Pierrot Lunaire: Cuddling with Skeletons?!

On Sunday, November 16, the MET Chamber Ensemble will perform a program at Carnegie Hall that includes Schoenberg's expressionist masterpiece Pierrot Lunaire. MET Orchestra Concertmaster David Chan recently sat down with soprano Kiera Duffy, who will be singing this massive score, to discuss her start in modern music and what inspires and challenges her in this particular piece.

David Chan: What drew you into the world of singing?

Kiera Duffy (Photo by Steven Laxton)

Kiera Duffy (Photo by Steven Laxton)

Kiera Duffy: I actually wanted to be a choral conductor. Piano was my first love, but it became clear pretty early on that I was not going to be a virtuoso pianist. It was a vehicle that brought me down other musical paths. So I got into choral music when I was in high school and I started taking voice lessons so that I could sing better in the choir. I ended up going to Westminster Choir College, thinking I would do my graduate work as a choral conductor. I majored in singing, just thinking, “Oh, I’m just going to learn how the voice works so that I know what I’m asking my singers to do when I do my real career.” My voice was something that was built through very rigorous technical study, and then things began to reveal themselves in terms of my natural vocal ability, so I started to think, “Well, maybe this is something I’m actually kind of good at. Maybe this is something I should try while I’m young.”

DC: And now, a line in your biography says that a couple of years ago, you debuted with the Chicago Symphony in Pierrot Lunaire and with the National Symphony in Handel’s Messiah. Those are opposite ends of the spectrum, so tell me a little bit about the range of your repertoire.

KD: Well, my entry into the professional realm was through new music - the thing that really “launched” my career was performing Carter’s only opera, What Next?, at Tanglewood, with Jimmy [Levine] conducting. I think when you do a piece like What Next?, which is really, like, never done, and when you do it with James Levine, it garners a certain amount of attention, so very quickly I became known as the girl who sings everything, including the modernist repertoire. So I would make these debuts with big orchestras singing something modern, and then they would hire me back to do something like Mozart or Mahler. I’ve always had these two paths - I’ve always done the modern, contemporary path, and I’ve also always done the more canonic repertoire. It happened by chance, but it’s something that I could not have designed better myself.

DC: Does this mean you weren’t a little girl dreaming of doing Sprechstimme ["speak-singing”] on stages all across the world?!

KD: [Laughs] No! I wasn’t like [MET Chamber Ensemble pianist] Bryan Wagorn, who admitted to listening to Pierrot Lunaire as a child!

DC: Just imagining the final scene from Lulu as the first dance music at your wedding…

David Chan (Photo by Pedro Díaz)

David Chan (Photo by Pedro Díaz)

KD: [Laughs] No, not exactly! Though I wonder, if I had been exposed to that music from a young age, if would have been drawn to it. I like to think that I would have been, because once it was revealed to me, it opened up a whole other realm of possibilities. It was something that really appealed to me on an aesthetic level. I like it, I think it’s interesting, I think it’s very moving much of the time…so I do wonder if little six year-old me was in my room and someone gave me Teresa Stratas singing Lulu, would I be into it? I don’t know.

DC: It seems like you have an avid interest in other types of music - pop music, rock… Where did that interest start, and how does it interact with your so-called “professional” music life?

KD: Well, I came from a pretty traditional middle-class family, so I was not listening to classical music as a child at all. My exposure to classical music was via piano lessons, but at home we were listening to rock, we were listening to top 40 and singer/songwriters and The Beatles and Zeppelin and all the great bands of the ’60s and ‘70s. It was not Pavarotti, it was not Rachmaninoff. So I always enjoyed “pop” music - and I use that in the broadest sense, which is to say, not classical music. I mean, I’ve always been very interested in [pop music], and I think there is some in particular that is really fascinating. I love Radiohead; I think what they do is very progressive and very interesting, musically. We’re in this field where there are certain conventions that we have to follow, so when I go to a rock venue and see these performers absolutely shredding all of those conventions, it’s really inspiring for me. I think that it’s something that is directly applicable to me as a performer, particularly in the more modern repertoire.

DC: You kind of have to go all the way with the expression; otherwise, why do it in the first place?

KD: Exactly. And I think that with Pierrot in particular, you have to be over the top, in the expressionistic sense, in order for the piece to work at all.

DC: Tell me more about that.

KD: Well, in a piece like Pierrot, I am often thinking of mood. Obviously, one has text in this piece, but it is often not really serving a narrative purpose. At times it is, but very often the words are serving as an evocation of mood, of feeling, at the extremes. Often I’ll write a word or phrase in my score, whether it’s “melancholic” or “sick with tuberculosis.” There are 21 movements in this piece - it’s huge - and the danger is that you don’t really hear the identity of each movement. But each movement is a self-contained little drama and has a very clear mood and feeling. As a singer, I’m trying to capture that through text, through color. The beauty of something like Sprechstimme is that I don’t always have to be worrying about making this beautiful, perfectly rounded sound. I’m not “singing” much of the time, so I can really devote my energies to shrieking or barking. Just trying to find those sounds is a very interesting process. I’m sure my neighbors just love hearing it. [Laughs]

DC: Do you find that you have to make technical adjustments based on the instrumentation for a given song? Does the instrumentation inspire you to alter your expressive qualities?

KD: Yes, you have to make some technical shifts. Even in Sprechstimme, Schoenberg wrote actual pitches that are very intricate, very chromatic. But sometimes, the instrumentation that he uses makes those pitches impossible in terms of balance. For example, there are a few movements where he has the voice notated very low. He’ll write pianissimo [very soft], while he has the piccolo wailing away in the extreme of its register, so for a recording I’m sure you could do it, but in live performance it’s impossible. I’m singing things way above what’s notated, which is not necessarily a technical shift, but it’s certainly a musical shift. When you’re not singing - when you’re not using the full spectrum of overtones, with vibrato - the voice does not cut as well through an ensemble. So I am thinking, “OK, what is the instrumentation for this movement? On the spectrum of spoken to sung, how much am I veering towards the sung quality in order to be heard?” And then, of course, there are issues of character and mood, so I’m thinking, “How do I make a snarly sound, a whiny sound? How do I do it in a healthy way that’s going to sustain my voice over the long-term?”

DC: How did you first start performing Pierrot?

KD: Well, it’s a fairly boring answer, which is that I was offered it by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Of course, I was thrilled, because ever since I first heard the piece in college, I had been mildly obsessed with it. Full disclosure: I procrastinated learning it to the point that I was locked in my bedroom for a good two and a half weeks, six or seven hours a day, just going through the pitches. When I got to LA, we had a very, very condensed rehearsal process - I think we had two rehearsals, thankfully with conductor! I wished I’d had a little bit more time with it, but fortunately, I’ve gotten other opportunities to do it, and every time I do it, I can’t believe how much I learn. The piece is just so complex and there’s so much to take from it - always new revelations, interpretively.

DC: Is there any one aspect of each restudy that stands out more than others?

KD: I had gotten away from the notated pitches and I’d really gone for contour of the lines, and for this run I went back and tried to relearn the pitches. It was very interesting…I’m very glad I did it, but I also found it a bit limiting, so the lesson that I come back to with this piece is just expression, expression, expression. You could sing the piece pitch-perfect, but if it doesn’t have this intensity of expression behind it all the time, it doesn’t work. When in doubt, just go for the expressiveness on a very extreme level, and the piece will be truly effective - a really extreme emotional experience.

DC: So, after performing a piece like Pierrot, do you feel like going home and cuddling with skeletons? Or do you revert to, you know, being normal Kiera?

KD: [Laughs] Unfortunately, I’m not going to go so far as to say I cuddle with skeletons, but the music is going on in my head for weeks, so that part is kind of like cuddling with skeletons!

DC: So it is mind-altering!

KD: Absolutely.