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Soprano Kathleen Roland-Silverstein Helps Revive Swedish Art Song
It was serendipitous, really. In 1999, Dr. Merril Silverstein pursued studies in gerontology as a Fulbright Scholar in Residence at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden. Traveling with him was his wife Kathleen, a striking soprano and frequent performer. After finding work with a Swedish pianist, she began learning the language and discovered a genre of music that would ultimately transform her career: Swedish art song.
Nearly eight years later, Dr. Kathleen Roland-Silverstein of the Seaver College music faculty was selected as a 2007 Fulbright Scholar to lecture and research at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm. During her four-month stay, Roland will undertake a massive research project to complete an anthology of Swedish art song, or romansers. Roland intends to focus on ten major composers from the late nineteenth to the twentieth century—the height of Swedish art song—including such famed musicians as Sibelius, Rangstrom and Alfven.
Much of the work has been completed already. A fluent Swedish speaker, Roland has made extensive contacts and friends among the country’s musicians. She has also amassed a large collection of Swedish art song since her introduction to the country in 1999 and with the help of her 2002 American Scandinavian grant. These initial steps, however, required a great deal of persistence.
Scandinavians tend to be drawn to American art song, which incorporates such genres as musical theater and jazz. But, oddly enough, they are very modest about their own style. “Swedes undervalue their own art song,” Roland observes. “I noticed a lot of surprise from people about hearing an American singer interested in Swedish art song. The biggest reaction to overcome was, ‘why would you be interested in our music?’”
Even at the Royal Conservatory in Stockholm, the existing anthology of Swedish romansers is just a bunch of Xerox copies. “The time is right for an anthology with sheet music, songs, phonetic translations, and notes about the songs,” Roland says. She hopes a CD will accompany the anthology, planned for completion by the end of 2007.
The response to her work has been quite positive, especially in the United States. Because this subject is rarely offered in a regular music program, American musicians, particularly on the West Coast, have come to her for copies of music they can’t find anywhere else. Even her reticent Swedish contacts have become eager to help.
They’ve certainly seen enough of her to feel comfortable. Roland, her husband, and their daughter Emma, 5, spend a couple of months each year in Stockholm, where Emma enrolls in a Swedish school. While Silverstein continues his work at the Karolinska Institute, Roland sings, conducts research, and teaches master classes. The couple recognizes the unique and special way their disparate careers have unfolded in such a complimentary way. “It was serendipitous, really,” she says.
As with many people of such talent, music has been part of Roland’s life since childhood. Her father was a singer, and the California native began taking voice lessons at age 15 near her Orange County home. Both music and faith figured prominently in her development, as they still do today: “My inspiration really lies in my spiritual setting as an observant Jew. I’m very cognizant of the gift that God has given me: to be able to sing and share it with others.”
After completing her undergraduate degree at Chapman College, Roland went on to earn master’s and doctoral degrees in Voice from USC. Her craft calls for lingual dexterity, so she acquired varying levels of fluency in French, German, Swedish, Italian, and Hebrew; the last facilitated the completion of a doctoral minor in Jewish Liturgical Studies. Roland started out singing opera, and worked with eminent conductor Kent Nagano. “He is responsible for getting me involved in singing contemporary music,” she notes.
Now in her fourth year as a member of the Pepperdine music faculty, Roland instructs students in ongoing private voice lessons. She calls her pupils talented and hard-working; the work very rewarding. Although she “adores” teaching at Pepperdine, Roland recalls feeling initial trepidation about how her devout Jewish faith would fit in at the University. Fortunately, her fears were quickly allayed.
“I think the atmosphere at Pepperdine is perhaps even more tolerant of my faith than at a secular university.” She explains: “There is more of an understanding that you can be an intellectual and an academic, and still be a person of faith. I can bring it up with my students and know that the issue of a caring God is something I can talk about without fear or reservation.”
So engaged with her teaching and research, Roland thought she would be performing less at this point in her career. In fact, she’s actually performing more and more. In addition to tours in America, Roland sings all over the world. This fall she traveled to Cambodia and Vietnam on the 50th anniversary of the Hanoi Conservatory of Music. There she performed a new piece composed by Cambodian-American Chinary Ung in remembrance of the victims of the twentieth-century genocide perpetrated by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.
The audience members reminisced about their murdered family members, and recalled conducting underground music classes to escape the city’s chaos. “Their thirst for knowledge and appreciation of music was so profound. They don’t take anything for granted. Performing there was a highlight of my life.”
by Megan Huard