My greatest artist-mentor was born 100 years before I was.
On May 17, 1998, I wrote these words in my journal: I sit in the Adirondack chair beside the house reading Yvette Guilbert in her words. What she knows about song delivery, the face, the pause, the soul, the woman. Finally, someone who gives me the words to describe what I do when I sing. I am crying…
On a 1998 trip to Germany to research the history of cabaret, I came upon a small hard-covered book in a store in Schwabing, the artists’ quarter of Munich. The title read: Die Kunst ein Chanson zu Singen (The Art of Singing a Song), by Yvette Guilbert. Originally written in 1928 in Paris (the birthplace of cabaret), it was translated into German in 1981 in Berlin. Short at 110 pages with another 60 pages of Guilbert’s lyrics and music, I snatched it up and didn’t crack it open until I was home in Texas.
With this discovery, I awakened to my medium in art and called myself a cabaretiste from that moment on. Though I’ve had many marvelous teachers in vocal technique, choral singing, theater, rhythm, breathwork and dance, Yvette is the one who has best described what I experience as a performer in blending music and theater intimately. I couldn’t be her living student for she’d already been dead for 54 years when I found her.
From the forward by Walter Roesler of the German edition (and I translate back into English): “The art of Guilbert was an art of nuance, born of the sensitive spirit of an end-time, a fin de siècle. The newness of her presentation: she used all the tools that she brought from the theater, employed both her speaking and singing voices, handled the song like ‘un drame condensé’, led by content and word with all the in-between tones and the rich palette of expression, that made her interpretations so fascinating.”
We all have one main muse who gets us going. Yvette was mine. Just knowing there was another singer who shared the same muse was so inspiring and freeing as I set about to forge my own path.
Perhaps it was by design that Yvette and would live in different times. I’m so grateful she wrote that little book that I could find one distant day. What keeps any of us from inscribing what we know? Who might we reach and touch? Whose world might be forever altered? I have a book in the works. In the meantime, I am a living mentor to those of you who feel the resonance with me as I felt it and feel it still with the chanteuse-diseuse, Yvette Guilbert.