What: Fenlon & Fenlon
Where: Baumann Centre, 925 Balmoral St.
When: Thursday, Jan. 9, 7 p.m.
Tickets: $25 ($15 for students)
Rachel Fenlon is a trained opera singer, with a series of notable productions on her resumé. Being defined as such might become a thing of the past for the Berlin-based Fenlon, who prides herself on being a little more of dual threat these days.
“I studied as a pianist, so I always identified as both,” said Fenlon, a veteran of performances with the Vancouver Opera, Pacific Opera Victoria, the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and the Northern Czech Philharmonic.
“I decided a few years ago to really commit myself to both singing and playing and performing as both, and started to see a whole different avenue.”
While she still sings opera — the 32 year-old soprano, who is from Victoria, recently closed an engagement with Deutsche Oper Berlin — she is charting a different course in 2020, with an emerging skillset that is peeking out from under the chamber music umbrella.
Fenlon will showcase the new facet of her artistic life tonight at the Baumann Centre with a solo recital entitled Fenlon & Fenlon. Despite the suggestion that there will be a duo on stage, Fenlon is the only performer on this night. The Oak Bay high school grad will accompany herself as a singer with herself on piano, which is a unique operatic setup unto itself, Fenlon said. “I know a couple of people who do it sort of for fun at house concerts in England and Europe. But I think I’m probably one of the only people silly enough to do it.”
Benjamin Britten’s On This Island and George Crumb’s Apparition, the two song cycles at the core of Fenlon & Fenlon, are meant to be performed by two musicians, one of whom sings while the other plays piano. It’s tremendously taxing on Fenlon to be both the singer and pianist, which is why there’s usually a need for two people.
“The tradition is two performers. However, way back in Schubert’s day and Schumann’s day and Hugo Wolf’s day, it was more normal. There were singers who accompanied themselves, so that was always my reference point of inspiration. There are these wonderful old photos of women sitting at the piano singing, so I thought: ‘OK, it’s not impossible. Let’s do it.’ ”
Fenlon doesn’t merely sing and play the piano during Crumb’s contemporary piece, which is fused with Walt Whitman’s poem When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d — she immerses herself fully in to the performance, losing herself for stretches at a time. “You play the piano in almost every way you could imagine,” Fenlon said of Crumb’s 1979 piece written for soprano and amplified piano.
“You play it as a guitar, you play it as a harp, you pluck the inside while you’re still playing the outside, you play it as a drum. But it’s not avant-garde for the sake of being avant-garde. It’s really, really a masterpiece.”
She has performed Apparition at various points — several stirring performances of Fenlon performing the piece are on YouTube — but tonight’s Baumann Centre concert marks her première of Brittten’s On This Island. She is planning to take Fenlon & Fenlon worldwide this year, so her Victoria performance could be the beginning of something special. “I thought it would be the perfect place to do this for the first time, because the cycle is called On This Island, and there’s that wonderful parallel with the British contingency over in Victoria,” Fenlon said.
Before obtaining her master’s degree in opera and performance from the University of British Columbia, Fenlon studied as a pianist and singer with Joanne Hounsell at the Victoria Conservatory of Music. Hounsell and another one of her favourite instructors, former Oak Bay choir director Sally Murphy, will be in attendance Thursday for what could be her coming-out party as a solo performer. She recently signed with managers who will handle her career as a singer-pianist, and her performance schedule starts anew in Vienna at the end of the month.
“For me, it’s a dream.”