Q & A: Tenor Brian Giebler on ‘a lad’s love,’ Opera in Times of COVID,

By Ona Jarmalavičiūtė

American singer Brian Giebler impresses with his light high-placed tenor and has established a career singing virtuosic and eclectic repertoire, focusing on Baroque and contemporary music, musical theatre, and new opera at once.

An active crossover artist, dedicated to the changing landscape of new music, Giebler has performed with The English Concert, The Cleveland Orchestra, Boston Baroque, Boston Early Music Festival, Grand Rapids Symphony, Virginia Symphony Orchestra, and others.

This year Giebler approaches his first solo album “a lad’s love” as a new challenge in the sense of repertoire as well as vocal endurance. Inspired by Ivor Gurney’s “Ludlow and Teme,” which Giebler first discovered during his graduate studies at the University of Michigan. The creative process of two years has resulted in overcoming artistic and organizational tasks that the singer had never dealt with before. This resulted in a wildly successful work that received international praise and a Grammy nomination for Best Classical Solo Vocal Album.

A few months after the release, Giebler spoke to OperaWire about his memories of the recording process, career changes caused by pandemic, and the business and creativity he tries to balance in his work.

OperaWire: How long did it take to prepare this CD?

Brian Giebler: It all started in the year 2018 when I was talking about this idea with a producer, who wanted to do a CD of mine. The first thing that came to my mind was Ivor Gurney’s “Ludlow and Teme,” and I was trying to figure out where to go from there for about a year.

In the spring of 2019, my pianist Steve and I decided on a mini recital tour of four cities with the program we put together by that time. Later on, several changes were made, but basically, the repertoire of the CD was the same. We actually recorded it at the end of June 2019 and finished mastering the disc in February this year. Luckily everything worked in perfect timing, and the most important things were done before the pandemic hit. And then, later on, all the aspects of producing the CD – manufacturing it, putting the contract together with the record label, etc. – happened while we were all quarantining.

OW: It feels like a long period of time. How do you see the whole process today, having a new perspective?

BG: I think the reason it took me so long was the fact that I didn’t quite know what I was doing. I knew I wanted to make a recording and I had people supporting this idea, but it was for me to figure out how this process works the whole way around. It was a huge leap – I have never seen record label contract, I have never booked a venue before, and in general, I had to figure out by myself how to actually put a CD together.

I had to put so much of myself into every aspect of the process, more than people would expect. Therefore I hope that the process for the second disc will be much more smooth and quick.

OW: What was the process of putting together the repertoire like?

BG: Back in 2012, I sang Ivor Gurney’s “Ludlow and Teme” for my master’s recital, where I also met pianist Steven McGhee. I have to admit that once learning the piece, I always wanted to put my own fresh stamp on it and the thought of this cycle each time someone would suggest that I make a CD. The whole idea sprung from this one cycle and later on pianist Steve was the mastermind behind finding the repertoire. We started to run with a theme and the rest built itself around it. It spanned from a piece into a project and I would say that the repertoire itself wasn’t finalized until three weeks before the actual recording dates.

OW: What are you searching for vocally whilst creating a repertoire for yourself?

BG: The majority of my career has been in Baroque music and I am better known from my interpretations of Bach and Handel. I am on a couple of discs with early music, but at the same time, I am also into new music.

Singing early twenty-century English music is a slightly different experience that I further enhanced by performing in newly composed operas that call for a high light tenor. Since I had done a lot of different repertoire, ranging from different eras of time, I wanted to find something new to sing in the middle.

The inspiration also came from my semester abroad at the Royal Academy of Music in London – it instilled a love of English tenors for me. I felt like this type of voice is who I am, so therefore a lot of repertoires here come from that tradition – works of such composers as Britten, Gurney, Ireland, Warlock, Quilter, etc.

OW: It must be quite a challenge to adapt to a new repertoire since many singers stick to one lane that suits their voices the most. How do you approach singing Baroque as well as contemporary music?

BG: My voice teachers have instilled in me that your technique and your voice are the same. It’s the performance practice that changes. Therefore I would vocally approach the role of Jack in the musical “Into the Woods” the same as I would approach “St Matthew Passion” of J. S. Bach.

But I have to admit that you would never hear me sing Wagner, I don’t imagine that my voice will ever be a big Wagnerian tenor. Therefore you always have to approach a repertoire of different periods of music with the voice that you have. I always saw it as a challenge, as something fun that keeps me on my toes.

Before the pandemic, I would be going from one different project to another in the pace of weeks. Such a routine would keep me always curious, excited, healthy, and ultimately – sane. Today the career of the musician is vastly changing and I think that the singers that could previously stay in one lane, now would struggle to have as much success as before. I would say that especially after the pandemic, more versatile artists would be offered more work. Therefore I approach a new repertoire as a new challenge and always try to keep myself open-minded.

OW: What was the challenge in this recording’s repertoire for you?

BG: The repertoire of this CD is very much in the camp of art song, legato singing, and bel canto style. For me, the preparation process was about trying to find a resonating message in each song and figuring out how it could arch through a disc as a journey. The overarching theme here is a loss, whether it being the loss of love, loss because of war, loss of passing time, loss of missing out, general loss of life. I tried to balance expressing special thematic moments in each song with the beauty of music itself.

It is easier to achieve it in recital, having a live audience, when you can connect with other people and see their eyes. Therefore I think that us actually having a small recital tour before recording was the key. It showed me what in the music is really affecting the audience and I sang differently in recording sessions, according to my recital performances.

OW: For you, the recording must have been a continuous inner journey from the first piece to the last. How would you describe the experience of singing this repertoire?

BG: At the moment we stopped recording and the sound engineer said that it was all done, I broke down. I don’t think I sobbed like that in a long time. I felt like I was putting every bit of emotion I felt and all bits of myself into singing. I related to each song of this recording as to a moment in my life and the feeling it evoked. Throughout the recording session, I tried to stay in that space, without losing vocal control and without losing myself.

Since I am openly gay, happily married to another man, it was touching to sing pieces, written a hundred years ago, where composers and poets didn’t have the same freedoms and rights as I do now. It resonated with the time when I was hiding who I am, with the pain and suffering I went through thinking of being in the closet for my entire lifetime. That made it easier to put me in the shoes of these people and figure out how to emote that with my singer.

OW: Do you feel like it was a cathartic and healing experience for you personally?

BG: Oh, certainly. Not often in this career you get to prescribe exactly what you want to sing and record. In this project, I was able to put my stamp on every detail from start to finish. Therefore in a way, I see it as the best representation of who I am as a musician. I would hope that in the future all CDs would be similar – not only the great interpretations of great art but that it would also reflect the artist in some way. I find it very compelling.

OW: But it can be a little bit dangerous when you personally connect to the piece, but you have no control over it after the release.

BG: The moment, when you give it off to the label, is the scariest part. My publicist would always remind me that it’s out of my hands now. And after the release, we received so many positive reviews that were just glowing. I have to say that the warm reception was more than I could ever imagine.

OW: The career of the classical musician seems to be ever-changing. How has it changed for you throughout this year?

BG: My husband is supportive as always when he reminds me that everything is just on pause and every musician is feeling this loss of work during the pandemic. It is somehow nice to have a little bit of a break for reflection on what I have been doing for the past seven years and where do I want to go from here. I like discussing things that I can look forward to in the future and I see this CD as a step in building that career. There was also a lot of output from me this year. I had virtual concerts, also, since releasing my disc in July, I had three other CDs released – two of early music and one with contemporary repertoire.

OW: Were there elements that changed from how you were brought up as a musician?

BG: The one thing that I have learned about a career in music since graduating is that the typical path that you learn about in undergraduate studies doesn’t exist for most people. The paths for the rest of us are also not certain. I consider that it’s essentially a business and I – Brian Giebler – am a product. And so I had to learn business skills. I was never taught how to put together websites, film videos, have the right lighting, knowing what your best angles are, etc.

Especially this year, all the elements you would never think about when going on stage to sing, are now creeping into this profession. And, as much as I think everyone would hate to admit it, a certain aspect of this is going to remain as we are going into the future. Because I think that people enjoy being able to watch concerts from home and live music will not return overnight. I believe that those who are being creative and inventive along the way are going to thrive.

OW: This year you had to let go of live music and learn to be comfortable in a video or a recording. How was this transition of having to digitalize your art for you?

BG: I was fortunate to have the CD to work on for about three months into the pandemic. I don’t think the actual loss of all of my gigs being canceled hit until the disc was released in July. Had a bit of an emotional breakdown seeing the empty calendar, as I am sure we all had. I was then trying to figure out what are the venues where I can still make music. It’s been a challenge to think outside the box and think of what I can bring to the plate. But it’s been fun to learn new skills that I hope to apply for the rest of my life.

OW: How has your relationship with your audience changed?

BG: I have a strong base of people that have come along the journey with me, that most know me through social media. Some organizations that I worked for also advertised on my behalf, which was really helpful. But I am sure that outside there are many people who enjoy my singing in live concerts in cities such as Cleveland, Boston, and New York. I could only reach them by being there in person, so it was a challenge to hold on to the general audience.

OW: How do you keep the balance between business and artistry – trying to create something that is fulfilling and profitable?

BG: I would say that throughout the quarantine the business side took over – I spent a lot of time answering emails, doing design work for the CD and all other organizational details. I would say in normal circumstances I would spend more time rehearsing than taking care of the business.

Also while making the CD the time that I spent organizing and setting things up outweigh the artistry of the disk by maybe seventy to thirty percent. For instance, before the recording sessions, I had to come up with the schedule, set up a piano tuner, find food deliveries for lunch, make sure that everybody had hotel stays and car rides, set up video cameras, and make sure photos were taken.

I spent lots of time organizing everything in advance and then once recording sessions started, I could simply go to the hall, warm up and sing. During the breaks, I didn’t have to take care of anything and I could stay in my own artistic world. I think the fact that I have such a heavy hand on the business aspect of my career, is because I like to control all the details and I want things to be specifically done my way. And it is rewarding that all the business aspects were self-taught. No one teaches you the contract law, how to get a manager, how to book gigs, set up audio, etc.

But despite everything, at the end of the day, I am a singer first and foremost. There is truly no greater feeling than being in the dressing room, getting your five-minute call, and going on stage. Having thousands of people to be there and listen. It’s thrilling, exciting, and scary. I miss that the most.

OW: You mentioned that you are quite a perfectionist. Was it a challenge to even try to make a perfect recording?

BG: To make a perfect recording is next to impossible. We were recording six to seven hours for three days straight, which was a vocal challenge I never experienced before. It was difficult trying to stay fresh and sound your best for that long. And of course, there are moments that I could still perfect in it, but at one point you have to let go of perfection and accept the recording as part of who you are and where you are at this point in time. I see this CD as a time stamp. This is what I could do from June 27 to 29th of 2019. If people enjoy it – great! If they are not satisfied – they can wait for my next album.

I was at Eastman School of Music and Renée Fleming has gone there earlier as well. In the archives of the university library, you can access audio recordings of every recital ever given. I’ll never forget listening to Renée Fleming’s master’s degree recital and realize that it’s not the same Renée Fleming that we hear today. But it’s her start and the recording worked as a time stamp.

OW: You already mentioned that you want to record another disc – what are you planning to do differently than the first time?

BG: I think I will choose a completely different repertoire, probably going directly to the baroque music CD and put my stamp on my own wheelhouse. I like that on my first CD there are not many recordings of the pieces I sing. This allows people to have a fresh listening experience; there are no expectations and comparisons to be made. So I am also looking for ideas for new repertoire and I am excited about commissioning new pieces. I am talking with a couple of different people, so we are trying to get the wheels turning.



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