Soprano Patrice Michaels performance credits include the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Cleveland Opera, The Banff Centre (Canada), The Chicago Opera Theater, with concert appearances in Shanghai, Havana, Mexico, Japan, Venezuela and across the United States. Her extensive discography includes releases on recording labels Cedille, Decca, Amadis, Albany and Neos. A native of Southern California with degrees in Music and Theatre from Pomona College and an MFA. in Voice from the University of Minnesota, she currently resides in Chicago with her husband James Ginsburg where she continues to record and to serve as the Director of Vocal Studies at The University of Chicago.

Stay Thirsty Magazine was thrilled to visit with Patrice Michaels at her home to learn more about her career and her latest projects as a composer.

STAY THIRSTY: Your most recent success has been your CD entitled Notorious RBG in Song about Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg [RBG]. How did you get involved in that project and what role did you play in the creation and recording of the album?

PATRICE MICHAELS: This recording grew in a surprisingly organic fashion: my husband and his sister wanted a very special 80th birthday gift for their mother [RBG], so they commissioned three composers to each write a song. Stacy Garrop, Vivian Fung and I received texts about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, written by different loved ones, from three different periods in her life. I had the great privilege of debuting those three songs and asked that Lori Laitman’s “Wider Than The Sky” on an Emily Dickinson poem be included in the celebration. As I experienced this portrait of my mother-in-law emerging from the music, I felt compelled to create a song cycle sharing more of the marvelous stories of her life in a coherent narrative arc. I knew the harmonic language I wanted to use – both in its jazz idioms and its art song sensibility. 

With RBG’s permission, I went ahead with the research and writing, often performing chunks of the The Long View: A Portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Nine Songs for events in which she was featured. When I was ready to make what I thought would be an archival recording of just the song cycle, “somebody close to me” suggested that I record all art song and aria material about RBG. It turned out to be a great idea, and the response has been so positive that I’m now working it into a “dramatic concert” in several different formats, so all voice types can share and perform the material for live audiences.

STAY THIRSTY: You have been hailed as “a formidable interpretative talent” by The New Yorker and as “nothing short of spectacular…Soprano Patrice Michaels lifts the performance to a higher realm” by The Cleveland Plain Dealer. How has your voice, style and insight as a performer evolved over the years? Do you feel your singing is stronger now than even a few years ago?

PATRICE MICHAELS: Well, you know what they say about old age and treachery being more than a match for youth and skill…but seriously, one must always assess physical capabilities, skill and drive, in any endeavor. When it’s an endeavor that is being offered in the public marketplace, it becomes especially important to assess well, and sometimes complicated. I feel immensely lucky that I’m having a moment where my performing attributes as a singer are conveying my creative intentions as a composer. I’ll be performing Notorious RBG in Song and participating in Lara Downes’ Holes In The Sky project for the next couple of years as I carve out more time for the composing that I always knew I’d return to. And I adore hearing others perform my compositions!

STAY THIRSTY: You are going on 30 albums in your discography. Among the recording labels that have released your work is Cedille Records. How do you view the work of Cedille in relation to other recording labels in the industry?

PATRICE MICHAELS: About half of my recordings are with Cedille, and the others are spread across several similarly-sized production companies, with one release on an old-style major label. Absolutely nothing compares to the Cedille experience. This Chicago not-for-profit has a mission that it really lives by: to promote artists and ensembles and composers who want to make classical music projects with a real point-of-view, that add new voices to the larger body of recorded music. We get to propose ideas that are sometimes accepted whole cloth, sometimes tweaked, and always produced with amazing care. Jim Ginsburg and Bill Maylone are the producer/engineer team that I usually work with, and the level of trust that’s been built through many hours of studio time and post-production refinement is simply unparalleled. I treasure it.

Patrice Michaels on The Long View: A Portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Nine Songs (Cedille Records)

STAY THIRSTY: You have appeared in operas, concerts and recitals from Shanghai to the Czech Republic, from Havana to Dallas, from Japan to Chicago. In all your travels, which venues and performances stand out the most? How have cultural differences in the various countries where you appeared impacted your performances?

PATRICE MICHAELS: There are two standouts for international experiences. When I sang Mozart’s “Exsultate, Jubilate” with the Shanghai Symphony, it was delightful to meet our conductor for the first time, rolling up on his bicycle, his oversized score barely contained in the basket. The orchestra had played a lot more Brahms than Mozart and hadn’t worked with solo singers much, so our rehearsal time was full of discovery, and well-rewarded by a wonderfully attentive audience and repeat broadcasts on national TV. I also treasure my time in Prague with the Czech National Symphony, steeping in the European classical music tradition with performances and a recording of Vorisek’s Mass (which compares favorably with many of Schubert’s short choral works), and singing Britten’s “Les Illuminations” and songs by Satie (the recording we made of those works for Cedille, La vie est une parade, is one of my favorite releases).

STAY THIRSTY: In addition to your performance work, you hold an appointment at the University of Chicago as a Lecturer and Director of Vocal Studies. What is your philosophy and pedagogy of teaching voice?

PATRICE MICHAELS: Well, I actually have a credo that I refined some years ago and keep posted on the Studio portion of my website. It starts out: 

I teach in order to share my life's passions. I teach in order to help you find your life's passions. If your passions live in my territory, I'll do my best to help you make a set of maps.”

Pedagogy gets pretty nuts and bolts, of course, but I never stop being amazed at how clear intention and conscious breath are the two mechanisms that have the strongest influence on a student’s successful expression of musical ideas.

STAY THIRSTY: How great an impact does an accomplished vocal teacher have on a student with a good voice vs. a student with a spectacular voice?

PATRICE MICHAELS: A spectacular voice has to be informed by clear intention to convey more than just “la voce” – if it’s not, audiences can’t stay interested for very long. There are so many skills wrapped up in the package called “Singer.” Many students and professionals with merely good voices can develop spectacularly clear intentions and become really wonderful singers. I love working with both the merely good and the spectacular voices. In the studio, sometimes a bit of alchemy helps the development, but ultimately the student is the one driving the acquisition of skills, and I’m the one providing the standards, offering the needed skills and raising the bar.  

Patrice Michaels

STAY THIRSTY: You are a frequent performer in Chicago where you live and teach. How do your students react to your work and how does it help you to inspire them?

PATRICE MICHAELS: Well, this is a big, bold question, and I sure don’t feel qualified to answer the first part of it, so I sent it directly to my students. Here are some of their answers. Way to make me feel good, guys!  

Alisa was my student for the first ten years of her singing life. She wrote: “Patrice is…a gifted director, pianist, improviser, and composer…a dedicated teacher and beautiful singer…she teaches by example how to be a successful, multi-faceted artist today.” 

Gyuri wrote: “[M]entioned you as a potential voice teacher. One of the things I have done then is to go and listen to some of your recordings. I found one where you sing Mozart, and it was immediately obvious that an unusual amount of thought went into your performance. I thought that if someone approaches music like that, there is a good chance they are also good at teaching. Of course, I could never have guessed that you were THAT good a pedagogue, but still, the initial inspiration was definitely given by hearing your performance.”

Colin wrote: “Patrice put on a concert benefitting a local community organization comprising entirely songs about justice, some of which she had composed herself, and ending with a rousing aria (performed in full costume!) from the opera Ginsburg/Scalia. I truly appreciated the ways Patrice is able to create opportunities for political advocacy and tangible social change through her artistry. Another, more personal experience with Patrice's work was watching her perform the Cat Duet with a student: Patrice absolutely disappeared into the role of a raucous, goofy tomcat, teaching me a thing or two about acting for singers and giving me a good laugh besides!”

Cecilia wrote: “It is very inspiring to listen to your voice teacher singing her own compositions while accompanying herself at the piano. Not only do they demonstrate what a complete musician is (something to aspire to), it is also an incredibly intimate experience because these compositions give us insight into how Patrice hears and experience her world.”

As for the second part, I hope most sincerely that my omnivorous musical appetite encourages the spirit of curiosity, of experimentation, of playfulness, of rigor, of possibility, of empowerment. We need all the voices expressing and balancing and testing and refining each other. If I use my singing and composing to keep generating new projects/new sounds/new takes on the human condition, I'm bound to bring that into the lesson space, either subtly or overtly. Just walking the talk, one noisy step at a time!

STAY THIRSTY: If you could choose any opera to perform what would it be, who else would be in the cast and where would you like it to be performed?

PATRICE MICHAELS: OK, this is fun. Red Rover, Red Rover, let Francesca Zambello come over to stage Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea, a deeply political and personal story that I find all too contemporary in its theme and musically beguiling. Let the court of intrigues be City Hall in Chicago, with the Lyric Opera Chorus as the politicos and a jazz combo embedded amidst my beloved Lyric Opera Orchestra to make the contemporary relevancy come alive in the music. Let the phenomenal countertenor John Holiday play Nero, let my dear mother-in-law finally be granted her not-so-secret wish to have an operatic voice to sing the selfish ingénue Poppea (I hope she likes playing villains!). I’ll play Drusilla, the witty handmaid – when in The Op’ra, it’s almost always daughters and servants for me ­– opposite my new favorite baritone, Zachary Nelson, who just knocked me out as Marcello in La Bohème last week. A girl can dream, can’t she?


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