Songs of our time

Kitty WhatelyThu 5th October 2017

The mezzo explores her new recording of songs by Jonathan Dove

As a huge fan of Jonathan Dove's music, when I was offered the opportunity, by the BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists scheme, to commission a new work by any composer, I leapt at the chance and was over the moon when Jonathan agreed to it. I had coincidentally only just written to him, just fanmail really, bemoaning the fact that some of his best songs had not ever been recorded. 

We met at his home in East London, and sang and played through some of my favourite repertoire, in order to give him a good idea of where my voice best lies and what I can and can't manage. We sang through all sorts of music; English and American songs, Debussy, Strauss, songs from the musical theatre repertoire, and some of my favourite songs of his own. We also discussed our favourite poetry and ideas for texts. 

For several years I have been producing recital programmes with my actor parents, mixing song and poetry, which is something that we really enjoy devising and performing together. One of these programmes was on the theme of women's journeys, including Schumann's Frauenliebe und -leben, Debussy's Chansons de Bilitis, Wolf's Mignon Lieder, alongside poetry written exclusively by female authors read by my mother. These included texts by Christina Rossetti, Emily Dickinson, Jenny Joseph, Sylvia Plath and Edna St Vincent Millay.

I sent this programme list to Jonathan, and said it would be useful to have some songs to add as we are likely to repeat it at some point in the future. The Edna St Vincent Millay poems immediately stood out to Jonathan as he had been intending to set one of her poems for some time, and is a fan of hers. 

I was delighted with the choice. It is far easier to find songs for this theme of the woman's journey, about the younger stages of a woman's life; courtship, falling in love, losing love, marriage, motherhood. These three songs of Millay give another voice; that of a woman slightly later in life, looking back on her past, memories, lovers, happier times, and reflecting on what it is to age. To counter some of the sweet, naive voices of the 18th century poets included within the programme, Millay's texts are raw and bitter, melancholic and dark and sexy. As an actor, I feel that they give me so much to get my teeth into, and allow me to take a real emotional rollercoaster throughout the 10 minute cycle. 

Our short meeting at Jonathan's house was all he needed to understand my voice very well, the songs lie in a great spot for me, so that I can really speak the stories when necessary, or wail out in an almost primal surge at the emotional climaxes, without having to think too technically. There were no shocks for me in Jonathan's interpretations, only delight to find that we obviously read them in a very similar tone. The sleepy hazey almost cabaret feel of 'Recuerdo' ('We were very tired, we were very merry...'). The sad numbness of 'What Lips My Lips Have Kissed' rising to an almost orgasmic climax as she loses herself in the memories of past passion ("I only know that summer sang in me a little while..."). And the bitter, animal, frenzied 'I Too Beneath Your Moon Almighty Sex'. I think Jonathan has captured the mood of each poem so well, I find them very easy to perform and extremely enjoyable. 

I was even more thrilled when the BBC offered me the chance to record these, and all of Jonathan's songs for mezzo at Champs Hill, where I made my debut disc in 2015: 'This Other Eden'. I can't really sufficiently convey just how enthusiastic I am about some of these songs, and how desperate I am for them to be heard, and appreciated, and performed more. I think the Ursula Vaughan Williams settings are an absolute masterpiece. Particularly the last song in that set, 'The Siren'. I can only imagine that the reason that they are not better known is simply because they are difficult to learn and to sing and play. They were originally written for Ann Mason, who has a far bigger and more operatic voice than I do, so that set was a challenge for me. But I was desperate to include them on the disc and feel that my slightly lighter rendition delivered with maximum love and enthusiasm is hopefully just as valid. 

'Five Am'rous Sighs', and 'All You Who Sleep Tonight' are full of wit and poignancy, and exquisite melodies in some of the songs. They have an immediacy which reminds me of the deeply poignant and very witty songs of another of my absolute favourite composers, Stephen Sondheim. 

Making CDs in this day and age is not a job for anybody who wants to get rich. But for me, I feel so passionately excited to share these wonderful songs with anyone who will listen, and I really hope that other singers might hear the album and decide to sing some of these themselves. I love my job, but it is not always a given that I adore every piece of music that I am booked to sing. Sometimes it is just a job. But making this CD was a joy from start to finish, and I will always treasure the experience, and the disc of course, and feel thankful to have had the fabulous opportunity.

Kitty Whately's recording of Jonathan Dove's songs for mezzo, 'Nights Not Spent Alone', is out now on Champs Hill Records. For more information, please visit: champshillrecords.co.uk. You can read the Gramophone review of the album here: 'Nights Not Spent Alone'

Kitty Whately

Kitty Whately won both the Kathleen Ferrier Award and the 59th Royal Overseas League Award in the same year, and was part of the prestigious Verbier Festival Academy where she appeared as Cherubino in Le Nozze di Figaro and in Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy. Kitty was a BBC New Generation Artist from 2013-15, during which time she recorded her debut solo album This Other Eden, made recordings with the BBC orchestras, commissioned a new song cycle and made several appearances at the Proms.

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