Lady Gaga to Monteverdi: Anything Goes

Coach/Pianist Joseph Li, one of Wolf Trap‘s unsung heroes last spring for his help in bringing the world premiere of The Inspector to the stage, guest blogs today about the pairing of music and art for Wolf Trap Opera’s Vocal Colors concert at the Phillips  on June 28 at 6:30 pm.

Photo of Coach/Pianist Joseph Li.

Coach/Pianist Joseph Li. Photo by Chris Novosad.

At opening night of Fidelio at Houston Grand Opera, I had the privilege of sitting next to a couple straight out of high school, attending possibly their first night ever at the opera. As the tenor drew his gun and aimed it ever so slowly at the soprano, the girl next to me cursed under her breath in an excited whisper. She was completely lost in the moment; her response to what was happening on stage was honest and genuine.

Shouldn’t recitals have that kind power over our imaginations? Why shouldn’t we respond viscerally like that to an art that was specifically created for and performed in small, intimate settings? Especially when every song on a recital program presents an opportunity to tell an incredible story . . .

This is just one of many challenges that draws me irresistibly to the Vocal Colors series. My colleagues and I must provide the most spontaneous opportunity for that experience–without the aid of elaborate sets, lighting, and costumes.

What we do have is an amazing selection of visual art at The Phillips Collection to accompany our program. Nonetheless, choosing repertoire for a Vocal Colors concert is like trying to decide what to see in a day at the Louvre–the possibilities are endless. And finding just the right song to go with just the right painting means that there are no hard and fast rules about what kinds of songs to choose. Anything goes.

What kind of singers do you need for this kind of program? Good ones! Pulling off a program like this requires a great deal of vocal flexibility and stagecraft. The nature of these programs necessitates that the artists maintain an open mind before we walk into our first rehearsal.

What might you expect to see and hear when you come to see a Vocal Colors concert? Among other things:

  • You may hear Lady Gaga and Monteverdi back to back.
  • You may want to dance in your seat or in the aisles.
  • You may hear that song from that show you love.
  • You may learn something new about yourself.
  • You may learn something new about your date.
  • You may want to take up singing or piano lessons.
  • You may hear the song you danced to at your high school prom.
  • You may hear your favorite hymn from Sunday mornings.
  • You may hear something we didn’t intend for you to hear.

In short, expect the unexpected. And don’t let anyone else tell you how to react. Anything goes!

Joseph Li, Coach/Pianist

The Artist Sees Differently: Sandy Lee

Sandy Lee, IT support specialist

Sandy Lee in front of his home display, "iconic 41," 12 paintings for his wife's recent birthday. Photo: Lisa Hasegawa

Were you an artist before you started to work at the Phillips, and how did you learn about the Phillips?

My father was the print shop manager for the US Catholic Conference, now the United Conference of Catholic Bishops.  Growing up, I had TONS of paper and pencils available as well as a light table for tracing my favorite images.  If you’ve seen the movie Seven Pounds there’s a printing press featured that was the same model my dad had in our basement.  I typeset my own business cards at the age of 12 (I think I was the only 6th grader with lead-type business cards, “Sandy Lee Artist-for-Hire”!) and in my teens began airbrushing t-shirts in high school.  I studied Art Studio at the University of Maryland College Park focusing on illustration.  I only learned about The Phillips Collection a few years ago when applying for the position of IT Support Specialist.

Do you feel you are inspired by the Phillips?

Absolutely.  This facility, and its rise from near disaster make me grateful that such a place still exists.  The works within still amaze me–it seems there’s always something new hanging from week to week.  I find myself going to more and more museums and evaluating them against the Phillips.  It’s such a great venue in which to view masterpieces. It really is inviting and personable.  After a near 20 year hiatus from painting, I decided to pick up the brush last year and produce the 12 canvases in the photo for my wife’s 41st birthday present.  We were both surprised.

What do you listen to as you paint?

Lady Gaga, metal, movie soundtracks, even podcasts of Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me!.

Who’s your favorite artist in the collection?

Raoul Dufy.  His paintings remind me of the backgrounds painted by Philip DeGuard for the Looney Tunes Pepe le Pew cartoons!  Very whimsical and vibrant.

Do you collect other artwork – or anything?

I have a few lithographs, tons of comic books, and the Spectrum series of fantasy art annuals.  That all started with an inadvertent trip to the Society of Illustrators museum in New York City.

What’s your favorite Marjorie Phillips painting?

My favorite Marjorie painting is Night Baseball(1951). You can tell by looking at it how much she loved the sport.  I’m foremost an ice hockey player and fan, but I give full credit to women who appreciate sports.