Friday, September 16, 2011

Remembering Vangie

On September 11, a day that had seemed sad enough, we lost one of the most remarkably gifted students I've had the pleasure of knowing. Evangelyna Etienne, a mezzo-soprano with limitless potential, joined the choir of angels after a long and brave struggle with cancer. She had just turned 21.

"Vangie" had a voice and musical maturity that far surpassed what one might expect from an undergrad. I can still vividly remember hearing her for the first time as I accompanied her audition for our school, and within a few months of her arrival on campus we'd decided to cast her as Dido in an extended scene from Dido and Aeneas. Performing in a dry science auditorium with no-budget sets and costumes, she left us all riveted, showing how music has the ability to transcend limitations of space and time. I'd heard, played, and taught Dido's famous lament dozens and dozens of times, but it was new and unbelievably real in those moments.

She was hysterical and terrifying as the witch in Hansel and Gretel her sophomore year, but I probably remember her best from two full roles she sang last year, first as the witch in Into the Woods and then as Ruth in The Pirates of Penzance. She was already quite sick through both runs and had to miss many rehearsals when getting out of bed wasn't an option, and yet she never even considered the option of dropping out - nor did she ever complain. The Into the Woods role is particularly grueling and we had ten performances, all of which were elevated by her gorgeous singing and the uncanny combination of brokenness and wisdom one felt every night during "Children will listen." Time stopped again and again.

For practical reasons, we held auditions for both of those shows at the same time, and when Vangie walked in, I assumed she was mostly interested in Pirates. I have to confess I didn't even know Into the Woods that well yet, so when she handed me the music to "Stay with me," it was a song I had never played. There were about 8-10 of us in a little black-box theater as I started in the wrong tempo on a horrible old upright, but when she started singing, we were all brought directly into the dramatic moment, and it was as if the show was in full production. I'd never realized the song had even 1/10 the potential she delivered in that moment, which felt nothing like an audition. We had many fine students who could've sung the role, but she had managed to own it completely in two minutes; on some level it felt like I'd experienced the entire show within this tiny fragment. I'll never forget that.

I've written before about the power that musical fragments can have, and I'll close with two other fragment-like musical memories of Vangie. (Of course, it's worth pointing out that Vangie's voice and musical abilities are only a small fragment of what made her so special to so many.) One moment comes from early last May when I Twittered the following about her:
...half-listening to Poulenc's "Les chemins de l'amour" drifting in from a studio next door. So great...but jealous I'm not playing.
I'm still jealous I wasn't playing, but remember this moment even more because a couple of days later, Vangie's situation took a turn for the worse. Yet I can still hear those fragments of melody floating by, and they are as real and beautiful as if I were hearing her sing the whole song now. And, yes, I still wish I could hear her sing the whole song now.

One quality I especially admired about Vangie is that she loved so many different types of music and was as curious about new and varied repertoire as any singer I've come across. She certainly loved opera, but also all kinds of art songs, gospel music, choral music, musical theater, etc. Since she knew I loved to blog about unexpected musical connections, she'd often let me know of ones she'd heard. I tweeted about her in this context last November:
Very impressed by student noticing connection between this Poulenc (1:05) and this Puccini (2:50)...
She once noticed something quite insightful about one of Eric Whitacre's choral works, emailed him about it, and he responded to her with delight that she was the first to have pointed it out to him. Though she was a born soloist, she loved Whitacre's choral works and was a participant in each of his Virtual Choir experiments. He even featured her briefly in his TED Talk [4:50 mark].

The day after she passed away, I found myself listening to her upload of the Soprano 2 part for the second incarnation of the Virtual Choir. (You can read her comment about recording it here.) Whitacre's music is so much about the shimmering harmonies created by the massed parts that I was taken aback at how beautiful, satisfying, and complete this single-voice fragment is. 

It is simultaneously heartbreaking and comforting to hear Vangie singing these words alone and yet with so many others. I think it gives some taste of her unique voice, and I use voice in every possible sense of the word. Her life certainly feels like an unfinished fragment from a human perspective, and yet the life she lived was as complete, beautiful, and satisfying as a life could be. We miss her terribly.

1 comment:

lacy blaine said...

so good to read these words, Dr. M. thank you for posting.