Opera superstar Stephanie Blythe plans concert tribute to lyricist Johnny Mercer
The mezzo-soprano’s concert will open San Diego Opera’s 2021-22 season
The last time Stephanie Blythe performed with San Diego Opera in 2014, she presented a concert of songs made famous by contralto Kate Smith that she spent 15 years researching and planning.
When the world-renowned mezzo-soprano returns on Saturday, Oct. 23 to kick off San Diego Opera’s 2021-22 season, she will pay tribute to another one of her musical heroes: Lyricist Johnny Mercer, who co-wrote more than 1,500 songs in his half-century songwriting career, including “Moon River,” “Skylark,” “That Old Black Magic” and “My Shining Hour.”
Blythe said she hopes her concert — which she prefers to call a “cabaret recital” because she likes to talk and tell stories between songs — brings more attention to a man whose name may not be familiar, but whose songs helped make up the American Songbook of the 20th century.
“He was known as the king of lyrics and he worked with many of the best composers because he was such a great collaborator,” Blythe said, in a phone interview from the small-town Pennsylvania home she shares with her husband of 20 years, David Smith-Larsen, and their assorted pets. “What I really love about him is that he partook in culture like a starving man. He listened to everything. He was aware of everything that was being written and he was a student of the art form.”
Blythe’s concert at the Balboa Theatre will be the first of three recitals San Diego Opera is presenting around the county this fall to ease its audience back into attending indoor performances. Next up will be soprano Michelle Bradley performing Nov. 20 and 21 at the Baker-Baum Recital Hall at The Conrad in La Jolla, followed by Mexican-American tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz performing Dec. 3 at the California Center for the Arts, Escondido. Full-scale productions begin in 2022.
Company General Director David Bennett said that despite the loss of box-office revenue over the past 19 months, San Diego Opera weathered the pandemic well. Some outdoor productions kept audiences engaged, subscribers and donors were generous in their support, and federal stimulus programs like the Paycheck Protection Program and shuttered-venues operating grant helped the company survive.
Ticket sales this summer have been slower than in years past, Bennett said, but a recent audience survey found that customers are waiting to see how the pandemic plays out before committing. Like other performing arts organizations in San Diego County, San Diego Opera is requiring ticket-buyers to show proof of full vaccine and ID or negative COVID PCR test within 72 hours of performance when they arrive at the theater. Masks will also be required indoors under the new policy.
Bennett said audiences will love Blythe’s concert because she has such a warm and engaging personality and a voice so incredible that it has provided her with a hugely successful 25-year career, including more than 200 performances at New York’s Metropolitan Opera alone.
“She’s an amazing artist,” Bennett said. “Stephanie is such a communicator and what she’s drawn to about Johnny Mercer is his communicative ability.”
Exploring new horizons
Songwriter Mercer was often described by colleagues as a “restless” creator who wasn’t happy if he wasn’t writing a new song every day. Blythe isn’t necessarily restless, but she likes staying busy in many different ways, too.
Beyond her opera and recital career, Blythe is in her second year as artistic director of the Graduate Vocal Arts program at Bard College Conservatory of Music in New York. She has also taught and performed for 11 years at the Tanglewood Music Festival in Massachusetts. She enjoys doing macro nature photography for her Instagram page (@sblythe327), playing ukulele and writing poetry and song lyrics. She also has a few ideas for a book and hopes to do more opera stage direction in the coming years.
“There are plenty of dreams I have for projects,” she said. “I like to put things out in the universe. It’s like throwing spaghetti at the walls and see what sticks.”
One of her favorite projects is maintaining the fast-growing concert career of “Blythely Oratonio” her pompous but uber-talented alter-ego. She created the drag character Blythely — an over-the-top opera tenor she performs in a false beard and mustache — for a fundraising concert for Opera Philadelphia in 2017. Blythe said she created Blythely so she could explore the lower register of her singing voice.
“My voice has always liked to linger in the basement, for lack of a better phrase. This character is an expression of that. It’s always been there and now has the opportunity to have a voice. I always wanted to sing tenor and had plenty of people tell me ‘you sound like a tenor.’ Now let’s hear it.”
While Blythely has performed in costume for several concerts, both online and in person, Blythe has also begun exploring the tenor/baritone repertoire in gender-bending roles for regular mainstage opera productions. She was booked to play the title role in Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi” — a role written for a male baritone — for San Diego Opera in February 2022, but that production has been postponed to a later season, Bennett said.
“We’re at an interesting time in performance,” Blythe said. “I’m working with a lot of young artists today who are allowed to, and I’m encouraging to, explore their vocal identities, which are not necessarily sitting in the typical German fach (voice classification) system. I’m excited by that. I don’t think the voice has any limitations.”
During the pandemic, Blythe has kept busy teaching at Bard, which is a two-hour commute from her home several days each week. She has also been keeping followers entertained with her frequent ukulele concerts on her Facebook page. She started playing the instrument back in 2013 when she was doing her Kate Smith concerts at New York’s Lincoln Center. Since then, she has become so proficient with the instrument that Lanikai Ukuleles has recruited her as one of its official artists.
At Saturday’s “Johnny Mercer: American Lyricist” concert, audiences can expect Blythe to bring out her ukulele for a song or two, but Blythely is not expected to appear because, she said, he’s a bit of an attention hog.
Blythe isn’t sharing in advance a list of the songs for Saturday because she likes the surprise element and she plans to announce each number from the stage. The only songs she will promise are “Moon River,” “Skylark” and “I Thought About You.” Her accompanist will be pianist Ryan McCullough.
‘Spectacular in the Vernacular’
Raised in Savannah, Ga., Mercer was 19 when he moved to New York to become a jazz, bandstand and vaudeville singer. By the early 1930s, he transitioned into songwriting and was instantly recognized for his expansive vocabulary and turns of phrase. A colleague famously quipped that Mercer was “spectacular in the vernacular” for cleverly worded songs such as “Jeepers Creepers,” “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate The Positive,” “Hooray for Hollywood” and “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe.”
Over the years he helped co-found Capitol Records and co-wrote with more than 200 composers, including Hoagy Carmichael, Harry Warren, Henry Mancini, Harold Arlen and Jerome Kern. His lyrics often celebrated his Southern heritage, leading one music historian to say Mercer had “the South in his mouth,” particularly in songs like “Lazybones,” “Blues in the Night (My Mama Done Told Me)” and “Moon River,” the last of which earned him one of his four Academy Awards for original song for film. Since 1980, the Songwriters Hall of Fame has given out the annual Johnny Mercer Award to honor the nation’s most acclaimed songwriters.
Blythe said there’s one line in the song “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate The Positive” that goes: “Don’t mess with Mister In-Between.” She feels that describes Mercer’s life and career.
“He was Mr. In-Between. He was between the North and the South and was able to garner that sort of down-home nostalgia that is really beautiful. He was also a wonderful singer, lyricist, composer and producer of music. He had his finger in a lot of pies and was amazing at all of it,” she said. “It’s wonderful for me to be able to tell a story about someone’s life with their music, so that’s what this concert is all about.”
Stephanie Blythe: ‘Johnny Mercer: American Lyricist’
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 23
Where: San Diego Opera at the Balboa Theatre, 868 Fourth Ave., downtown
Tickets: $35 and up
Phone: (619) 533-7000
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