French-American soprano visits father and, oh, yeah, performs concert at Stonington's La Grua
The logistics of booking a concert for an international touring artist can be headache-inducingly complex and involves such minutiae as: passports/visas; available dates and venues with respect to market share; routing to and from prior or subsequent shows; tech support and equipment rental; union and theater restrictions; whether an act's sponsorship conflicts with venue sponsors; lodging; hospitality riders; and coordination of ticket sales/VIP packages between the artist, booking agency, and performance hall.
On the other hand, maybe the star's dad just happens to live in another country, in an idyllic community by the sea and, oh yeah, near a convenient arts space. Easy enough for a quick one-off show, right?
The latter comprises the happy circumstances behind highly regarded French-American lyric soprano Diana Higbee's "These are a Few of My Favourite Things" concert Saturday at the La Grua Center in Stonington. Her father, American-born Arthur Higbee — a 93-year-old retired foreign correspondent who in his career headed up the UPI bureaus in Paris, Cairo, Tokyo and Beirut — lives in Stonington. Inasmuch as Diana's family, residents of LeMans, France, has never been to Stonington, a visit seemed a fun idea.
Enter a fortuitous conversation last year between La Grua executive director Lori Robishaw and longtime Stonington Village resident Alice Houston, the latter of whom is Arthur Higbee's partner. Houston mentioned that Arthur's daughter was a world-renowned opera singer who might be coming to visit her father in 2018, and that incidental tidbit sparked what became Saturday's concert.
"This sort of thing happens in Stonington," Robishaw says. "Many interesting and talented people who live here know — or are related to — other interesting and talented people, and help us engage them for a performance or a lecture."
Last fall, Robishaw and La Grua program director Kelli Rocherolle met with the organization's Music Advisory Committee to discuss the possibility of booking Higbee during her Stonington visit. The consensus was, why not give it a try? Higbee's agent, who lives in Australia, was contacted, and the details were worked out.
"This is unusual for us because she lives in France," Robishaw admits. "We would never be able to afford artists from another country unless there were special circumstances — like them being in the States for other reasons that we could piggyback on. This was one of those situations, and we were so delighted to be able to do it."
Though Diana is a French national and grew up there, she also has a U.S. citizenship, speaks both languages fluently, attended Hillsdale College in Michigan, and holds a masters from the Manhattan School of Music. Higbee, who specializes in the works of Mozart as well as the operettas of Jacques Offenbach, mostly focuses her opera and solo performances in Europe to stay near her husband and two children. In 2016, she founded Music Le Mans with the aim of bringing opera to a larger and contemporary audience — and was that same year named Ambassador for Le Mans for her contributions to the city's culture.
But Higbee is also enamored of French mélodies, a shorter "art song" made popular in the 19th century by composers like Berlioz, Fauré, Ravel, Hahn, Debussy and others, and blending lush vocal lines with romantic, evocative lyrics. In fact, Higbee's La Grua program, which she'll perform with close friend and longtime piano accompanist Anne-Lise Saint-Amans, focuses on distinctly gorgeous material, comprising mélodies as well as works by Debussy and, of course, Mozart, who will be represented by his renowned aria Ch'io mi scordi di te.
Preparing for the trip from France to the States, Higbee took time last week to offer via email some thoughts on the La Grua concert. Her comments have been edited for space.
On the innate melodicsim of the program:
"Christopher Greenleaf, the artistic director of the La Grua Center, is very passionate about French mélodies. Anne-Lise and I were happy to rediscover pieces we performed in the past and add some new pieces to provide a taste of French composers and the ambiance they create with their music.
"My grandfather on my mother's side was the Director of Radio New-Zealand and used to say that there was nothing wrong with a great melody. When listening to music, my mind immediately listens to the melody. The words and meaning of the poems and texts are just as important, however, particularly with the repertoire that we have chosen. Whether exploring the words of (poet Paul) Verlaine or the libretto of (Mozart collaborator Lorenzo) Da Ponte, the trick is to give the audience a beautiful moment as well as conveying the story."
"We want to pay homage to Debussy, who died 100 years ago, and who is one of my favorite composers. His compositions are like Impressionist paintings; your soul decides what you see. In Debussy's music, even though everything is measured, there is no feeling of time. It's like traveling into a Monet painting — truly miraculous."
Mozart's Ch'io mi scordi di te work is the most difficult piece on the program. On how it fits:
"The Ch'io mi scordi di te is indeed very technical and the only piece of its kind in the Mozart repertory. Mozart wrote it for Nancy Storace who premiered the role of Susanna. It is rumored that Mozart and Storace were more than professional colleagues. Since Mozart was not a singer, he wrote a duet between the voice and the piano, so that they could perform together. The poem says very clearly that he can never forget his love, and he wrote it for her when she returned to England."
On Higbee's association with Mozart and whether she's gotten to play all of her dream roles:
"I've been extremely fortunate in my career to be able to sing almost all the roles I dreamed of singing. Mozart was key in the start of my career. The color of my voice suits his compositions. It is thrilling to be able to build a career singing interesting characters such as the Countess, Donna Anna or Fiordiligi. Living in France, I get to explore the French repertoire and sing Micaela in Carmen and lately have been singing many Offenbach roles.
"As of yet, however, I have not had the opportunity to sing any Richard Strauss and would love to sing in Capriccio, Arabella or Der Rosenkavalier. Another piece I would have loved to sing would be Anne Truelove by Stravinsky as well as sing Desdemona in Otello. As far as the art song repertoire, I would love to sing Scheherazade by Ravel with orchestra or Les Nuits d'Ete by Berlioz ... there are so many more!"
On visiting Stonington:
"I am happy to say that this will be our first trip to Stonington. It is absolutely thrilling to be able to ally work with pleasure. Usually, my summers are spent touring Europe for opera and concerts, so this is a wonderful opportunity for us to visit the U.S. as a family. My younger son has never been to the United States and from what I hear, we are going to fall in love with Stonington and the La Grua Center."
If you go
Who: "These are a Few of My Favourite Things" with soprano Diana Higbee and pianist Anna-Lise Saint-Amans
What: Music Matters Concert Series
When: 5 p.m. Saturday
Where: La Grua Center, 32 Water St., Stonington
How much: $15
For more information: (860) 535-2300, lagruacenter.org.