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Finding Spiritual Purpose Through Singing

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I cannot remember exactly what she was singing, but I do remember that the first time I heard Katherine Whyte, I knew that I needed to work with her. It must have been at some point early in my studies in collaborative piano at Juilliard, when I was totally green—before I knew anything about diction, breath, or text, and certainly before I knew anything about the larynx and the production of sound. All I knew—or more truthfully, all I felt—was that this was a voice I wanted to hear over and over again.

Katherine Whyte will present the 2008 Alice Tully Vocal Arts Debut Recital on February 29 in Weill Recital Hall.

(Photo by J&J Photography)

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Since then, Katherine has become a dear friend and an important collaborator, as well as an increasingly prominent artist whose Alice Tully Vocal Arts Debut Recital, to be presented on February 29 with pianist Milos Repicky, represents a gratifying milestone in her nearly accidental, but continually upward, trajectory. “I never, ever intended to go into singing,” Katherine, 28, says with a laugh, “even though I have always, always sung, from the time I was a kid. When my mom would come to say goodnight to me, I would be lying on my bed singing to myself. It was always a part of me, but I never really thought very seriously about it.”

That may have been because it came so easily to her. Katherine resisted suggestions from her early voice teachers that she would pursue a career; nonetheless, she was admitted to the University of Toronto for undergraduate—and later, graduate—studies in voice. “But even then,” she recalled in a recent interview, “I still didn’t really intend on being a singer. I wanted to be a missionary! I never knew any singers who were also missionaries, who made that their way of life.”

It would be the intersection of her faith and the inexorable pull of music that would draw Katherine definitively into an operatic career. “Back when I was in high school, a friend of mine who knew I was a Christian said, ‘Aren’t you going to be a singer? Do you mean that you’re not going to use your God-given talents?’ He was sort of doing it just to bug me because he knew that that’s the spiritual language I speak, but it had a big impact on me.” As she continued with her studies, and spent time at the Juilliard Opera Center from 2004 to 2006 (which she identifies as “the time that I really, really got hooked on the idea of being a singer”), her art began to materialize as a legitimate career option, and one in which she could find spiritual purpose. “I came to understand that my faith is exactly why I sing,” Katherine explains. “I feel that my voice is a gift that has been given to me by God, and I want to be worthy of the gift that I’ve been given.”

This faith, which gives her purpose and commitment, is also what carries her through the inevitable vicissitudes of life as a young singer. “In fact,” Katherine continues, “I couldn’t do my singing without God; the rejection, the success—it can destroy people.” She recalls a period when she “was tanking in auditions, not knowing why. My manager was kind enough to sit down and talk with me, and by the end of the conversation, he was saying, ‘you need to be more generous, more giving; you need to love your audience.’” Katherine recalls saying, in exasperation, “‘I don’t know how!’”

But then, she says, “I realized that I forgot that I love to sing. All this time, I was getting nervous, thinking as I entered auditions, ‘you have to hire me,’ or, ‘I have to be really good or else I won’t eat for a year.’ What I was forgetting is that when I sing, I can feel the pleasure of God, and the joy of singing.” Her focus on that in the next audition made it “the best audition I’ve ever done. It was so simple, and exactly what I needed to do. Since then, some auditions have been good, some have been great, but I feel that singing is a journey and Christ is so much a part of that journey—it is why I’m doing this. I don’t separate my love of God from my singing—it’s all connected.”

Since I have known her, Katherine has been utterly at home in the world of lieder and art song, omnivorous in her interests, and versatile in her ability to communicate across many languages, historical eras, and styles. Her program for the Tully Debut reflects these strengths, beginning with Jean-Phillipe Rameau’s seldom-heard cantata, Le berger fidèle. Originally suggested to her some time ago by a former voice teacher, Katherine rediscovered this unique work recently, and—like the so-called “Mignon” songs of Schumann, which follow the Rameau on her program—it became a favorite in her repertory. “I learned the Schumann at the Britten-Pears School, but I never had the opportunity to perform them. These songs are just magnificent.” Her enthusiasm radiates to the “other titanic set” that concludes her recital, Gabriel Fauré’s sublime La Bonne Chanson, of which she needs only say, “I love those songs so much.” Those of us who have had the privilege of hearing and watching her coach, rehearse, polish, and perform those songs at Juilliard can attest to how artfully she illumines them.

In between the Rameau, Schumann, and Fauré, Katherine has nestled two exciting and rarely heard sets of songs. The first, by a Swedish composer named Gunnar de Frumerie, is Hjartats sanger, or Heart Songs. “The poetry written by Par Lagerkvist is stunning,” Katherine remarks. “One song in particular is my very favorite, and it describes the idea that beauty follows you wherever you walk—there is so much light in this song—everywhere you walk is light and beautiful. The poetry is just gorgeous.”

A 20-minute excerpt of Thomas Pasatieri’s Letter to Warsaw (originally for soprano and orchestra, and approximately one hour in length) completes her program. Katherine learned the piece under the tutelage of Regina Resnik, and the text—poet and cabaret artist Pola Braun’s first-hand account of life in the Holocaust—has moved her ever since. Braun wrote these texts while living in the Warsaw ghetto and in the Majdanek concentration camp, where she died in 1943.

It was while working on the Pasatieri piece that Katherine first collaborated closely with pianist Milos Repicky, though he had played for her voice lessons with her teacher, Marlena Malas. “What I’ve always loved about Milos is that he is incredibly musical,” she says. “He inspires me, and we make a good team, and on top of that, he’s a very nice person and fun to work with.”

That collaborative attitude, along with a deep connection with text—something impressed upon Katherine by her voice teacher in Toronto—are what make her such a successful song singer. “I found that the clearer a picture I had in my mind of what I was singing about, the easier singing itself became,” she explains. “When I have a vivid picture in my mind’s eye, and I allow myself to get really into the story and message of what I am saying, I don’t think about technique—it falls into place and happens on its own.”

Katherine continues, “We singers have so much to do—text, interpretation, acting, singing well, sounding good—and it makes our lives so difficult. But it inspires us, too; we are so lucky to have both music and text to work with.”

Indeed, Katherine’s program is an innovative and beautiful one of both music and text, befitting a thoughtful and passionate singer. Since our friendship began, I have known how deeply Katherine feels the urge to sing, to share music with her audiences, and to impart those things about music that make it, for her, a fundamentally spiritual encounter. In an era in which the flash of marketing and the calculation of publicity threaten nearly to eclipse the art they purport to serve, the simplicity of Katherine’s purpose and the purity of her joy in singing are utterly refreshing.

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