Every once in a while, we hear a singer (violinist, pianist, you name it) who is so good, so magnetic, so talented, we wonder why the performer hasn’t had a major career and become a household name. Take Hope Koehler.
The first time we heard this amazing soprano, she was a soloist with the American Spiritual Ensemble when they performed at the Sarasota Opera House a couple of seasons ago. We’ve followed her career since then and found that she teaches voice at West Virginia University (lucky students!) and appears with a variety of American orchestras and opera companies.
It was our good fortune that Lee Dougherty Ross picked up on Koehler’s enormous talent and brought her recently to Sarasota to appear in the Soiree Series. As you remember, this is the chamber part of the Artist Series concerts that takes place in a beautiful private home with great food and wine; a setting that’s intimate and charming. Koehler’s voice, which can be intimate, is also enormous, powerful, glistening and beautiful from top to bottom. So, sitting in an easy chair listening to her perform an all-American program, was a little like being on stage next to a Valkyrie.
Koehler is one of those rare singers who has it all: control, beauty of voice, clear diction and enunciation, and a stage presence that zaps you to life. She seems to be able to do anything musical and, although her program was a bit more monochromatic than we’d have liked, she certainly proved herself in every way.
Opening with four songs from Lee Hoiby’s cycle, “Songs for Leontyne,” Koehler’s voice, which is reminiscent of Leontyne Price in her heyday, took us on a poetic journey that ended with “The Serpent,” a sssnazzy, ssserpentine romp-of-a-sssong, that’s become one of the composer’s bessst known.
James Douglass, Koehler’s pianist, was at his best in the Hoiby and, later, Gershwin’s “My Man’s Gone Now.” But, although he was able to negotiate the written pages in the four folk songs by John Jacob Niles, some Broadway duets (done with Koehler’s husband) and a group of spirituals set by Robert Morris in a gospel style, his métier is classical and he seemed over his head in the jazzier, more popular pieces.
Koehler stole the show, proving the sound of a voice and what one sings is not contingent, as she said, on skin color. She is a true force in the art of the spiritual. We look forward to hearing her vast talent applied to Lieder, French arts songs and, yes, a few opera arias, too.