Cabaret singer Ellen Ciompi puts on her eighth Valentine’s Day show this Friday, Feb. 12, at 7pm at The Regulator Bookshop, accompanied by her longtime pianist and musical coach Glenn Mehrbach and bassist Robbie Link. Originally from New York City, she received her bachelor’s in music from the State University of New York and her master’s in musicology from Queens College. She and her husband, Arturo, a classical clarinetist and conductor (and our wine blogger!), moved to Durham in 1982; Ellen became a registered nurse at Watts School of Nursing, and the couple raised two daughters. Although much of her vocal upbringing was vested in classical technique, Ellen says her beloved repertoire from the Great American Songbook is harder than it seems and that she’s connected with it in ways she never thought was possible. The theme of this year’s show is “Captivating, Cathartic, Colossal” – and the program is built around composers and lyricists whose names begin with the letter “C.”
What inspired you to establish the Valentine’s Day Cabaret?
I have been a customer at The Regulator for many years and attended events in their lower level space. I simply spoke with co-owner Tom Campbell, who is an old friend, and asked if we could do a performance there, and he said, “Sure!” The first date we had, which worked for both me and the store, was around Valentine’s Day, and thus was a series born. Fans have been increasing every year. Last year I ended up renting 25 extra chairs so we wouldn’t have to ask people to sit (illegally) on the stairs.
Of all the “C” composers and lyricists you’re presenting this year, which ones are you most excited about and why?
I’m especially excited to be doing a song by Ann Hampton Callaway, who is a very well-known singer/songwriter and champion of the Great American Songbook. It’s gratifying to sing a song written by a singer, because singers know the pitfalls and can avoid them as much as possible. Plus, her song, which is called “Fred Astaire,” tells a great story, and that’s the essence of cabaret.
What do you like most about performing this sort of music in front of a live audience?
Cabaret is a hard performance genre to define, as it sits at the intersection of singing, acting and improv, and maybe a little stand-up. But what any good performer wants is to establish a rapport with the audience, involve them in the show, break down the “fourth wall” that traditionally separates them. If you’re doing it right, you may provide the map for the journey, but each audience member will experience the performance in a very personal way, and my journey becomes his or her journey, too. You just can’t get that singing in the studio, or in the shower! The interaction ramps up everyone’s energy and is such a thrill. It’s also a little bit dangerous; there’s that extra frisson of uncertainty, which ups the collective adrenaline.
You and Glenn Mehrbach have a considerably long history of performing together. What have you enjoyed about your working relationship? What have you taught each other?
Interesting story. Back around 2001 or so, I received a catalog from Duke’s Continuing Studies, and saw a course entitled “Singing From the Heart.” It was taught by Glenn, and the description said, “I’m not going to teach you how to sing, and in fact you don’t need to be a great singer to take this class. This class is about song interpretation.” It sounded intriguing, and I was at the point in my life where I had a little extra time in the evenings, so I signed up for it. After the class was over, we started working together privately, and the rest is history!
With my background in classical music, it was very hard for me to embrace the idea of taking a song and making it personal. Classically trained musicians are constantly told that the notated music is sacred: You don’t change a note, you don’t change a dynamic (loud/soft) marking, the composer is God and you respect that. In cabaret, there’s a lot more flexibility in interpretation. You can take extra time with a phrase, or hurry it along. You can switch the order of verses, or leave some out. You can change the key — in fact, you can change it a lot of times in one song if you want! You can speak the lyrics a la Rex Harrison, and not sing a note. You can change the harmony, or the time signature, or the style (jazz vs. Latin vs. swing, for instance), all in the service of making it your interpretation and expressing your concept of the song to the listener. It took a while, with Glenn working hard to convince me that this was the reason for performing.
Our working relationship is friendly and fun and fearless and full of mutual respect. Either of us can suggest approaches to the other. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention what a tremendous piece of sheer, blind luck it is that someone with Glenn’s particular skills and talent landed here in Durham, and that I managed to find him. He knows the literature, he knows how to be an effective performer, and his ear is extraordinary. I always say, you could ask him to play the Moonlight Sonata in E-flat major in the style of a tango and not only would he go ahead and do it, he’d make you believe that that’s what Beethoven wanted all along.
What do you hope audiences take away from your performance?
I think that music and the movies are America’s two greatest contributions to the collective world culture. If I’m doing my job as an entertainer correctly, audiences will leave with a sense of having been part of the performance in a small but essential way. I also hope they want to listen to more of this incredible repertoire of American Popular Song from about 1910-1970. The composers and lyricists were so talented, so clever, so humorous – in the space of 32 bars, it’s a complete wonder. Plus I hope they leave humming something that’s caught their ear!
Can’t make it to Friday’s show? Ellen is also performing Sun., March 20, at Parizade at 5:30pm. The performance will take place in the private Club Room; your ticket purchase includes a glass of champagne and a three-course meal. Contact event manager Miranda Parker at email@example.com or 919-286-9712 for more information and to make your reservation.