Sanford Sylvan, one of this country’s foremost singers, will be coming to Rochester to perform Franz Schubert’s song cycle “Winterreise,” “Winter’s Journey,” with pianist David Breitman on March 18th in Kilbourn Hall. For the past 30 years, Sylvan has appeared all over the world, performing music dating from medieval to modern times. He has also participated in the premiers of operas by American John Adams. A dedicated recitalist, Sylvan is particularly well-known for his “Winterreise,” which has been called “an extraordinary achievement,” “the stuff of emotional devastation” and “a document of insanity.” Campus Times: Tell me a bit about yourself. What was your musical upbringing?
Sanford Sylvan: I grew up on Long Island. I went to Julliard Prep in high school. Then I went to Manhattan School of Music. After that I moved to Boston because I heard that in Boston they were performing the kind of music that I wanted to do, which was Bach and Handel and Mozart. My most formative teacher was soprano Phyllis Curtain. I was a student for four years at Tanglewood [where she taught]. I met her when I was extremely young, and it was the best thing that ever happened.
CT: It sounds like your first interests were in more standard repertoire. What led you to become interested in something that was written by a living composer like John Adams?
SS: Actually, it was when I was studying with Phyllis. It’s funny, even though I grew up in New York, it’s like I had never sung anything new or modern. But she once said, “It behooves you all to sing the music of your colleagues.” So, I sang my first George Crumb piece there. I sang a lot of new music, just from being exposed to it and being asked to do it.
CT: How did you first become interested in “Winterreise?”
SS: David Breitman, the pianist, and I met when we were both performing in Boston. I heard him play and I thought, “Wow, he’s great,” and I asked if he wanted to read through “Winterreise.” That’s the first piece that we ever read through, but I made a very important vow to myself that I wouldn’t perform it until I was at least 40.
CT: How old were you then?
SS: Twenty four. So, I studied the piece for 15 years before I actually sang it, and that was a good thing to do. I was really pleased. For Schubert, the years before “Winterreise” were devastating to him — he made his way in a very short span of time to that tragic territory of “Winterreise.” But it was my choice, for me, [to wait]. I wouldn’t make it a rule for anybody else.
CT: So, it was a matter of personal growth and maturity?
SS: I think so, I think so.
CT: The audience in Kilbourn will probably be fairly knowledgeable with Winterreise. Is your approach different for an audience that is perhaps less well-informed?
SS: I don’t change my approach at all. Sometimes David will make some remarks while we’re on stage to set a context, but we perform it as we perform it. It doesn’t matter where we are. We can’t really respond to the music differently on an inner level because of external reasons. [But sometimes] I find a verbal introduction very helpful. It is certainly true that in my performing lifetime of about 30 years that musical literacy on the part of the audience has dropped off astonishingly quickly. And that’s frightening.
CT: Your diction has received very good reviews even in languages as foreign to New Yorkers as Russian and Hebrew. Talk to me about that.
SS: Well, it goes back to Phyllis again. She always reminded us that our special gift as a singer is the words. The oboist has the more beautiful line and the cellist can do all the “singing” he or she wants through the instrument, but we actually have these words.
I think words are the best things ever — it is very important to reach that point where you understand that when you are singing in another language, you are no longer an American. I’ve heard singers try to sing a Schubert song with a rather Americanized kind of vocal production and musical phrasing, but you can’t do that. You must be a German person when you’re singing German. You can’t approach it like an American pop song. It doesn’t work.
CT: Is it necessary to be fluent in the language?
SS: Not exactly fluent. It’s not about fluency, per s, in vocabulary and all that. It’s about fluency with the nature of the language. For instance, German and English. Pop music works brilliantly in American English because we can [really] slide around [with all our] diphthongs. Pop sounds like a joke in German because there’s no bending [like this].
When people sing German art song and try to bend it like an American pop song, it’s a disaster. Some American singers do that, and I find that really unfortunate because they’re not being a German person. When you start to sing German properly, your emotional response is that of a German and not this kind of free-wheeling American. Germans are very different, not in their soul or in their essence, but in the expression of their artistic issues.
CT: So the natural inflection and intrinsic music of a language has a bearing on the emotionality of that language…
SS: …or how you express that emotion. Absolutely.
CT: Even with such excellent diction, there’s still the language barrier. In Kilbourn Hall, there will likely be only a handful of people in the audience who know those poems word for word. How do you help the audience get beyond this barrier?
SS: It’s interesting. A few presenters have asked us, “Oh, can we do the texts as supertitles?” And I say “Absolutely not unless you can show the entire poem at once.” That’s really the thing with art song — the composer is dealing with the entire poem as a work of art. Not just this word [or] that sentence. You can’t have a minute to minute translation because of the references that any great poem will have within itself… You know, [with] “Winterreise” the music is just so gorgeous that it leads everyone where they need to go.
The one kind of misconception about “Winterreise,” I think, is that it’s sad. It’s so much bigger than sad. For me, it’s really about disintegration and exile in the end. Complete disintegration. And that’s a difficult journey to make.
CT: With such an emotional journey, is it a problem for you when the audience has their eyes glued to the texts during it?
SS: Not at all. People look up and down as they will. I can’t be involved with what they’re doing. I have to be doing what I’m doing. So, I really just do my work, and then people come to it. It’s like reading a book, you know. Some people love it, some hate it, some are in between.
People get from that book what they want, and it’s the same with “Winterreise.” I think everyone who comes to a “Winterreise” realizes there’s something big happening right from the very first minor chord — structured the way Schubert structures it — all the way to the end.
CT: Keeping with this, what is your take on performing opera in the vernacular of the audience versus the original language? Is it OK to be reading subtitles while you’re pouring your guts out on the stage?
SS: No. I believe that opera in anything other than the vernacular is ridiculous and just some kind of socio-economic snobbery. Absolute nonsense. I grew up in New York, so I used to be one of those purists…Then I went to London and for years I went to the English National Opera where they do everything in English. People [were] sitting on the edge of their chairs, getting a good 80 percent [of the words] because at ENO the training is such that that’s your job. It’s brilliant.
Many years ago, we were doing the opera version of “Midsummer Night’s Dream” by Benjamin Britten. One night the supertitle machine broke. The director told us, “Folks, we’re going to have to work six times harder.” We got literally ten times the laughs that night than on any other night. I am an absolutely complete believer of opera in the vernacular. Opera is about the sound and the words coming out of the person at the same
CT: That’s an interesting difference. You must feel that on stage, the poetry falls apart when you try to translate and sing it in the vernacular. But it’s different for a dramatic presentation?
SS: Well, opera’s not poetry — purely as a form. The libretto of an opera is mostly prose. It’s about what happens next. Art song is specifically tied to the form of poetry. Faur didn’t go to a prose writer, he went to poetry. There is very little art song that is written from prose.
CT: In closing, is there anything special you’d like to tell readers who have never heard of Schubert but might be interested in coming to the concert?
SS: Sure. “Winterreise” is about alienation and exile. Everyone has felt [that way] in his or her life. The heart of this piece is about those issues — about being completely unseen, completely unheard, completely misunderstood and exiled.
Henderson can be reached at email@example.com.