Grammy Award-winning mezzo Kelley O'Connor joins the Minnesota Orchestra and guest conductor Robert Spano for concerts on November 19 and 20, singing Peter Lieberson’s Neruda Songs, a piece that carries significant memories and emotions for her. We asked O’Connor to tell us more about these songs, her background with conductor Robert Spano, her recent performance with the Orchestra at Sommerfest 2015, and more.
Does Neruda Songs have special meaning to you?
O’Connor: These pieces mean more to me than I can even express in words. The late Peter Lieberson wrote these love songs for his wife, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, setting text by the famous Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. She was only able to perform them three times before passing away from breast cancer. Soon after, Peter developed lymphoma and was undergoing chemotherapy when I met him. We worked together in Hawaii as he wanted to recover in “warm weather.” I have to say, I had no problem with this! Peter had never heard anyone sing the songs except Lorraine, so every day we would do just one. Then we would eat together, and he would share stories of Lorraine. It was quite overwhelming. I feel so deeply connected to these pieces because of my time with Peter. It has become even more personal since Peter himself passed away. Now I truly feel that the two of them are listening to me every time I sing them.
What should the audience listen for during the performance?
O’Connor: I love the third song which says “Don’t leave me for a day, for a minute, for a second.” This sense of life revolving around a mate almost to the point of obsession is fascinating to me. It is of course rather dramatic, but completely heartfelt. I believe that Peter could really relate with Neruda and these poems. The final song speaks of a love that doesn’t die with the person, but continues on and simply changes lands and changes lips. This song encompasses everything that their own love did. This is their story, and I am the lucky one who gets to share it with the world.
Photo: Kelley with Composer Peter Lieberson
You have recorded Neruda Songs with Atlanta Symphony, with conductor Robert Spano, who also leads these concerts with Minnesota Orchestra. What do you enjoy about collaborating with him, particularly on this piece?
O’Connor: Robert Spano and I are soulmates. We even share a birthday! He was the first professional conductor I worked with (over 10 years ago) while I was a fellow at Tanglewood. Then I had the pleasure of working on my first recording with him in Atlanta, and I have been back almost every year to perform again with him. We have worked on world premieres, been on recital tours, and made so much music together. I truly feel that having a deep personal relationship with him has added to our connection while on stage. I cannot wait for the Orchestra to see us in action!
Photo: Kelley with Conductor Robert Spano
Tell us about your recent performance at Sommerfest with the Minnesota Orchestra.
O’Connor: I had a wonderful time this summer performing Madame Butterfly at Sommerfest. I had the pleasure of working with Maestro Litton in Colorado, and also some of the orchestra members at the Grand Teton Music Festival. It is amazing what a small world it is! However, I had never met Butterfly herself, Kelly Kaduce. She was an absolute pleasure to work with along with my other colleagues. We had such a great chemistry and much to do in a short amount of time. The shortened amount of time really heightened the experience!
What is your favorite venue in which you have performed?
O’Connor: I have been so fortunate to perform in numerous incredible venues. One of my favorites is Severance Hall in Cleveland. It is absolutely stunning and unique, while feeling extremely intimate. I have to say singing in the organ loft at the Musikverein in Vienna with the LA Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel wasn’t too bad either!
What is your earliest musical memory?
O’Connor: It has to be singing Happy Trails at my elementary talent show. The principal of my school had that song played every Friday as school let out and begged me to sing it! It was my first solo.
Which of your upcoming performances are you most excited about?
O’Connor: Mahler, Mahler, Mahler and Adams! I love Mahler. His music is so accessible…so human….People can’t help but be moved by his pieces. I find that it isn’t only in the audience, but in the orchestra. We are all part of this life-changing music. It is so fulfilling.
I have been so lucky to be involved with several world premieres and also the legacy of new music (such as Neruda Songs!). Along with that, I will be singing at John Adams’ 70th birthday in 2017. I have the pleasure of singing the role of Mary in his piece The Gospel According to the Other Mary. I will finally work with Sir Simon Rattle (one of my life dreams!) on this piece in Berlin.
When you get a chance to attend a concert as an audience member instead of as the soloist, what or who do you love to listen to?
O’Connor: This is so rare! I recently attended a concert of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and I couldn’t remember the last time I had heard them without being up front! It was such a pleasure to see the Orchestra in their element. They performed Beethoven, Debussy, a Mozart double concerto (with soloists from the orchestra) and Berg. It blew my mind. I love to collaborate with orchestras, but it is wonderful to be able to sit back and appreciate them on their own merit. I prefer to hear pieces without vocalists, so that I am not empathizing with the soloist during the show! It can be stressful!
When you aren’t performing, what do you do for fun?
O’Connor: I love cooking and eating! Being in my own kitchen with my wide range of cooking tools and gadgets—I don’t always gets those on the road! Along with this love of food, comes a love, or shall I say a relationship, with the gym. The two go together, since I have to watch my figure! I live in Los Angeles, and love being out in the sun and seeing all of the exciting new music that is happening!