Q & A: Craig Terry on Creating ‘A Celebration of American Song’ at Merola Opera Program

By Afton Wooten

OperaWire had the chance to speak with Grammy-award-winning pianist Craig Terry about his work with the Merola Opera Program. For this season he has curated the opening piece entitled “A Celebration of American Song.”

Terry serves as the Music Director at Lyric Opera of Chicago and Artistic Director of its “Beyond the Aria” recital series. He has collaborated on piano with leading opera stars such as Joyce DiDonato, Patricia Racette, Stephanie Blythe, and Nicole Cabell. In 2020, Terry and Joyce DiDonato won a Grammy Award for Best Vocal Solo Album.

“A Celebration of American Song” will be performed in a small concert hall at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and run like an “old-time” radio show. Merola Young Artists will take the stage with golden-age Broadway and Hollywood hits, WWII-era anthems, and nostalgic ballads.

Terry spoke about his desire for the music to reach not only the audience, but also the performers.

OperaWire: What are you most looking forward to during the 2022 Merola season?

Craig Terry: I think a lot of this music will be rediscovered by the audience. That is, there may be some things they had forgotten about or things they haven’t heard for a long time. From an artistic perspective, I think the most fun thing will be to watch these artists deliver these songs that will mean a lot more to the audience than I think they realize. And for them to feel that connection to the audience and to the repertoire.

OW: Talk to me about how you created this “Celebration of American Song” program?

CT: A big part of my life is arranging music for many wonderful artists. I’m often arranging this kind of music for young gifted artists so many of the things on the program that I have arranged and are things that I have used before that I thought worked really well and were well received by audiences, so I decided to use some of these arrangements for the Merola artists.

I choose music that speaks to me, stories I think are wonderful stories to tell things and have a lot to do with the human experience, whether it’s love or loss or missing someone. There are many pieces from World War Two on the program and thinking about what it was like to be away from someone or to worry they might not come back and feel that real emotion.

OW: Why do you think this repertoire is important?

CT: There’s so much intertwined in it, that it’s hard to pinpoint. I think in terms of the topics people know – love, putting yourself out there, joy, sorrow, etcetera. The earliest song we do in the concert is “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” It’s an iconic song, but the emotions are so real and honest. In the second verse, the singer could be singing about meeting someone for the first time or it could be about someone that has been with their partner for 50 years; and the words mean different things but the singer has to pick some way to put themselves in the story so that the person in the audience will put themselves in the story. It’s what opera does too. If you can see yourself in the characters, then I feel as artists we’ve done our jobs.

Also, this music has a nostalgia factor to it. These singers, most of their parents listen to Carole King and James Taylor which I find holds a special place in the singer’s hearts. And then the big band and golden age music was their grandparent’s music. So it all ties together.

Also, these wonderful composers and wonderful lyricists worked together to make some magical, iconic music that I think deserves to be performed regularly.

OW: What do think young artists gain from learning these songs?

CT: I think it has a direct correlation to what they’re trying to do in their classical repertoire. The stories and emotions are the same. Many of the people here are native English speakers, and to be able to feel those emotions for real in this short form, and put themselves in the story, and have real emotions, and real feelings of passion about what they’re saying only transfers into their classical repertoire. That’s what they have to do to incite the audience.

For the people that are not native English speakers who are singing in English on this concert, it’s the same thing as when we first study music in Italian or German and try to become equally expressive as we can be in our own language

OW: What song or group of songs do you like coaching the most?

CT: We end the concert with the rain medley that I have done many times. It’s a combination of the title song from “Singing in the Rain,” “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and “I think it’s Going to Rain Today” from “Beaches.” All of those songs have powerful messages about new love, dreams, loss, and humanity. We’ll put this together for the first time at the end of this week. I think the artists don’t yet know what music is and I look forward to them discovering what this is together. For me, it’s always so powerful to end the concert this way. The message the artists put out there to the world of how much we believe in the power of what we do is so wonderful.

OW: What is your hope for this concert?

CT: I find that for young gifted ambitious opera singers, they can be so focused on being perfect, that sometimes the spontaneity of the music and remembering why they fell with doing this can be dimmed. I hope they will help them find that joy and remember what it’s like to not be worried about dotted quarter notes or rests and then to be able to deliver something that is free and full of joy and true.


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