16 December 2014

Interview: Isabel Leonard on Kapilow’s ‘Gertrude McFuzz’

One of the more eagerly heralded recordings of this holiday season is Rob Kapilow’s Polar Express and Gertrude McFuzz, concert adaptations of the beloved books written and illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg and Dr. Seuss (respectively, of course). Aiming to engage young audiences with music that’s fun but not dumb, Kapilow has composed lively scores with plenty of appeal for grownups, too, and he mixes child singers (a chorus in Polar Express, a preternaturally red-hot jazz-baby soloist named Olivia Lombardi in Gertrude) with Opera World grown-ups Nathan Gunn (in Polar Express) and Isabel Leonard (in Gertrude).

Especially when seen in excerpts on video, Leonard’s performance really makes you wish you could just bring her home and let her do her stuff for you. She’s a busy woman, of course, so in all likelihood you’ll have to settle for buying the album. But it’s spectacular work in any case. Even having seen her as Rossini’s Cinderella with Fort Worth Opera in 2009, and as Mozart’s Cherubino at the Met this fall (among other roles), I was only barely prepared for the wit and charm — and vivid acting — she brings to bear as Gertrude’s Narrator.

“Rob created a very fun, funky, musically narrative score for the book,” Leonard told me in a phone interview several weeks ago. “It’s perfect for kids, and that’s what this whole CD is about, not only bringing classical music to kids but bringing classically trained voices who can do a variety of things with their voices, to show kids what’s possible.”

Mezzo Isabel Leonard

For Leonard, the Gertrude score represented an opportunity “to play with my voice, to sing in a classical style and maybe in a more musical-theater style and jazzy style … a combination of colors and different styles,” she says. “Sometimes when you’re entrenched in the opera world, you forget what it is that you can do, in general. I’ve done jazz and musical theater, and it was great to put it all together.”

Renowned as the host of NPR’s What Makes It Great?, Kapilow has adapted Dr. Seuss before — his Green Eggs and Ham is widely considered a contemporary classic — and he has a pretty good idea what makes Seuss great. His music exults in the author’s imaginative use of language, and, much though we love the illustrations in the book, Kapilow rises to the challenge of substituting sound for image. He provides his own ingenious surprises, characters and curlicues and improbable landscapes, until we feel as if we’re listening to the pictures.

“[Kapilow’s] vocal writing has a range, so the singer has to have range and good rhythm, good funk in your voice,” Leonard says. “I was able to do that, and play around with accents and being goofy, and really, really telling the story, not just by way of beauty — which is what you hear so much in opera — but even more with the texture of sounds and words.”

Both Polar Express and Gertrude McFuzz are a particularly effective kind of composition for young audiences. They’re not didactic, explaining what a woodwind is; instead, they’re exemplary. These pieces demonstrate an original way to tell a story, and they showing that music isn’t just for Wotans and Valkyries and venerable conductors with great profiles, because kids can take part, too. You wind up with gateways to more and more music — which will seem less intimidating, because kids already have a sense of the potential pleasures and rewards.

As a parent — and as a former child — Leonard describes music education as “paramount, just like any arts education,” and she’s worked with children and young adults many times. “They’re still at that stage where they’re an open book: they can be inspired, and they’re still willing to be inspired,” she says. As audiences, kids “respond to something that’s true, their response is very genuine. It’s something they don’t forget, so they’re impacted on a level that really lives with them, for the rest of their life, most likely.”

Gertrude McFuzz does contain a moral — and wouldn’t we all like to be smart enough to know what’s enough? But Leonard was smart enough to have a good time with Kapilow’s score. “You can’t go far from the microphone” in the recording studio, she says, “but I was definitely rocking it out and having fun. It’s that kind of music. It’ll get little kids and older kids up on their feet, bouncing around and having fun with it.”

The Polar Express/Gertrude McFuzz album is available now from Amazon.com, in plenty of time for holiday giving.

No comments: