and Mannes (New York), and she currently lives in the Netherlands.