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Steven Blier takes a bold approach to coaching Henri Duparc’s ‘Phidylé’

1885 portrait of Leconte de Lisle
by Blanquer Jacques-Léonard, from Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

Last night’s Master Class for Merola Opera Program 2014, held at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, was led by Steven Blier. Blier is an accompanist with a prodigious repertoire at his disposal, allowing him to coach just about any approach to vocal music in the Western tradition. (It would not surprise me if Lady Gaga would come out of a session having learned a thing or two.)

Part of Blier’s success as a coach is the way in which he uses wit to put the student at ease, rather than to intimidate; but there is always a more serious punch line below the surface of his jokes. Thus, when tenor Benjamin Werley began his session with Blier by summarizing the poem by Leconte de Lisle being set in Henri Duparc’s “Phidylé,” Blier replied, “That’s the usual version. Do you want the R-rated version?”

That version dispensed with the generic pastoral setting, replacing it with an equally generic Motel 6 room. Phidylé is no longer resting on the grass, inspiring the arduous desire of the poet’s thoughts. Instead, Blier suggested that the poet is reflecting on what has just been (perhaps standing just outside the door while drawing on his French cigarette). (Blier also remarked that there was an X-rated version but left that as an exercise for the student.)

While I generally believe that any sung interpretation of poetry should be grounded on an appreciation of both the surface and deep structures of the text, I also believe, like many literary theorists, that any text may be subjected to multiple interpretations, including those that may have had nothing to do with the author’s intent. Thus, while Leconte de Lisle may have intended to write a poem about desire, I have no trouble with considering a reading (and, in this case, singing) of that poem that is about consummation. Indeed, there is something a bit refreshing about the change of perspective.

Consider how much of the vocal repertoire is about desire. Even the text of Don Giovanni never gets beyond desire; and one might go so far as to make a case that the entire opera is a study in the “dark side” of desire. One might almost say that the prevailing attitude towards consummation during the nineteenth-century was one of self-censorship. It is almost as if the liberation of the Sexual Revolution of the Sixties also liberated how we could think about love poetry, even in the texts of centuries-old poems.

Beyond any abstractions about consummation, however, Blier’s concrete reference to Motel 6 clearly carried a strong connotation of sleaze, a noun that would seem as remote as possible from Duparc’s musical rhetoric. Nevertheless, it suggested that one could take an earthier approach to both the vocal line and the piano accompaniment without compromising the score itself. One might say that, through Blier’s coaching, the music itself was not changed in any critically substantive manner. It was just being examined from an angle that may not have been conceivable when Duparc finished writing the score in 1882 but is certainly worthy of consideration in our 21st-century culture.

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