- Stephanie Blythe was one of the fastest rising stars in opera when an anxiety disorder threatened to take her down. But she refused to let it be her undoing.
- The story of Gradiva, a sculpture that came to life, captured public imagination at the start of the 20th century. Today, the artist Diana Al-Hadid has resurrected her.
- As a young singer-songwriter, Nick Lowe was preoccupied with looking cool and getting famous. But, as Tori Marchiony reports, he didn’t REALLY find his groove until he dropped the act.
Diana Al-Hadid is a contemporary artist known for her large-scale sculptures, which draw inspiration from architecture, civilizations of the past and present, and the histories and possibilities of sculptural materials.
Born in Syria, Al-Hadid moved to Ohio when she was five years old. She studied sculpture and art history at Kent State University and received an MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University.
She produces innovative sculptures and wall hangings in a range of material—fiberglass, polymer, steel, plaster, and more. Her work has been displayed in more than twenty solo exhibitions across the United States and in Europe and is included in the collections of the Whitney Museum, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and the San Jose Museum of Art, among other institutions. In 2018, she completed a series of large mosaics for the walls of the new Penn Station in New York.
Nicholas Phan is an internationally celebrated lyric tenor who has performed with many of the world’s leading orchestras and operas. He has received three Grammy nominations.
Phan was raised in Ann Arbor, MI, by a Greek American mother and a Chinese-Indonesian father. Known as a preeminent singer of opera and vocal chamber music, he has performed with the Cleveland Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, Chicago Symphony, and Philadelphia Orchestra, among others, and toured the major concert halls of Europe and North America. He has released five solo recordings. His two albums of Benjamin Britten songs established Phan as a leading interpreter of the British composer. His compilations Gods & Monsters (2017) and Clairières: Songs by Lili & Nadia Boulanger (2020) were nominated for Grammy Awards.
In 2010 he co-founded the Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago to promote art song and vocal chamber music. He serves as artistic director of that organization and teaches music at DePaul University.
Nick Lowe is a world-famous musician and music producer. He had hits in the 1970s with songs “I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass” and “ Cruel to be Kind” and wrote the well-known Elvis Costello song “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding.”
Born in 1949 near London, England, Lowe joined his first band at age 18. In the early 1970s this group, Brinsley Schwarz, became popular on the London pub rock circuit, recording six albums and playing on tour with Paul McCartney’s Wings. Lowe wrote several of his biggest songs with the band, but it was his first two solo albums, Jesus of Cool (1978) and Labour of Lust (1979) that gave him his greatest success. The song “Cruel to be Kind” from Jesus of Cool reached number 12 in both the US and UK singles charts.
Although Lowe continues to release albums and tour, he has found increasing fame as a producer and songwriter. He worked on records with the Damned, Elvis Costello, and the Pretenders, and his songs were recorded by Johnny Cash (his former stepfather-in-law) and Wilco, among others.
Stephanie Blythe is a much-admired opera singer and recitalist. Winner of the prestigious Tucker Award and the Opera News Award, she has performed on many of the world’s great stages, including Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Opera, Covent Garden, and the Paris National Opera.
Blythe grew up in upstate New York and attended SUNY Potsdam, where she studied English writing and music. Initially interested in musical theater and popular music, she moved into opera in her early 20s and won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in 1994. She made her Met debut in 1995, and has become a stalwart of the prestigious company, appearing in numerous productions in the succeeding decades.
A powerful and expressive mezzo-soprano, Blythe has a repertoire extending beyond opera to musical theater, classical recitals, contemporary rock, and cabaret―for which she performs under her drag alter-ego Blythely Oratonio.
- Art & Design
Welcome to Articulate, the show that examines how creativity is the very essence of our humanity.
I’m Jim Cotter, and on this episode, Self, Aside. As a young singer-songwriter, Nick Lowe was preoccupied with looking cool and getting famous. But, as Tori Marchiony reports, he didn’t really find his groove until he dropped the act.
Nick Lowe: When you actually get over that, and you can be yourself, it makes things a whole lot easier because you’ll never mess up.
The story of Gradiva, the sculpture that came to life, captured the public imagination at the start of the 20th century. Today, the artist Diana Al-Hadid has resurrected her.
Diana Al-Hadid: The story resonated with me because my work is built physically by means of many things accumulated layers, so there’s a natural archeological, let’s say character, to my process, and she also is just such a fabulous character.
And Stephanie Blythe, was one of the fastest rising stars in opera, when an anxiety disorder threatened to take her down, but she refused to let it be her undoing.
Stephanie Blythe: I think that what happened was my psyche said okay, now you have the wherewithal to take care of yourself, you have a great job, take care of yourself. You can do this. And that’s what happened.
That’s all ahead on Articulate.
Whether classical, or classic rock…
(Stephanie Blythe singing “Faithfully” by Journey)
I’m forever yours
Stephanie Blythe has had an unquenchable need to sing.
Stephanie Blythe: There’s something about letting loose and just taking a risk, being brave, making that sound. When you connect to it, and it’s right, it’s like a drug. You just can’t stop.
It’s rather a good thing that Blythe won’t be asked to stop singing any time soon. For the past 25 years, she’s been one of the most beloved operatic voices around. In 1994, she got a foot in the door when she won the prestigious Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. 1995 brought her Met debut, and in 1996, her big break. When the legendary mezzo soprano Marilyn Horne took ill, it fell to a 26-year-old Blythe to take her place as Mistress Quickly in Verdi’s Falstaff. She pulled it off brilliantly, and suddenly she was in high demand. Then, in 1999, she won the Richard Tucker award, the ultimate honor for any young singer. But as her success mounted, so too did her anxiety.
Blythe: The first time I ever was really hit by it, I ended up in three different emergency rooms over three different nights, and the second emergency room doctor said “You know, I suspect that you’ve been on a low boil most of your life, and your tea kettle just, it just blew.” And I think that he was right. I think that what happened was my psyche said okay, now you have the wherewithal to take care of yourself, you have a great job, take care of yourself. You can do this. And that’s what happened.
Years of therapy, she says, saved her life, and today, Blythe has at last found peace.
Blythe: I used to pray fervently, in the middle of an anxiety attack, please God, take this away from me. I don’t want this. Please, I can’t take this. And he never did. And then I realized one day that I was meant to experience this. This was meant to happen to me, and in this life we all have a well, and into that well, we’re just constantly pouring experience. Constantly pouring experience. And it’s from that well that we fish out all the things that we need to when we’re on stage.
Blythe was raised in rural Sullivan County, New York, where her dad, an accomplished jazz musician, encouraged her to master, not singing, but the flute.
Blythe: We never listened to singers.
Blythe: No, we never listened to singers. I was not encouraged to be a singer. It was actually my high school choral director who told my father that I had to be in the chorus.
AJC: But you would have been singing in the shower and the like, did you have a sense of this sound I’m making is pretty good?
Blythe: I don’t know if I recognized that at all. I know that when I sang at church that people would comment on it, and I know that when I was at school, people would comment on it, and as I got older and my friends and I started jamming a little bit more, and I had one of my best friends all through high school play the piano, and we’d get together in homeroom and he would play Journey songs, he would play like “Faithfully”, “Open Arms,” all those great numbers.
AJC: “Don’t Stop Believin’!”
Blythe: Oh yeah. I really loved belting out ballads. More than anything. I loved it.
AJC: And did I read somewhere that you were more interested in Broadway than opera to begin with?
Blythe: I was more interested in Broadway than opera, yeah.
AJC: What changed?
Blythe: I wasn’t encouraged to do that by many people, because I didn’t fit a physical mold. I was a big kid, and being an opera singer came not really as an afterthought, I didn’t really start singing really working on my voice until I was about 21. So once I started getting interested in technique, and understanding my instrument, then opera started to make more sense to me, and became something that I really started to love.
But even with her great successes in opera, Blythe has continued to pursue other ways of expressing her love of song. In 2015, she started experimenting with cabaret, and in 2017 made her debut as the sometimes ukulele playing drag artist, Blythely or Antonio.
Today, Stephanie Blythe is a consummate artist, one who revels in discovering even more ways to entertain herself, and us.
Blythe: I never thought that I would play the ukulele, or any number of opera roles, or be a drag queen, king. I never thought about that. I never thought I’d be a drag artist. I am. And it makes me unbelievably happy.
Diana Al-Hadid is not afraid of failure. If anything, she runs towards it.
Diana Al-Hadid: I always think about in terms of like just throwing things in the past, like, just make it, just finish it. I feel like the more I can produce the more I’m gonna know my work, and it’s sort of insatiable because it’ll never really end. But I feel like there’s better work if I can just get through this work.
In the last 15 years, Al-Hadid has become well-known for her large, intricate installations. She is celebrated for her innovative processes, and symbolic references to art history, but her life as an artist might never have been. Al-Hadid’s family immigrated from Aleppo, Syria to North Canton, Ohio when she was five. The transition from the Middle East to the Midwest was difficult, but made easier by the kindness of strangers along the way. One of the earliest was Diana’s first grade teacher, Mrs. D.
Al-Hadid: My memory of her is that she was just like this incredible, magical person, and she was in a sense a second mother, because she took care of me for the whole school day, and taught me to read, and interact with kids. Everything about her radiated acceptance and curiosity, and she just set such a high bar. And I remember thinking that she was always this person that we thought of as how wonderful America is, and how we’d see these bigoted people and say you know, you’d hear things, but there was always a Mrs. D.
But Al-Hadid never took any of these helping hands for granted. She relentlessly pursued her passion for creativity with a dedication bordering on the obsessive. Take for instance that time in grad school when she spent eight hours a day for months carving a giant piece of foam with a dental tool trying desperately to sculpt it into the perfect shape.
Al-Hadid: And the thing never looked right. I had it in so many different forms, I painted it, I scratched it all out, I recombined it, I put some of it on the wall, some of it on the floor, I tried everything to make this thing right, and it just didn’t, the organizing principle was missing, and everything was just peripheral stuff, and I just had to get rid of it. There was some core question, or something that I wasn’t, that I was, just like a blind spot. Like I really just wanted, I think I was the sculpture all as an excuse to learn how to do this technique or this process, just to get it right. And I kept re-writing the narrative around this carved foam business. But this is the beautiful thing. Now, what is it, 13 years later, and I just now realized a way to kind of give it.
AJC: Make it work?
Diana Al-Hadid is preoccupied with material, but not with the expensive meaning, and for the past few years, Gradiva has been her muse. Gradiva, or the one who’s splendid and walking, is the female character in a novella written by the popular German author, Wilhelm Jensen in 1903. It tells the story of an archeologist who falls in love with a Roman sculpture of a woman mid-stride. Obsessed, he begins chasing his hallucination of her through the streets of Pompeii, all the while trying desperately to rationalize his attraction. It was already a well-known tale, but in 1917, Sigmund Freud brought it to an even wider audience.
Al-Hadid: I think he thought of this as sort of an allegory of the psychoanalytic process, that you would excavate, of course you’re in Pompeii, so kind of to get at your root desire, you kind of have to peel back the layers, like an archeologist, and I found that–
AJC: What were you trying to say?
Al-Hadid: The story resonated with me, because my work is built physically by means of many thin, accumulated layers. So there’s a natural archeological let’s say character to my process.
AJC: Reverse archeology.
Al-Hadid: You’re seeing, right. It’s built up.
AJC: You’re building the onion inside out.
Al-Hadid: Correct. Correct. And I’m making the paintings in reverse, in a sense, because I’m laying out the first color and it gets progressively buried behind each subsequent mark and when it dries, all this drippy imagery that I have made, it gets reinforced with fiber glass, so it’s essentially like a fresco because those colors are embedded in the material and it’s like a tapestry, but it comes off and it’s these panels. So the making of the work was resonant with the narrative, and she also is just such a fabulous character, like she’s leading this guy around Italy, and I just find that the perspective of the narration really interesting.
Gradiva first appeared in Al-Hadid’s work in 2011. She returned in 2018, and in 2019 she took her place in the new Penn Station, a wing to the original Penn Station which was demolished after just half a century of use in 1963 to make way for Madison Square Garden.
Al-Hadid: It seemed appropriate to refer to the old Penn Station in the building of the new Penn Station, and I felt like Gradiva could kind of now pass through New York, and she kind of walks up the stairs and out of the station.
Like her Gradivas, Diana Al-Hadid is a woman perpetually in motion, always striving, forever searching for what’s next.
(Nick Lowe singing “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding”)
As I walk
This wicked world
Searching for light in the dark
For the past half century, Nick Lowe has been a perennial presence in rock music, and he’s still living the life of a thriving touring musician, these days fronting a Mexican wrestling mask-wearing Tennessee rockabilly band called Los Straitjackets, fitting for a musician who’s managed to keep his sense of humor in tact after all these years.
Nick Lowe: I take what I do very seriously, but I don’t take myself seriously at all. I think it’s a fairly strange way for a grown man to earn a living, you know.
(Nick Lowe singing “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding”)
What’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding
Nick Lowe is a master of juxtaposition, known for combining dismal, and often sarcastic, lyrics with catchy pop melodies. Take for instance his upbeat but disconcerting 1979 hit, “Cruel To Be Kind.”
(Nick Lowe singing “Cruel To Be Kind”)
You gotta be cruel to be kind
In the right measure
Cruel to be kind, it’s a very good sign
Cruel to be kind, means that I love you baby
Gotta be cruel, you’ve gotta be cruel to be kind
Lowe: There’s something very wistful about if you put a sad song with a cheerful, or whistle-y melody. It sort of sounds like the person singing is sort of doing their best, somehow. You know, they’re really all broken down, but they’re getting on their feet and doing their best to get through it. It has that kind of effect. I’m rather interested in that.
Despite Lowe’s tongue-in-cheek style, he’s long approached his craft with great intensity, but when he was first starting out, he didn’t have particularly studied ambitions.
Lowe: I was quite empty headed really about it. And I had no thoughts of being an artist, I just wanted to be famous, really, when I went into it. I was a fairly stupid and callow youth. Shallow and callow.
By 1967, Lowe was playing bass in his friend’s band best known as Brinsley Schwarz. In 1970, the group had a label eager to make them the next big thing. It devised a scheme to gain media attention. The band would open for Van Morrison at a highly publicized event at the legendary New York City rock venue, Fillmore East. British journalists were flown in just to cover the concert, but one mishap after another led to unhappy, unimpressed critics, and vicious reviews, forcing the members of Brinsley Schwarz to withdraw from the public eye.
Lowe: We were so freaked out, and we’d all been through this experience and we’d realized we’d been so taken in that we, instead of breaking up and going our separate ways, we got a house together. And we wouldn’t have thought it was a hippie commune, but that’s basically what it was, and we couldn’t get any work or anything like that, but we had a rehearsal room, so we just started practicing and getting as good as we could, but all the time it wasn’t happening. We were learning how to be good and work a room and talk to an audience and all that stuff.
By the mid-70s, Lowe had left Brinsley Schwarz and joined the new wave group Rockpile. He was also an in-house producer for the iconic label, Stiff Records, where he earned the nickname The Basher for his ability to churn out hits quickly. “Stop Your Sobbing,” the breakout track for The Pretenders, “New Rose,” by The Damned, arguably the first punk record in the UK, and many more for Elvis Costello, including the notable post-hippie anthem “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?” But Lowe didn’t completely give up the limelight and had a number of his own hits throughout the ’70s and ’80s. At the height of his powers, Lowe fell in love with the country singer Carlene Carter. She was country music royalty, the daughter of June Carter and Carl Smith, and stepdaughter of Johnny Cash. The pair married in 1979, but it was doomed from the start.
Lowe: We loved the idea of each other, you know. We made a great couple. We used to play and sing together and everything. We had a ball, we really had a ball. It was great. But we were always touring, we were both ambitious and getting somewhere with our careers, and it never, ever, ever could survive that. And we were both as bad as each other, really in the area of straying from our vows, I’m sorry to say.
After the divorce in 1990, Nick Lowe found himself in his 40s, running on empty, lacking direction. But it was advice from his former father-in-law, Johnny Cash, that realigned his priorities. The message was maddeningly simple. Drop the facade.
Lowe: It makes things a whole lot easier, because you’ll never mess up, really. And people, they’re much more interested in that than they are in your pathetic little act that you’ve concocted, that stands a chance of falling flat every time you open your mouth.
Nick Lowe’s new perspective led to fulfillment on and off stage. In 2005, he and Peta Waddington welcomed their son, Roy. Today, Lowe enjoys a casual level of fame and a quiet personal life. And August 2019 brought a new biography about his life penned by his longtime friend, the British music journalist Will Birch. Many enthusiastically anticipated the book, but Lowe wasn’t one of them.
Lowe: It’s impossible for me to read it. I absolutely, I’d rather eat my own knees than read the thing. I think all my indiscretions and many romantic liaisons and all that I think, from what I’ve been told, that the sky isn’t gonna fall in, frankly.
Now 70 years old, Nick Lowe is, at last, it seems at peace with who he is. And his latest chapter with Los Straitjackets, a welcome new beginning.
(Nick Lowe singing “Blue on Blue”)
I long each waking hour for you
Blue on blue
I’ve got a message in a song for you
You’re like a mill, you run me through
I call you blue on blue
I call you blue on blue
I call you blue on blue
I call you, call you, blue on blue
Blue, blue, blue
On blue, blue, blue, blue