Stephanie Blythe takes on the songs — and stories — of Johnny Mercer
The San Diego Opera brings a powerful voice to town for what promises to be an intimate, nostalgic performance of the great American lyricist Johnny Mercer
A powerhouse in the opera world, mezzo soprano Stephanie Blythe is coming to the San Diego Opera — though not in a big production. At least not yet. On Saturday, Blythe will perform solo, with just piano accompaniment and arrangements by Ryan MacEvoy McCullough. It's part concert, part cabaret, part story time, and it all centers around the life and work of songwriter Johnny Mercer.
For this performance, a deep dive into one artist's work, Blythe said Mercer was a simple choice. Speaking from her home near Scranton, Pennsylvania, she said Mercer was the face of the American songbook — not just because of his skills as a lyricist, but also as a performer and collaborator.
"He's probably one of the most important parts of the American songbook," Blythe said. "There is no other lyricist, I think, in the history of the art form that was more visible to the public than Johnny Mercer."
An American storyteller
Mercer was born in 1909, rising to fame in the 1930s and working extensively in Hollywood. He wrote some 1500 songs in his lifetime, and collaborated with Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire and more. His songs were performed by Judy Garland, Audrey Hepburn, Tony Bennett and Ella Fitzgerald — the latter even released "Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Johnny Mercer Song Book" in the mid-'60s.
Along with the breadth and influence of his catalogue, Mercer was an engaging and charismatic storyteller — something that speaks to Blythe.
"He makes people feel like they're part of a family. And I think that this is the kind of performer that I find the most inspiring, the kind of artist I find the most inspiring. And I thought it would be nice to share that with an audience," Blythe said.
Blythe previously appeared with the San Diego Opera in 2014 in a similar, story-rich evening of works by Kate Smith. She said this storytelling format is one of her favorite ways to perform — stories draw people in.
"It makes the performance more alive," Blythe said.
'Wherever you're going, I'm going your way'
Mercer co-wrote "Moon River" with Henry Mancini specifically in Audrey Hepburn's range for Breakfast at Tiffany's. Blythe said it's one of his most popular songs — because it's relatively easy to sing, and because of the nostalgia.
"It has a very calming effect. And like so many of Mercer's lyrics, and certainly Mancini's music, it's evocative of a time of a simplicity," Blythe said. "His music makes you feel like you're in that calm — I don't want to use the word lazy — not active space where there's no worry."
Another song in the mostly-top-secret set list is "When October Goes," made famous by Barry Manilow. Blythe said people may initially be surprised to learn that Mercer wrote it. But she added, "When you hear it, when you hear the lyrics, of course, these were written by Johnny Mercer."
When asked which tune she would pick if she could perform on stage with Johnny Mercer, Blythe said she'd go for something up-tempo and fun.
"I'd probably want to do a version of 'Lazy Bones' with him, which is one of his first songs. 'Lazy Bones' with him and Louis Armstrong. Can I have Louis Armstrong too?" Blythe quipped. "I think that would be amazing."
A powerful voice
Blythe has an impressively wide vocal range, said David Bennett, general director of the San Diego Opera. "She's really exploring the bottom part of her voice," he said.
Mercer's songs are just one part of the exploration; Blythe also occasionally performs as a tenor drag alter ego, Blythely Oratonio. Blythe will sing the title role, a baritone, in Puccini's "Gianni Schicchi" for the San Diego Opera's 2022-2023 season. Bennett said it's possibly the first time a woman will perform that role.
Saturday's show is a side-step towards typical programming for the San Diego Opera. After a significant detour to drive-in performances during the pandemic, the intimacy of the solo vocalist in an indoor venue will be welcome.
But Bennett said that there was an unexpected intimacy to those drive-in operas.
"One of the big surprises was the fact that it was really a very intimate experience because our audience members were within the confines of their car and with very high quality audio and also close-ups of the singers on large screens throughout the parking lot. So as I sat in my own car, I thought, there's something about this that we need to make sure we're keeping as we move forward, back into theaters," Bennett said.
It's in this intimate audience experience that the "amazing potential" of voice comes through — something Bennett hopes to focus on as they return to traditional productions.
"That's really something we're paying a lot of close attention to, which is this expressive potency of the human voice being the centerpiece of everything that we do," Bennett said. "And that is really on full display in an intimate space and in the kind of format that Stephanie will be sharing with us."