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A Big Year for Emily D’Angelo

A Mezzo-Soprano with a Curatorial Flair


NOV 15, 2022 | ISSUE 8

Emily D’Angelo by Mark Pillai.© Styled by Esther Perbandt.
Emily D’Angelo by Ella Mazur

If you’re looking for an introduction to Canadian mezzo-soprano Emily D’Angelo, you’ll find her on some of the most celebrated international opera stages: The Met, La Scala, or the Royal Opera House. You might also find her in a recital in Salzburg, Prague, or at Carnegie Hall. But after treading these storied paths to opera stardom, D’Angelo’s debut album enargeia (Deutsche Grammophon) presents a carefully curated statement of an altogether distinctive artistic vision. Fascinated by connections between the ancient past and the emerging present, D’Angelo populated enargeia with over 900 years of music, ranging from the 12th-century Hildegard von Bingen to the trending 21st-century composers Sarah Kirkland Snider, Hildur Guðnadóttir, and Missy Mazzoli.

Speaking with smART Magazine, D’Angelo discusses her fascination with von Bingen’s life and music. She finds connections between von Bingen’s life, as a medieval polymath, and the multifaceted careers of contemporary composers like Guðnadóttir. D’Angelo places great importance on negotiating her personal artistic goals while challenging audience and industry expectations. Along the way, she also reflects on the opportunities and hurdles presented by technological elements such as video and social media.

sM | Artists usually begin their recording career with more predictable mainstream works. What motivated you to take risks with the highly curated enargeia instead?

ED — I think that taking a risk is always my preferred way to work. It’s how you personally create something interesting. If I’m interested, engaged, and feeling like I'm taking a risk or being vulnerable, then probably that will translate into something that—even if people don’t like it—might be interesting. At least, I’m sure it will be interesting in one way or another. With this project in particular, I wanted to create an album that really meant something. Of course, the standard repertoire means a lot to me—enough that I spend most of my time singing Rossini and Mozart—but this was an opportunity to do something that really interested me in a different way. Curating programs is something that we often do as performers, especially when we’re putting together recitals. Taking that same approach to enargeia allowed me to do something that told a story and had a purpose.

sM | What drew you to Hildegard’s music, and how do Snider, Mazzoli, and Guðnadóttir layer on top of that choice?

ED — Layering is a really good word for the processes of this album; it came together organically, in phases. When I first sang Hildegard as a child in choir, it blew me away. I didn’t know where or when this music came from. It could have been from any time; it has so much modernity to it. At that point in music history they were dealing with just pitch and word, and it’s so clear how Hildegard felt about each word. She was a profound character with very profound beliefs and a profound intelligence, and that comes across. I knew that I wanted to have Hildegard von Bingen at the centre of this project, but the question was how to do that in a meaningful, purposeful way. It took a lot of time to curate the program. I thought of Hildur Guðnadóttir first because she makes music as a cellist and a singer, and often writes her own words. She’s kind of a polymath, like von Bingen was. Guðnadóttir’s work has a cello drone that creates a sort of otherworldly sound that connects so well with Hildegard.

Once we had that sound world going, the rest snowballed. I first encountered Sarah Kirkland Snider because I heard she was writing an opera about Hildegard, but then her Penelope song cycle grabbed my attention. It’s an amazing combination of ancient Homeric ideas with new ways of creating sound, like the electric guitar. This sort of mixed style creates an open playing field that lends itself to a lot of different ways of singing.

Finally, I chose selections from Missy Mazzoli’s Song from the Uproar and Vespers for a New Dark Age. I encountered Vespers first and it immediately made me think about the same themes of old versus new, religion versus modernity, all taking place in our modern world of technology. I felt that I had to chip away at this tracklist for a long time, but it eventually all became very clear.

sM | What does the music industry gain from giving more curatorial opportunities to young artists? What did it mean to you?

ED — For me, I always put the music first. My goal with enargeia wasn't to do just anything, but I also wasn’t trying to say anything other than “this is amazing music and these works belong together.” With old works, there’s no question about their validity or their place in the canon—they are the canon. New works don’t have that history behind them yet, so they deserve advocacy. Many people have noted that all of the composers on this album happen to be women, but that’s not a theme. It’s not something you can hear—it’s just a fact outside of the music. It would be preposterous to say that Liszt and Bach go together because they’re both men. There have to be other reasons to connect musicians, and sometimes you have to do some digging to make a good connection. But I’d say it’s been a long time coming for major record companies to give young artists the chance to create something important and personal. It’s already been happening to some extent, but the more the better. This project became important not just to me, but to the entire team. There were so many amazing people who were all involved with this and it felt very special to get to put it together with such a great group.

sM | Your videos are visually powerful. Is this approach part of your personal style, or is it about connecting with contemporary audiences?

ED — I don’t usually have thoughts of, “will people like this?” That might sound selfish to say, but it’s also a really important part of the process. If you try to please everyone—even just everyone in the room with you—you’re going to be quickly met with conflict and you’ll end up making something that doesn’t really please anybody. It certainly won’t make you feel good. It’s an impossible goal to make other people like what you’re doing as much as you do.

As far as my style, it’s important to note that nothing happens in a vacuum. That’s the beauty of it. As you work with certain people, you discover different parts of yourself and learn new things. In those circumstances, suddenly some artistic change appears that you could never have predicted, just from the experience of being in the room with those particular people.

The visual aspect of my videos is very important. Of course, visuals have always been important for opera, which is both a visual and an aural art form. If I can visually present my music in a way that I’m excited about, and if that aesthetic also taps into something that others get excited about, it’s more likely to be interesting to the viewer. With any aesthetic, of course some people won’t like it, but as an artist and a human being it behooves you to accept the fact that not everyone is going to like you, and not everyone is going to like what you like. And that’s okay. That’s part of the beauty of life. We’re all different, right?

sM | How do you balance artistic freedom and privacy against the demands of social media?

ED — I think everyone has different boundaries and comfort levels with social media. I didn’t really use it at all until quite recently. That was what I needed and that’s what I was comfortable with, up until that point. I’ve found a way to be comfortable using it now, because I have a reason to. Namely, I think it’s important to share. If I think that the work I’m doing is truly important, then it can't just be important to me. It shouldn’t just exist in a vacuum where nobody knows about it. But this isn’t just about my personal work, either. I work with a record company, sound producers, photographers, composers, and so many others, so I certainly owe it to them to share our collaboration with the world, and we all hope that someone will like it. Of course there are very difficult pitfalls with social media along the way, so we have to try to find the ways that we can use it to make something good.