Opera superstar Stephanie Blythe prepares tribute concert for lyricist Johnny Mercer

The last time Stephanie Blythe performed with the San Diego Opera in 2014, she presented a concert of songs made famous by contralto Kate Smith that she spent 15 years researching and planning.

When the world-famous mezzo-soprano returns on Saturday to kick off the 2021-22 San Diego Opera season, she will pay tribute to another of her musical heroes: lyricist Johnny Mercer, who has co-written more than 1,500 songs in his half. Songwriter career of the century, including “Moon River”, “Skylark”, “That Old Black Magic” and “My Shining Hour”.

Blythe said she hoped her concert – which she prefers to call a “cabaret recital” because she enjoys talking and telling stories between songs – will draw more attention to a man whose name is perhaps unfamiliar, but whose songs contributed to the composition of the American Songbook. of the 20th century.

“He was known as the King of Lyrics and he worked with many of the best songwriters because he was such a great contributor,” Blythe said, in a telephone interview from a home in a small town in Pennsylvania. that she has shared with her husband for 20 years. David Smith-Larsen and their matching pets. “What I really like about him is that he participated in the cultivation like a starving man. He listened to everything. He was aware of everything that was written and he was a student of the form of ‘art.

Johnny Mercer with his Oscar for Best Song in 1963, “Days of Wine and Roses”, for which Mercer wrote the lyrics and Henry Mancini wrote the music.

(Associated press)

Blythe’s concert at the Balboa Theater will be the first of three recitals that the San Diego Opera is presenting across the county this fall to bring audiences back to indoor performances. Next up will be soprano Michelle Bradley who will perform on November 20 and 21 at Conrad’s Baker-Baum Recital Hall in La Jolla, followed by Mexican-American tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz who will perform on December 3 at the California Center for the Arts. , Escondido. Large-scale productions begin in 2022.

Company chief executive David Bennett said that despite the loss of box office revenue over the past 19 months, the San Diego Opera House has weathered the pandemic well. Some outdoor productions have maintained audience engagement, subscribers and donors have been generous in their support, and federal stimulus programs such as the Paycheck Protection Program and the Closed Site Operating Grant. helped the business survive.

Ticket sales this summer have been slower than in the past, Bennett said, but a recent audience survey found customers are waiting to see how the pandemic unfolds before committing to it. Like other performing arts organizations in San Diego County, the San Diego Opera House requires ticket buyers to show proof of full vaccine and identity or a negative COVID PCR test within 72 hours of being sent. performance when they arrive at the theater. Masks will also be required indoors under the new policy.

Bennett said audiences would love Blythe’s concert because she has such a warm and engaging personality and such an incredible voice that it has provided her with a hugely successful 25-year career, including over 200 performances at the Metropolitan Opera alone. from New York.

“She’s an incredible artist,” Bennett said. “Stéphanie is a communicator and what attracts her to Johnny Mercer is her communication skills.”

Opera singer Stephanie Blythe seen in a 2015 New York recital.

Opera singer Stephanie Blythe seen in a 2015 New York recital.

(Getty Images)

Explore new horizons

Songwriter Mercer was often described by his colleagues as a “restless” creator who wasn’t happy if he didn’t write a new song every day. Blythe isn’t necessarily agitated, but there are a number of ways she enjoys keeping busy as well.

Beyond her opera and recital career, Blythe is in her second year as artistic director of the Graduate Vocal Arts program at Bard College Conservatory of Music in New York. She also taught and performed for 11 years at the Tanglewood Music Festival in Massachusetts. She enjoys doing nature macro photography for her Instagram page (@ sblythe327), playing the ukulele, and writing poetry and song lyrics. She also has some ideas for a book and hopes to do more opera directing in the years to come.

“There are a lot of dreams I have for projects,” she said. “I like to put things in the universe. It’s like throwing spaghetti on the walls and seeing what sticks.

One of his favorite projects is to continue the fast growing concert career of “Blythely Oratonio”, his pompous but very talented alter-ego. She created the drag character Blythely – an exaggerated opera tenor she performs with a fake beard and fake mustache – for a fundraising concert for Opera Philadelphia in 2017. Blythe said she created Blythely so she can explore the lower register of her singing voice. .

“My voice has always liked to linger in the basement, for lack of a better phrase. This character is the expression of it. He has always been there and now has the opportunity to have a voice. I’ve always wanted to sing the tenor and a lot of people have said to me “you sound like a tenor”. Now let’s listen to him.

While Blythely performed in costume for several concerts, both online and in person, Blythe also began exploring the tenor / baritone repertoire in gender roles for regular opera productions on the main stage. She was booked to play the title role in Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi” – a role written for a male baritone – for the San Diego Opera in February 2022, but that production was postponed to a later season, Bennett said. .

“We’re at an interesting point in the performance,” Blythe said. “I work with a lot of young artists today who are allowed to, and encourage to, explore their vocal identities, which are not necessarily seated in typical German. fach (voice classification). I’m excited about it. I don’t think the voice has limits.

During the pandemic, Blythe has been busy teaching Bard, who is a two-hour drive from her home several days a week. She also entertained her subscribers with her frequent ukulele concerts on her Facebook page. She started playing the instrument in 2013 when she was doing her Kate Smith concerts at Lincoln Center in New York City. Since then, she has become so proficient with the instrument that Lanikai Ukuleles recruited her as one of its official artists.

At Saturday’s “Johnny Mercer: American Lyricist” concert, audiences can expect Blythe to pull out her ukulele for a song or two, but Blythely shouldn’t appear because, she said, he draws a little attention.

Blythe doesn’t share Saturday’s songlist ahead of time as she likes the surprise element and she plans to announce every number from the stage. The only songs she will promise are “Moon River”, “Skylark” and “I Thought About You”. His accompanist will be pianist Ryan McCullough.

    Johnny Mercer, left, and Henry Mancini with their Oscars for Best Song in a Motion Picture, "The days of wine and roses"

Composers Johnny Mercer, left, and Henry Mancini pose with their Oscars they won for best song in a movie, “The Days of Wine and Roses” at the 1963 Oscars.

(Associated press)

“Spectacular in the vernacular”

Raised in Savannah, Georgia, Mercer was 19 when he moved to New York City to become a jazz, bandstand and vaudeville singer. In the early 1930s, he switched to songwriting and was immediately recognized for his extensive vocabulary and turns of phrase. A colleague joked that Mercer was “spectacular in the vernacular” for cleverly worded songs such as “Jeepers Creepers”, “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate The Positive”, “Hooray for Hollywood” and “On the Atchison” , Topeka and the Santa Fe. ”

Over the years, he co-founded Capitol Records and co-wrote with over 200 composers, including Hoagy Carmichael, Harry Warren, Henry Mancini, Harold Arlen and Jerome Kern. His lyrics often celebrated his Southern heritage, leading a music historian to say that Mercer had “the South in his mouth”, especially in songs like “Lazybones”, “Blues in the Night (My Mama Done Told Me) And “Moon River,” the latter of which won her one of her four Oscars for Original Song for Cinema. Since 1980, the Songwriters Hall of Fame has presented the annual Johnny Mercer Award to honor the nation’s most acclaimed songwriters.

Blythe said there is a line in the song “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate The Positive” that says, “Don’t mess with Mister In-Between.” She thinks it describes Mercer’s life and career.

“He was Mr. In-Between. He was between North and South and was able to garner this kind of nostalgia for the back of the house which is really beautiful. He was also a wonderful singer, lyricist, songwriter and music producer. He had his finger in a lot of pies and was amazing at it all, ”she said. “It’s wonderful for me to be able to tell a story about someone’s life with their music, so that’s the point of this concert.”

Stephanie Blythe: “Johnny Mercer: American Lyricist”

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday

Or: San Diego Opera House at Balboa Theater, 868 Fourth Ave., downtown

Tickets: $ 35 and more

Telephone: (619) 533-7000

In line: sdopera.org

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