27 January 2012

Interview: Janice Hall Would Rather Be Doing This

Kicking up her heels in Grand Illusions

Just when soprano Janice Hall’s brilliance was starting to seem almost routine (“Oh, of course she’s going to be sublime in that new opera, portraying 37 different characters and singing the Grand Inquisitor’s aria backwards”), she found a new way to dazzle us all, turning to cabaret. Most sopranos would fall flat in such a setting, let’s be honest, but few of Janice’s colleagues can rival her expressive musicianship — to say nothing of her impeccable diction, without which any cabaret number is just a plate of cold mashed potatoes.

Grand Illusions, her first complete cabaret show, proved a revelation, not only of this new dimension to Janice’s art but also of the personal need for reinvention. Dietrich evolved constantly, and so, too, is Janice evolving.

Her newest act, of which we got a preview of sorts at Urban Stages in December, finds Janice ever more assured, offering up a fascinating mix of numbers from Cole Porter to Stephen Sondheim. Directed once again by Peter Napolitano, with music director Matthew Martin Ward, I’d Rather Be Doing This opens at New York’s Metropolitan Room on Sunday, February 12, for the first of three performances over the coming months. Reached by phone in Savannah, Janice was kind enough to talk with me about the show.

WVM: The subject of your first show was an icon, Marlene Dietrich. The subject of your new show is also a legendary diva — yourself. It’s not as if you were hiding behind Dietrich before, but this change in focus really bespeaks a growth in confidence in what is still a new art form for you. How did you arrive at the point where you felt so comfortable in cabaret performance?

JANICE HALL: It’s odd – that kind of happened by itself. I decided after Marlene, I had lots and lots of concept ideas, but that was such an exhausting, intense process, immersing myself in the world of Marlene, that I decided to give myself a little bit of a breather and give myself a program of songs that I liked.

In the process, I discovered that it was kind of about me, though that wasn’t my intention. People who saw the first performance commented on that a lot, and even then I wasn’t aware of it until I watched the DVD and said to myself, “Yes this is very different.”

WVM: Do you feel comfortable now?

JH: I do, and when I go back now and look at the Marlene footage, I see — I think I tend to be overcritical of me — but I find it to be much more formal, let’s put it that way. And I was more removed from it. So I guess just by doing, I’m becoming more comfortable and more confident, as you say, about what it is that I’m doing.

WVM: It’s not that you were uneasy before, but there’s a different kind of ease now.

JH: Marlene was a little bit more studied. I wanted it to be perfect, so I was going for that, so it was scripted in a more formal way. I think it had to be, because if you’re trying to give the story of another person, there are certain facts you have to include. This one I was just on my own, and at first it was strange because I had such a form with Marlene, you’re kind of restricted in terms of what you say and how you say it. This was free-form, and at first I thought it would be simpler, and in a way it was not. Eventually a pattern began to emerge.

WVM: Was the process this time more like programming a recital?

JH: You know, I rarely ever did recitals. The answer to that is probably yes, but I can’t necessarily tell you that from my own experience. One of the reasons I never really wanted to do recitals as a Classical singer is that it really scared me to be out there and be me, without a character to hide behind. For some reason, with cabaret music, I became very comfortable with just that very thing. If I were to go back and program a Classical recital, with what I know about putting together a cabaret evening, I would find it easier. And in fact I’m thinking of doing that.

I also want to add about the structure of the show, that was one of the ways that my director, Peter Napolitano, was very helpful in looking at the overall picture and saying, “Yes, this works,” or “No, this has to go.” If anybody ever wonders why you need a director for a cabaret show, that’s one reason why.

“Lana Turner Has Collapsed,” from Madame X.
(Also known as the act I haven’t seen yet.)
Pygmalion Theatre Company, Salt Lake City, UT, May, 2011

WVM: I’m always struck by a kind of seamlessness in your vocal production when you sing cabaret, and that’s also an asset in opera, of course. Where does your Classical training help you in cabaret, and what’s been the biggest technical adjustment you’ve needed to make?

JH: I do get that comment, and it makes me very happy, because it doesn’t necessarily feel seamless to me. It’s becoming more and more so, but the biggest challenge I’ve had in transferring over has been not trying to go into what I call opera voice. You do have to go into your head voice at some point: I’m not a belter, I’m never going to be a belter.

I’m learning how to mix my voice in new ways, but I’m also sort of relaxing and letting my soprano voice come through, but I don’t want to do it in an operatic way. So that’s been the biggest challenge, moving smoothly from my chest voice to my head voice.

Now, in terms of how it helps me, my background, I think the discipline aspect of being a Classical singer is a natural advantage to me, in terms of doing this music. It isn’t something I think about: it’s just the way I’ve been trained, it influences the way I learn music.

Frankly, I don’t know how people who don’t have that training learn music, and I’m constantly amazed at people who don’t read music at all and yet they learn just fine. I don’t understand how that happens, because my process is very different. But for me, the discipline of having to be a Classical singer is very valuable for me in this.

WVM: The title of the act turns out to be a very funny song [by Napolitano and Ward], but it also suggests or advertises that you’re performing songs that are personal favorites. People are often surprised to discover that Classical musicians like pop songs, so can you tell us how you first discovered one or two of these numbers, and how you came to understand they might be right not just to listen to, but also to sing yourself?

JH: When I was a teenager, I was listening to all kinds of different music. I’m sure that a lot of people think that my incorporation of Piaf songs or Kurt Weill songs came from my years of being in Europe, but in fact, they came from my teenage years, when I discovered Lotte Lenya and Edith Piaf and all these strange European singers. They achieved a certain iconic stature later, but at that particular point they were pretty obscure. I just found this music and listened to it. I listened to the pop music of my generation, and I’ve always been a very eclectic music listener.

So some of these songs have been things I’ve had in my ears for years. In a couple of cases, they were songs I didn’t feel ready to tackle until now. One of them is “Pirate Jenny,” of course. It’s such a difficult song because people have certain expectations. And yet those expectations have become almost stereotypical, so to find something that’s original with the song or unique to your interpretation yet remaining true to the integrity of the song is a real challenge.

Fort Worth Favorite: Janice, with David Adam Moore,
in Eötvös’ Angels in America, 2009.

WVM: Darren Keith Woods will kill us both if we don’t mention that you’re still an opera singer — performing in Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers at the Fort Worth Opera Festival in the spring. What can you tell us about how you’re getting ready for that show?

JH: Actually, that process is going to start in full, as soon as I get back from Savannah. I’m going to throw myself into that. So far, I’ve read the libretto, I’ve listened to the recording, I’ve had my costume fittings now — we did a whole wonderful afternoon of costume fittings on Sunday. That is also going to inform me a lot, in how I go about this.

But the biggest challenge for me now is simply cabaret voice and opera voice. If I’m working a lot in cabaret voice, it’s like if you’re an Olympic athlete and you’re not quite working at that level for a while, you have to get back up to that level. Just singing in my daily voice, I’ve got to get back up to that point. Because you lose stamina if you’re not at that level.

So that’s the challenge, but it’s a fabulous character to be playing, and I’m very excited about that aspect of it — as well as the musical aspect!

Janice Hall in I’d Rather Be Doing This
Metropolitan Room, 34 West 22nd St.

Sunday, February 12, 4:00PM
Monday, March 5, 7:00PM
Wednesday, April 18, 9:30PM

Heggie’s Three Decembers
Fort Worth Opera Festival

May 13, 18, 20, 26, 31; June 2, 2012

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