The Graduate Vocal Arts Program is a unique master of music program in vocal arts. Created to prepare the young singer for the special challenges of pursuing a professional life in music in the 21st century, this two-year MM degree program balances a respect for established repertory and expressive techniques with the flexibility and curiosity needed to keep abreast of evolving musical ideas. Students work on operatic, art song, chamber music, and new music repertoire throughout the coursework of the program. Operatic repertoire is studied and performed throughout the curriculum and in fully staged productions at the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts. The program also includes a strong practical component, with seminars and classes on career skills led by some of the leading figures in arts management and administration.
Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe is considered one of the most highly respected and critically acclaimed artists of her generation. Her repertoire ranges from Handel to Wagner, German lieder to contemporary and classic American song. Blythe has performed on many of the world’s great stages, such as Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Opera, Covent Garden, the Paris National Opera, and the San Francisco, Chicago Lyric, and Seattle Operas. In addition to leading the artistic vision of the Vocal Arts Program, she will be in residence at Bard, teaching Core Seminar III, leading the weekly Singer’s Forum, directing the Opera Workshop, and offering biweekly private coaching sessions. Ms. Blythe succeeds American soprano Dawn Upshaw, who conceived and designed the Graduate Vocal Arts Program and led it from its founding in 2006 until 2019.
In Her Own Words
Artistic Director Stephanie Blythe
"Being part of a thoughtful, generous, and innovative music making and teaching community has always been a dream of mine. The Bard Graduate Vocal Arts Program is just such a place. Our program works to help young artists develop the skill sets necessary to become autonomous performers in the professional world, but also works to harness their own creativity and curiosity to help them evolve into singular artists."
Renee Fleming Master Class, November 2018
In addition to the resident faculty, a myriad of guest artists drawn from the professional music world supplements the curriculum.
Claire Chase, founder, former artistic director of International Contemporary Ensemble and MacArthur Fellow
Lucy Dhegrae ’12, mezzo-soprano, director of Resonant Bodies Festival
F. Paul Driscoll, editor, Opera News Magazine
John Jarboe, performer, writer, director and founder of Bearded Ladies Cabaret
Warren Jones, collaborative pianist, faculty at Manhattan School of Music
Beth Morrison, creative producer of Beth Morrison Projects and the Prototype Festival
Pierre Vallet, conductor, pianist, vocal coach at the Metropolitan Opera
Lucy Shelton, soprano
Melissa Wegner ’08, associate director of the National Council Auditions at the Metropolitan Opera
“Svadba” by Ana Sokolovic, March 2018
Throughout the course of the program, each singer is offered opportunities to perform works drawn from the song, oratorio, and operatic repertoires. Singers work in collaboration with pianists, instrumentalists, and orchestra—in recital, oratorio, and fully staged operatic productions.
"Bard offers the opportunity for musicians to become versatile artists. Curating well-rounded artists that can pick up any piece of music and tell a story, which is something I aspire to do. Alongside that, the faculty is incomparable in how they take the time to not only teach but connect with us. Honest and raw artistry is happening at Bard and it is truly refreshing. It made me realize that something real, special, and world changing is happening here, and I wanted to be apart of that."
"I feel my education from Bard has shaped me in every single way...the connections I made through Bard continue to be a part of my life, and that feels wonderful....I was just so inspired during my two years at school by my colleagues and by the teachers."
You have this incredible residency going on this season at the MET Museum, which began in September to rave reviews. Can you describe the last program that you performed in the series at the beginning of December? Sure, yes! One of the nicest things about this residency is that I'm able to see whether there's any overlap or any conversation to be had between my work and development as a performer while also looking at the development of the Met itself and everything that it has always intended to do. So, with the Langston Hughes Program [referring to A Dream Deferred: Langston Hughes in Song which was performed on December, 2, 2018], I had already done a lot of research on Hughes settings while I was getting my master's at Bard, actually. And, in preparations for the residency, I read an autobiography about Thomas Hoving, about his time as the director of the Metropolitan Museum, and he put on this program called Harlem on My Mind in 1969. It was a controversial show for several different reasons, but one of the reasons is that the artistic black community felt they were not well represented in that show and that there was no other artwork, by black Americans in the museum, at that time. The positive outcomes are that tens of thousands of people came to the museum because of the controversy around the show; because of the excitement around the show, as there was nothing else like it at any museum in the world. Ultimately, the best thing that came out of it is that it sparked conversations across the country about how black Americans were represented in arts institutions. However, it still took the Met museum almost 50 years to put on an exhibit that featured black artists in a major way.
So, with this program, I wanted to honor the Met’s history and their intentions. And I focused on Langston Hughes because from the beginning of his career through today, so many composers in various genres wanted to set his music, and the beauty is that Hughes wanted to write music himself, so a lot of the things that he wrote had a kind of musical sense about them. What has been so powerful, appalling, and shocking, and moving while reading the 700 pages of Hughes’ collected poems, is that there are several poems from the 1940's to the 1960's that talk about gun violence, and gun violence against young children--all things that are still plaguing us in America, which he wrote about in a very poignant and real way. Through both the poetry readings, and also through the settings that I selected for this concert, I'm hoping to give audiences an experience of Langston Hughes that is about America, that is about New York, that is about the black American experience, and is just about the human experience. There are many ways human experiences to be set aside because they're uncomfortable. So, to bring them to the forefront and have the courage to do that--that's a huge, huge thing and is actually the most important thing about this concert for me.
You also have a recital tour this season that includes Schubert, Fauré, Barber, and Josephine Baker songs. How did you come up with this particular program? Well, I had just performed these Schubert songs at the LA Phil on a project with Yuval Sharon. He paired Schubert alongside these Beckett plays, and it was such a neat project. One of the poems that I sang on that program, and also that I had remembered from a class that I had at Bard, Suleika I, was originally attributed to Goethe, when in actuality, it was written by his lover, Marianne von Willemer. Apart from that I had already done a lot of research on blues singers and songwriters, and I was so surprised to find out how many were women--which I just did not know.
There are these blues singers, who are not very well remembered--it's not that they are unknown, but many are not well remembered or even accurately remembered for their writing. This got me thinking about how women, especially in Western society, are often not credited for their work. That got me thinking about how to focus on the woman's voice, in some way. I thought that the Chanson d’Eve could be interesting by just focusing on the voice of this woman and her process of coming into communion with her environment. While considering women, black women, and wondering what other songs could fit with a program and the more existential questions that came with the Fauré, the Hermit Songs written for Leontyne Price by Samuel Barber seemed like a natural fit.
Funny enough, this was actually the least amount of composers I'd ever performed on a recital program. Usually I have 10 or 15 composers, and I usually don't have full song cycles or many things from the traditional canon. So, in that way, this was a departure point for me. But, in a good way. I wanted to introduce and contextualize some of this material without being pedantic about it. I'm not ever wanting to “school” my audience--that's not my goal. But, one thing I did learn in programming at Bard, through classes that we took, is that it’s actually a good idea to find a context for what you're performing. You don't want a gimmick, but just something to help guide and focus people. Most people in the audience are not spending all of their time analyzing this material, and it's a lot to take in, with the words and music, especially if it's something they've never come across before. So, it just kind of helps orient everyone. And, it also helps to orient me, because it's a long time to be up there for two hours!
You are a founding core member of American Modern Opera Company . How did this ensemble come to fruition? What has it been like to be a part of, and what kind of projects do you hope to be able to see come to life with it in the future? I’ll start by saying that the word “opera” itself, in Italian means “work.” Opera has always been developed through a collaboration of multiple artists and multiple art forms. One thing that has started happening, though, is that when you say the word “opera,” no single kind of image comes to mind. Although, one kind of experience does come to mind, but if you just get down to the roots of it, is about work through collaboration. It's about how art forms can influence each other. So, all of the people in this group each have their own paths and are very much driven in their own practices, and they're also aware of the fact that some of the greatest things come out of interaction with other creative minds.
Zack Winokur [one of the artistic directors of AMOC] is a young director that I met while I was at Juilliard. And, even though I'd seen none of his work, I just loved how he spoke about art; I loved the way that we talked about how we experienced other people's work, and also our intentions in our own work seemed to be aligned along the same path. So when he asked if I wanted to be a part of this artist collective, I said yes. Now we’ve got this coalition, or collective, of artists, and we're going to see what is possible. El Niño [a chamber arrangement of this work that Julia adapted of John Adams’ and Peter Sellars’ full orchestral work, El Niño ] is the first AMOC project that's going to be presented in New York City, and it involves almost the entire group. It's a very exciting time, and I think as time goes on, we're going to see if there are larger projects that we can all do together. But, right now it's just about sharing space and ideas and seeing where it goes. There's a shift happening in the business at large about what is important and questions are being posed about the importance of music and art, and we are actually needing to answer these questions. And we're finding new ways and asking ourselves for those answers, and I'm very, very excited about that.
Community activism and advocacy seem to be an integral part of your identity as an artist. How did you discover this part of yourself, and how has this shaped and/or changed the way you think about your art? Both of my parents were very much involved in social justice, and it was always at the forefront of their minds. My father was the head of Housing Urban Development for Eastern Missouri, my mother taught, and her last job was working with nonprofits that helped the refugee and homeless community in St Louis. Now, they never put pressure on me about what I needed to do and how I needed to do it, but I did feel that if I was not doing work that is somehow contributing to society and the betterment of society, then it is not really worthy work. It may pay my bills, but it's not actual work. So, even starting in high school, I remember saying to friends, "I don’t know why I'm going into [music] yet." I went through college, and this question was still sort of nagging at me...along with other identity issues that generally come up in college. But coming to a place of resolve about devoting my life to music started happening at Bard, when I was thinking about music’s role in life, generally.
Music, in a fundamental way, encourages us to listen to each other and encourages us to engage with each other. It encourages us to connect and to just hold and share space. And, these are lessons that we need. That is why music is important--not because it's just great for the brain or because music and math go together. It is because it helps us relate to reality and relate to external space, and I can't minimize the importance of that. Not just for my life personally, but just generally as a human need.
So, I feel that music making is socially conscious because it makes people more conscious. And, it's great that I can volunteer my time to benefit concerts or organizing them because these are concrete things. And, it is great that I can use my platform to talk about things that are important. But, I do not feel that what I'm doing is revolutionary or anything like that. I just think that I'm doing my job and taking the craft that I invest my time in, and that medium, very seriously. I take it for exactly what it is, and I just want to use it and offer it in that way.
How has your education from Bard shaped you as an artist? I feel it has influenced me in every single way and has been so influential in my development. First off, being in a program that had a very different curriculum was a major relief. It is focused on a more holistic approach to training, that is not just about the voice, but is also about helping students become more conscious about what they're doing and why. Because of this, I realized: okay, even if I don't end up performing, there are so many other parts of the music business that I would want to be involved in because they are all very creative, and they do require a lot of imagination. And, that was a great thing.
Secondly, working with Dawn and Kayo was incredibly influential. I'll just start with Kayo and the way that she structured Core Seminar I. There's so much vocal repertoire, and it's overwhelming, unless you have a way to organize yourself and orient yourself. To have your course of study start by saying, “let's look at all of the settings of this particular poet, let's organize the repertoire by poet,” was incredible. And, then, doing all of my own translations, memorizing my translations and having to present them to the class? I was so angry and stressed my first several weeks of school, because I didn’t feel that I could do all I was being asked to do very well. But, then you start learning a real method for yourself and then, by looking at more and more material, you start to see all of the links to be made. You start to think about who wrote what you're singing, and not just the music itself--but, the composers’ lives and the circumstances around their lives. Music started to take on this other kind of vitality, and it excited the hell out of me.
Then, Dawn was very generous with me while I was there. She invited me to sing at a couple of events, which is how I met Peter Sellars. And, it was not Dawn trying to pedal her students, because she's not interested in “professional hype.” She's interested in the craft of the work and where that leads you. If that can lead to a career, great, but that's not actually the point of the program, and that was very clear to me. So, my time at Bard was just kind of magical and wonderful. She helped me start to further develop my aesthetic, which is all just focused on offering something that is clear. That is the goal--not something beautiful. Something that is clear and with the intention to be understood.
The connections I made through Bard continue to be a part of my life, and that feels wonderful. I'm so happy about that. I have utter, utter joy thinking about that. I was just so inspired during my two years at school by my colleagues and by the teachers.
What is your favorite memory from your time at Bard, and why? Wow, that's something to think about! Honestly, there were just so many beautiful days. This was before the new conservatory, so there were many wonderful, quiet days that we had at the Gatehouse. I would hear my colleagues practicing, and one of us would be cooking... One day, we made caramel for each other and dipped in apples that we brought from the orchard near Bard. We just had these idyllic times, and I have countless wonderful memories like that.
What is the most important piece of advice that you would give to recent alumni and current students? I’ll start with something that my voice teacher said while I was at Bard. Edith Bers, said: “Start from zero every day.” So, instead of thinking about what you accomplished yesterday, or what you failed at, or what you're wanting to do within an hour, just start from zero every day--with your body and with your mind. Then, build yourself up and see where it goes, so that you're acting from a place of presence, and you're allowing yourself to be open. That feels like the main lesson that Bard teaches. And, I did start to get it!
Also, take the advice of the people you respect. Try to look at what they’re modeling and the things that these people have in common. It's not just how they do things or what they've done, but how did they tread through life? I think that these are just sort of philosophies to live by. My colleagues from Bard, we've all gone in such different ways. You do need to fight for yourself, and you do need to be an advocate for yourself, but ultimately, as long as you're not fighting too much, there's no reason not to just be where you are. Appreciate your time, and just have music live and breathe around you. And, then it will.