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Ellen Hargis: Finding Treasure and Lute in Early Music

August 24, 2010

Soprano Ellen Hargis will give three recitals with lutenist Paul O’Dette for the San Francisco Early Music Society in Palo Alto, Berkeley, and San Francisco on Sept. 10, 11, and 12. The program, titled “Wait! I’m Singing Now…,” will feature music of Strozzi, Kapsberger, Scarlatti, Cesti, and Piccinini. SFCV asked Hargis about her love of early music, the challenges of balancing singing and teaching, and what it’s like to work as an early-music star in a modern world.

Where are you from originally, and what was your early musical and vocal training?

I come from a suburb of Detroit, which is actually completely nondescript. I went to Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, and they had an early-music program, which was very rare in those days, and still is. I joined up because it sounded like fun and I got completely sucked into the scene as an instrumentalist. I played recorder, if you can imagine that.

I was going to ask you how you first began singing early music, but it sounds like that is the answer: in college.

My high school music teacher, to whom I was devoted, was a great lover of Renaissance polyphony and it was pretty standard stuff: Palestrina and O Magnum Mysterium and stuff that everybody does. But it didn’t occur to me that that had anything to do with being a singer. It didn’t really translate until I was probably through college and started getting solos and things, a Bach cantata here and there, that I started taking lessons. I think that, gradually, the real decider for me as far as leaving the instrumental part was the wider variety of repertoire that I would have as a singer — that and the fact that I would be dealing with poetry and language and literature.

Did anyone try to make a different sort of singer out of you?

Interestingly, they didn’t. I think it was because they didn’t take me particularly seriously. I was in a studio with a bunch of opera singers. Richard Conrad was my first teacher, and I think he thought it was fun to teach me and I was nice, but I don’t think he thought I would amount to anything because I didn’t have this great big voice or this big personality of the other singers in the studio. I basically got a founding in breathing and bel canto technique that I’ve had ever since.

I really never had specific early-music training. I’ve found over the years the most important thing is to find a good teacher of technique and someone who is sympathetic to the repertoire you’re singing and that they’re not scornful of it, because I think that’s just demoralizing. And certainly that’s the case with my current teacher, whom I’ve been with for almost 20 years, Nina Hinson. Her career was in grand opera and traditional repertoire, but she adores early music and she teaches good, solid technique and making you sound like yourself. So, I was never pushed to make bigger sounds or to be higher or louder, or any of those things. It was just to be more technically secure and make my voice as interesting and as facile an instrument as possible.

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Can you describe what you like about performing with a lute versus a piano or orchestra?

Or even with harpsichord, which would be the other possible accompaniment for what I’m doing on this particular concert, for instance. As an instrument, the lute has color possibilities that the harpsichord doesn’t, because of the fact that they can articulate, pluck the string with flesh as well as nails, and they do pluck at many points between the bridge and the fingerboard, getting a huge palette of colors, but it still has the range of a harpsichord. It makes plenty of sound. The tonal variation is really fun to sing with. There is something very interesting in working with somebody who is wrapped around their instrument, as opposed to the instrument being at them. I don’t know what I mean by that exactly. It’s sort of a psychological difference. There’s a feeling of being on the same wavelength that really makes sense to me. It’s interesting to know that a lot of singers of the time did all three things: they composed, they accompanied themselves, and they sang the songs. So, it was a very organic kind of style. In fact, I think that’s the whole idea of early monody. You have this accompaniment, which is spare and supportive and equally important to the singing but not doing the same thing as the singing.

What is the collaboration with [lutenist] Paul O’Dette like?

Initially, with this repertoire, we don’t have that thread of tradition that they have in some of the later repertoires: the “everybody does that” or “nobody does that.” It has the same freedom as contemporary music. It hasn’t been heard in so long, it might as well never have been heard. So, we can pretty much find our way with the music.

What I have with Paul, and anyone else who’s one of the really great players of this music, is that we understand each other’s work very well. Paul’s languages are very good. I have played the lute in the past and have some ideas of what’s possible, and we really do arrive at our interpretations together by exploring. Rehearsals are about exploring all the possibilities, rather than making decisions about what we’re going to do here, and how long this rest is going to last, and how loud or soft any particular section is going to be. It’s a lot more fluid. Very often we discover, in performance, things we hadn’t done in rehearsal, and I think that’s because we’re on the same page stylistically and aesthetically with this repertoire.

Can you think of an instance onstage when something sort of erupted for the two of you?

Do you mean went wrong?

I was actually thinking more of a moment when everything came together, but why don’t you go ahead and give me a disaster story?

Well, I think we did crack up once. I inhaled an insect. It was a beautiful concert series. It was indoors in California in a historical house, but all the windows and doors were opened and I inhaled an insect and that was the end of that for a few minutes; it was very funny. But about when it goes well: I don’t know if I can describe the individual instance, but there is something that can happen when you’re really in the pocket and you can tell that the audience is with you and it’s just this crazy kind of group hug. The audience and the players and everybody is just going, “Oh, wow! That was it!” I can think of one time that happened in Spain in the middle of the night, and we were unbelievably jet-lagged. I don’t remember what I was singing, but I remember where I was. There was one in Columbus, Ohio, like that. It can happen anywhere, when all the stars line up.

What do you when you’re traveling and you have time off?

Two of my favorite things, in order, would be food and art. I love to go to local markets. If there is a covered market or a farmer’s market, that is the first place I’ll head. I love going to cooking stores. I bought beautiful knives in Japan, for instance. I always bring home strange spices and cooking utensils. I just like going to the markets and seeing what there is. Walking around an open-air fish market, for instance, is a great joy. And then museums would be second.

When did you begin teaching, and how do you balance teaching and performing? Is it a full-time job?

No, it’s not at all. In fact, that’s a really good question I ask myself all the time, because I don’t feel terribly balanced at the moment. I actually have many part-time jobs and I love them all but, of course, many part-time jobs always adds up to more than a full-time job because of all of the administrative stuff that goes with it. I started teaching, probably, 15 or 20 years ago. It took me a while to find my stride and feel confident. I think only after I had a couple of people come to me with vocal problems that I felt I was able to help with that I felt that I had some kind of credibility as a teacher. And stylistically, people often come into early music as if there’s some gigantic rule book that they don’t have access to and God forbid they should do a trill wrong or something like that. I work very hard at trying to facilitate somebody’s experience of style without intimidating them.

I teach for the performance practice program at Case Western Reserve [University]. I teach the graduate students there. That’s a part-time position. I’m an artist in residence at Northwestern University and the University of Chicago. I do residencies at Oberlin Conservatory once a year. I have a new studio in New York that I go to twice a year to do early-music coaching, and my private studio in Chicago, as well. So it’s kind of crazy, actually. All of those things, with concert work and trying to schedule it without everybody going nuts — but I love it all, so it’s hard to know what I would stop.

That sounds like a very modern lifestyle, with lots of air travel and things like that. I wonder if you ever feel at odds with modern culture, spending so much time and energy absorbed in this older, lower-tech craft.

That’s interesting; I hadn’t really thought about that, because I use so much of the high-tech stuff to do it. I have electronic tuners for dealing with uneven temperaments, and I have an electronic transposing keyboard so I can sing at any pitch. I haven’t thought of it as being any kind of anachronism or problem. It feels pretty normal. I think the weirdest thing, frankly, and the most anachronistic, is that we do concerts of this music at all. It is not concert music. They didn’t have concerts for a lot of this stuff. It was in pieces, done a few at a time, in a salon or a private situation. Unless you’re doing 17th-century opera, it’s a little artificial. We do Masses. The Monteverdi Vespers: that’s the weirdest concert of all. But that’s how we present music now. It’s not really knit into our social fabric as a live art, certainly as recording it is. That’s where I feel the dissonance. Performing lute songs, I should be five feet from all the listeners. Even though I can sing loudly enough and Paul can project, it’s just not real to be in these great big rooms with people sitting in rows. So, to create that sort of intimacy and personal connection in a concert hall is a big job.

But that’s probably why you do it.

It’s fun. It’s interesting: You read about these women singers in the 17th century, fabulous singers with big personalities, big divas. They were praised for their beauty and their singing and the way they acted on stage and all the things that we love in our divas, but they were hired help. If somebody was having a dinner party, they came in and performed. So, it’s very interesting to have both those things going on. Go onstage and dazzle them, but then have it win their hearts at the same time. It’s fun. I can feel myself smiling here. I like it!

Lisa Houston is a soprano and writer from Berkeley. This season she will sing Beethoven’s “Ah Perfido!” with the Kensington Symphony Orchestra.