The dramatic soprano, famous across the world for her Turandot and other signature operatic roles, sang the rapturous solo part in Florent Schmitt’s stunning choral work Psaume XLVII in 2001.
Ask anyone who has attended a performance of Florent Schmitt’s exhilarating choral masterpiece Psaume XLVII, Op. 38, and they’ll tell you how impactful the piece is when heard live.
I’ve been fortunate to see the piece in concert three times — first in New York City with the American Symphony Orchestra, soprano Korliss Uecker and the Canticum Novum Festival Singers conducted by Leon Botstein (1997), and most recently in Krakow, Poland with soprano Ewa Biegas and the Krakow Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Jean-Luc Tingaud (2016).
Both of those were highly memorable performances. In between was another presentation of the Psalm done in 2001 — which might be the most impressive one of all.
One reason is because the piece was presented in the magnificent sanctuary of the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, performed by the Cathedral Choral Society and members of the National Symphony Orchestra conducted by J. Reilly Lewis.
There’s something about experiencing the Psalm in such a vaunted place, along with the Cathedral’s massive Æolian-Skinner pipe organ (ca. 1938), that eclipses even the most impressive concert hall experience.
And there was another noteworthy aspect of the National Cathedral performance — the appearance of dramatic soprano Audrey Stottler singing the important middle section of the Psalm. Miss Stottler’s soaring rendition of the solo part was stunning in its impact, leaving many members of the audience utterly amazed (and delighted) at what they were hearing.
The sweep of Miss Stottler’s performance was even more extraordinary when one considers that her participation was an unplanned event that came about with barely a week to spare.
I discovered this interesting fact when I had the chance to visit with Miss Stottler to ask her about her experience in singing this music. Through a mixture of serendipity and luck, I found myself face to face with Miss Stottler at her voice studio in Minneapolis, Minnesota, 17 years after the 2001 National Cathedral concert that I had attended with my family.
In between two voice appointments, we spent an enjoyable hour and a half visiting about Miss Stottler’s career and the rare opportunity she had been given to sing one of the most impressive masterpieces in the choral repertoire. Highlights of that discussion are presented below.
PLN: It has been nearly two decades since you performed Florent Schmitt’s Psaume XLVII at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. Do you recall how the opportunity to sing this music came about?
AS: Indeed I do! I was in Tokyo at the time, where I was performing Turandot on tour with Zubin Mehta and the Maggio Musicale Teatro Fiorentino Orchestra. I was also performing a Verdi concert in Japan at that time with tenor Neil Shicoff.
One night at the hotel I received a FAX from my New York agents, Edgar Vincent and Pat Farrell, asking if I would be willing to perform this music. Apparently Sharon Sweet, who had once made a recording of the Psalm, had been booked to sing it, but for some reason she was unable to perform it.
Asked if I would consider doing the program, I replied, “Well, I’d need to see the music first.” So the next day the music was FAXed and was sitting in my box when I returned to my hotel.
I looked at what had been FAXed and thought to myself, “This is rather odd. It has no piano accompaniment. I don’t know what anything will sound like underneath!”
As it turned out, it was pages from the middle of the score where the soprano has her solo. Not only that, it was just a blow-up of the soprano part alone, with no other music parts showing. Of course, there were many empty measures with rests, and no metronome markings at all.
All that, plus the fact that the performance was going to be happening in just a week.
So my reaction was, “I don’t really care to do this.” But my agents were very convincing, and ultimately I decided to take the engagement.
PLN: So, what you’re saying is that you weren’t familiar with the music at all?
AS: Correct. I had never heard of the piece — nor of the composer, for that matter.
But I realized how dire the situation was. And as it turned out, I already had a performance scheduled right afterwards next door in the state of Virginia, so it turned out that I could leave Japan a little early and be able to handle both appearances.
PLN: When you first looked at the score, what were your initial thoughts?
AS: Well, it was very curious; I didn’t really know what to think! Remember, this was in the days before YouTube or barely even the Internet. All I had was just my solo part, without knowing the underlying choral or orchestral parts, or even having a piano reduction. And of course, I had no recording I could listen to for reference, either.
So, I found a piano in the hotel and played through the melodic lines that were on the sheets that I had, and started to become a little bit familiar with the music that way.
I was also counting the beats — there were many measures of rests — and working on the French lyrics, too.
Mind you, this is quite an unusual situation for a singer. Usually we have future repertoire that we keep up with. Even as we’re singing one opera, we have our répétiteur who helps familiarize us with other roles or solo parts that are coming up.
Even when you’re on the road, you’re constantly studying and preparing your upcoming repertoire. While you’re singing Ballo, you’re working on Attila. You could be singing Turandot while simultaneously preparing for a Handel concert.
Typically, I would know what I’d be singing two years ahead of time — not two weeks. It was just very unusual to have no advance warning at all. In fact, offhand I can recall just one other occasion where I was flown in on such short notice to sing two Verdi Requiems in Scandinavia. But in that case I was already at least somewhat familiar with the music; not so with the Schmitt.
PLN: How would you go about preparing a piece like Psalm 47 for performance? Is there a particular routine that you follow — particularly when preparing unfamiliar music for the first time?
AS: Whatever routine I typically had wasn’t what I could follow in this instance. I recall that the first time I came to the Cathedral, we met in the choir room. It was just the conductor and choral director Reilly Lewis, the rehearsal pianist, and me. We sang through just the middle part of the score.
It was only when I got to town that I was given a complete score for my reference. But I ended up not using it at all, because I had already marked up my pages from Japan.
To this day, in my binder you’ll see my marked up pages, and behind them is a clean copy of the score without so much as a single pencil mark on it!
The next day we had one dress rehearsal with all the musicians, and then we presented the one Sunday afternoon performance the day after that.
I remember the conductor as being an incredibly nice man, and unfortunately it was the only time we ever worked together. I knew nothing about the Cathedral Choral Society Chorus — which was a very fine one — nor of the orchestral players, many of whom turned out to be members of the National Symphony Orchestra.
Everyone was wonderful to work with. No stress whatsoever, which was important considering the schedule we were working under.
PLN: Psaume XLVII has some particularly challenging choral writing, and the rhythm can also be a bit tricky in places. Moreover, singing in the French language can present challenges for American choruses. Did you notice any particular problems of this kind?
AS: I hadn’t been privy to the earlier rehearsals with the chorus or the orchestra; I had just the one dress rehearsal in the sanctuary. When I arrived, everyone was already assembled, and we began. I remember being very impressed at how tight everything sounded. It was a big chorus, and in the venue of the National Cathedral with the big pipe organ, it sounded very impressive.
PLN: When I attended the concert, I marveled at how “big” a program it was — not only Schmitt’s Psalm but also Poulenc’s Gloria and the Saint-Saens Organ Symphony. The French ambassador was also in attendance, adding to the “gala” atmosphere of the concert, which I recall attracted a capacity crowd in a space that seats around 3,000 people. Did you have similar feelings about the concert?
AS: It was definitely a big program. And to end it with the Schmitt — that’s an equally big piece!
To tell you the truth, I didn’t know the French ambassador was going to be there — except at the last moment just before I went on when someone mentioned it to me. I remember thinking, “Well, this is certainly interesting …”
PLN: The contemporary American composer Kenneth Fuchs has written these words about Schmitt’s composition: “The Psalm is unusual for French music because it has such a big profile. Even Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, at its largest moments with chorus and orchestra at full throttle, doesn’t quite have the ‘hugeness’ of this piece. The Psalm’s language is not Germanic, but the dimensions somehow are.” Does this characterization seem right to you?
AS: I understand what he is saying. When I listen to the orchestration of the Psalm, I actually hear some Stravinsky in there. But I also sense a Straussian sweep to it — a dramatic sweep. If you have the right solo soprano voice — if that’s where the beauty of your voice lies — it is like glue; it will go right on the music.
This is why I loved singing the Psalm. The French repertoire isn’t where I’d devoted by energies during my career, simply because of the size of my instrument. On the other hand, my voice is a little unusual in that it is also Italianate; one could say that I was singing in the Italian wing with a Germanic drive to the voice.
And of course, that combination was perfect for the Schmitt.
I should say that I was very surprised when I stepped into the sanctuary for the dress rehearsal, because I honestly had no idea how the full production would sound — with that tone and that sweep. This is what made it so fun for me to sing, and so easy for me to respond to that big wave of sound.
PLN: You have starred in hundreds of musical productions all over the world — and this is but one concert — but do you happen to recall any particular aspect of this performance that sticks in your memory?
AS: Well, up until you shared a recording of the performance with me just now, I had never heard myself sing it! But now when I hear it after all these years, I can sense how I really felt during the performance. It’s exactly how I teach my students today: you have to feel what you are singing. You have a sense of how you’re “making the music.”
When I listened to my Psalm performance, I could viscerally feel what I was doing. It’s a beautiful moment to relive.
PLN: Although Florent Schmitt wrote no operas, he was very partial to vocal music of all other kinds. His output also included many art songs — all of which are obscure. Do you think singers of today should investigate this repertoire?
AS: Yes, why not? Especially if the other pieces are written as beautifully as the Psalm. The soprano part in the Psalm is so very emotional, and it’s such a joy to sing. Schmitt really seems to understand the voice.
PLN: You have had such an interesting career — both on the opera stage and in the concert hall. As you mentioned, much of your artistic activity focused on Italian repertoire such as Verdi and Puccini, and later Germanic repertoire such as Richard Strauss. I’m curious if there are other pieces of French music besides the Psalm that have been “calling cards” of yours?
AS: The Schmitt was unusual in that regard because French repertoire was never a major focus for me. I did sing Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites, as well as prepared Meyerbeer’s Le Prophète for a Trieste production that never actually happened.
It’s amusing for me to recall that after the National Cathedral concert, the French ambassador and his wife hosted a reception for the conductor, the organist, the concertmaster and me at his residence. The ambassador spoke to me in French, and I had to admit to him that I couldn’t converse that way, but that I’d be happy to speak with him in Italian! He smiled and replied that my French was wonderful in the Schmitt, and that he could understand every word of it.
PLN: After spending nearly 40 years on the stages of Europe, the Far East and the Americas, about a dozen years ago you retired and established a voice studio in Minneapolis. Could you say a few words about your teaching activities and the types of students who come to you for voice training?
AS: For decades I was on the road nine months out of twelve. For the last seven years of my stage career, my husband and I decided to move back to Minnesota for the sake of raising our children in a more family-friendly environment. My husband, Jon Poppe, is also a Minnesota native. A professional chef during our time in New York City, he was a sous chef at Maxim’s and later head chef at the Mayflower Hotel. Here in the Twin Cities, he is retiring from the restaurant industry this year.
As for my teaching activities, my original plan was to establish an opera development program. Eventually I founded my own studio in the city of Minneapolis, where I offer a wide range of educational activities in addition to traditional voice coaching — things like audition classes, movement classes, diction, mise en scene, directing, and ensemble training.
As for my students, they come from all over the region, the United States, and even the world. I teach anyone who wants to sing, ranging in age from 15 to 65. My students include professional singers, pre-professionals, performance artists, and some who just love to sing as an avocation.
I have several students who are transitioning from one voice range to another — baritone to tenor. Three of my students are currently performing in Europe, plus I have a soprano who travels here from Japan for lessons. I have a young baritone in Kansas who has just qualified for the finals round in the MET’s Young Artist Development Program.
One of my more unique students is a performance artist whose professional name is Bengal Blue. He met me as a teenager, and still flies here from West Hollywood for lessons. He composes his own music and is a brilliant creative talent.
From these varied experiences, I’ve discovered that teaching is a wonderful activity. It’s hardly routine and it’s never boring! With the demands of my teaching, I find that I have little time to serve on juries or to adjudicate vocal competitions.
I think initially, students came to me because of my reputation as a singer and stage artist. But today, people come to me because of my reputation as a teacher. And that is very soul-satisfying to know.
PLN: Are there any additional observations you would like to make about Psaume XLVII and the opportunity you were given to perform it?
AS: It was an unexpected opportunity — not just to discover music that I didn’t know before, but also to push myself to learn it under such unusual circumstances.
I recall my undergraduate days at Concordia College, decades ago, where we were taught that the job of a singer is to serve the music. That makes sense in theory, but sometimes it’s difficult to carry out.
Of course, that challenge is much easier when the music is top-quality. With Schmitt, you can really trust that the composer placed the notes in the way that he did for very good reasons. Each note is important, just as it is written.
A good composer gives you all the clues you need to find your connection with the music — and once you find the association, that’s what makes the music come alive. This was exactly the experience I had with Florent Schmitt and Psalm 47.
Speaking as one of the audience members who was bowled over that day in 2001 at the Washington National Cathedral, it is indeed fortunate that Audrey Stottler was able to step in and be part of the production. Here’s hoping that the audio documentation of that very special performance will be made available someday for music-lovers all over the world to hear and enjoy.