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Opera Singer Helen Lyons Adds Radio DJ to Her Résumé


  • Courtesy Of Daria Bishop
  • Helen Lyons

When soprano Helen Lyons decided to move back home to Vermont in June 2016, the state gained an internationally experienced singer. Lyons, a Williston native, studied voice at the Royal Academy of Music in London and the College-Conservatory of Music, University of Cincinnati. She pursued a career in New York City, at young artists' programs around the country and, for three years, on professional stages in Germany.

Back in NYC, Lyons met her husband. The couple decided to move to Ferrisburgh to be closer to her family — including her mother, Vermont Sen. Ginny Lyons (D-Chittenden).

Helen Lyons' upcoming gigs include concert solos with the Champlain Philharmonic, Vermont Virtuosi and the Bennington County Choral Society, as well as the lead role in Barn Opera's upcoming production of Giacomo Puccini's Tosca. She only sings in Vermont now, a welcome relief from her former life of constant travel and auditioning.

Recently Lyons started contributing to the music community in another way: as morning host on Vermont Public Radio's classical station. Her slot, formerly hosted by VPR's Kari Anderson, is 7 to 10 a.m., and she says she's thrilled to have it.

Seven Days caught up with Lyons by phone after a recent show to discuss her radio gig and introducing Vermont listeners to new and old sounds.

SEVEN DAYS: What's it like to be a DJ while also working as an opera singer?

HELEN LYONS: It goes hand in hand, really. I'm loving it. It feels like an absolutely perfect fit, and, as I said to an opera freelance musician recently, you've got to pick up a day job. Now, finally, I have a day job directly linked to the thing I've spent my life studying and performing.

SD: I noticed you played some orchestral pieces from operas on recent shows, including a waltz from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin and the overture from Mozart's Così fan tutte. Why isn't your program all opera all the time – including arias and choruses?

HL: It's important to maintain continuity with what that slot has always been. People who have been tuning in have certain expectations. Opera fans are a very specific part of the classical listener population.

And I'm sensitive to the fact that vocal music can be a little more difficult for people to tune in to. There's an element of I'm hearing somebody singing but in a language I don't know, so the meaning is lost, whereas an orchestral piece doesn't have the language barrier. Though I wonder if I'd encounter the same thing if I played a piece sung in English.

Also, the sound of a classically trained voice, that slightly unnatural-sounding trained voice ... Opera is not for everyone.

There's this other thing with listeners: This is too far above me; this is too elite. But I concentrate on images [in my commentary], which everyone can relate to. Like "A Severn Rhapsody" [by Gerald Finzi], from this morning — this is about a river. Anyone can picture that. For me, the Bach Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 evokes the colors sepia and mahogany.

I do try to work in arias. I played one to celebrate [soprano] Renée Fleming's birthday, and I've played choral music to support [fellow VPR music host] Linda Radtke's show. I'm still trying to get a handle on how it all works and comfortable with the production part. Meanwhile, I'm learning about all these composers. VPR has a 35,000-CD library, thanks to its supporters.

SD: I know radio hosts are chosen partly for the sound of their voices. Do you think opera singers have an edge in that regard?

HL: I think we definitely have [one kind of] edge: We know how to pronounce all those foreign words and names, having studied all those languages. Also, yes, I think there is a certain level of training to the voice that can potentially make it a soothing, pleasant sound to hear on the air.

SD: How did you decide to play "Dance of the Yi People," composed in 1960 for pipa, a traditional Chinese instrument, by Wang Hui-ran? How much non-Western or contemporary music do you like to play?

HL: I think it's important to include contemporary music, and exposing ourselves to world music is super important as well. Classical music can get into that stale dead-white-guys-from-Europe thing, but it actually encompasses everything from early music to music written yesterday. [With new compositions,] there's the question of What's classical music? Well, I know it when I hear it. Kind of like What's pornography? — I know it when I see it.

I like to include a lot of Latino composers and composers of color. We want to give listeners things that they like, but they might not know they like "Dance of the Yi People." That was completely new to me, but I was just so charmed.

SD: What other day jobs do you hold in Vermont?

HL: I teach voice in my studio on Patchen Road in South Burlington. I got the space when [pianist] Claire Black contacted me; she and [soprano] Sarah Cullins and [pianist] Sam Whitesell were looking at studio space because they were teaching out of their homes or at students' homes. I was using the Williston Federated Church.

Now we each have our own studio rooms with a shared lobby waiting area. So I worked on building up a studio over the summer — I've got about 10 students between 15 years old and sixtysomething — then applied for this position. And voilà!

The original print version of this article was headlined "Opera Singer Helen Lyons Talks About Her New Vermont Public Radio Gig"