The South-African soprano discusses her new album, This Be Her Verse, in which she and pianist Jonathan Ware present songs by Clara Schumann, Emilie Mayer, Rebecca Clarke, Nadia Boulanger, and – setting poetry by Lila Palmer – Kathleen Tagg.
How did you come up with the idea for this programme?
I remember us working on some Schubert songs for our debut at the Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin. I was so flabbergasted by how much I was enjoying "Gretchen am Spinrade", but I was also fascinated by the fact that Goethe and Schubert had captured so well what it is to be a girl in love for the first time. And I remember asking Jonathan, "Has anyone else thought to write 'Gretchen am Spinnrade'?" And that conversation got me thinking about all the stuff that I'd been doing and have been doing since, where it's usually a male composer, or a male librettist or poet writing about a female experience.
I also realized that I'm usually the only woman in the room in this world of men. That got me thinking: wouldn't it be cool if we found either female composers, who take the words of men and give their own female perspective in their composition, or female poets set by female composers? Jonathan really liked the idea and we started going down this rabbit hole of female composers and poets. With the poets on the album there are still a lot of male voices, but it's about the conversation of the human experience – that's what I found really exciting.
So, how different did it then feel singing these songs?
It's definitely opened up a world of expression for me. I find my entrance to the composition and to the pieces feels much more immediate, because there's something so clearly connected between all these women across time. It's the fact that they chose to write music despite the world telling them they shouldn't. There are so many messages telling women that we're not good enough and what we have to offer isn't enough, but despite that these women wrote music – and that I totally got. I think it's evident that there's so much awe and respect, and so much joy from my side as a performer to be able to bring these songs to life.
There's only music by women on the album. Was your aim to try and create a "safe space" where these composers could be heard on their own terms?
Yes, that was so important as well. I remembered when we were programming it just as a recital, a lot of presenters asked whether it wouldn't be better to do it in relation to male composers. But there was something in me that just said, "No." These women's voices should be strong enough and powerful enough to draw an audience and should be respected enough just to be heard as themselves. Let's just look at them in all their glory! I'm really proud that I fought for it, and I'm really proud that I had a team of people who were willing to stand with me and hold the line and say, "Just trust us!"
With the new cycle, This Be Her Verse, you also present something that must speak especially directly to people today, with its references to modern imagery and modern life…
Yes, I love that. I love that we took the everyday and shone a light on it and made it fantastical and wondrous. I remember when we did the recital in San Francisco and the reaction there was to the final song, "Single bed". These 20-something-year-old girls came up to me after the recital and they said: "'Single Bed' is so my life right now!" It is just so clear and goes straight to the heart – to the gut – for young women. And then when we were singing it in Berlin a husband and wife came up to us and they said, "Thank you so much, we loved all the songs, but 'Wedding' was just the perfect example of our relationship."
Can you explain a little more about how that work came about?
When Jonathan and I started working on all these composers, I put the idea out there: what do we think about us having a new work commissioned? The usual tradition is to get the presenters or promoters to commission the work on your behalf, but what was really essential for me was that I wa
nted complete ownership of it, in the sense that we are not just performing it: we are helping to build it and to create it and give it to the rest of the world.
I'm friends with Lila [Palmer] and Kathy [Tagg], and I jump at any chance I get just to be with my girlfriends in a space, creating something that we feel speaks to us. It was really fun having these long conversations about womanhood, about what it is to be married, what it is to be single, what it is to be a woman in the world, a woman in art. All of those conversations culminated in Lila's thoughts, and in what she brought forth with her words was so powerful and went so directly to the heart of the matter. And then Kathy's musical response is just so well orchestrated and put together.
Several songs on the programme are rediscoveries. Was the process with them similar?
The songs by Emilie Mayer were probably the closest, in the way that we worked on them, to This be her verse. There were only hand-written manuscripts in the archives, and the only reason that I was able to find the music is that a friend of mine discovered these unedited manuscripts while doing her dissertation. The way that we approached these songs was exactly how we'd approached the new music, because we hadn't heard anyone else interpret them. It was so significant to us that we were going to be basically creating the first experience people had of her music since her death, and so it was so important to try to fully understand what she was trying to do musically. And that's really daunting. It was just as exciting and gratifying to figure out one stanza of "Du bist wie eine Blume" as it was to sing and figure out how to vocalise through "Single Bed"!
This Be Her Verse is out on IDAGIO now.