The Music Issue: The Sondheim variations

Sexy gay pianist Anthony de Mare’s love of showtunes spurred his experimental concert tour inspired by the music of Stephen Sondheim

DeMare

I’M STILL DE MARE | The gay pianist and showtune addict will tackle Sondheim at his Cliburn Concert.

GREGORY SULLIVAN ISAACS  | Contributing Writer
gregoryisaacs@theaterjones.com

Dark, handsome and obviously buff, Anthony de Mare’s charm oozes out of his publicity photos. Smiling at you from behind his piano, he seems to have just said “Hello” and is waiting for you to answer.

Wishful thinking, at best. De Mare is happily partnered to Tom Spain, a publishing executive; they live in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York with their Pomeranian, Cowboy. (“He is actually a very large dog, for a Pom,” says de Mare with a laugh.)

It’s unlikely he’d have time for you anyway. De Mare is in the middle of an ambitious concert project that started in Canada last spring and has already taken him to New York City, Chicago and more. On Saturday, he’ll play that concert, Liaisons: Re-imagining Sondheim for the Piano, at the Modern Art Museum in Fort Worth as part of the Cliburn Concerts Series.

The concert is a natural fit for de Mare, acclaimed as an interpreter of contemporary music. In fact, if was his idea.

Already a big showtune fan, de Mare organized this project, which enlisted 36 composers to create short, solo piano pieces based on the music of Stephen Sondheim — not arrangements, mind you, but original compositions that use a Sondheim song as a cantus firmus. It’s the fulfillment of a concept that has been brewing in him since childhood.

“I was always a fan of Sondheim,” he says. “I trained as a dancer and pianist and always felt at home in theater. Besides, it was one of the best ways I could think of to be able to play this music in concerts.”

The concert ends up being something of a showcase for gay musicians. In addition to de Mare and Sondheim, among the participating composers who are openly gay are Ricky Ian Gordon, Eve Beglarian, Fred Hersch, Nico Muhly, Eric Rockwell, Rodney Sharman and Jake Heggie. “And there are a couple of others I am not so sure about,” he adds with a chuckle.

De Mare left the parameters open for the composers, giving them as much freedom as they needed. But he did have some policies about what he wanted to play.

“I didn’t really want any of the songs to be deconstructed, making them unrecognizable,” he says. “I told them to maintain the melodic material even if it is a loose reference to the song. I also asked them to make the pieces no shorter than three to four minutes, and no longer than eight or ten.” (Most run four to eight minutes.)
That may sound like an easy assignment, but it wasn’t.

“Many of the composers told me this turned out to be a very challenging assignment because the songs are so perfect just as they are,” he says. “It is hard to do something original without doing something completely different.”

For example, minimalist composer Steve Reich tackled “Finishing the Hat” from Sunday in the Park with George. “You know right off the bat that it is Reich, but the melodic material is still there,” he says. “David Rakowski had only one song in mind, ‘The Ladies who Lunch’ from Company. It was not originally on my list, though it is one of my favorite songs from the show. It is so character driven I didn’t think it would work as a piano solo. But he brought it to life brilliantly with all its bitterness and core of disappointment — he gets there without the lyrics.”

The program at the Modern will be held in the intimate lecture hall at the museum — an ideal venue for a piano recital. Shields-Collins “Buddy” Bray, a fine pianist himself, will serve as moderator, initiating a discussion about the pieces. De Mare will play about 13 of the 36 musical meditations commissioned, but even he isn’t quire sure which ones.

“I am still deciding,” he says.

I vote for “I’m Still Here.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 3, 2012.

—  Kevin Thomas

Aria there yet?

Patricia Racette, half of the lesbian power couple of opera, has certainly arrived. And that’s music to our ears

PR-Devon-Cass-5

QUEEN OF OPERA | Stunning soprano Patricia Racette was disappointed when the Dallas Opera canceled her production of ‘Katya Kabanova,’ but she still gets to perform at the Winspear this week with a cabaret performance featuring jazz and pop classics. (Photo courtesy Devon Cass)

 

GREGORY SULLIVAN ISAACS | Contributing Writer
gregoryisaacs@theaterjones.com

…………………..

AN EVENING OF CABARET
Winspear Opera House,
2403 Flora St. Nov. 9 at 7:30 p.m. Free to Dallas Opera season
subscribers. DallasOpera.org.
………………….

From the outside, the opera world seems like a gay haven — costumes, wigs, oversized egos, passionately dying divas full of drama. The fans are legendary in their devotion — the term “opera queen” is one that is used for self-identification more than it is tossed as a jab.

On the inside, however, it is mostly a gloriously appointed closet. While those who work in the opera, both onstage and off, are mostly straight, a large contingent are lesbians and gay men. They may be out to one another, and even show up at the gala with their partners, but few are out beyond the curtains.

Not so for the stunningly beautiful opera star Patricia Racette. “I am out and proud,” say the soprano in a phone interview. “Everyone has their own timing and their own issues to face, but I have never regretted coming out.”

Racette, who will sing leading roles in both Tosca and Madame Butterfly at the Met in 2012, is married to Beth Clayton, a mezzo-soprano justifiably famous for her smoldering portrayal of Carmen. They met while singing a production of La Traviata in Santa Fe in 1997, Racette playing the ill-fated Violetta and Clayton portraying her loyal friend Flora. (I always wondered about those two characters.) The couple married in 2005.

“It is inconceivable that we would be hiding our relationship,” Racette says. “If I were to be lying to everyone about such a huge aspect of my life, it would affect my performance. I am a total package and I certainly can’t leave part of me at home when I walk onstage.”

Any irony in a lesbian playing Tosca, the ultimate straight woman? Racette laughs at that thought. “We are past that nonsense in the theater and on television as more and more actors come out. In Tosca, I am portraying the circumstances of being passionately in love and I have my own love for Beth to dig into for motivation.”

In this, she is absolutely correct — you don’t need to be a whore to play Carmen. “There is a certain suspension of reality in opera,” Racette adds.

Racette admits to some apprehension at the start of her decision to come out, but it was short-lived. She looked at it in reverse: All her straight colleagues talked freely about their personal lives and the demands of spending so much time on the road, why not her?

“I thought, wait a minute. If I try to avoid these kinds of questions about my personal life, they will think that I am ashamed, like my love for Beth is some kind of dirty secret. For decades, the ‘It’s nobody’s business’ mantra kept opera singers in the closet. I can’t judge what other people do, but when

I hear that I think, ‘Too bad.’ They have no idea how liberating it is to just put all that baggage in the trash and live openly. If I want everyone else to think that my life is great, I have to show how great it is myself.”

Has this adversely affected her career? Hardly, as her Met engagements indicate. Clayton as well continues to get juicy roles. But she realizes that you can never know what you didn’t get.

“I am always asked this question and I always give the same answer. I just don’t know, and can never know unless someone tattles later. However, it really doesn’t matter. The opera world is full of as many disappointments as triumphs.”

One big disappointment was the cancellation of Janacek’s opera Katya Kabanova at the Dallas Opera this season. Racette was scheduled to sing the leading role in a glorious production in which she has triumphed in the past. “That one really hit me in the gut. I was so excited to return to Dallas. I went to school at North Texas State University and have many friends still in the area. I was especially looking forward to singing in the new house opera house.”

She will get to sing in the Winspear on Nov. 9, but it will be a far cry from Janacek. Racette performs her one-night cabaret as a bonus show to TDO patrons. Unlike other classical artists that seem stiff in crossover work, Racette started out singing jazz and cabaret; she switched to opera at the suggestion of an astute teacher. Accordingly, her program is a tribute to songs made famous by some of her favorite singers, and like any good gay person, Judy Garland and Edith Piaf top that list.

“Don’t expect any high notes,” she laughs. “I do in fact belt a few higher notes in the evening, but the reality is that my technique is speech-based. That translates into whatever style of music I sing. Sometimes, my opera fans are surprised that I can sing this way and not hurt my ‘other’ voice. But my technique allows for both styles and I sing in exactly same way — just in wildly different ranges.”

I ask Racette about Tosca’s great moment when she leaps off the castle wall to her death, cursing her tormentor on the way down. “Katya makes a leap as well, but into a river. Of course, Tosca is an opera diva, so her leap is much more spectacular. I always tell them to make it real and take some chances. However, I may feel like I am 17 when I am flying through the air, but I feel like I am every bit of 46 when I land.”

There is another unique “coming out” from Racette: She’s an opera singer who admits her age.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 4, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas