MEIRION BOWEN - Articles & Publications


Contemporary Cathy

"I AM HAPPIEST MAN in the world" declared Artur Rubinstein. His sentiment is all but echoed 'by Cathy Berberian. "I can do what I like", she gleefully cries - mind you, who'd dare stop her? "All the time I get asked to do the things I most want to do." The perfect recipe for complacent stardom, you might think. But with Cathy one has the impression that what the future holds is far more important than past achievement.

'She can rightly claim that her championship of contemyorary music has changed vocal history. Cathy Berberian came into her own as an artist when she began to develop her vocal skills in close harness with her dramatic flair. Although she started as a coloratura soprano, she sensibly avoided turning into one of those extraordinary creatures, with a voice like a nightingale and a figure like an ele- phant, who cascades her way through one mad scene after another, until only those promoting a gala occasion can afford her fees.

Curiously enough, the crowning point of Cathy's career to date is a mad scene but one far more in tune with today, one that contrasts the artificiality of a performer's life with reality underneath. Berio's music-theatre work Recital culminates with this scene portraying the psychological disintegration of the singer-protagonist (who is Everyman). It uses his characteristic 'stream-of-consciousness' method, quoting, in succession, fragments of Monteverdi, Purcell, Handel, Mozart, Schubert, Bizet, Mahler and others. For Cathy it's a tour de force, but one with which she becomes deeply involved. It demands the virtuosity of a latter-day vocal Paganini, but also a degree of emotional intensity and commitment that few singers could equal. RCA issues a record of Recital this month to coincide with the first public performance at the Round House: but with a work that extends Cathy Berberian to her - farthest limits as actor and singer, seeing will always be as important as hearing.

Cathy was always a lady of possibilities. First it was traditional opera. Born in New York of Armenian parents, she was an opera buff from the age of seven, and used to sing along with records of Chalia- pin and Lily Pons. Popular films, featur- ing Deanna Durbin and Jeanette Mac-Donald, also pushed her towards music. She trained as an opera singer and acquired a fantastic range of techniques as a coloratura: but of course, she was stu,dying for all the wrong parts, for at this stage her voice was not placed. In Berlin, Herbert Graf told her she was really a mezzo, and her whole world crumbled. She realised in any case that her voice wasn't large enough for grand opera. So she changed her repertoire and began to concentrate on recital work, singing Debussy and Ravel in particular. In Italy, subsequently, and in collaboration with Berio, she found herself as a singer. "I had what you might call the icing without the cake when I got there. I got technique before I had my voice placed, which was very strange: I could do all kinds of coloratura, and I had the three-octave range (low C to high C) but my voice tired very quickly." Her first recital with Berio in 1957 showed her the path she might take. From then on she has lived dangerously, never relaxing in her missionary zeal on behalf of the musical creators of today. She recorded Stravinsky songs with the composer. John Cage wrote his Aria for her. Berio's compositions gave her a central role.

Her success in the sphere of contemporary music is partly due to her desire to engage in a collaborative effort rather than indulge the singer's ego-triy: it's what she calls the 'Monteverdi mentality' - for in the Monteverdi era, composer and singer were often one. This attitude is most overt in the case of Berio's compositions, many of which might not have seen the light of day - certainly not in the same format - without her. Visage makes an erotic exhibition of Cathy's verbal and linguistic flexibility. Epifanie exploits her ability to find the right intonation and spoken nuance within a complex web of music. Some of the substitutes for Cathy in performances of Laborintus II in London in recent years have certainly rocked the boat. She has an ear and an intelligence that can comprehend closely interwoven musical and verbal imagery: she searches out, moreover, the means whereby the essence of the experience can be communicated to the audience. On the other hand, she can identify with simplicity. Berio's folk-song settings are tailor-made for her, not merely because she can rnove freely from one language to another, but because she can drop her sophistication and sing with the innocent directness of a folk-singer.

In the field of contemporary music Cathy Berberian sets herself high standards, and expects them of fellow musicians. She digressed easily (and deliberately) on to the subject of London Sinfonietta with whom she has worked so often - in London and abroad - in recent years. "There is no other ensemble like it", she insisted. "Try and get together a team of players in New York or anywhere else in the world to do new music, and you're pouring dollars down the drain. They're about the only players who take it seriously, play regularly together and rehearse hard. If they aren't given enough money to keep going, I don't know what'll happen to today's music." Cathy Berberian believes that only with the kind of effort that performers like herself and the Sinfonietta produce will composers find their way out of an especially difficult musical situation. She has well-defined tastes and opinions which doesn't mean that she will only sing what she approves of. She prefers controlled determinacy to the open-ended free-for-all. "John Cage had a piece in which I had to improvise on the same phrase four times, but the words had different types of print - large or small, thick or thin - and different lengths measured in seconds. Now that's enough control to set me off, and I've been able to get several compositions out of only one phrase. But when he gives me four pieces of celluloid that have to be dropped one on top of another, where the words have to be chosen from a wheel that has the whole alphabet on it, and then you get things like 'p' that have to be held and the only thing you can do is to splutter p-p-p-p-p-p: that's what I'm not happy with; it's very Cage, and I'll stick to it while I'm doing his piece, but it's not what I'm after."

Cathy Berberian has no worries about damaging her voice through singing the conternporary repertoire. "Mine is not a natural voice in the sense of a Flagstadt or a Gigli". Whenever it might be strained eg through loud whispering - she uses amplification. She believes her voice would have stood up well in early 19th- century opera with the kind of orchestration composers like Donizetti, Rossini and others were then using, which was essentially light. With today's big voices and heavy backing she doesn't feel she can compete. Contemporary music has oftered her a sphere in which to evolve vocally and expressively.

By contrast, she is insistent on some kind of knowledge of classical techniques. "Many singers find that it's more convenient to specialise in the new music because there's less competition. You can be paid a lot, too. But they won't last long. Only with a strong classical background can you know the rules that prevent your voice giving out." Cathy Berberian still enjoys singing Monteverdi and will happily sing the small part of Clorinda in ll combattimento if it means doing it well.

Working with Berio and on the modern repertoire in general took her outside music, stimulated her interest in words in general, in translation - she has translated a book on James Joyce, and the Jules Feiffer cartoons - and encouraged especially her fascination with the fin- de-siecle period. The latter started in a purely decorative sense with Cathy collecting art nouveau, books, objects and fashion anthologies, enjoying their very real nostalgia and lightheartedness. As she explored the world of the salon, however, she discovered a lot that was ephemeral enough to be worth saving (eg Beethoven sonatas, Chopin preludes etc, turned into songs). She has collected all sorts of material on Reynald Hahn; she possesses some of his recordings and all his six books, and treasures his book on singing as one of her two bibles (the other being Peter Brook's Empty Spaces). Most of what she has learnt as a singer is to be found in Hahn's book, which was published as far back as 1922. One day Cathy may produce a monograph on Hahn, as already she feels she is a Hahn specialist. She devours books in all lan- guages on the turn-of-the-century period.

Her love for the period found an unforgettable outlet in her QEH recital last November, entitled 'A la recherche de la musique perdue, comme une soirbe chez Mme Verdurin, Paris, 1900': a recital that had a Proustian focus, evyh if it strayed far beyond the actual repertoire of the authentic soiree. Surrounded by potted palms, an art nouveau screen, sofa and table with liquid refreshment, Cathy Berberian held the audience consistently in her grasp both by her artistry and feigned crudity. To send up Lieder, sing Nymphs and Shepkerds a quarter of a tone flat (allegedly copying another salon singer), and do justice to Offenbach, Faure et al, is not within many singers' powers.

Cathy was astonished at the extent to which the English audience responded to the subtleties of her presentation. Similarly, she was surprised to find German audiences rolling on the floor when she performed there the same kind of recital (entitled 'From salon to saloon'). She is of course superbly abetted by her accompanist Bruno Canina, who grew a moustache especially for the London occasion. She admires Canina's ability to stand up to the test of accompanying top- rank artists like Zukerman - yet also involve himself in these highbrow frolics. In a sense he is an exact pianistic counterpart, one who knows the rules and thus can break them with relish.

It is hardly surprising to find Cathy Berberian carrying her interest in speech inflexions and language and the fullest extension of dramatic vocal technique into composition itself. Most of her pieces are short, and in fact she would not describe herself as a composer "just an inventor of clever gimmicks". Stripsody is her more famous 'gimmick', embracing as it does the 'whams' and 'aarghs' of comic strips. Morsicat(h)y is about "a mosquito who eventually gets gloriously squashed": there's another piece for seven instruments, which is seven-eighths finished based on "Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue": the 'something new' is Cathy on percussion - "for the first year or two, I come with the rental. It's a very high rental". The endless wit of a conversation with Cathy is there in her pieces through and through. Maybe one day she will develop her compositional skills into something more substantial. She has at the back of her mind an idea for a piece based on texts from Finnegan's Wake. But for the present, singing and its dramatic extension must have priority: she is first and foremost the servant of other composers.

What of her future development, then, as exponent of contemporary music and music-theatre? Cathy Berberian sees it as having been defined by works whose model is Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire works which cut across the conventional boundaries between singing and acting. Her most stimulating experience recently has been a three-week session at Peter Brook's Research Centre in Paris. She went there thinking she would teach them all a lot, but found herself learning more instead. In a way it was traumatic, but it opened vistas for her. She began to investigate the language of the theatre of deaf-mutes. She is increasingly concerned to study the basic vocabulary of theatrical communication, with the ultimate aim of combining her knowledge of acting, clowning and contemporary vocalist par excellence to specific ends.

Meanwhile back in the salon, this diseuse with a difference will be digging up more party-pieces the tradition, after all, goes back to Rossini and his soirees musicales, complete with Tourne-dos Rossini deluding us for a while that she is a billboard by Toulouse-Lautrec come to life. And as if to emp'hasise that all this isn't just her property, she will be teaching more. This May, she gives master-classes at Wiesbaden. In general, she's an artist who has made discoveries about her art and its potential. These she wants to pass on to young singers and actors. It isn't simply that a singer should learn not to walk across the stage Iike a truck-driver. The traditional separation of singing and acting, of acting and clowning seern to her irrelevant in the present epoch (if it ever was relevant). By her example and her technique she can help set things right.