Tenor Frank Kelley first sang for Emmanuel Music as Ferrando in Cosi fan tutti, one of the three great Mozart opera collaborations between Craig Smith and Peter Sellars. “Peter and Craig were both great teachers,” Kelley says. “They helped me to go inside myself and channel the extremes of emotion so I could inhabit the character at a crisis moment of life – the moment where drama is most compelling. The goal wasn’t to look like opera but to look like life at its most intense and meaningful.”
This approach to music-making made the Cosi performance a turning point in Kelley’s career. He was personally drawn to Craig Smith as an inspirational leader. But Kelley also came to Emmanuel Music at a unique time in its history that presented extraordinary opportunities because Smith was collaborating with two other powerful creative forces -- Peter Sellars and Mark Morris – who together produced memorable performances that have since become classics.
After Cosi, Kelley performed as Basilio in the Smith/Sellars production of The Marriage of Figaro and in their production of Das kleine Mahagonny/Conversations with Fear and Hope after Death. Following the Brecht/Weill first half of the program, the second half presented Bach cantata movements orchestrated for the Weill orchestra. “This was one of the most moving productions on which we all collaborated,” Kelley says. “Craig did the incredible and devastating reorchestrations. In this context this inherent grittiness and honesty of the Bach arias are especially clear and intense.”
Kelley also spent three years in Brussels performing with various groups, notably as part of Emmanuel Music’s collaboration with Mark Morris Dance Group, where he sang in L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato and in the premiere of Dido and Aeneas. For both the operas and the dance the artists had the luxury of extended rehearsal time and multiple performances to polish their work. “It was a magical time when we had runs of three or four weeks, performing Figaro in Paris and L’Allegro in Brussels, and taking the high-speed train back and forth from one city to the other,” Kelley recalls. The musicians formed unusually strong bonds while living and working so closely together. “The closeness encouraged the democratic spirit that Craig totally believed in,” Kelley says. “His approach was highly collaborative, not authoritarian.” It was also a time when work, life, and pleasure were completely intertwined. “I remember the great pleasure of having lunch with Craig in the first class dining car – today it’s hard to imagine we lived like that!”
Kelley was ready when this extraordinary opportunity appeared. Although he had entered music school intending to teach and thinking he was too shy to perform, Kelley had developed a career singing early music in Boston and opera in San Francisco. He’d made an impression performing with Emmanuel Music singers Sanford Sylvan, James Maddalena, and Jeffrey Gall, and those contacts proved key when Sylvan recommended Kelley for Cosi. “I didn’t need to audition for Peter, because he’d heard me sing arias in Blanche Moyse’s St. Matthew Passion,” Kelley says. And there was kismet in his audition for Smith. “As it happened, Craig and I were living in adjoining buildings in New York City. So Craig came over and played my upright as I sang two arias. He was happy, and that was it.”
“Craig became my most important mentor,” Kelley says. “For him music was never entertainment, it was never a job, but always a force to change lives. Craig talked about music differently, and always explored the smallest details and biggest ideas.” Smith also trusted his musicians to an unusual degree. “Once Craig decided he wanted to make music with you, he trusted your instincts and gave you the space to be creative.” Kelley notes that this approach is ideally suited to the Bach cantatas that Smith presented for almost 40 years until his death in 2007. “Every line in Bach is so important that no one musician takes the lead,” Kelley notes.
For the shy singer who became one of Boston’s best opera singers and actors, Peter Sellars became a critical mentor. “Peter was the most influential and helpful stage director I’ve worked with. Not only did he tell us what to do and how to move our bodies, but he had a textured way of thinking about opera, and always linked our acting to the music and the meaning,” Kelley says. “To give one example, I listened and acted differently when Peter coached me to enter when the clarinet began to play because the clarinet was my character.”
But Craig Smith was the reason why Kelley grounded his career in Boston with Emmanuel Music. “With other groups performance might be about learning the words and the music, but with Craig it was always about helping listeners understand the human experience,” Kelley says. For Smith and Emmanuel Music the Bach cantatas epitomize this kind of serious music-making. “The music is so difficult that making it your own – from teasing out the meaning to managing the breaths and executing the runs – mirrors the search for meaning that the music is about,” Kelley says. “When I sing an aria I must ask myself whether the orchestra is saying what the words are saying or whether it’s saying something different or even the opposite. And I need to listen closely to the music and decide whether I should sing the words seriously or ironically. These tensions help the audience experience music full of the angst and difficulties that we all experience in our lives.”
Kelley is also noted as a lieder singer, and has been featured in many Emmanuel Music chamber concerts over the years. He focuses on the lieder repertoire with the same intensity he brings to all he does. “A Schubert song is not a pretty tune – it’s a tiny painting of what it means to be human.” This season Kelley is featured in two song cycle concerts with Russell Sherman, Schubert’s Die Schöne Müllerinand Schumann’s Dichterliebe. “These song cycles are the pinnacle of the lieder repertoire, and to approach them with Russell’s deep understanding of music is a rare opportunity,” Kelley says.
Four years after Craig Smith’s death Kelley is grateful that Emmanuel Music continues to make wonderful music with the kind of intensity that the founder insisted on. “We owe so much to John Harbison, who kept us going after Craig’s death,” Kelley says. He recalls one Sunday when a fierce snowstorm limited the congregation to about a dozen parishioners and the ensemble to just six musicians. “That day John sang tenor in the Schütz motet and played the cantata continuo part from memory,” Kelley recalls. “It’s a dramatic example of how John stepped into the breach and brought a gravitas, generosity, enthusiasm, and knowledge that let us continue to perform as the ensemble we had been.”
Kelley is one of the Emmanuel Music old-timers who is gratified to be performing under the baton of Artistic Director Ryan Turner. “Ryan is doing a terrific job in continuing the vision of Craig and John,” Kelley says. “It’s as true as ever that we live charmed lives doing what we do.”