This Life in Music: Soprano Lucy Dhegrae

Soprano Lucy Dhegrae (photograph by Shawn Jaeger)

Soprano Lucy Dhegrae (photograph by Shawn Jaeger)

I love to hear Lucy Dhegrae sing. She’s a skilled and dedicated artist and oh, so much more: behind that lovely voice and regal bearing beats a rebel’s heart. Her joyful embrace of even the furthest reaches of contemporary classical music is irresistible. (She’s the first person ever who’s been able to persuade me to listen to Helmut Lachenmann with some semblance of an open mind.) I’m pleased and proud to present Lucy Dhegrae on Prufrock’s Dilemma.

Q: When did music first come into your life? Can you tell us about an early musical experience that has significance for you today?

When I was one week old, my mother brought me to my first choir rehearsal in East Lansing, Michigan. She was then, and is still now, in the Greater Lansing Arts Chorale. I grew up in that choir, attending rehearsals and concerts, and loading my pockets with cookies at the Christmas Concert. My first piano teacher was a friend of the family and a GLAC member, and I began lessons with her when I was three years old. Of course, I couldn’t read at that age so everything I did was by listening and imitating. I had a great ear and somehow sailed through about ten years of piano before it became really apparent that I was not reading music at all!

My elementary school, Montessori Children’s House, was a really special place for me both musically and otherwise. Our music teacher from kindergarten through sixth grade was a woman named Pat Madden. I adored her. She had an extremely beautiful, even, effortless voice. In second grade I joined the choir at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Lansing. Steve Lange, the choirmaster and organist at the church, became my private voice instructor at age 17.

My mother always sang at home; she has a warm, rich voice. I remember her singing “Baby’s Boats” to me when I was very young. I also remember marching around whistling “I’ve Got Sixpence” in harmony with my mother and my older sister during our summer vacations at Lake Michigan. My mother’s father was an excellent whistler by all accounts, and we had a lot of WWII marching songs in our repertoire that were passed down to us from him. My mother is also loveably goofy and we girls had a lot of fun with our voices at home: imitating the different accents on NPR, harmonizing with the vacuum or hairdryer, strange pet voices, imitating bird calls, and so on.

Q: What drew you to contemporary classical/new music? Is there a particular moment or experience that made you think, “this is for me,” and, if so, can you tell us a little bit about that and where it led you?

There are some general character traits of mine that I think fit contemporary/new music: I like to experiment and take risks; I am a bit of a rebel and a contrarian at heart; and I have always been interested in the idea of a challenge, be it physical, mental, or spiritual. So I think when I started doing contemporary music, I felt like it supported me, who I was.

But there were so many outside factors that led me to contemporary music as well. The University of Michigan, where I got my BM in performance, has a huge music library. I would patrol the vocal sections for obscure literature. This stemmed from a deep desire to be seen as an individual, and I guess with the size and talent pool at U of M, I felt completely swallowed up and anonymous. I felt I had to distinguish myself with my rep.

I also had a few friends who worked with composers at the University of Michigan, and when they told me that someone was writing a song for them, it totally blew my mind. Just the concept that someone would write a song to fit your voice, rather than you trying to fit your voice to a piece of music—I thought, “this is the answer!” I started looking for more ways to be involved with composers and other musicians who liked contemporary music, and I guess I never stopped looking for those opportunities!

I don’t think I decided that new music was it for me until I was living in Vienna (mid 2008-2009). I went to almost every single concert given by Klangforum Wien, the leading new music ensemble there. I also attended much of the Wien Modern, an annual new music festival, and I was blown away by the music I heard. It was one of the first times I had heard anyone boo at a concert, or seen anyone walk out—I loved that this music was alive, that it generated a range of responses, and that the people there felt like they were a part of the music. I knew then that I wanted to be part of “new music”—vibrant music—and to be an active player in it.

Q: Last year at a Bard concert, you and baritone Logan Walsh sang Meredith Monk’s Hocket. Had I not witnessed you two do it, I’d have thought it impossible to pull off. How did you prepare the piece? What were the challenges, and what made it fun?

Before doing Hocket last year at Bard I knew next to nothing about Meredith Monk’s musical output. From the video you linked to above, you can see how Monk makes it look easy, almost casual. But to get anywhere close to that level of comfort with it took hours of rehearsing. I prepared by first being able to sing the entire thing myself. Then Logan and I basically locked ourselves in a practice room for several sessions until we could run it without mistakes. Meredith Monk isn’t a minimalist composer, but doing this piece reminds me of doing other minimalist works: the rhythms by themselves are easy, as are finding pitches and singing them, but one moment of lost concentration and you have a train wreck. It’s virtuosic concentration. I got to see Meredith Monk perform this with Theo Bleckman at the Bard Fisher Center this past fall, and it was such a thrill. I talked with her after the concert and she told me that it doesn’t always work out in performance: sometimes they get so twisted that they break down in laughter and start over. So, that was a huge relief to hear! It’s a really tough piece, and I would love the chance to perform it again!

Q: While I don’t have vast experience in listening to contemporary works for voice, I’ve been surprised at the number that seem to opt for “beautiful sound” while skimping on originality (John Rutter’s work has been cited by some). On the other side, some works seem to punish the voice in ways that don’t seem justified (Thomas Adès’ Ariel in The Tempest has come in for that criticism). These things are always to some extent a matter of taste, but, as an example, the first time I heard Anne Boyd’s As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams, I was struck by the way it reveled in the beauty of the voice without sacrificing originality. Lembit Beecher’s And Then I Remember is another example, not to mention countless works by John Adams and The Little Match Girl Passion by David Lang. I suspect it’s hard to strike the right balance, and I wonder what your own experience has been.

This is a great question: beautiful vs. original. I would always go with original!

When it comes to new music, I only care if the piece is good: that it has a perspective and a unique voice; that it is a compelling piece of music to me as a singer, and as a listener; that it is created with craft. If it is “good” then I will do everything I can to sing it as best as I can, as written. I try not to ask composers to make changes unless it is so difficult that I feel I will not be able to make it through a performance.

Thomas Adès’ writing for Ariel in The Tempest is extremely specialized for coloratura soprano Audrey Luna, who travels the world singing that and other coloratura roles. When I heard her sing it at the Met, I never felt that she was uncomfortable; she was exactly in her element! Of course, not every role, or every piece, is for every singer.

Singers do have to be really careful about vocal use. Damage can come on slowly and can be permanent. Since we can’t diagnose problems visually, we rely on teachers with really keen ears to help bring our attention to vocal issues that could cause future damage.

I think the other thing to keep in mind with this wonderful question you asked is that new music singers are often classically trained to sing opera. Operatic singing uses the bel canto technique, which is designed to offer maximum volume for minimal effort. It also involves a lot of vibrato, since vibrato ultimately maximizes the volume of the sound (for any vocal pedagogues out there: I am really generalizing!). The good thing about this training is that it makes you extremely aware of any body tension, vocal fatigue, and strain in the sound. This awareness is necessary for a long and healthy career in singing. Most new music is so complex that only someone who has a degree or two in classical vocal performance has the vocal range and practice techniques to perform new vocal works, so composers are often writing for operatically trained singers. Hence, they are working with singers who are adverse to vocal strain (for good reasons) and who have spent years cultivating this rich operatic sound. I think that at first it can feel like an insult when someone asks you not to sing with vibrato, or tells you that they don’t want an operatic sound. For some singers, that’s everything they’ve worked for! So I completely understand why a singer would prefer a piece that utilizes their operatic (“legit”) sound.

I think a really great singer is always going to balance the best sound for a piece with what is physically sustainable. If a piece calls for straight tone or something non-operatic (which is almost always the case) then I will do that. I always want to do what is best for the music; yet, I have to be thinking about the long-term affects of anything I do to my voice.

Q: You state on your website that you are “passionate about collaboration across different media.” Can you give an example of a collaboration you’ve been involved in and tell us what the importance of that experience was for you? 

My undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan were really eye-opening times for me. I took classes on everything and anything, and thus got to know lots of musicians, dancers, actors, writers, visual artists, and filmmakers. I loved learning from them—going to their shows, seeing their work, hearing about their influences. It gave me lots of ideas about my own performances. For my degree recital at U of M, I had friends help with staging and lighting for a couple of pieces; there were large photography projections and super titles; and little documentary films about the pieces and composers in between sets. Was it totally effective? Not sure. But I wanted to try it all out!

While I was at Bard I successfully started an interdisciplinary arts group called the Prism Project. We did a really creative and fun show that involved film, theatre, music, photography, performance art, poetry and dance in an immersive art project we called A Room Called Joie de Vivre, based on a novel by Carol Maso. I’m itching to do more of this stuff and am so glad I am in New York City where I can get this project back up and running again!

Q: What are your favorite things to do when you happen upon a little spare time?

I find these days in my free time that I am hungering for spiritual fulfillment and self-reflection, and therefore meditation has made a comeback in my life. I did a master class at Bard College last year with director Peter Sellars, and I found him incredibly inspiring. I admire the way his art and his spirituality are one, or at least stem from the same place. I wish for everything I do to have a mindfulness and clarity, and I know this will be lifelong work, but I am always thinking about it.

My husband Shawn and I watch a lot of period dramas on Netflix, though we seem to be running out of good ones. We have a long-term goal to make it through all of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, which we read out loud in small spurts. When we lived in the country we were more people of the earth, though it’s hard to have that lifestyle in New York City!

Q: Do you have any suggestions for listening for those who’d like to embark on an exploration of new music but aren’t sure where to start, and can you talk a bit about your recommendations?

I have actually made a YouTube playlist for you and your readers! This includes both works for voice and works for instruments. Some of these pieces are favorites but may not necessarily woo any newcomers (Lachenmann’s string quartet Grido, Billone’s 1+1=1). I have a lot of favorite vocal music (Eckardt, Soper, Botti, Monk, Kurtág) and some other great stuff. Hope you and your readers enjoy it!

Sue, I just want to thank you for interviewing me and thank you for your blog. This opportunity for me to tell my story has been so special for me, and I am grateful that anyone would think it worthy of reading. Thanks again for your support of young musicians and the new music world!

What’s New for Lucy Dhegrae

On April 17th I’ll perform John Halle’s The Twist and George Tsontakis’s Melville Pilot with Contemporaneous at their show There Is Another Sky (7pm, Chapel of the Holy Innocents, Bard College). On May 16th we’re featured on a MATA interval concert at Galapagos Art Space in Brooklyn; I’ll sing pieces by Wil Smith and David Moore. My next big and exciting project is the Resonant Bodies Festival, a focus on new and experimental vocal music. My friend and colleague Charlotte Mundy is organizing this with me: it’s a three-day festival that will feature nine new music singers. Each night has three short concerts curated by a different singer, and a roundtable discussion with singers and composers—I am really looking forward to putting more details together as we get closer to the event, but if you like vocal music, do not miss it!

About Lucy Dhegrae

Soprano Lucy Dhegrae is a passionate and open-minded advocate for contemporary music. She has performed with the International Ensemble Modern Academy (conducted by Brad Lubman), Contemporaneous, Hotel Elefant (Experiments in Opera), and the Da Capo Chamber Players (with pianist Blair McMillen) at venues including Issue Project Room, Galapagos Art Space, the Austrian Cultural Forum, the Morgan Library, Scandinavia House, and Bard College’s Richard B. Fisher Center. Dhegrae has worked closely with a diverse array of composers, including Unsuk Chin, Susan Botti, John Halle (including a recording of several works for a forthcoming release on Cantaloupe Records), Judd Greenstein, Stefan Weisman, Gabrielle Herbst, Conor Brown, and Shawn Jaeger. She has sung world premieres by Botti, Weisman, Herbst, Brown, and Jaeger.

Dhegrae has appeared at several prominent music festivals, including the Aldeburgh Festival (as a Britten-Pears Young Artist; UK), the Klangspuren Festival (Austria), and, closer to home, the Bard Music Festival. In addition to her role as a performer, Dhegrae also advocates for contemporary music as an arts administrator: she is a co-executive director and core member of new-music group Contemporaneous, and is founder and artistic director of the Resonant Bodies Festival of contemporary vocal music in New York City. She teaches private voice lessons and choir at the Bard College Conservatory of Music’s Preparatory Division, and at the Third Street Music School Settlement. Dhegrae lives in New York City with her husband, composer Shawn Jaeger.

Listening List

Lucy Dhegrae sings Jason Eckardt’s Dithyramb

Lucy Dhegrae on SoundCloud

Lucy Dhegrae’s YouTube Playlist

When I learned that one of the selections Dhegrae had chosen was by Lachenmann, I wrote to her about my own experience of his music. Here’s what she replied:

I got to hear soooo much Lachenmann at Aldeburgh last summer (including all of his large orchestral pieces), and I got to meet him! He is literally a gentle giant—and he emanates kindness. I also got to hear the Arditti Quartet play Grido live. Incredible. I think with some pieces you need the trifecta experience: listen to it, hear it live, and listen to it with a score. It wasn’t until I sat with my husband Shawn and we listened together with a score that I really LOVED Grido. At first I appreciated it. Then when I heard it live I was moved and intrigued. Then when I sat with the score I realized that so much more was going on, and I was totally in love. But it wasn’t love at first listen! The sounds, the layering and interaction of the players—it’s a beautiful, gut-wrenching dance. So I wanted to include it in the playlist (even though my friend Austin Wulliman of the Spektral Quartet advised against Lachenmann! He said NO WAY for first timers).

Anyone who is able to make a piece by Lachenmann sound enticing, as I believe Dhegrae has done here, has my vote, for sure. It’s actually quite an interesting piece, one of many on Dhegrae’s playlist—all but one of which were new to me.

16 thoughts on “This Life in Music: Soprano Lucy Dhegrae

  1. friko

    I think even I could get used to this. When sung, contemporary music is more accessible. Somehow the voice ( it will mature and become a very good one if she takes care not to damage it; I’d like to hear her sing opera too, then ) penetrates my stubborn and involuntary resistance. Thank you for your introduction to this lovely and enormously talented young woman.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Friko: How interesting to think about contemporary music as perhaps more accessible when sung. I think it may depend on the type of contemporary music, too. There’s a lot of purely instrumental contemporary music that’s largely tonal and quite mellifluous, so I think it all depends on what anyone’s ear warms to. Certainly Dhegrae, both here and in live performance, has drawn me right in to any piece she sings, just as the band Contemporaneous has me totally hooked in general. I would love one day for you to hear them live and see what you think!

  2. angela

    Susan, this was a most interesting post! Dhegrae is a delight both in talent and in spirit. Her voice draws me in, which does not happen often with sopranos (mind you, I am not a frequent patron of classical or contemporary vocal). What, of course, was most fun was to see what this Lachenmann was all about – oh my, streaming right now and do believe I am waiting for them to quit prepping the instruments (wink). Seriously, I always appreciate this for what it is because I know that it does tell a story for those who are wise enough to hear it. ~

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Angela: Don’t feel alone on Lachenmann, BTW. I’ve been known to refer to him as an instrument torturer more than once. And right there is the beauty of Dhegrae, because she opened up for me a whole new way to think about, and therefore listen to, his work. So, I second your (delightful) comment that Dhegrae is a “delight in both talent and in spirit.”

  3. Mark Kerstetter

    What, people are booing and walking out? – That’s for me! No, I’m not poking fun, but this contrarian loves that response. And Susan, you do realize that after reading this post people are going to run out and listen to Lachenmann? (I did, and survived.) I’m listening to the incredible Sciarrino piece now, and very much appreciate this introduction to contemporary composers (really like the Schick performance too). I have a taste for adventurous forms of music, and this has been a most enjoyable interview.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Mark: I had a sneaking suspicion you’d enjoy that! As for folks running out and listening to Lachenmann, I did, and survived, too, though I can’t say I’m in love. I think Dhegrae’s comment about the “trifecta” listening approach is well-taken, though for many of us, of course, understanding a score is out of reach. (Even though my own skill at that is below rudimentary, I’m amazed at what I’ve learned by listening with a score in hand. They’re hard to get hold of, though. I ordered up one from the NYC Public Library months ago, Shostakovich’s 4th Symphony, and it’s still not available. I suspect it’s gone missing.) Back to Dhegrae’s fascinating list and Lachenmann, I’d say it wasn’t even the most out-there of the pieces. I’m curious to know what you thought of Steve Schick’s ?Corporal or Kate Soper’s Only the Words Themselves Mean What They Say. Something about them reminded me of Beckett’s Not I, though I’m aware that they’re each very different from the Beckett, as well as from one another.

      1. Mark Kerstetter

        I’ve tried that – following along in a score – and even though I don’t read music I was surprised by how much I got out of it. Of course I had V looking over my shoulder to tell me what some of the notations meant.

        I can’t comment intelligently about ‘Corporal’ as a composition – maybe if I could glance at the score (how much is directed, how much is left up to the performer?) – but in the video I find Schick’s performance outstanding. I didn’t enjoy Soper’s piece so much. It may be fun for a performer, but musically it didn’t appeal to me very much. On a first listen, the item that appealed to me most was the Sciarrino viola piece, to the point where I want to learn more about this composer.

  4. David N

    As with so many singers who limit themselves to contemporary rep, it’s difficult to get a full picture of Dheghrae’s soprano. But – most important thing – she’s obviously a real communicator, and such presentation (I love your lead photo, as usual). The word-setting of John Halle’s surprisingly mellifluous piece is a bit embarrassing, to me at any rate. I can’t place the name (Dhegrae): is it of Flemish origin?

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      David: Isn’t she just (meaning Dhegrae as a real communicator)? One of the reasons I love doing these profiles is getting to know more about the musicians/composers/conductors I’ve so enjoyed seeing at concerts, but with whom I usually don’t get a chance to exchange more than a few words. Dhegrae, for me, was full of delightful surprises, not to mention interesting insights into her craft. About the Halle piece, It didn’t occur to me at the time, but I wonder if that text couldn’t have used an explanatory note. On Youtube, there is a note, which I’ll quote here: “Ambassador George Kennan’s cold war policy planning memo set to music by John Halle.” So yes, I agree, embarrassing, in fact appalling, to think this was a memo that was actually written by a US government official. Is there no end to such things? So, the way I read the mellifluous music is as an ironic commentary on the memo, though I don’t know that for a fact. Something to ask Dhegrae when I see her next (or Halle, for that matter, who may be at the next Contemporaneous concert–he’s a professor at Bard, and I believe one of his pieces is on the program). I, too, am curious about the origin of Dhegrae’s name. I’ll try to remember to ask about both.

      1. David N

        Ah, that explains a lot. I had assumed some such thing, but didn’t know the reality. Thanks for clarifying. All the same, the piece is hardly on an Adams level, is it? But I suppose we shouldn’t let that put us off.

  5. shoreacres

    At a third reading I found a “hook” – your comment, actually, about John Rutter and the question of beauty vs. originality. A balance seems critical. Absent originality, beauty becomes sentimentality. With no beauty to touch the soul, originality can become idiosyncratic.

    I confess I laughed aloud at “Bird Code”. I could have paired that in my last post with the unidentified singer outside my window who insists on waking me up every morning at 4 a.m. with his clear, loud song. Of course there can be aural pairings between nature and art – I’d just never thought of it!

    I was particularly taken with Dhegrae’s acceptance of that “range of responses” that led some to boo or walk out of a performance. And I loved this: Just the concept that someone would write a song to fit your voice, rather than you trying to fit your voice to a piece of music… There’s a certain parallelism there with my struggles with contemporary music. For a variety of reasons, there’s music that “fits my life”. And, there’s some music that I have to struggle to “fit my life to”. That’s unbearably vague, but it’s at least a way to start thinking about such things.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      shoreacres: Well, all I can say is bless you for staying in there for 3 readings! I’m glad you did, because your comments about balance are perceptive and, as always, beautifully expressed. As for Bird Code, as you saw from what Dhegrae notes about her conversation with Monk on the piece Hocket, Monk breaks down in laughter sometimes herself. Your closing observation is wonderful, too. I do think it’s hard to pursue any piece of music, old or new, unless there is at least some point of connection, some resonance, as a starting point–though I will say I’ve found, in my own case, that my ear has “expanded” over time. (I don’t know, for example, if a year ago, I would have been ready for Andrew Norman’s Try–and I can’t say I’m ready for Lachenmann as yet, but Dhegrae’s joyful spirit did make me want to go back and “Try”!)

  6. Hilary

    HI Susan … I’m going to enjoy listening to these when I get home … and taking my time to learn and appreciate your thought processes … my knowledge is limited (very) … but my desire to learn is fairly large …

    To ShoreAcres – I think you’re hearing a blackbird … I hadn’t realised they’re woodland birds, that have gravitated into our gardens and sing so loudly to make sure they can be heard above all others .. and in the process start early!

    Cheers Hilary

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Hilary: Thanks for stopping by. If you do have a listen, I’ll be interested to know whether you spot the sounds of actual birds in Meredith Monk’s Bird Code. That would be fun to find out!

  7. Steve Schwartzman

    You deal mostly with new American music, but when I was listening to the radio the other day I discovered a nineteenth-century American composer who was new to me: George F. Bristow. The radio station played his Symphony in f#, which I found to be quite creditable and which I enjoyed. Bristow was a big proponent of American, as opposed to European, music. You can read more about him at:

    P.S. 134 in the Bronx is named after Bristow, though there may not be a single student in the school who listens to any classical music. I can’t imagine that any school in our time would get named for a classical musician—alas.

    1. Susan Scheid Post author

      Steve: Thanks so much for this. I’ll look forward to a listen, and I love the fun fact about PS 134. There’s a post in here somewhere . . .

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