Paul Appleby has not exactly taken the traditional route to being a professional singer. Unlike many of his colleagues, Appleby (M.M. ’08, A.D. ’10), a tenor, attended a university for his undergraduate studies. Only after earning a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Notre Dame—in his hometown of South Bend, Ind.—did he audition for Juilliard. Ever since, his career has been steadily on the rise in the U.S. and abroad.
A National Winner of the 2009 Met Opera National Council Auditions and a current member of the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, Appleby, 27, has a busy season of recitals and operas planned, and on November 30 he will be the featured performer for Juilliard’s 14th annual Alice Tully Vocal Arts Debut Recital. As this year’s recital winner, Appleby is given an important public debut, a kind of “coming out” as he described it in a recent interview.
For the occasion, he has selected Franz Schubert’s momentous song cycle Die schöne Müllerin, recognizing that his choice is “a little unexpected in a debut recital where someone might otherwise display their diversity of styles and languages.” Rather than show off his versatility, Appleby has opted instead to offer “an initial statement of who I am as an artist. My interpretation of the piece has a lot to do with the idea of a young artist finding his voice. And my interpretation, or the way I understand it at this point in my life/career/artistic work, is very much based in my own journey as a singer and artist.”
Additionally, Appleby has a special facility and, as he states, “a real connection to Schubert’s music in general. But I’ve also found over the years of study [that] it’s always worked for my instrument. No matter what stage of my development, I’ve always been able to go to Schubert to help me find the core of my voice or the core of my artistic expression.”
In this case, Appleby is exploring his artistic expression through the main character of Die schöne Müllerin, the miller lad. Appleby explains that throughout the songs in the cycle, the young man is constantly addressing a brook, allowing the body of water to lead him on his journey. Along the way, he interacts and discusses his plans with the brook, which Appleby thinks is actually “a metaphor for his own deeper stream within himself—his true artistic voice. You can get very complicated in how you break down the piece. But for this time around anyway, I believe this was his journey and his way of really identifying with that deeper self—with that stream within him—which in his case, is truly his poetic voice and his way of seeing and interacting with the world as an artist.”
Appleby partially credits his interpretive ability to his educational path. “Every time you sing, you are dealing with texts,” he said. “You are interpreting not just a language, but a time period. You have to have a real imagination and understanding of the style, history, society, and culture of any given time. There are different schools of thought on how to interpret, but for me, that’s my training as an English major—that the level of thinking and analyzing a text has a lot to do with your responsibility as a singer. Again, not just the language, but the poetry and what it is trying to communicate.”
Collaborating with Appleby is pianist Brian Zeger, the artistic director of Juilliard’s Ellen and James S. Marcus Institute for Vocal Arts and the executive director of the Met’s Lindemann Program. Though Zeger has been Appleby’s coach and teacher, Appleby said they have a “wonderful dynamic, not [a] teacher-student relationship. He’s so supportive as a musician and is really willing to work as equals in this process. It has been really rewarding to engage with him as a colleague.” Appleby also admires Zeger’s receptiveness to new ideas. “Die schöne Müllerinis such a fascinating piece because it can support so many wildly different interpretations, musically andotherwise,” he explained. “Brian’s openness and facility with playing and styles allows us to really explore a lot of different ideas to come up with our on voice. It’s been a really fun process.”
Other projects this season for Appleby include recitals with the New York Festival of Song with Juilliard faculty member and pianist Steven Blier; the leading role of Jenik in Juilliard’s upcoming production in February of Smetana’s Bartered Bride with Maestro James Levine; and his Metropolitan Opera main stage debut in Ariadne auf Naxos as Brighella under Maestro Fabio Luisi.
In all of his performances, no matter what the genre, Appleby recognizes that “as a singer, you really have to open yourself up physically, visually, mentally, emotionally to the audience for it to be worth anything to them.” But he also feels that there is a special type of communication with an audience during a recital. His extensive experience in that venue, he says, “has really shaped me significantly as a communicator, as someone who connects a text and music, who tells a story.”