Monday, July 31, 2017

Interview with Catacoustic Consort Soprano, Melissa Harvey

Melissa Harvey has performed with the Catacoustic Consort for the past eight years and has become a regular feature in our concerts. We are pleased to feature her beautiful voice in our upcoming CD project, as well as many of our concerts this season. More information about Melissa can be found at her website at There is still time to support Catacoustic's CD fundraiser project (with Melissa singing!) at

How old were you when you knew that you would sing music as a career? What does a typical musical week look like in your life? What types of concerts and different styles of music do you perform?

Growing up, I performed for all different kinds of events: Talent shows, pageants, concerts, recitals, weddings, funerals, nursing homes, a shooting range opening, a pre-school opening, a Buffalo Bills game, and county and state fares. I was also in choir, band, musicals at school, and participated in the New York Summer School of the Arts choral program at SUNY Fredonia for three summers. Singing and performing was what I knew from an early age, and I didn’t think about doing anything else until I was in 10th grade. I became very interested in astronomy and thought I may enjoy studying it in college. I eventually decided I was too terrible at math and that I would be more successful at singing! I met Karen Lykes (professor of voice at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music - CCM) in the summer of 2001 at NYSSSA, when I was just about to enter 9th grade. She mentioned to my sister and me that she would be joining the voice faculty of CCM, and we should consider that school for our studies. Karen gave me confidence in my singing and allowed me to seriously consider studying it in college. Once I was at CCM, I didn’t consider the possibility of being unsuccessful in a singing career. My confidence and naivety allowed me to persevere throughout my undergrad. When I began my Masters degree, I began to realize more of the intricacies of the opera world and challenges of having a successful career. I had my gaze set on a purely operatic career, but I realized there were many other options to consider.

A typical music week with Catacoustic is rehearsing from 10am-5pm Monday-Saturday with breaks for lunch. This is very similar to Cincinnati Opera, with rehearsals from 10am-1pm and 2-5pm. I typically have rehearsals for other small gigs and sometimes even performances during the weeks of these rehearsals. I do most of my singing in Cincinnati, which allows me to do my weekly gigs and pick up a few extra things along the way. Currently, I work a day job as the assistant to the director at the Contemporary Arts Center here in Cincinnati. It is challenging at times to juggle all of my commitments, but it has worked out so far! For me, it is very important to get enough rest and to take care of my voice and body, especially on days when I’m working from 9am-10pm.  
What was your big influencer in music? How did you become interested in singing Baroque music?
In my childhood, my sister, a fabulous and successful soprano, was my biggest musical influence. My parents had begun taking her to voice lessons at the recommendation of her music teacher at school. It was one hour round trip, plus an hour long voice lesson that I tagged along for, and I eventually decided that if I had to go anyway, I wanted voice lessons, too. It’s hard to imagine how else I would have found my path in music had it not been for those lessons.

Throughout school, I had many wonderful music teachers: Mrs. Bartlett, Mrs. Graffius, Ms. Knataitis, and Mrs. Ferris. They all gave me encouragement and opportunities in different ways, and they all meant so much to me. Every single one of these teachers helped nurture music in me and allowed me to share and express my passion with others.  

During a production of Monteverdi’s Il combattimento di Trancredi e Clorinda, I met you- Annalisa Pappano!  I was recommended to you by Robin Guarino, head of the CCM opera program, for one of your upcoming concerts.  After I agreed to do the concert, I took a look at the music- 17th Century Italian nun music. As I had sung Palestrina, Gabriellei, Allegri, and many others in church choir, I wasn’t expecting the music to be too much of a challenge. There was my naivety again! After looking at the first song, I realized I was in over my head. I remember the feeling of pure joy when I first heard the theorbo, baroque harp, and viol all playing together. Not only did I get to hear and see them up close and personal: I got to sing with them, too. The style felt very natural to me, and I fell in love with the music.

How did you learn to sing this music? What do you like about early music?

Though my voice felt very natural in the Baroque style and I had heard recordings of some pieces from the 17th century, like Carissimi Jephte, Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, and Peri’s Euridice, I did not know any of the rules of the style. I read several articles about 17th century vocal ornaments and asked a lot of questions! My voice teacher at CCM, Mary Stucky, is an avid performer of baroque music. She was a huge help to me when I was learning the music for my first Catacoustic Consort concert.  

A huge component of this music is text painting.  While this is also the case in some more modern music, you are expected to sing what is on the page.  In Baroque music, there is more of an opportunity to become an artist yourself; a composer of the music.  I love being a part of a piece in this way.  No performance is ever the same as one you’ve done before or the performances that will come, no matter the style.  What I like about Baroque music is that the performances are even more different.  I love the experimental flexibility with the ornaments.  I love exploring different ways to convey pain, joy, sadness, anxiousness, and love.  I love the interplay between singer and instrumentalist.   Again, there are certain rules one should follow within the style, but I have been intrigued by the conversations around chords amongst instrumentalists.  The chordal qualities make a huge difference in a piece.  These creative aspects of Baroque are what draw me in the most.  

Tell us the difference between singing Baroque music (performance practice) versus the classical music that you studied in music school and sing for everyday work.

The basic technique is the same for all types of classical music- Baroque, Classical, Romantic, 20th, and 21st Century. Most importantly, you need to stay connected to your breath. This was a challenge for me when I first approached the Baroque style. The Classical and Romantic styles call for a smooth, clear vocal line with a consistent vibrato. The Baroque style requires you to use your voice differently. Vibrato should not be prominent  throughout. Vibrato is an ornament, just like straight tone, trillos, and gruppos. I found this to be quite difficult. Executing all of these ornaments and switching between a straighter tone and singing with consistent vibrato was confusing to my body. The more I sang in the style, the more natural theses changes became.    

Tell us about the music on this Italian recording you will make with Catacoustic. How does it make you feel, how is it to listen to?

I am very excited about the Italian music we will be recording in the fall. I have performed several of the pieces before, which I find helpful. It gives your body and mind a sense of confidence and is nice to have that familiarity for your mind and your muscles. Several of the solos I will be recording deal with- you guessed it- love lost!  

"Hope," Love said to me,
But how can I hope?
For in the midst of suffering,
Hope to an unhappy one is torment.
If, in the midst of my pains,
My joy, my love, enies sweet succor to my martyrdom,
I will hope, oh yes, but to die.

Hope, hope, my heart,
Fate will kill you.
O false desire!
In vain does one who lacks fortune hope to die.
My idol, my life, wants me, deprived of all aid,
To live in hope; I am content,
And I will hope, oh yes, but for my torment.

This is a beautifully heartbreaking song by the Italian composer Orazio Michi "dell'Arpa"- his nickname (the harpist).  The piece is introduced with a deep arpeggiated minor chord played by the harp, followed by the first vocal statement. Spera is my favorite solo for the recording. The music is extremely evocative of the text, utilizing large leaps, changes back and forth between major and minor, and has the opportunity for several dramatic ornaments. These 17th century Italian laments speak to my soul and feel like a new experience each time I sing them. With songs like these, the baroque harp, and the lirone, you can’t go wrong!

What do you think about the performing world of early music versus the opera community? How are they different or similar?

I find myself more at ease in the world of early music than in the opera community. To me, it doesn’t feel like I have anyone to impress. I feel that I can be myself and show my artistry, and that is enough. This might come from something I mentioned earlier. I think the freedom within music of the baroque as an artist puts me at ease within the style, and affects the social aspect for me. People within the early music world are truly passionate about this music, and I find it very inspiring.    
How would you like to see your career go with early music? What would you say a singer should do if they want to sing Baroque music?

I would like to perform more early music concerts and perform more baroque opera.  In general, I would like to be able to make my living from performing. I find performing so fulfilling, and I love the process just as much as I love the performances. I want to be the soprano everyone is asking for. I want to be the best at what I do.  

If a singer is interested in singing Baroque music, they should first be familiar with the style- listen to recordings of Baroque songs and arias performed by true Baroque singers. Not every voice is meant for Baroque music, just as not everyone has a Puccini or Verdi voice, or a voice for popular music. It is best to sing this music initially with your natural voice and then experiment with ornaments and bringing out that Baroque quality in your voice. It has become more accepted to have singers who are not well-versed in or appropriate for the Baroque style to be singing this genre. I find it exciting when I hear singers who really understand the style and use all of their knowledge to create something really spectacular. I hope to be one of those artists.