Keri Alkema: A Journey of Transformation

Today’s noon-hour recital at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre aka the foyer of the Four Seasons Centre was unlike any we’ve seen before.

Readers of this blog may recall that I’ve expressed my admiration for Keri Alkema in my reviews of her Tosca last year, her Vitellia from a few years back and again in Anna Bolena a few weeks ago.  There was no way I would miss the chance to hear and see her up close.

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Kamen Chanev as Cavaradossi and Keri Alkema as Tosca in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Tosca, 2017, photo: Michael Cooper

I came expecting to hear Keri Alkema’s beautiful singing, but that was just part of it.  The program on the page was unlike any other:

  • “All’afflito è dolce il pianto (Roberto Devereux) – Gaetano Donizetti
  • “Mi tradi quell’alma ingrata” (Don Giovanni)—Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
  • “Morrò, ma prima in grazia” (Un ballo in maschera)—Giuseppe Verdi
  • “Salce, salce…” (Otello)—Verdi
  • “Che tua madre dovrà” (Madama Butterfly)—Giacomo Puccini

I was tempted to call this “Keri Alkema, this is your life”, as we were taken along on a musical journey, ably supported by Rachel Andrist at the piano.  Not only did we hear the arias but we heard a great deal of personal commentary in this most informal and relaxed concert.  The transformation? From mezzo-soprano into soprano.  The Donizetti aria with which we began is a mezzo-soprano aria, one from earlier in Alkema’s career.  Her role as Giovanna Seymour in Anna Bolena¸ the opera she’s currently singing with the COC, is also a mezzo-role.

In addition to the arias, the recital included anecdotes – for instance the time her Otello accidentally smacked her so hard in the face onstage as she sang Desdemona that she literally saw stars, and wondered if she’d be able to even open her mouth to sing —and a series of questions & answers from the audience.

I was astonished by something else Alkema brought to the stage, namely a complete commitment in each of the arias.  She joked about the vulnerability she felt in this venue & in this program, her first such recital in awhile.  That was another aspect of the concert that was unique.  We could see her sweat, and at one point in the final aria, she thought that we saw her sing a note slightly less than perfectly.  Frankly, I think the note was fine, but what was extraordinary was to observe her portrayals in an exposed & genuine method-acting approach and up close.  Alkema was wonderfully at ease, unprotected by a costume or an affected attitude. Many of my favourite singers choose to take on a kind of stylized facial expression that owes at least something to the ancient Greek masks, that can be as blank as pure abstraction, and therefore freed of anything too personalized.  One can disappear into such a mask, but one can also hide behind it, especially if one might have a moment when one wonders about the voice.

Not so Alkema.  In each instance, Alkema gave us another sort of transformation, namely that of her portrayal, vanishing into the character instantly.   Donna Elvira had a heroic ferocity, her Emilia, a desperate regret, her Desdemona, a wonderful panorama of emotions, as she told the story of Barbara and her willow song, jumping fearfully at the sounds at the window, and closing prayerfully.  And then her Butterfly illustrated one of the great challenges with Puccini’s opera, of keeping the mask in place, of portraying without reacting to the music & the emotions one is signifying.

We heard a great deal about mentors such as Marilyn Horne & even Sondra Radvanovsky who currently portrays Anna in the same production at the COC.  I was struck by Alkema’s genuine humility as she spoke of colleagues and influences, as this is a singer who has a great deal to offer the younger ones coming up.  That next transition is still to come, the natural culmination of development when one begins to give back to the next generation.

Today’s concert was like a workshop on the mezzo-soprano voice, an intriguing combination of vocal demonstrations and discussion.  I was hooked, not just because I love her voice, but also because I find the mezzo voice to be one of the most intriguing of all operatic phenomena.  I grew up accompanying a baritone, and attempting to sing, first as a baritone then as a tenor, so I am always curious about the parallels in the mechanics of the female voice-types.  Alkema sings as a soprano, but began the recital with a mezzo aria. I wondered if that might change the way she sang in subsequent numbers.

Was I imagining it, when I heard the lower parts of “Mi tradi” seemingly emphasized (so rich & full), while the higher notes were sung with at least thoughtful care rather than wild abandon?  I found myself identifying what it must have been like the first few times venturing up above the treble clef to those high notes.

Alkema was so vulnerable in telling us about the adventure, particularly in Ballo, which is one of the toughest roles of all.  What’s it like to discover doubt and fear in the middle of a role, and how does one surmount that?  It was quite a story.

I hope the COC will bring Alkema back so that we can see the next phases of her development.  But first? Keri Alkema & Sondra Radvanovsky have two performances of Anna Bolena left this week.

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Rachel Andrist (piano) and Keri Alkema perform in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, 2018 (photo: Kevin Lloyd)

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One Response to Keri Alkema: A Journey of Transformation

  1. Pingback: Ensemble Showcase 2018 | barczablog

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