December 9, 2011

Rise Up, Shepherd and the Battle of the Operatic Sopranos

A few years ago my church choir  was preparing for our Christmas program using one of the many standard cantatas available to such choirs.  This particular cantata had an arrangement of the spiritual "Rise Up Shepherd and Follow"--which I'd never heard before--complete with a solo and a solo descant over the choir.  My choir director at the time came up to me one day and asked me to sing the solo because he thought my particular vocal quality would work well with it.  I must admit I was a bit surprised; I'd done solos for him before, but if he ever asked at all, he usually told me to just "pick something."  Up to that point he had never specifically assigned one to me.  I was intrigued.  I learned the song and the solo, quickly falling in love with it.  And that director was right--the solo did suit my booming voice, and I got as many or more compliments on singing it than on any other solo I've sung.  I don't know if it was the particular arrangement or that I've always liked spirituals or what, but I have loved that song ever since.

Recently a friend and I were comparing musical tastes.  We found several things we both enjoy and a few artists or forms of music on which we diverged.  We traded favorite opera singers.  My favorite is one I'm fortunate enough to know personally; her name is Mary Wilson and she is the wife of the choir director I had just before I moved.  I was even lucky enough to take voice lessons with her for a brief time.  Mary has a wicked sense of humor and the voice of an angel.  She is easily the least diva-like Diva I've ever known.  Until I met her, I'd never been particularly big on opera music.  I enjoy the shows and the music itself, but have often been turned off by the more bombastic and overdone voices of many opera singers.  Which is ironic when you think about it, considering my own voice is full and big and dramatic and entirely too similar to many of those singers, though significantly less trained.  Mary's voice is not like that.  She easily has the most pure, natural and lilting voice of any operatic soprano I've ever heard.  It is truly amazing what she can do with a song.  She reaches heights I can't even see and does it with such an unforced grace that you soar right along with her and she sings with such undisguised joy in concert that you can't help but crush on her.  On her website is a page of audio clips intended as a portfolio for future gigs.  On it she has a clip of her singing the "Queen of the Night" from The Magic Flute.  Biased or not, I personally think she is better than the person who sang it in the movie Amadeus.  She can whip out those baroque runs like no one I've ever heard.  When I try them, they stay baroquen.  I just don't have that skill set...but then I suppose that's why she gets paid the big bucks (or at least gets paid) and I don't.

Anyway, I hadn't intended this as a love letter to Mary (though I do adore her), but as a comparison to my friend's opera singer.  I shared Mary, and she shared with me a singer with whom I was unfamiliar, named Audra McDonald.  Audra has a different type of soprano voice than Mary Wilson, but she is no less awesome.  When I was looking for songs to use this month, I found a video of Audra singing--wait for it--"Rise Up, Shepherd."  (Please--like you didn't see that coming...)  She was amazing.  I particularly love the mesh of classical voice with spiritual style.  Far too many singers perform the song too straight.  It really needs that spiritual flair to, well, rise up.  So, without further ado, here's Audra McDonald singing "Rise Up, Shepherd and Follow."  It's not the whole song, but she's still kinda awesome singing it.


In keeping with our opera theme today, here's the famous Kathleen Battle singing the complete song with the Harlem Boys' Choir for comparison.


And, just because I have to give my friend Mary equal opportunity, go here to listen to her page of audio clips.  I'm telling you, she is stunning.  So go.  Right now.  Listen.  Then tell me she isn't way better than the Amadeus chick.

Meanwhile,  I'm gonna go off now and be crafty for the Celtic Trims blog.

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