Queeries for soprano Melissa Fogarty

Soprano Melissa Fogarty gets around – the musical world, that is.  Some of her most recent projects include a tour with a klezmer band, and a new CD, “Despite and Still” of songs by Samuel Barber, with pianist Marc Peloquin.  She and Peloquin first connected just a couple of years ago through their mutual association with David Del Tredici.

Fogarty has worked regularly with Del Tredici, as well as a number of other contemporary composers, but she also has extensive experience in the early music world.  At New York City Opera, she’s performed in the new opera reading series and on the main stage in Mark Morris’ production of Purcell’s “King Arthur.”  Her first recording, “Handel: Scorned and Betrayed” received an Out Music Award.

What are you working on these days?

I’m just returning from a short tour with Metropolitan Klezmer and Isle of Klezbos that’s taken us to two stops in Arizona and on to Berkeley. Back in New York, I’m looking forward to singing “Medieval Latin Lyrics” by Pulitzer Prize winning composer Yehudi Wyner at Bargemusic on February 24. I’ll also be singing Samuel Barber’s “Hermit Songs” which are becoming signature art songs for me. Both have texts by monks and were written around the same time, in the mid-50s. Yehudi was at the “Hermit Songs” premiere – he and Barber were at the American Academy in Rome together. And I’ve recorded the Hermit Songs on my new CD “Despite and Still”, which has been getting some really lovely reviews.

So welcome to my weird musical life – a little of everything! Yiddish songs one day, art songs the next.  I’ve got a couple of early music projects coming up, one may involve some rock crossover, and I’m actually hoping to get a jazz combo together in the next year, but we’ll see. I love scatting and need to get more outlets for that.

How much do you travel for your work? Do you find it stimulating or a hassle?

Not much. I live in New York City so most of my work has been here, which is really wonderful, especially since I’m involved in different kinds of music.  But like I said, I’m actually on a tour now! I perform in a different city every night tour. It sounds glamorous but it’s hard.  We were lucky in Flagstaff because our next gig was only a 2 hour drive away, so our hosts took us on a nature tour.  The best gigs out of town are the ones where you have time to sight-see, or at least get a feel for where you are.  I love traveling and experiencing new places and different cultures.  But it can also be a hassle. For example, I just left my phone charger in Scottsdale. All that being said, I’m not on the road all that much. I don’t mind, because when I am on the road, I miss my wife!

Are you actually married?

Yes! To the wonderful harpsichordist and theater director Jennifer Griesbach! For over 7 years now! It’s funny, since New York State just legalized gay marriage, a lot of folks have said, so are you going to get married again? I’d be glad to marry my wife all over again, but it’s not really necessary! We got married in Canada in 2004. Jennifer’s Canadian, so it wasn’t just because it was legal there. I loved being asked by some court officer when we had to pick up our papers before the wedding, “Is there any legal or moral reason why you two should not be wed?” I was so overjoyed, and disoriented too. How wonderful not to be judged for being a lesbian couple. But you’d think we’d be in the land of the free and the home of the brave. But when we were back in the USA, it was a whole legal limbo, and I suppose it still is.

Do you give PDAs? (public displays of affection)

Oh yes. It’s funny though. It’s easy to in NYC, although we don’t kid ourselves. Gay bashing happens here too. But we do have it easy yet we can’t take it for granted. We’re thinking of going to Latin America this summer on an extended trip. We’ll really have to research our gay-friendly options and we’ll probably have to curb the PDA’s. It could be a throwback to high school, where I had a secret girlfriend. Ugh. It’s no fun being in the closet to say the least.

Was coming out tough or a pleasure? Sudden or gradual?

A little of both. I’m from a fairly liberal town – Freeport, Long Island. Regarding the secret high school girlfriend, my friends knew and they didn’t care. Turns out half of them were gay themselves, but they came out later. So, my girIfriend and I were accepted, but I wasn’t out to the school and I didn’t bring her to the prom. And what a heartbreak that was! This was before GSAs, although I have no idea if my old high school has one now.

When I went to college, I thought, “Screw this, I want to be out in the open!”  During orientation week when the girls said they missed their boyfriends I shared that I missed my girlfriend.  I was shunned by my class, and that was incredibly painful. Away from my girlfriend – and calling her was hard in those days, no cell phones back in the day – the women didn’t want to have much to do with me, the token lesbian of their class. So I made friends with the upper classpeople, who of course, had gotten over themselves. I did go to a music school (Eastman) for God’s sake! And then as soon as sophomore year rolled around, the shunners accepted me. They saw the light, and then it was fine. But that was a hard first year! That was in 1988.

Have you seen those attitudes change over time with younger people?

Oh absolutely. And I didn’t think I had it so bad! I already mentioned I was the token lesbian of my class. Of course, more people in my class came out later. In fact, within the first month of my sophomore year, I hooked up with the girl who lived next door from me my freshman year! We were together for nearly 6 years actually, so “hooking up” is not the right term. And of course, as typical lesbian stereotypes go, she is my best friend now, and is actually on tour with me – she being the wonderful alto sax player, Debra Kreisberg.

But during my second year at Eastman the incoming freshman class was teeming with out boys! And younger people were getting involved with the Gay Lesbian Association at the University of Rochester (Eastman is part of UR). When I joined my freshman year, I was the youngest by far, only 18, while the other lesbians were grad students.   The next year, the GLA changed its name to GLBF (Gays, Lesbians, Bisexuals and Friends) and younger members started coming. It’s just amazing and wonderful to me that GSAs are popping up in high schools and even junior high schools. The closet is a very lonely and painful place – and being in there can cause a whole host of other problems. This is the way it should be – young people being free to express who they are as they discover it. I could have easily gotten involved in an GSA at the age of 12 or 13 had their been such a place for me.

Is there a relationship between your sexuality and your creativity?

Inevitably so, I think, even if it’s not obvious to my audience.  In college I was in a band and I wrote songs – I had started writing songs at age 9. Most of them were love songs, in the first person of course.  I think the outpouring of love songs I wrote especially during puberty was how I was able to deal with so much unrequited love.  When I finally did get a girlfriend, a new emergence of songs came out. But I didn’t continue on that path, though you never know, I may get back to it!

But since I’ve mostly pursued classical music, the way I’ve been able to express the love and desire in all those great art songs for instance, of course was through my own experience. So yes, lesbian love and desire has absolutely been expressed in my interpretations because that’s who I am!

Have you had any projects that directly or explicitly link your sexuality with music?

Well, when CRI released  CDs of gay and lesbian composers – back in the 90s, was it? – I thought, where are the songs expressing lesbian desire?  I’m talking art songs of course.  So maybe this will be a future project for me, to commission some lesbian composers. I had begun to compile some poetry I liked and even asked – who else? an ex-girlfriend of mine, Allison Sniffin, a musical genius who also is a composer – if she was interested. She was, but it didn’t get much further than that. I’d need several composers and of course, funds to commission such works. Also I’d need a name or two. I wonder if Jennifer Higdon writes songs? I love her music! But I don’t even want to think about her fee…

Does being in the closet tie in to Samuel Barber songs?

Oh sure! I mean the whole thing of not openly talking about sexuality – back at Eastman even. I studied these songs at Eastman, from 1988-1992. My teacher, also a lesbian, never mentioned that Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti were lovers.  Does anyone use that term anymore? I mean, they were seriously partnered for decades. We had even done “The Consul” that year, and I just can’t believe it never came up. It’s funny because there was some book, I think it was called “Queering the Pitch” in 1992. That seemed to be the year that the topic of sexuality and music came…um…out of the closet! But no one ever talked about whether composers were gay or not while I was in school. We just studied the music. But it would have been nice to know!

I don’t mean to say that Barber’s music was gay or has a gay sensibility. And the fact that it never came up in my studies is just an anctedote to this and the way it was back in Barber’s time as well. To compare it to my time, I have to make a conscious choice to introduce Jennifer as my wife, and sometimes, due to whatever leftover internalized homophobia I have, I might gauge the situation, cop out and call her my partner – to make others more comfortable – although I know if they are not comfortable with it, it’s their problem. I’m sure if I were even just a bit younger, she’d be my wife, in name, always. Well, I’m working on it…

But in Barber’s day, Menotti was his “friend.” I mean, everyone knew they were together, but there is a power in naming your situation. There’s a memorial stone next to Barber’s grave that says “to the memory of two friends.” And there was some big fight to get that put there. But you know, they were so much more than friends. When people refer to Jennifer as my friend, I tend to correct them, I mean, it’s insulting!

Are there any clues in his songs that he might be gay?

Well, in the cycle “Despite and Still,” he changed the title of the Theodore Roethke poem, “My Lizard (Wish for a Young Wife)” to “My Lizard (Wish for a Young Love).”  It’s like when I used to write love songs in the first person, I sang about “you.”  I wasn’t naming a gender so the object of my desire was anybody’s guess, gender wise–I didn’t want you to know. Same in this case. He didn’t change it to Wish for a Young Husband!

Also, in Hermit Songs, there’s the song “Promiscuity.” The text are from the margins of books that the monks studied from, some as old as the 9th century. The entire text is:  “I do not know with whom Eydan will sleep. But I do know that fair Eydan will not sleep alone.” I would imagine that text would be intriguing to a gay man. Clearly a woman didn’t write this! And Eydan, being a monk, wouldn’t be sleeping with a woman!

Why did you choose to record Barber?

I wrote about it in my program notes but the short answer is quite simply because they are so beautiful and singable. Pianist Marc Peloquin and I did a concert in honor of Barber’s 100th birthday in July of 2010. It was such a wonderful collaboration, and I have adored these songs since my student days. I had such a wonderful time reworking and revisiting them, especially with some life experience under my belt and at my vocal peak. Recording them was a natural outgrowth, and I am very pleased with the results! It’s a beautiful recording, filled with many moods and colors. I’m very proud of it.

How did you come up with the title “Despite and Still?”

That’s a song cycle of his, written in a very dark period of his life and it hasn’t been recorded much. But I chose the title to reflect where I am in my own musical life. I’ve been singing since I was a kid. I’ve had ups and downs in my career.  I was hot in the early music scene for a while, and then I wasn’t. I got back on the opera track and suddenly got some unexpected breaks. Then the economy bottomed out.  Now it seems like I’m on my own as to where I’m going and how I’m going to continue to make it happen.  There’s so much competition and very little money. Yesterday’s opportunities for a living wage are being offered for a pittance, if one can even get such opportunities. And yet – despite and still – I’m putting myself out there in the world. I have something to say, in many different musical ways.  It seems the time is ripe for me to fully explore.


One Response to “Queeries for soprano Melissa Fogarty”

  1. MakingSpace says:

    Thank you, this made me really happy to read.

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