Page Stephens, mezzo soprano
DMA Lecture Recital Text & Program Notes
Travel Lightly from The Portal
Text by Matthew Lyons
Some days loss was a weight
a cry caught in the lungs or just heard too late.
Every candle lit this year,
heavy in hands of those still here,
guiding lights to see us off
as we travel lightly.
As we travel lightly.
Some days loss was a skin
shed to make space for change to begin,
will we bring our tattered past,
or walk through without turning back?
Some will cling to their avarice,
let’s make sure there’s more of us than them
as we travel lightly.
As we travel lightly.
"Travel Lightly" is the final movement of The Portal, a song-cycle inspired by Arundhati Roy's essay "The Pandemic is a Portal" (2020) which explores the societal impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Viewing the pandemic as a critical rupture, the song takes its name from Roy's message to leave behind our "dead ideas" and "[walk] through lightly, ready to imagine another world, and ready to fight for it." This final movement reflects on the loss and change of the last few years, striking a balance between loss as tragic and loss as a necessary act for transformation.
Don’t sing love songs, you’ll wake my mother,
She’s sleepin’ here right by my side
And in her right hand a silver dagger,
She says that I can’t be your bride.
“All men are false” says my mother
“They’ll tell you wicked lovin’ lies
And the very next evenin’, they’ll court another
And leave you alone to pine and sigh.”
My daddy is a handsome devil,
He’s got a chain five miles long,
And on ev’ry link a heart does dangle
Of another maid he’s loved and wronged.
Go court another tender maiden
And see if she will be your wife
For I’vebeen warned, and I’ve decided
To sleep alone all of my life.
Text by Laura Mercado-Wright
Why do we always smile?
Oh, we always smile,
Why do we always smile for you?
You’d look prettier if you’d smile,
Oh darlin’, why don’t you smile?
Come on baby give me a smile.
See, see, see my teeth?
Can you see my teeth, sir?
Now don’t you let those pearly whites fool you,
It doesn’t take much pressure to penetrate flesh,
And we’re packing a hundred and sixty two pounds per square inch.
Think of the carnage. Think of the mess. Such a mess.
We hope that we don’t need to be more explicit than this.
So the next time you’re compelled to tell a woman to smile,
Please kindly turn around and fuck off.
Cause we are so tired, so awfully tired,
Of smiling for you.
And now I only smile for me.
This piece developed out of an honest and spontaneous question that popped into my head one day: Why do we always smile? The “we”, in this case, being women. It is so automatic for many of us to smile, for reasons other than to express happiness, and often it’s because we are told to do so. I wanted to explore the possible responses, if we did not bend to social norms and expectations. This lead me into a dark fantasy, filled with gnashing teeth and carnage. I wanted to hint at the deep resentment and power that can be repressed behind our smiles, and also celebrate the grace and patience we exercise in not resorting to more extreme responses to the casual misogyny we experience on a daily basis. The barbershop-inspired style is meant to root the piece in gentile, polite society, juxtaposed with the menacing intent of the text.
Emily Teasdale (1884-1933)
Nights Without Sleep
Nights without sleep and days
That burn like smoldering fire,
Nerves with the ceaseless cry
Of wind in a tight-drawn wire–
Years of this leaving me nothing
But a handful of songs like these,
That people think were happily written
In an hour of ease.
What Do I Care?
What do I care, in the dreams and the langour of spring,
That my songs do not show me at all?
For they are a fragrance, and I am a flint and a fire;
I am an answer, they are only a call.
What do I care–for love will be over so soon–
Let my heart have its say, and my mind stand idly by.
For my mind is proud, and strong enough to be silent–
It is my heart that makes my songs, not I.
My Heart is Heavy
My heart is heavy with many a song,
Like ripe fruit bearing down the tree;
And I can never give you one–
My songs do not belong to me.
Yet in the evening, in the dusk
When moths go to and fro,
In the gray hour if the fruit has fallen,
Take it–no one will know.
In Teasdale Triptych I tried to write direct, unadorned songs that capture the mood of Teasdale’s poetry (generally dark, exhausted, and resigned, but with glimpses of joy, however fleeting), that would not be rehearsal intensive, and yet include some rhythmic complication and a non-standard technique or two. My hope is that those factors make this an approachable set for younger singers interested in new music and that it might fit on a program with traditional vocal repertoire, or surrounded by other new music.
The Mad Scene from The White Album
James Merrill (1926-1995)
Again last night I dreamed the dream called Laundry.
In it, the sheets and towels of a life we were going to share,
The milk-stiff bibs, the shroud, each rag to be ever
Trampled or soiled, bled on or groped for blindly,
Came swooning out of an enormous willow hamper
Onto moon-marbly boards. We had just met. I watched
From outer darkness. I had dressed myself in clothes
Of a new fiber that never stains or wrinkles, never
Wears thin. The opera house sparkled with tiers
And tiers of eyes, like mine enlarged by belladonna,
Trained inward. There I saw the cloud-clot, gust by gust,
Form, and the lightning bite, and the roan mane unloosen.
Fingers were running in panic over the flute’s nine gates.
Why did I flinch? I loved you. And in the downpour laughed
To have us wrung white, gnarled together, one
Topmost mordent of wisteria,
As the lean tree burst into grief.
I began to assemble the poems of The White Album in the spring of 2009 during a residency at Copland House where I poured through hundreds (if not thousands) of poems before selecting [the five included in this cycle]. The cycle’s primary unifying element is the color white, which appears at least once in each poem. But the poems share other themes, most notably love, loss, life and death, if not some expectation of renewal. As I began to work with them in earnest I was struck by their common imagery: trees (leaves, braches, limbs), laundry (sheets, towels, clothes), light (sun, moon, morning, night), weather (snow, ice, cloud-clot, lightning) and windows with their views on internal and external worlds, to name a few. There are musical motifs as well Of course many of these similarities can be traced to their association with the color white, but there is a kindship that runs much, much deeper. . . That I myself am entering the last phase of life is likely one reason for the poems’ appeal to me. My father was failing while I was working on the first song and he died shortly after I completed it. His decline and death weighed heavily on me and were to become part and parcel of the cycle. Its themes have, at times, been difficult ones, but they have also helped me to grieve.