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A Singer’s Notes 43: Simple Songs

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Kara Cornell in Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors

Kara Cornell in Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors

At its center Christmas is the simplest of celebrations. Its god is created not in a magnificence, but in poverty attended by animals. Except you become as a little child…. I am thinking now of three powerful and simple beauties I have heard this Yuletide, full of integrity and without dilution. The first was the marvelous performance given by Anne Azema in the Boston Camerata’s Medieval Christmas at the Union College Chapel. Like all great singing, hers comes at you directly, no mediation, no hesitation.  Her sound, her knowledge, even her appearance, are all part of one thing, and that thing is honest. Like all great artists she makes you know that her voice is the right instrument for the music. She sings an old cantiga with as much passion as another kind of soprano might sing Norma. An update of the Camerata’s first medieval Christmas program, this one was sparely accompanied, most often unaccompanied. The chant and monophonic songs held full sway. They were sung with a sharp and soaring energy which was always interesting, often riveting. This repertoire in a performance like this easily held the attention of a full house for over two hours. This was a performance of early music which was straight out, in no way manufactured. The highest compliment I can give it is that it was simple. And the model for this was the singing of Anne Azema.

Our young and excellent local mezzo, Kara Cornell, is another rare artist who sings directly from the heart of the character.  I heard her sing the Mother in Menotti’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors” in a small church basement stage. What I liked best in this performance was how she looked up at the hoard of riches the kings had brought before she sang the “All that Gold” aria. This gesture, the exactness of her facial expression, the slowness of it, was a kind of singing before the singing began, and nearly equal to it. In Kara’s performing, singing is not the only thing that happens; it is part of what happens. And the best thing of all is that this is natural to her. She accomplishes it so simply.

In the Lessons and Carols we have at Williams College, I heard Michaela Morton read a substantial portion of the Nativity story. Michaela is one of our best actresses, and she read the passage better than I have heard it before. It was not religious; nothing was being taught. It was a narrative, exciting, unexpected, playful, fearful, simple. It had majesty. I will not forget it.

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