Corrections or additions?
This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the February 7,
2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Madwomen In the Attic
For many musicians the criterion of a good performance
is conveying the notes and nuances of a musical score. Mezzo soprano
Laura Brooks Rice ups the ante. In addition to demanding fidelity
to the written page, she believes that effective song recitalists
should express their own opinions through the musical material they
Collaborating with pianist J.J. Penna, Brooks, in a performance at
the Unitarian-Universalist Church of Princeton Friday, February 9,
at 8 p.m., uses poems by American women to let us know what she
Called "Madwomen in the Attic," the program consists of
as well as song settings of poetry. The concert title is borrowed
from the groundbreaking 1979 book by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan
"The Madwoman in the Attic," a seminal collection of essays
about 19th-century women authors (recently reissued in a second
that has become a classic of gender studies.
Both book and concert honor the literary heroines who dared to unleash
their voices, rather than submerging their creative powers in the
conventional role of submissive wife, daughter, or lover. Still,
interviewed on the campus of Westminster Choir College of Rider
denies that her concert is a feminist salvo.
The program, assembled in 1997, is Brooks and Penna’s eighth
"Glenn Parker, my previous accompanist died five years ago,"
Brooks says, "and I thought I would never find another
The relationship between singer and accompanist is unique. When I
heard Penna audition [for an opening at Westminster Choir College]
I knew he would be right. I knew he had an interest in what mattered
to me, and I began talking to him before he came. I wanted to do an
American music program. We talked about a lot of composers. It’s
to find musical settings that don’t get in the way of the poetry."
Brooks and Penna designed the first part of the program, selecting
from the works of four American poets and grouping them under three
themes: Gertrude Stein and Dorothy Parker (the satirists), Edna St.
Vincent Millay (the lyricist), and Emily Dickinson (the universal).
The second half of the program consists of William Bolcom’s "I
Will Breathe a Mountain," a setting of 11 poems by American women.
"With Bolcom the words are uplifted," Rice says. "Penna
and I are both lovers of words and this program appeals to poetry
lovers as well as music lovers."
"Penna and I are good friends," Rice says. "We have a
similar sense of humor and we think alike musically. It’s a good fit.
He understands the voice, and I guess I understand his needs as
We have a good time at what we do."
Born in Florida, in 1955, Brooks grew up in Atlanta. Her father, now
retired, was vice president for personnel at Napa Auto Parts; her
mother was a housewife. She has an elder brother, now director of
planning giving at Georgia Tech. Both parents were originally from
Tennessee and have retired to their home state. "There was always
all kinds of music around," Brooks says. Her grandmother and great
grandmother played both piano and organ. Brooks remembers her great
grandmother still active at the organ at age 100.
After Brooks was established at the San Francisco Opera in the 1980s,
her parents put together a scrapbook. The first entry was from her
kindergarten teacher, and consisted of a note saying, "Laura sings
like a bird." Brooks began piano study at age six. She began
voice lessons at Georgia Southern College and began graduate work
in 1977. Brooks’ mentor for her Indiana University master of music
degree was Margaret Harshaw, who made a reputation as a Wagnerian
soprano in the 1940s. Today Brooks draws on what she learned from
Harshaw, both in her professional activities and in personal matters.
"Harshaw’s teaching was very disciplined," Brooks says.
her I learned how to master my voice and how to teach. Today I get
a particular satisfaction from teaching. I love the one-on-one."
Harshaw, Brooks remembers, addressed the problem of consistently
in a good vocal performance despite daily ups and downs. Brooks quotes
her mentor as saying, "You don’t feel like singing 80 percent
of the time." "When you wake up you may not be in good
she adds, "you may not be feeling healthy in the throat. If you
have had a difficult day, you may wake up with dry throat. Famous
singers have said that they wish they could take their voice and put
it into case. But, however you feel today, your voice is your
That’s why we stress technique, so you can perform through any kind
of vocal distress. The problem is that you are your instrument."
Brooks finds what she calls "enormous
in having mastered her voice. "I’ve been able to take what’s God
given and perfect it so that I can move people, and move self,"
she says. "It sounds egotistical, but it’s really not. When I
was asked by Harshaw if the sound of my own voice moved me, I
said `yes,’ and she said `good.’ I credit Harshaw with, not only
my voice, but helping me shape myself as person," she says.
understanding the physical aspects of using my voice I discovered
that the voice was an integral part of my being."
In 1980 Brooks won the Metropolitan Opera Auditions, whose televised
transmission is eagerly watch by scouts from opera companies
the country, and the San Francisco Opera invited her to make her debut
as Grimgerde in Wagner’s "Walkuere." San Francisco then
her, first, to its summer Merola program, then to its two-year Adler
training program. At San Francisco she covered for Marilyn Horne and
Tatiana Troyanos. "It was an honor to learn the roles," she
says. "There are separate rehearsals for the understudies. They
want to know that you’re completely capable of stepping in, if need
Brooks recoils at the notion that an understudy might yearn for the
illness of a principal singer as a route to public performance.
never want another singer to get sick," she admonishes.
Then she goes on to tell what happened when, during a performance
of Mozart’s "Cosi fan tutte," when Troyanos did get sick.
"I had been told that Troyanos was okay," Brooks says,
I went home. They phoned in the middle of the last act. I hurried
to the theater, and they fixed me up with a costume. I finished the
opera for her. It was a nerve-wracking experience to jump in,
I was glad to know I could do it. There are plenty of people who help
you — the prompter, who feeds you the beginning of your lines,
and the stage manager who sees that you’re ready to go on when the
time comes, and who calms you down and tells you you’ll do fine."
Rice moved to the East Coast from San Francisco on the
advice of her New York management. "Something told me I didn’t
want to live in New York City," she says. Then her father, in
the course of business negotiations in Newark, had dinner in
liked the town, and found his daughter an apartment.
Rice came to Westminster Choir College as an adjunct in 1984. She
is now associate professor of voice. "Every year I’ve had
smart students," she says. She also works with young professionals
in New York, where her class is full.
Teaching keeps her voice ready for performance, says Rice. "I’m
always reiterating the physical aspects of singing, and demonstrating
for students. Hearing my students perform well helps my own
We inquire how to be an honest performer and how to express ourselves
physically. Bad performances are also instructive. One of the leading
causes of bad performance is distraction. You don’t want an audience
to wonder if the singer will miss a high note, forget a word, or
with her skirt."
A performer in both opera and concert, Rice is articulate about the
differences between the two. "Opera is so much bigger than
she says. "The act of singing opera is big. You have to create
a large sound." She’s talking about filling a vast space with
her own lungs and larynx.
"It’s a larger-than-life art form," she adds. "You have
to create a character, and the problem is how to make this
character look real. Of course, you have the costumes and lights and
you’re collaborating with others. In a recital you’re delivering
I say to my students, `I’m interested in your expressing your opinion
through this poetry.’ There’s no orchestra to sing over. It’s more
intimate. You can really connect to people. In opera you connect in
a different way because you’re playing a character. You’re not you
in opera," she states with simplicity.
Rice is direct, not only in her manner, but in her appearance. A large
woman, she wears form-concealing clothing of unadorned black. Her
face is radiant against the intensely dark setting, her long
hair restrained by a black bow.
Her directness, ably supported by pianist Penna, comes through on
a CD released last year. In songs by Wagner, Mahler, Brahms, Duparc,
and Faure, they produce a seamless interplay between voice and
The two parts are inextricably intertwined. Rice’s communication is
private and confidential. With quiet passion, she confides in the
listener. Penna mirrors and enhances her ever-shifting moods with
his elastic playing. Expect similar quality when Rice and Penna
a second recording, "Madwomen in the Attic," later this year.
— Elaine Strauss
Unitarian Universalist Church, 50 Cherry Valley Road, 609-219-2001.
Laura Brooks Rice, mezzo-soprano, and J.J. Penna, piano. $10.
February 9, 8 p.m.
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