Calliope's Call: Art song for the people

Calliope's Call founder Megan Roth.

Let's play The (New) 25,000 Pyramid.

I'll start: A fancy gravity bong. The collected works of Nietzsche, which you would have read if you had actually learned German. Art song.

Things that make you agitated? Things that are worth a lot less on the market than you'd expect? Things that you leave behind when you graduate?

Yes to all of the above, but for our purposes and to get to the lede already, all are things that we couldn't find time for in our professional lives (unless we happen to be Wagner).

But not if Megan Roth has her way. She created Calliope's Call, an organization devoted to "creating exciting and diverse performances of art song," not only to show fans of classical music that their diet isn't quite balanced, but also to give professional singers a chance to perform the art songs they once loved.

Calliope's Call will present its first concert, a program of music "for and about children" that stretches from Schumann to Poulenc to Jake Heggie, on Feb. 28 in Bloomington and March 1 in Indianapolis.

"As a vocal performance major in school, art song is a large part of what you study," says Roth, who recently relocated from New England to Bloomington with her husband, Adam McLean, an expert in stage combat and movement. "Then you get into the real world, and you realize that your career path is geared toward opera and concert work."

Only the Renee Flemings and Joyce DiDonatos of the world can get the average concertgoer to show up for a recital, Roth laments — and they're banking on their names and not the repertoire.

"I'm also a teacher; I have a private studio here in Bloomington," Roth says. "Some of the students' parents are lovers of classical music and regularly attend the operas they put on at IU. But they don't know what art song is; they've never heard of it or they're just not that familiar with it."

(Here's a brief definition from Roth for those in the unfamiliar camp: "Art song is a music composition for voice and instrumental accompaniment on poetic texts. The concert format is that of a recital, typically in a smaller concert space as the genre is very intimate.")

And what are those classical lovers missing? Roth can testify: "What I love about art song is the poetry and the intimate collaboration between singer and pianists. With art song, which is a much smaller intimate setting, I love that I have more freedom to create my own artistic expression. For my voice type — I'm a lyric mezzo-soprano — with opera, you're stuck singing the same roles. With art song, I can sing and explore so many more composers and styles."

Of course, some excellent poets have written really excellent libretti for opera. But Roth says she finds "there's more room for a multitude of interpretations with poetry that's set in art song." Poetry like that found in Jake Heggie's Songs to the Moon: Fairy Tales for Children, which is the cornerstone upon which Calliope's Call's first concert was built.

Roth saw a concert that included Songs to the Moon, sought out the score — and eventually fell in love with the piece, which embodies the freedom she values in art song, in general. "He'll write syncopations into the music that are meant to instruct the singer to be as free as possible and bring your own interpretation to the structure of the phrase," she says.

It's safe to say that you'll get more than you pay for at the free concert: all three singers are donating their time and efforts, including baritone Scott Hogsed, a company member of the New York City Opera for five years, and soprano Kim Pokin Lee, who made her Carnegie Hall debut last year. For her part, Roth has worked extensively in the worlds of opera and choral music, and she was just accepted onto the roster of Conspirare, an Austin-based choral ensemble that won a 2015 Grammy.

Roth covered "almost" all costs for the concert through a crowdfunding campaign and support from personal connections. She's working to find sustainable sources of funding with the help of friends of friends with business experience. She's also had help on the artistic side of the coin from Valerie Trujillo, a former teacher who has signed on as artistic advisor.

In the short term, Roth hopes to raise enough to fund a full season of two or three concerts. Another goal: "I plan to develop a roster of singers I'd like to use — a small roster, but a roster, nonetheless — because one of my goals with my group is to provide opportunities for artists to explore this repertoire."

For each concert, Roth plans to do one performance in Bloomington and another in a neighboring city. That's in keeping with her goal to "bring art song to audiences that don't get much of a chance to hear it." In the end, she'd like Calliope's Call to be known as "the Midwest art song performance group."