The October Sunday Songbook Series at Springfield Contemporary Theatre Center Stage in Wilhoit Plaza will present Springfield native Steven Tharp in an intimate cabaret evening of music from the Great American Songbook. It's Sunday October 22 at 7:00p.m.
Steven Tharp made his name as an opera and concert tenor performing at, among other opera houses, the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera, Netherlands Opera, Dallas Opera, Houston Grand Opera, and the opera houses of Karslruhe, Germany and Palermo, Italy. As a fixture on the concert stage Tharp has appeared with the New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, Royal Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, St. Louis Symphony, Orquesta Sinfonica de Mexico, Great Performers at Lincoln Center and a host of others. I talked with Tharp by phone from his office in the Music Department at University of Missouri-Columbia about the performance. (Full disclosure: Steve is one of my oldest and dearest friends; we graduated from Glendale High School together in 1975.)
Steven Tharp comes down to Springfield often to visit, but this is his first local performance in a couple of years. He’s been heard here singing Cavaradossi in Puccini’s Tosca with the Springfield Symphony, as well as singing the tenor solos in a memorable Verdi Requiem with the Symphony several years ago; Alfredo in Verdi’s La Traviata for Springfield Regional Opera; and numerous performances in gala evenings for both organizations. He first performed this “cabaret” evening of popular American songs and standards about a year ago up in Columbia.
“Under the idea that ‘no song is safe from me’,” he jokes, “I have put together a program that ranges from George Gershwin and Cole Porter, through vaudeville and up to contemporary composers like Paul Simon and Peter Allen. It’s a wide variety of songs: an Irving Berlin song from the late ‘teens called ‘You’d Be Surprised,’ which some people still may remember. And some fun songs like ‘Hard-Hearted Hannah, the Vamp of Savannah, G.A.’ And a beautiful (contemporary) song by David Friedman called ‘We Can Be Kind.’ It’s not a well-known song, but it’s a very beautiful song with a great message.”
People may think of Steven Tharp, based on the performance history listed above, as primarily an opera/concert/art-song singer. But he’s had a lifelong interest in the great popular songs. I reminded him that when we were still at Glendale in the mid-1970s, he and several of our friends performed revues of songs by Gershwin, and even the Belgian songwriter Jacques Brel. (I ran spotlight for several of those evenings.) “Yeah, I’ve always had this ‘other vocal life’, this other interest apart from the classical repertoire, to just get into the great American songs and really explore them. Of course I come by it pretty honestly: my parents made sure that I grew up listening to Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald and singers like that. And then I discovered some great singers on my own, like Mabel Mercer and Barbara Cook, Bobby Short... and in my own modest way trying to kind of walk in those footsteps. I just grew up listening to that kind of music, even before classical music. So it’s kind of my first love, you might say, in music.” (I can personally vouch for the fact that Ray Tharp’s LP [and 45rpm and 78rpm] collection was rich in those kinds of vocalists, as well as classic jazz and swing—many albums of which I borrowed when I wasn’t immersed in Steve’s own rich treasure trove of opera recordings.)
Tharp has even participated in a popular song-oriented version of “The Three Tenors,” called “The Three Cabaret Tenors,” aka “Three Tenors in Search of an Act.” “In New York,” he explains, “we did a fun show at a theater a few years ago, and have revived it a few times including several Christmas shows. We put a little classical in there just for those who want to hear that sort of thing—we did a rendition of ‘Nessun dorma’ [from Puccini’s Turandot], because everybody expects that from ‘Three Tenors’! But mostly we did the kind of music that I’m doing here—American pop and standards. It was a lot of fun, and I learned a tremendous amount from doing a semi-long run of these performances. We were booked for most of one summer at a club called... well, I can’t remember the name of it now—it’s closed!” he laughs. “It didn’t close because of us... I don’t think!”
Tharp is entering his fifth year as an Assistant Professor of Voice at University of Missouri-Columbia—his first actual five-day-a-week “day job,” in fact. But he’s certainly no stranger to teaching and coaching, as he worked with many private students during his years in New York. “I’m having a great time teaching here. The kids are wonderful, and they keep you on your toes. And I’m still enjoying performing in a lot of places.” He has also stage-directed opera productions for conductor/musicologist Will Crutchfield at the Caramoor Festival. “I like to tell people what to do,” he jokes, “so I occasionally get paid for it!”
As for upcoming performances, “I’m going back to East Lansing, Michigan, where I just did a Schubert recital not too long ago, to do a Handel oratorio, ‘The Foundling Hospital Anthem’ with them. And then in November I’m going to be appearing with the Wichita Symphony in Haydn’s ‘Creation.’” Tharp earned his Masters in Vocal Performance at Wichita State University.
The MU professorship specifically involves performing as well as teaching. But has the five day (or more!) a week fall and spring semester schedule caused him to curtail his performing and traveling calendar somewhat? “Yeah,” he answers, “there are some things that just won’t fly—like a long rehearsal period for an opera, for instance. It would be very hard to make that compatible with the teaching schedule. But going out for a few days for a concert, that’s generally okay. So I’ve been able to keep up the concert side of things. But the opera is, I think, mostly in the past now.” He chuckles. “Never say ‘never,’ but I think those days are mostly in my past.”
Tharp has a major “decade” birthday coming up (I won’t say which one, because I’m already there myself!)—in fact, he’ll be performing at SCT Center Stage on his birthday. “It’s my birthday present to myself,” he says. He’ll be accompanied by one of his colleagues from the MU music faculty, pianist Neil Minturn. “He’s a (music) theory professor in his regular job, but he plays a mean jazz piano,” says Tharp. “We started putting this show together and just got on like a house on fire, so it’s great working with him again.”
Tickets for this show range from $8 to $16. For information call 831-8001 or visit www.springfieldcontemporarytheatre.org.