"It is important for me to come back to art song as often as I can to hone my musicality and work in more detail as well as connect more intimately with my audience," explains soprano Layla Claire, whose 2016-17 calendar has been dominated by opera: Donna Elvira in Mozart’s Don Giovanni (Montreal, Zurich) and Countess Almaviva in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (Philadelphia).
Her debut recital album, Songbird (due out June 2 on ATMA Classique), has given her not only the art song fix she craves, but also an opportunity to collaborate with pianist Marie-Ève Scarfone, whom Claire describes as "a terrific musician and a joy to work with. Her personality is pure sunshine, which was a perfect match for the repertoire we chose."
The recording sessions took place in Salle Françoys-Bernier at Domaine Forget in the Charlevoix region of Quebec. "We recorded it there because of [the] terrific facilities and acoustics. The region was beautiful and inspiring — we had an incredible view of the St. Lawrence River. We walked along the beach and through the spectacular colours of the autumn forest between recording sessions."
Claire describes Songbird as a “sound garden — songs that we loved and thought worked well together,” rather than a collection built around a specific theme. “They are songs that are nurturing, cosy and charming,” she continues. “I wanted a CD that I could imagine someone putting on and listening to at home with a cup of tea."
The first song they selected was Ernest Chausson's "Dans la forêt du charme et de l'enchantement" — "unsettling, unusual and beautiful," says Claire — and they built the rest of the program around it: songs in three languages and spanning three centuries, from Henry Purcell's "Music for a While" to Dominik Argento's "Spring," by way of Gounod, Brahms, Wolf, Fauré, Britten and others.
"I added Barber's 'St. Ita's Vision' last," she notes of the lullaby from Hermit Songs, "as I was coming toward the end of my pregnancy and could start imagining rocking and nursing my little one."
In January, Claire and her husband, baritone John Chest, welcomed baby Matilda into the world. "It is a joy and a privilege to be a mother," she says, despite the fact that parental leave isn’t really an option for performing artists whose engagements have often been confirmed a year or two in advance. They've both fulfilled important opera and concert contracts in the few months since their baby arrived.
Claire puts a positive spin on the situation: "Our daughter is a good little traveller and seems to enjoy discovering new places, faces and languages already. She has come to rehearsals a few times already and enjoys listening and watching," she explains, adding, "We're hoping that, although it is an unusual childhood, it will be what is normal for her."
Claire, a graduate of the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program at the Metropolitan Opera and a past recipient of the Virginia Parker Prize from the Canada Council, has in recent seasons sung Anne Trulove in Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress (Pittsburgh Opera, Metropolitan Opera) and Helena in Britten's Midsummer Night's Dream (Aix-en-Provence) in addition to her recent Mozart's roles. She's excited to announce she will add the title role in Handel's Alcina to her repertoire next season, starring in Katie Michel's critically acclaimed production at Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre and a new production at the International Handel Festival in Karlsruhe, Germany.
Closer to home, she sings Mendelssohn's Elijah with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under Kent Nagano on May 21 at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim synagogue in Westmount, Que.
Claire and Scarfone's Songbird will be released on ATMA Classique on June 2. Pre-order it here.
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