Ahead of her Australian debut, the American soprano explains how she’s been getting to know Jean-Philippe.

This is actually my first time singing French Baroque. It’s because of the conductor Benjamin Bayl that we’ve decided to do this whole programme. He’s passionate about the music and I love learning new styles.

Glories of the French Baroque will focus on the music of Jean-Philippe Rameau. He wrote so much over a long period of time, so it’s fascinating to see how his style changed. Early pieces seem straightforward, but then you get to the later work and you hear he’s matured. It’s a little more ‘original’, but you can always tell it’s Rameau. He was finding his own style and putting his stamp on the music, and the more you know, the more you can experiment. He wrote dances as well, which are great fun to listen to! Sometimes I just put some on a playlist and dance around the kitchen: “Rameau has a really good beat!”

Brenda RaeSoprano Brenda Rae. Photo © Kristin Hoebermann

My experience with the Italian Baroque and with Handel is quite different. What I noticed most were the differences in the ornamentation. With a Handel aria you have quite a bit of freedom to ornament it when you do the da capo – you can kind of rewrite the aria – but that’s not done so much in French Baroque. I think it’s more interpretive music with greater dynamics and little trills here and there. You’d never completely rewrite a line of coloratura. When I’m not allowed to ornament as much, I have to bring something different to the repeated section and I think that comes from a mental place, thinking about what the character’s going through and why the character would be repeating that
music and those words at that time.

For me the biggest challenge in approaching this music was making sure I’m at least being semi-true to the style. Benjamin is wonderful, he doesn’t want me to feel too rigid. He gives me lots of great ideas since he knows so much about the style. He has given me things to read about proper ornamentation and there’s a lot that’s important in the release of a phrase. At the end of a note you don’t necessarily do a full trill – that could be an ornament – but a lot of times the trill just comes at the very end of the note. I’m trying to be stylistically true to the period, but also to have quite a bit of freedom and expression because I think that’s a large part of this music.

One of the most popular pieces by Rameau is Formons les plus brillants concerts (Let us pour forth the best of music) from his opera Platée. The aria is sung by a character called La Folie, which means madness or craziness. It’s a fun piece that really holds people’s attention. You also get carte blanche to do whatever you want dramatically because she’s literally crazy! But there’s also a really beautiful piece called Tristes apprêts from Castor et Pollux. It’s such a simple melody but it really sticks with you. I love the orchestration and the way that he’s written those parts under the vocal line – it’s quite stunning.

I’m far more experienced on the operatic stage than I am on the concert stage, but I try to treat them all in the same way, because I think the goal is simply to touch the audience. You do that in an opera, you do that in a concert. I was offered a role from Platée before, La Folie, but the scheduling didn’t work out. If there was a company doing one of his works and the role fitted my voice, I would definitely love to explore doing a whole opera by Rameau. It’s great doing a whole bunch of arias by one composer, but to focus on a single opera would be a real treat.

This is the first time I will be singing in Australia. I hear so many wonderful things about the whole country so I’m very excited to be performing there. You might think there would be less room for theatrics in a concert but for Melbourne we are going to try and get creative. We’re going to see if we can move around the auditorium and make it more of a dramatic experience, instead of just a singer standing still in front of an orchestra. Since these pieces are still relatively unknown to audiences it might help if we can engage them this way.

I love all sorts of music, but for me it’s wonderful to sing in a style that I have not really touched before. This music is experiencing a real Renaissance nowadays – more and more people are programming Rameau – and I think that the more we present his music, the more people will realise how absolutely beautiful and sensual it is.

Brenda Rae performs Glories of the French Baroque at Melbourne Recital Centre as part of the Melbourne Festival on October 6.