5 questions to Danya Katok (Soprano)

You have one of the most interesting repertoire lists I have ever seen. Your operatic roles move across several fachs, from lyric coloratura to full lyric, and in the song repertoire, there seems to be everything from the standards (for both soprano and mezzo!), to countless new works. So, I’m sorry, but I have to ask: What kind of soprano are you?

[Laughs] Now, I am very comfortable calling myself a light lyric soprano, but it took a long time for me to feel comfortable with that. I actually started out as a mezzo… which is strange because I don’t think my timbre is that of a mezzo at all, but I always felt really comfortable singing low notes and in the middle of my range, but I wasn’t so comfortable with high notes, so I think that’s why my undergrad teacher called me a mezzo. And then I went to AIMS one summer right before my senior year, and they all said, “You are not a mezzo!” At the time I was singing Siebel, also Cherubino and they encouraged me to move up to “sopranoland.” [Giggles] I was kind of disappointed. I didn’t want to be a soprano because…well, there’s so many of them [laughs]. And, it seems that everyone is a light lyric soprano, but…that’s what I am. In art song rep, I sing whatever I want because I can sing low and in the middle with no problem. The funny thing is that I do end up singing a lot of mezzo rep because I like it.

Right now you are pursuing a DMA at the CUNY Graduate Center. How much does scholarship influence your singing, and do you find scholarly research any more or less important to new repertoire versus more “standard” fare (i.e., not 20th and 21st-century music)?

That’s a really good question. Obviously I do think that it’s important because I’m pursuing a DMA, but I also think that it’s important not to over-think singing and over-think the interpretation of songs. As a performer, a lot of what I use is basically just the text, and what that text is telling me. I’m not always so interested in maybe the sort of scholarly research that someone else might do, because I’d like each song to be personal for me. That being said, it can definitely shed light on different aspects of a song that you might not get from your own textual or musical analysis.

I think that a scholarly take on contemporary music is maybe not as important as it is with the standard repertoire, especially when you are working with living composers…you can just talk to them about it. But, I definitely found a practical use for scholarship for contemporary music in a class I just took on post-tonal theory. I never thought that knowing about tone-rows would be helpful for singing, but actually, it is so helpful in learning the music. It makes everything make so much more sense!

Two summers ago at Tanglewood, I did Dallapiccola’s Goethe-Lieder. I didn’t know at the time that it was a strict serial piece. I learned that later. If I had even known how to analyze something like that, it would have made learning it so much easier and it would have made so much more sense!

But, just recently in another class, we were analyzing a song and the teacher was getting really, really picky about this one word regarding whether it was the narrator or another person speaking, or this thing or that thing and that kind of nitpicky-ness, I can’t stand, and I don’t think it helps the music in any way. I think you’ve got to come up with your own interpretation, and as long as you can make an argument for your choice, it’s fine.

A number of fine sopranos have really made a name for themselves in the realm of contemporary Classical music (aka: New Music), and I know that this makes up a large part of your repertoire. Are there any singers that you feel drawn to or look to for inspiration?

Yes! I love Dawn Upshaw, and I love Barbara Bonney, usually. Also, Anne-Sofie von Otter. It’s funny because almost every single piece that I have picked for my last two recitals, von Otter has recorded. [Laughs]…and she’s a mezzo! So, I like Dawn Upshaw and Anne Sofie von Otter in particular. I like listening to them because you can really hear the emotion in their recordings. And they are just so clear. That’s one of the things in new music–you have to sing with a technique that allows every note to be super clear. Some voices are just not made for that, and that’s fine. But, that’s what I really appreciate about their voices.

As a follow up to that, is it challenging to be recognized as a singer of both standard repertoire (i.e., Mozart and Verdi) and also contemporary music? Some singers (Tony Arnold, for example) are pegged as “new music” singers, despite the fact that they could probably sing a range of styles. As a young singer coming into the field, has it been challenging for you to be recognized as someone who can sing a standard opera role, and then turn around and sing something contemporary with ease?

I actually did not think that anyone would think that I am a singer of both styles, because I would actually peg myself as a “New Music Person.” I mean, I did Adele (J. Strauss, Die Fledermaus, A/N) once, because I really loved it, but it’s really weird, because all of the opera I’ve done has been contemporary English. [Laughs] When I was an undergrad at Penn State, (and a mezzo!), my first full opera role was Florence Pike in Britten’s Albert Herring, which is hilarious now, of course. Then I went to Peabody, and I sang the Governess in The Turn of the Screw. Other than Adele and understudying Nanetta (Verdi’s Falstaff, N/A), everything else has been in English. I just sang Max in Where the Wild Things Are at New York City Opera, so…more English! [Laughs] In terms of song repertoire, I am so drawn to contemporary music. I do try to get some standard stuff in there, like Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn, which I just sang in recital. But, I’ve made a decision to specialize in new music. It’s partly a business decision. I mean, there are five-thousand sopranos who can sing Zerlina or Despina, and…well, many fewer people who can sing post-tonal music and other new repertoire. Basically, I would sing anything, but New Music is what I’m getting cast for, and, it’s also the music I’m drawn to.

What have you found most challenging about working with living composers, and conversely, what have you found most rewarding?

Oh! That’s a really good question. The best thing about working with living composers, if they are up to it, is to be able to give your input. For example, I worked with a composer in California and sang a song cycle he had already written. Then, he emailed me with a new song, and wanted to know if I had any suggestions. At first, I was really nervous because I never want to cross that line of singer and composer, but I sang through it and there were certain parts where the text setting was really awkward. So, I wrote out some suggestions for the text (usually just changing the rhythm or where the accent was), and he wrote back, “That’s exactly what I want.” So, that was great. The difficulty is when you’re working with a composer, and you feel like you might want to make those suggestions, but can’t.

To learn more about Danya, visit her online at: www.danyakatok.com

Lauren Alfano is a New York-based soprano, http://www.laurenalfanosoprano.com.