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Kelley Tells a Tale


The Aston Magna Music Festival celebrates its 50th season this summer, running every weekend from June 22nd  to July 22nd. Opening night will be at Slosberg Music Center at Brandeis University. Our earlier feature with a Dan Stepner interview is HERE. Tickets can be found HERE.

The festival’s opening weekend revives last year’s well-received program, The Devil’s in the Tales, pairing Scarlatti’s Humanità e Lucifero with Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du soldat. The Intelligencer recently spoke to renowned tenor Frank Kelley, who both stage directs and plays the narrator in L’Histoire du soldat and plays the devil in Humanità e Lucifero.

MW: How similar will this year’s production be to last year’s?

FK: It’s a remount of last year’s production! We would love for more people to have a chance to see it. It is an appropriately minimalist production, which I feel is in the spirit of how Stravinsky and Ramuz wanted it to be. I was looking recently at some historic pictures of the first performance, and uncannily, the stage is set up exactly the way that I had the stage set up in the production! Yes—it’s exactly how I saw it.

In addition to stage directing, you also play the narrator in L’Histoire du soldat. What’s it been like being your own director and reprising the role?

Crazy! Just crazy. I do like the character that I created . . . I was, however, a little surprised to watch the video of last year’s performance. As a director, there may be a few things that I want to change about my execution as an actor, but I’m not going to mess with that character I built.  I would like for it to be a little calmer at the beginning and for the actual gestures that I’m using to be a little bit more specific, a little bit more sculpted. The physicality could develop more slowly, have more of an arc. I want it to be a little bit more choreographed and a little bit less generic.

How did you get into the role?I’ve loved L’Histoire since first hearing it as an undergraduate at Florida State University. I wore out an LP listening to it. So, I’ve been wanting to do this piece since I was 19 years old.

When Dan Stepner first talked about it, I said, “Oh, I cannot wait to do this. I’m so excited about it.” Then he asked me to direct it as well as be the narrator. I watched many productions. Many famous singers and actors, such as Ian McKellen have done the narration. Benjamin Luxon, a very famous British baritone, has done a great job. But none of the productions to me seemed as faithful to the score as I wanted it to be. I trust that Stravinsky knows what he’s doing. Everything is so spare, everything is so necessary, everything is so cleaned out, clear, beautiful and sharp music writing with very specific staging instructions. Like Mozart, nothing is superfluous or gratuitous. There is an indication in the score throughout: “Open the curtain,” “Close the curtain.” And sometimes “Close the curtain,” “Open the curtain” happens within three measures of itself. These curtain indications reveal Stravinsky’s thought process–this piece was not only a Russian folktale, but also a piece about memory. And it was a piece about circularity of time. It was a piece about obsession and about the psychology of remembering; about trying to piece together something that was earth shattering to your existence. Pieces of it come into focus and then you pull the curtain back. How did this happen? How did that happen? The curtain instructions absolutely defined where I would go with the production.

In my directing, I’ve been inspired by and include other art forms contemporary with the period of compositions. What art were composers seeing at the time? Period-correct paintings (especially Malevich) had inspired my set designs, but then Dan says he wants to translate it into  the American vernacular and for it to be an American soldier coming home. Since Stravinsky states that the actor has no country or time period, I could pick artwork evocative of mid-20th-century America. That was really entertaining and fun.

Which artwork did you choose?

Cave Spring by Thomas Hart Benton and Arbor Day by Grant Wood.  My soldier is returning to Grant’s version of a midwest hometown.

Are you using the original French?

We’re using Dan Stepner’s brand new English translation.

How do the Scarlatti and the Stravinsky pieces work together?

Humanità e Lucifero, a 20- to 30- minute cantata having to do with the devil tempting humanity serves somewhat as an amuse-bouche. This time humanity wins out over the devil. It slyly allows the audience to relax into a sound picture that the Stravinsky completely shatters. The juxtaposition makes the Soldier’s Tale more shocking and more modern feeling after the lullingly decorative and predictable Baroque harmony. Can you imagine a first-time Stravinsky listener wondering, “What’s next after this very pleasant Scarlatti?” Then comes this shattering, ear awakening sound world. It’s so amazing.

Jack Greenberg in “A Soldier’s Tale “

You’re a renowned tenor, vocal teacher, producer of recordings, and director among other roles. Do you enjoy one of these roles more than the other?

When I was young, I wanted to be a music teacher. I thought I would be a more effective voice teacher if I had done some performing, even though performing was not at the forefront of who I thought I was, or what I wanted to do with my life. At the beginning, I felt it was more of a cross to bear. In order to be a working musician, I would have to perform, I’d just have to do it. And I got used to doing it. I think part of getting used to doing it had to do with being in the fantastic Peter Sellars productions and getting to perform those pieces so many times so as to get comfortable. It was such a supportive community. We were allowed to grow and were nurtured. We worked on our craft. I got to really enjoy performing. There are many things that I still love to perform, but I really love my teaching. I now spend a lot of my time teaching, and I am so thankful that I get to teach at Harvard University and Boston Conservatory at Berklee. I have very excellent students that I get to spend my days with.  But I also love, like you said, recording production. I love helping a singer or an instrumentalist get exactly the take they want on what’s going to be a recording with an extremely long shelf life.  It’s a joy to help somebody do that, it’s very satisfying. I get to do interesting stuff all the time, so I feel very lucky.

Keith Kibler said that all great singers have a voice they created, and you are one of these singers. Can you speak about how you created your voice?

Wow, well, that’s pretty nice, but I think he made a mistake in his verb tense. I think the voice is an ongoing creation. I think everybody who is a singer continues to work on their craft and continues to work on what they’re able to do with their instrument. It brings to mind a quote from Mel Tormé on the Johnny Carson Show when he was 64. He said, “You know, I think I finally figured out how to sing. I think I’m finally figuring it out.” That’s just what it is. You’re constantly working on your craft. You’re constantly working on your voice. Teaching has helped a great deal in my own personal growth… So, I’m still working on it.

Kibler also said that you’re a natural born storyteller. What initially drew you to storytelling and how do you incorporate it in your work now?

At Cincinnati Conservatory, where I went to graduate school, I was asked to do some of the great Bach works: the St. Matthew Passion, the St. John Passion, the B minor Mass and the Magnificat. I had this opportunity to learn this great story, and to bring it to vivid life. It was then that I began to treat every text that I perform for the public not quite as sacred as texts like scripture, but with that kind of import. I take the words that are meant to evoke the story and the words that the composer chose to set to music very seriously. It’s not just a string of syllables, they’re specific choices. If a composer is going to choose to set a poem to a piece of music, he thinks that this poem has something to say about what it means to be a human being. He wants his music to explain this little slice of what it means to be a human being to an audience. He takes all his craft and all his ability to take these words, do something to it, and present it to the universe as if this is part of what it means to be alive. I want to bring that specificity to the audience so that their ideas can help us understand part of our universe now.

Matthew Winkler is studying music and history at Tufts university. He is a composer and researcher who also plays jazz and classical trumpet. 

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