18 August 2010

The Festival at Canari, Part 2: Michèle Command

Photo by Pascal Dolémieux©
Used with permission

At the Festival International du Chant Lyrique de Canari, Michèle Command is no-nonsense in her master classes (even-numbered years) and even more serious on the jury panel at the Festival’s singing competitions (odd-numbered years). And yet she’s nothing less than delicious — the best word I can find to describe her.

Last year, she gave me a fascinating glimpse of her character when she recalled her childhood. To hear her tell it, she was a sort of Tom Sawyer, albeit French and female. The leader of a small gang of kids, she conducted thrilling expeditions in the forest, raids on neighbors’ gardens, and all manner of contests of physical derring-do at the swimming hole. Though she was brought up in a proper, churchgoing home, she was a child of nature, a spitfire and a bit of a rebel. She still is.

She is so pretty! But don’t mistake her for a china doll. Yes, she has dainty hands — but they’re hardworking, because she’s a visual artist and hardcore gardener, too. (Ask her about her tractor sometime.) Yes, she has beautiful eyes — but watch out when they start to flash. And yes, she has a refined, perfectly placed voice — which she uses not only to sing but to communicate an acerbic, slyly disarming sense of humor.

The more I know of her and her ideas about music, theater, and art — and life — the more I regret that I never saw her in performance. Before coming to Canari, all I knew of her was a handful of (very good) recordings, mostly in small-ish roles. (If she made any video, it hasn’t shown up on YouTube.) Seeing her at work, I understand that the quality of those recordings didn’t come about by accident.

In master classes, she gives hints of what she must be like onstage. The music absorbs her, and she listens not only with her ears but with her whole self. She’s constantly analyzing, questioning, exploring. Physically and vocally, she’s graceful, centered. Her posture is flawless, yet without apparent effort: even when she’s standing ramrod straight at full attention, she’s not posing, she’s poised, ready to leap into action. She will go where the music tells her.

With those who are willing to learn, she shows infinite patience, but not the sort that makes excuses. “Try it again,” she says, making the student repeat passages over and over until he gets it right — and then again, once he understands what he’s supposed to do. Her standards are among the highest I’ve known. (She also teaches at the Conservatoire in Paris.) And yet, when she encounters genuine talent (like the Monegasque tenor Jean-François Borras, who came to the Festival in 2006), she keeps a level head. No gushing, no sighing, and never, ever fawning. One grasps instantly that her praise is carefully considered, fair and sincere, and all the more valuable in consequence.

Certain things are important to her, and she takes them seriously — art above all. That doesn’t mean there’s no room for fun and games, for jokes and stunts and pirate raids. But her very being reminds me that only when you’ve done your homework can you find true freedom. Perhaps needless to say, I’m smitten with her.

And so, if ever you chance upon Michèle Command in a leafy bower, be assured that she’s not a Fragonard shepherdess, just languishing there. She’s landscaping. And by heavy lifting, vigorous digging, and judicious pruning, she will leave that glade more beautiful than she found it.

My photos don’t do her justice.
Photo by WVM©
Used with audacity

NOTE: You can hear Michèle Command in several excerpts from a collection of lullabies, recorded recently with accordionist Jacques Bolognesi, by going here. The warmth and color of her voice really are extraordinary.

1 comment:

William V. Madison said...

I am pleased to report that the small photograph of Michèle Command is the work of her sister, Bernadette, who is herself quite a knockout, and whose presence at this year’s Festival is a gift to us all.