OPERA NEWS, October 1995
Conventional devices that she does use, such as trills and other ornaments, come off quite differently: they're not icing on the cake but part of the cake. "They have to be," Baird points out. "In the baroque era, they're meant to be a big aspect of the harmony. People talk about trills like they're adding an ornament to a Christmas tree. But it has to be part of the sound. In the baroque era, the function of a lot of ornaments is to create tension with the bass. By Mozart's era, trills stop being a point of dissonance but are shimmering, rococo effects. They're part of the sound concept."
Though hardly a professorial presence, the effervescent Baird has a catalog-like knowledge of ornamentation, not just the speed of a trill (French is much slower than Italian) but ways of approaching them so they're part of the musical fabric. The key lies in the appoggiatura: "It has to be longer than the trill, with less vibrato and louder. That keeps it from being this flippant little thing. Handel's ornaments for Ottone are full of dissonant notes that are lingered upon, even though it's against all the rules of harmony." Then there's rhythmic ornamentation -- various types of rubato possible in strictly architectural baroque music.
Yet Baird can't help being a paradox: she's a performer and has the temperament that goes with it. "Musicologists don't want to make the music their own, they want to make it the composer's. That's the dilemma. You get a noncommittal performance. It's a cold-blooded approach. But in the eighteenth century, the music was a blueprint -- at best -- for what happened onstage," she says. "I have a more humanist approach. Let's do away with 'authentic' practices if they alienate the audience. Let's do away with the fear of taking chances."
Though the results can't help being spontaneous and exciting -- in fact, she improvises many ornaments, or at least chooses one on the spot from five different possibilities -- she hasn't won herself a place among the oft-recorded British early-music specialists, with the exception of Christopher Hogwood. "It's the individualistic approach that I take -- it rubs them the wrong way," she said. "It's hard to be a singer when you're supposed to stumble from one Svengali figure to another, being molded in their own image. And when a singer has to try to change what her voice is, it's easy to lose track of who she is."
No doubt, some of this individuality can be attributed to having grown up singing opera in places where she was more likely to become a country-music singer. Born in Statesville, North Carolina, but raised in the Appalachian Mountains, Baird had singing jobs with churches as a teenager and saved up the money for Mozart opera recordings. Her idols were the strong-minded singers, like Maria Callas. Her first taste of "authentic" performance came at the Eastman School of Music, where Eric Schwandt (now at the University of Victoria in British Columbia) picked her out of a class and coached her on French baroque styles. She also studied for a year with Nikolaus Harnoncourt, though she was often puzzled by how his theories translated into his casting: "He seemed to choose singers who were the house Wagnerian sopranos."
Putting her dissertation at Stanford on hold (a hiatus that lasted some thirteen years), she began her professional singing life and almost immediately began making recordings, such as Joshua Rifkin's much discussed 1982 reading of Bach's B-minor Mass (Nonesuch 79036-2). Whatever one thinks of Rifkin's theory that in Bach's time the soloists also comprised the chorus -- prompting many to call it the "B-minor Madrigal" -- every note is audible and is a superb ensemble effort from Baird. However, the "white" sound Rifkin draws from Baird seems particularly straitjacketed in their 1987 recording of the Bach cantata "Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen" (Oiseau Lyre 417616), in which she sounds like a boy soprano. What a difference there is in her Bach Arias with Flute recording that came out last year on Newport Classic (NPD 85530), in which she responds with great rhetorical variety, color and immediacy. It's one of her best.
Though she recorded Monteverdi's Orfeo with John Eliot Gardiner (Archiv 419250) and, just last year, the role of the Second Woman in Purcell's Dido and Aeneas with Hogwood (Oiseau-Lyre 436992), her most characteristic efforts are found on smaller labels -- Newport and Vox for big baroque operas and oratorios, Dorian for recitals. She is joined by a loose network of sympathetic but lower-profile collaborators that include conductor Rudolph Palmer, keyboardist Colin Tilney, lutenist Ronn McFarlane and perhaps most notably, John Ostendorf, the bass-baritone turned recording producer.
In the opera repertory -- which she seldom performs onstage, because her two children, aged six and eight, rule out long stints away from home in Haddonfield, New Jersey -- the majority of the works are recorded world premieres. She sings the title role in Alessandro Scarlatti's Ishmael (Newport 85558/2), a 1683 oratorio with operatic aspirations, especially in the more musically austere final scenes, when she is wasting away in the desert. Baird conveys the drama by scaling down her voice in one of the most convincing portrayals of physical exhaustion since Maria Callas' recording of Mimì's farewell from La Bohème. Baird has also recorded lots of Handel, including Imeneo (Vox V2U-9000), written late in the composer's opera career, when he was relaxing the formalities of opera seria. Thus, Baird's character has a disarmingly stark arioso for harpsichord and cello obbligato, a proto-Mozartean trio with two other characters (unusual in Handel operas) and an extended dramatic recitative, as well as arias putting her through more conventional vocal paces.
Siroe (Newport 60125) and Ezio (Vox 2-7503), among Handel's lesser stage works, offer fewer opportunities for Baird. One of her best all-around Handel recordings is Sosarme (Newport 85575), a second-tier opera that's treated to an unusually good cast, including John Aler and Drew Minter, with Baird's character having the first-class aria "Vola l'augello del caro nido." Her Acis and Galatea (Newport 60045) is perhaps the most satisfying version of this piece on disc. Also worth hearing is her Messiah (Vox 2-7502), a lively, period-instrument recording in which she brings startling freshness to music that would appear to have revealed all its secrets long ago.
The lynchpin of her Handel discography is Handel Arias (Newport 85530), with a few choice selections recycled from previous recordings plus some new items that show off the remarkable diversity demanded of singers at that time. One doesn't realize how effortful much modern Handel singing is until one hears an almost complete absence of this quality in Baird.
In many ways, her most fully realized opera portrayal is Serpina in Pergolesi's La Serva Padrona with Ostendorf and Palmer (Omega OCD 1016). Even as a stereotypical opera-buffa character -- an impertinent maid finding her way into the affections of her grumpy master -- she delivers a beguiling, thoughtfully shaded characterization. She performs a similar minor miracle with Vespetta in Telemann's Pimpinone (Newport 60117), a Germanic twist on buffa conventions. I asked Baird how she enlivens such characters, and the answer lies in the recitatives. "That's where a lot of singers have a hard time. The first time I looked at one, it was a rhythmic pain in the neck. But the moments at which you want the audience's attention are in the recitatives," she says.
Her recital recordings allow her to dip back into pre-opera musical history. The English Lute Song (Dorian 90109) finds Baird using a number of exotic ornaments, including the frisson-inducing glottal articulation, somewhere between a giggle and brief coloratura cadenza. "It gives the impression of virtuosity, but not every note is being touched," she says. "You'd find that if you slowed down the tape." But there are no illusions in her performance of John Dowland's "In Darkness Let Me Dwell" on Greensleeves: A Collection of English Lute Songs (Dorian 90126). There her voice is scaled down to a vibratoless thread, stripped of anything vaguely resembling conventional expressive device. Yet it finds the music's deep well of sadness in a manner that conveys the utter devastation indicated in the text, a feeling intensified when the voice swells slightly to ride the discreet but jarring forays into chromaticism. Because she uses so few of the modern traditional expressive devices that can stand between music and listener, her performances seem almost disarmingly confiding.
Songs of Love and War (Dorian 90104) is in some ways an even greater triumph, given that the stylistic and ornamental requirements of the Monteverdi and Caccini selections can make the music seem remote, even obscure. Yet Baird makes such sense of them that the music seems more organically wrought and all the richer for it: she often gives a repeating sequence of notes an element of surprise with a discreet ornamentation that drives home the architectural variety and unity. Her Mozart Songs (Dorian 90173), with Colin Tilney at the fortepiano, are notable for Baird's willingness to meet them on their own terms. As wonderful as Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was in this repertory, the songs still seemed like poor cousins to Schubert, because that kind of "operatic" voice sets up grander expectations. With Baird, passages that normally would inspire histrionics are given instead a more subtle change in energy and tension.
Some of her future projects may come as a shock. She'll break out of the good-girl baroque roles with a new recording of the multi-fanged title role in Handel's Berenice -- one of her biggest so far. She'll depart from the baroque altogether for the original version of Schubert's Wintereisse with fortepiano. She's assembling a one-woman show titled "Mad Bess, or Glimpses of Insanity in the Age of Reason" that will include Purcell and Blow songs about madness, as well as accounts of how mental institutions were often treated like tourist attractions. Nowadays she has the voice for such things: "As singers get older, there are more colors in their voice. If you start with lots of vibrato, you get a wobble. But if you start with no vibrato, you get some."
The most curious thing about the Baird voice is its apparent lack of different registers. Ostendorf has never figured it out: "She even has a low baritonal area that she rarely gets into, but when she does, she has no problem barreling down there in ranges that a real mezzo has trouble with." How does she do it? For once, she's at a loss for words. Perhaps it's the final mystery of the human voice: "I just don't know what to tell you."
MR. STEARNS, a music and theater critic for USA Today, is also music correspondent for The Independent in London.