Interview with Barbara Shirvis and Stephen Powell

Barbara Shirvis and Stephen PowellTwo of our guest artists for Love with A Twist are Barbara Shirvis and Stephen Powell. While they have independent vocal careers, they happen to be married and we are happy to have the opportunity to have them both perform in our program about the many facets of love. Lyric Fest spoke with Stephen in San Diego, and Barbara was at home here in Kennett Square. In life as in song, however, you’ll see they speak in harmony!

Lyric Fest: When did you first become interested in opera…. was there a pivotal moment when you realized this was your life?

Barbara: I guess my real “moment” was when I was accepted into the New York City Opera chorus after grad school for a REAL job! I couldn’t believe I was paid to sing and act and wear costumes and hang out in a repertory house all day with dozens of seasoned artists who were so willing to share with a youngster willing to learn. I didn’t have to temp or waitress! I quickly moved from chorus to comprimaria to leading singer. I “grew up” there; it was my apprenticeship. I met my husband there. I passed Beverly Sills in the halls! I was there ten seasons and I have nothing but fond memories of that company. I knew then that that kind of “work” was my life.

Stephen: I was a piano major Northwestern University in Evanston, Il, and I played for voice teacher Norman Gulbrandsen and around 1985 he began giving me voice lessons. Six years later— after Mr. Gulbrandsen left Northwestern for DePaul— I auditioned for the Marriage of Figaro and landed the title role of Figaro. I was hooked! So after that experience, I switched gears and went back for Masters in Vocal  Performance.

Lyric Fest: Stephen, how does your training as pianist help you as a vocal artist?

Stephen: I am able to learn music quickly and I see a score in its entirety. Rather than learning one line with words, I understand how vocal lines fit within the texture of the accompaniment. It also, frankly, saves me money. I don’t have to hire someone to play for me and that saves time as well. I also play for Barbara, when our schedules permit, so it is valuable training.

Lyric Fest: The two of you are married to each other and will be singing together in this performance. How do you keep boundaries on your individual careers and personal lives?

Stephen: Well, we’ve been together almost 20 years and we’ve figured it out. We also have children so we don’t get caught up in who is doing what or more. We made a choice to focus on our family and much of our careers have been dictated by the kind of parents we wanted to be. For many singers their only focus is their career and it is very solitary.

I won’t say it’s not difficult spending time away from home. Up until 5th grade our children were homeschooled so they traveled with us. It didn’t matter whose job it was we all just went. I would say that had some very positive aspects. It’s a little more difficult now that the kids are in school and require a more normal schedule. For now, I’m away more and Barbara is home more—yes, it can be challenging logistically!

Barbara: Sometimes we need to make sure each of us has enough time to study, practice and prepare for performances, but that was much tougher when the boys were small. We are each others’ biggest fans so there is no competition or anything. Raising a family while maintaining this kind of career is a huge challenge, however, and I have definitely curtailed my career in favor of parenthood. I’d say a man’s issues are different: there is more pressure to “provide” and so Steve is on the road A LOT. He misses home life and I miss the artistic life. My usual quip is, “It ain’t for sissies!”

Lyric Fest: So, Love with a Twist is a wry look at love and the many ways it can go wrong. As a couple, what do you think about that?

Barbara: I’d say we, like most couples, are aware of what can go wrong! The trick is, do you survive the curve balls as a couple or move on individually? The musical rep explores many of the possible scenarios. One thing I love about being an artist is that I can “live” all sorts of drama on the stage while keeping a personal life that is even-keeled and peaceful…. possibly even mundane!  At least that is the goal! I am definitely not a fan of the Everyday Drama Queen Syndrome.

Stephen: It’s part of real life. Relationships are not always lovey-dovey. Sometimes it is hard work. Not all love songs are about how great a relationship can be, some of the best songs are about the ones that don’t make it. I think, particularly as you get more life experience and see things in a bigger picture, you get perspective. I like looking at love in this way— you have to step back from things from time to time. You can’t be always be serious and there are times you must laugh at it.

Lyric Fest: Tell us about a song or two you are performing in Love with a Twist.

Barbara: The Lyric Fest Ladies (Suzanne, Laura and Randi) are walking encyclopedias and absolutely psychic in suggesting fabulous rep for the individual singers. Suzanne sent me Sondheim’s, “The Boy From…” and asked if I would be interested… I hadn’t known it before and flipped when I heard it. Everyone knows Sondheim lyrics are clever, sardonic, gut-wrenching and witty beyond belief and this song is TOO fun and ironic. LOVE IT. “Marietta’s Lied” is the opposite side of the spectrum with a melody like a heartache and the ultimate loss of love: death…. but somehow remains hopeful. I’ve always wanted to sing the delightful Loesser duet, “Baby It’s Cold Outside” especially with Stephen! A tiny Poulenc song, “Fleurs”, shows up in my life after not thinking about it since my grad recital (mid-cretaceous period, haha) and finding a song again after decades feels exactly like when you reconnect with an old friend and suddenly realize it (the song or friendship) had enriched you all along…..

Stephen: The first piece I’m singing also opens up the program. It is an interesting choice the artistic directors made because, just as in the opera, this prologue from Pagliacci sets up the show. I come out on stage  and tell people this is a dramatic representation of real life, real love. You’ll experience real tears, rage, shouts of joy the full spectrum of love. It’s a great aria.

Lyric Fest: You perform in serious dramatic opera roles, how does being able to showcase a variety of songs and styles in a smaller venue change the way you approach a performance?

Stephen: I don’t change much, hopefully I prepare the same way. Recitals can be more difficult because of the pacing involved. In this recital all the artists share duties which is helpful mentally and physically. In recital I wear a tux rather than a character costume, so my energy must portray the role. Also, the intimacy of the smaller venue allows me more subtlety in dynamics and phrasing.

Barbara: This setting feels so immediate and shared with the audience. Now don’t get me wrong… I do enjoy a football sized stage with miles of set, proscenium and pit between performer and first row but it is a different animal. When you are literally on the same level and in the same proximity as the audience, you feel as a performer that give and take, that understanding and encouragement. Lyric Fest audiences are particularly enthusiastic and worldly so that is a joy. Plus, Laura and Harold are “monster” pianists, both of whom absolutely inspire.

Lyric Fest: The two of you could probably live anywhere for your careers, yet Philadelphia is home base. What draws you to our region? (We are proud to have you here!)

Barbara: Stephen grew up in West Chester—we now live in Kennett Square and at first we felt we needed to be close to NYC where our agents and teachers and auditions were, but neither of us wanted to be in the city. This area offers extreme beauty and accessibility and Stephen has very deep roots here. For example, our sons’ church choir director was HIS church choir director! And there are many things like that! I do miss my beautiful Florida and my family there, and maybe one day I will end up back there, but we have so many friends here and feel it is a great place to raise our family.

Stephen: Yes, I would add that given all the travel that  we do, this solid community of friends and family is very important.

Lyric Fest: Thank you. We look forward to your performances Saturday, Feb 15 at 7:30 pm Lenape Valley Church in New Britain, Bucks County and Sunday, Feb16 at 3 pm at The Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia.

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