Emma Kirkby is a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. That’s not the least of her aristocratic appellations: She is also lauded in her press materials as the “Queen of Early Music.” She was named “Artist of the Year” in 1999 by Britain’s Classic FM. And she is, according to BBC Music magazine, no less than the 10th-greatest soprano of all time. (Renata Tebaldi is only No. 18!)
But in America, where opera means Puccini and recitals mean Puccini arias, all those honors don’t get you very far when the bulk of your repertoire was written before 1700. One commenter on the opera Web site Parterre Box spoke for many when he wrote, after BBC Music’s greatest sopranos list was announced in 2007, “Who the freak is Emma Kirkby?” She can’t even catch a scheduling break: Her recital last Tuesday at Weill Recital Hall was up against a Renee Fleming master class at Julliard that grabbed most of opera-going New York’s attention.
But the serene Ms. Kirkby is used to operating under the radar. Her taste, as befits the Queen of Early Music and an Englishwoman to boot, is for the subtle gesture, the small turn of phrase. She wants, above all, some quiet. Not silence—she’s a singer, after all—but quiet.
Indeed, Ms. Kirkby’s moderate, measured speaking voice and her moderate, measured singing voice are uncannily similar, not just in volume but in effect. When this fact was pointed out to her during an interview last week in a sunny midtown hotel room, she laughed.
“That’s the thing about this repertoire,” she said. “There’s going to be a volume limit because nobody wants to be shouted at all night. If you’re trying to convey thoughts and ideas to people, you do it at speech level.”
“This repertoire” is the work of Ms. Kirkby’s life. She has spent her nearly 40-year career specializing almost solely in the song literature of the Renaissance, Baroque and early Classical periods. Alongside her collaborators, Ms. Kirkby effected changes in the performance of these works that revolutionized the genre.
Her influential idea was simple: to sing early music with a natural voice. Many singers used to—and some still do—“flatten” and “whiten” their voices in that repertoire, turning the songs and arias of the period into astringent chants. Ms. Kirkby, by bringing down the volume, paring away those affectations and concentrating on the words, emphasized the songs’ content and communicative power. The results achieved instant acclaim, though Ms. Kirkby worried about how the works themselves would be received after the features that had so long defined them had been removed.
“When the records started circulating,” she recalled, “some people said, ‘At last, thank God, I’ve been waiting for this forever. At last, a voice that doesn’t do this and doesn’t do that.’ And I thought, ‘Well, that’s nice, but I don’t want to be famous for what I don’t do.’ … It wasn’t enough not to sing out of tune and not to have too much vibrato. We’d managed to get rid of some bad habits, but was there anything left?”
Her Weill recital last week showed just how much was left. It was part of a nine-city American tour with lutenist Jakob Lindberg that returns to New York for a recital at the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church on Nov. 1. The tour is rare and important because, even after decades of rediscovery, early music is still widely unappreciated and misunderstood, particularly in the United States.
And now there’s no excuse for not knowing who the freak she is, because she is coming to a town near you, armed with not one but two alternating programs. The Weill program featured a wide survey of songs and solo lute music from the early 17th century. The first and second halves of the concert ended with John Dowland and Henry Purcell, respectively, who are better known to audiences, but much of the program featured less famous names like Etienne Moulinié and Georg Schimmelpfennig, whose exquisite “Dolce tempo passato” opened the second half.
Ms. Kirkby, whose elegant face and watery-blue eyes appear almost Pre-Raphaelite onstage, seemed barely to be raising her voice most of the time, but could be heard effortlessly throughout the hall. The songs—stories about love, requited and otherwise, and about aging, memory and death—retained their transcendent purity but became almost conversational.
And though Renee Fleming was ostensibly the one holding the master class last Tuesday, Ms. Kirkby’s recital offered lessons of its own for both singers and listeners. Not least of these was about longevity. Ms. Kirkby turned 60 earlier this year, but her careful husbanding of her resources has left her sound basically intact. Her diction is perfect. And she remains a stubborn advocate of what often seems like a forgotten art: the use of vocalism not to preen but to communicate.
Ms. Kirkby never intended to be a soloist, but loved singing from an early age. Her all-girl choir’s trip to a neighboring boys’ school, though, was the moment it first really clicked.
“It was all very decorous,” she said. “We were lining one wall of the room and the boys were lining the other. I’m sure the psychoanalysts would have a field day. But for me, singing Byrd’s four-part mass with the tenors and basses was just such a thrill. You can analyze that how you like, but I loved it.”
While studying classics at Oxford, she performed in amateur choirs. After graduating, a former classmate got a contract to record some early music; unable to find any professional singers with the sound he wanted, he asked Ms. Kirkby. When she protested that she didn’t have the technique, he answered, “You better get one, because I can’t find anyone else.” And that was that.
Forty years later, her repertoire has largely insulated her from the opera world. “I’m not very informed about opera,” she admitted, “but I’ve been very excited by some fairly recently. I went to Onegin at Covent Garden. It was so delicious. When they had the duel and the tenor was shot, I was so distraught. It was very well done.”
Even when it comes to opera, she insists that the moments we remember most are the soft ones. But if people really do have an insatiable craving for stentorian screams, Dame Emma Kirkby is quite O.K. with them going to see Aida. With a smile, she said, “I think we need work for everyone.”