The Thursday, May 3, performance by countertenor David Daniels with choreography by Mark Morris is an exception for both renowned artists. Indeed, it is so much an outlier that it is not listed on either of their web schedules. The extraordinary event, the season finale for Princeton University Concerts, takes place in Richardson Auditorium on the Princeton campus at 8 p.m. Martin Katz is the collaborator at the piano.
The Mark Morris Dance Group has been a frequent visitor to Princeton’s McCarter Theater. Countertenor Daniels has worked with the Morris group in the past. But this is the first time that both the Morris group and countertenor Daniels have appeared at Richardson.
The Richardson performance originated as a song recital by Daniels, part of the Princeton University Concerts series. Marna Seltzer, series’ enterprising manager, brokered the participation of Mark Morris Dance Group in the vocal program after meeting Morris when he co-taught a Princeton course in dance in the spring of 2011 with music professor Simon Morrison and New York dance critic Joann Acocella.
Morris found the teaching gig satisfying. He fully expects to return to Princeton, not only as a choreographer. “I liked the teaching,” he says in a telephone interview from his Brooklyn studio. “I like the university. The kids liked the course. There wasn’t a lot of attrition. I’ll be back. I’m not invited for a specific time, but I’m welcome.”
Countertenor Daniels, interviewed by telephone from his home in Atlanta, Georgia, sees a new direction for the arts in the addition of Morris’ dancers to his recital. “Martin Katz and Mark and I would agree that song and piano and words are enough by themselves,” he says. “But these days, for one reason or another, the song recital is taking a back seat. This collaboration is a way that different sides of art can sustain each other. I admire Morris’ openness, artistry, imagination, energy, and musicality.”
Music for the May 3 performance is by Hector Berlioz, Johannes Brahms, Reynaldo Hahn, and Steven Mark Kohn. Six dancers from Mark Morris Dance Group appear in new works by Morris. The choreographer has devised pieces for the Berlioz and Brahms works, taking into account the peculiarities of the Richardson stage. Morris and Princeton music professor Wendy Heller hold a pre-concert discussion at 7 p.m.
The performing space at Richardson is severely limited as a setting for dance. Knowing its inadequacies of lighting and size, Princeton University Concerts’ Seltzer calls the space “intimate.”
Morris says, “‘intimate’ would be a euphemism. The word is ‘tiny.’”
The 55-year old choreographer is a vibrant, playful interviewee, master of the relevant non-sequitur. He stresses the uniqueness of the Richardson program. “It’s something outside of the regular appearances of my company,” he says. “I was asked to do this program, and I thought, ‘No. Of course not.’ Then I said yes.”
Morris worked out the details with countertenor Daniels and pianist Katz. “I had a good time,” he says. “I liked the music. There was an interesting set of problems to solve.”
“We use the space we have, which is almost zero. I made up some beautiful little dance frames that take up no room. There are a piano and a singer in the middle of the stage. We never do that in the company, normally. But the members of my company will be really dancing at Richardson. What they’ll do is not just filler. They’re beautiful little dances.”
“The floor at Richardson is very hard,” Morris says. “The wood covers a surface hard enough to hold a grand piano. I choreographed so that it would not be dangerous for the dancers.”
“I finished the dances the other day,” Morris says. “In my studio we work on them with the size of the Richardson space taped out. There’s not a lot of running around and leaping.” With choreography settled, Morris invited Daniels to rehearse with the dancers.
Countertenor Daniels gives the musicians’ take on the rehearsal. “Martin and I are in the center of the stage,” he says. “The choreography happens everywhere. Sometimes we’re connected to it; sometimes, not.”
“Mark devised the choreography taking into account the text, the music, and the energy,” Daniels says. “It’s all totally correct. He brilliantly choreographed in a way that will be easily changed in performance, tweaked if necessary. If Martin and I take extra time, the dancers will make changes. Of course, Martin and I will adjust as we perform. The whole collaboration will be like chamber music.”
“There will be lots of spontaneity during the performance,” Daniels predicts. “We don’t have a lot of time to rehearse together. It’s not like an opera that you rehearse for four months.”
Daniels has had considerable experience in opera. His roles include the roster of baroque countertenor parts as well as contemporary opera repertoire for his voice. Earlier this season, he starred in the Met’s innovative baroque pastiche production, “The Enchanted Island.”
Collaborating with Morris, he played the title role in Willibald Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice” when Morris made his debut as stage director for New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 2007.
“I was stepping in for the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson,” Daniels says. “There was a lot of emotion going into that production. I remember the energy and commitment that those dancers gave me on stage. I was so energized by their emotional connection. I get this also from some of my singing colleagues.”
As a choreographer Morris uses only live music for his dances. “I work from music always,” he says. Trying to discover the impact of differing instrumentation on his choreography, I ask Morris about working with different kinds of musicians. Master of the purposeful misunderstanding, he replies, “I only work with one kind of musicians. Good musicians.”
Whether the musician is a vocalist or instrumental performer makes no difference to Morris. “There’s no special effect because of working with a singer or a countertenor,” he says.
For vocalist Daniels the route to countertenor was indirect, though his voice fell without question into the countertenor range. “Countertenor was my most natural voice,” he says. “I sang with this voice all the time. This is the voice I used around the house, at parties, in the car, and in the shower. But there were no teachers.” He trained originally as a tenor.
Daniels, 45, re-oriented himself as a countertenor in consultation with George Shirley, his mentor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “I talked him into it by singing for him,” Daniels says. “Shirley said, ‘If you can sing like this, why would you want to sing any other way?’ He was very supportive.”
“People think of the countertenor voice as fragile, and of little longevity,” Daniels says. “That’s a crazy idea. For 20 years I’ve been singing countertenor professionally. We’re as long-lasting as tenors or baritones. It’s about knowing your voice and how to keep yourself healthy. It’s about choosing the right repertoire, getting enough hydration, having proper rest between performances, and not doing interviews that are too long.”
“I was fortunate to grow up with two singing teachers as parents, a soprano mother and a baritone father. They taught at Converse, a women’s college in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Because of my father I was at the Brevard Music Center in North Carolina from age three months till age 19. He was on the faculty at Brevard. I heard all the major performers there and am fortunate to know what good singing is.” Daniel’s brother Michael is principal cellist of the Norfolk-based Virginia Symphony Orchestra.
In 2013 Daniels appears at Santa Fe Opera in a piece written especially for him. Composer Theodore Morrison, choral professor at the University of Michigan, based his opera “Oscar” on the trial and imprisonment of Oscar Wilde. Santa Fe Opera workshopped the two-act piece’s first act at Santa Fe in 2011 and will workshop the second later this year.
“This hopefully will be the highlight of my career,” Daniels told Opera News. He believes that new music is essential for the countertenor voice to survive and flourish.
Evidence of good news for Daniels is the 2008 publication “Twentieth-Century Countertenor Repertoire,” where Steven L. Rickards catalogs over 600 pieces composed between 1950 and 2000 ($116 in hardcover). The compilation includes works by more than 350 composers from 30 countries with texts in 31 languages.
It appears that the countertenor voice is here to stay. Perhaps the countertenor/dance recital on a cramped stage is also an enduring contribution to performance art.
Concert Classics Series, Princeton University Concerts, Richardson Auditorium. Thursday, May 3, 8 p.m. David Daniels, countertenor; Martin Katz, piano; and Mark Morris, choreographer, present the world premiere of a recital with dance. Pre-concert lecture at 7 p.m. $20 to $40. 609-258-9220 or www.princetonuniversityconcerts.org