Women’s History Month: Celebrating Women In The Arts – Spotlight On Brett Umlauf

by Karen Tortora-Lee on March 24, 2011 · 0 comments

in Karen's Interviews, Music, Women's History Month

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These women of the arts hail from different disciplines, but they all have an indomitable spirit and a luminescent spark that makes them amazing human beings who are out there every day, doing amazing work.

Today we continue our series with Brett Umlauf.

The first time I saw Brett she was decked out in a huge red velvet ball gown, had a powdery white wig upon which a black top hat was perched and she was singing along with two other identically dressed women.  Together they were Charites, and they were singing everything from opera to standards to Lady Gaga for Austin McCormick’s take on fairy tales – Le Cirque Féerique.  I found them utterly captivating, versatile and charming so when it came time to have my one year anniversary party I definitely knew I wanted them to perform, and I was thrilled when they accepted.  Soon enough Brett and I kept in touch through various other things she was involved with, most notably the Diva Search produced by Morningside Opera.

As a lifelong devoted fan of Opera with season tickets to the Met, I’m thrilled that I now have a strong connection to the next generation of Opera via the lovely and talented Brett Umlauf.  The more I get to know her, the more I’m continually drawn to her thoughtfulness, her dedication to her craft, and her supreme talent  - the voice that floats so effortlessly from her tiny frame and fills a room with the most glorious, lilting, soaring notes that leave you astonished.  Ahh, if only Brett could sing her answers for us …

Brett Umlauf

Brett Umlauf

Talk to me about being a woman who does what you do- just overall.

What I enjoy most about what I do is learning from my colleagues, male and female. The euphoria that comes from a good musical chemistry, a gratifying artistic collaboration is what I crave in any project. In her poem “The Witch’s Life,” Anne Sexton wrote: “When I was a child / there was an old woman in our neighborhood whom we called The Witch…I think of her sometimes now / and wonder if I am becoming her…Only my books anoint me, / and a few friends, / those who reach into my veins…”
Substitute the word ‘projects’ for ‘books,’ and I feel as though I’m living her poem. As I witness the crone slowly eclipse the maiden in my form, my face, my voice, my figure, my affinities, I notice I wrap a trusted creative circle tighter and tighter around me, those who ‘reach into my veins.’ I have learned to let my gut tell me from whom I can learn the most, and I’m going with that feeling more and more.

Are there days it makes a difference – good or bad?

I’ve never felt that being a woman was the reason I had a good or a bad day doing what I do. Obstacles that everyone faces: time-constraints, self-doubt, budget concerns, limitations of skill-set; these are the things that can make a rehearsal or process or performance feel gnarly, but I’ve never traced these challenges back to being a woman.

Are there barriers you fought against in the past?

No. And here’s where I feel almost guilty. When I have second wave feminist friends attending a performance where I’m blithely glamming it up, Girlie Culture Style, I experience something akin to shame. (But not enough to take off the lipstick and heels!). However, I am keenly aware that it’s on account of *their* efforts that I can honestly say: what barriers?
I try to honor prior generations of women in everything I do, as I am full of gratitude for where and when I live and with whom and to what degree of freedom I am permitted to work and create. We cast Morningside Opera’s recent Handel pastiche ATRA: Ossia, L’amore Ricordato as a lesbian love triangle, the powerful castrato role being sung by a woman and *played* as a woman, i.e., not dressed in pants and a painted on moustache. The director, Minou Arjomand, will be telling you more about that process hopefully very soon.

The men that you come across do they treat you as an equal?

As they should, the men *and* the women I work with treat me in accordance with my skills, professionalism, contribution, talents, etc. But a fair number of projects with which I am involved are women-only. A woman composer friend recently commented to me how much she’s been enjoying the “courtesy, patience and encouragement” she’s found working in our female dynamic, when she’s used to an environment dominated by male energy. I appreciated her pointing that out, as it’s something I probably take for granted, working exclusively with women so often.

Are there some resources you’d like to share that you find particularly helpful as a woman?
I find a lot of wisdom and comfort in the voices of women poets, past and present. Edna St. Vincent Millay, Jane Kenyon, Anne Michaels, Anne Carson, Priscilla Becker… There’s endless free camaraderie out there thanks to these women’s gifts paired with the gift of public libraries.

What’s up next for you, Brett?

SIREN Baroque

SIREN Baroque

A. Come enjoy Charites as we perform works by women poets and composers of the baroque on Wednesday, 13 April 2011 at 1:15p (ARTEK Midtown Concert Series) at Immanuel Lutheran Church; 88th St at Lexington Ave; New York NY
B. Stay tuned for more from SIREN Baroque, a brand new all female ensemble that debuted this month. Photo from our concert at Caffe Vivaldi on the left.
C. Stay tuned for Morningside Opera’s next season and hopefully a feature where director Minou Arjomand and female cast members will reflect on Karen’s questions…


More about Brett Umlauf
Soprano Brett Umlauf is not only a huge fan of thehappiestmedium.com, but also a founding member of the female early music trio Charites, singer in the all female ensemble SIREN Baroque, co-creator of an educational entertainment about the Swedish rococo poet-composer CM Bellman and both board member and principal artist at Morningside Opera. She’s currently collaborating with composer Kate Soper, mezzo Amber Youell and dancer Laura Careless to re-imagine Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater alongside Soper’s new opera for three female voices. Visit brettumlauf.com for more info and concert dates!


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