In the popular imagination, an evening of torch songs inevitably takes place in a smoky basement club where a singer in a velvet gown purrs songbook standards while perched on a stool as her cigarette smolders in a nearby ashtray. A half-filled rocks glass is not far away.
It’s an appealingly nostalgic image, but don’t expect anything like that Friday at Cleveland Uncommon Sound Project‘s (CUSP) Torch Songs program.
For starters, the setting will be a de-consecrated church and eight singers will offer a handful of standards, but also an aria from a Massenet opera, a singer-songwriter ballad, a medieval song and much that defies easy categorization. And if you want to smoke, you’ll have to go outside.
The innovative event is the brainchild of soprano Melanie Emig who will also be one of the performers.
“I wanted to take that idea of a torch song and filter it through many different voices,” she said on a video call earlier this week. Selecting local singers from various genres, she encouraged them to interpret the concept of the torch song in a highly personal manner. “I gave them a prompt and said, ‘This is what a torch song is. Within your genre, can you present a song that is in your own voice?”
The responses were gratifyingly varied. Zeerak Ahmed, who performs as SLOWSPIN, deftly weaves elements of music from her native Pakistan into her collaborations with electronics. Tanzanian-American soprano Elizabeth Hanje will sing the opera aria while Liz Bullock brings her love for folk, indie and pop forms to the party. Elena Mullins Bailey specializes in early music while Swiss Army Knife soprano Amanda Powell, who can and does sing anything, will prove the point by singing both an updated early music composition and the quintessential pre-Taylor Swift kiss-off classic “Cry Me A River” accompanying herself at the piano. For all the variety of the program, traditional torch singing will be in the very best of hands with Evelyn Wright, perhaps the area’s most authoritative interpreted of the genre.
If Wright represents one pole of the torch song spectrum, who is at the opposite end?
“Naomi [Columna] and I are probably on the opposite,” Emig said. “Naomi is a visual and new music singer/artist in Cleveland and she’s fabulous.” For her part, Emig will sing a 2020 composition by Katherine Balch and a piece for voice and electronics composed by Justin Gunter who will accompany her.
Emig’s performance neatly braids two of her longstanding interests. “I am very interested in new music specifically, but I believe in making concerts more accessible to a wider audience,” she said. “I’m also interested in sonic theater. Because my background is in theater, like opera, I always, as a musician, want to create a space that has elements of theater.”
In a space as unusual and dramatic as the vast, resonant Convivium 33 with its choir lofts, galleries and sculptures of angels, theatricality is nearly assured. Yet Emig plans to up the ante in a dimly lit space. “We’re experimenting with different lighting sources,” she said. “Maybe it’s a candle, maybe it’s a lamp that you turn on, maybe it’s a spotlight, maybe it’s flashlights.” She is also considering a coup de théâtre involving the audience, but no spoilers here.
For all the program’s innovations, Torch Songs has an antecedent, and that program led to the current one, though not immediately.
Late February 2020, just weeks before most performance activity ceased, Emig produced a concert involving singers from different backgrounds called Samples for the now-defunct Fresh Perspectives organization. Stephan Haluska, CUSP’s managing director, was a key member of that organization and remembered the success of the concept.
“That was a very wonderful concert,” he said by phone. “I saw it as a very successful thing as far as bringing in lots of different styles of music, as well as a larger and more diverse audience as well. So doing another production similar to that I thought was very much within our mission.
With Torch Songs, CUSP is looking beyond mere audience entertainment. Portions of the proceeds of the concert will benefit local charity Collaborative to End Human Trafficking.
For Melanie Emig, Torch Songs is an articulation of an expansive artistic philosophy. “As a person that has sung in groups where I was singing things that weren’t necessarily my genre,” she said, “it was like, you gotta make that money. But the things that I find most fulfilling are the things that I love to sing and [that] speak to me. I really believe in people finding the music that is right for them.”
Torch Songs with Zeerak Ahmen / SLOWSPIN, Naomi Columna, Melanie Emig, Elizabeth Hanje, Elena Mullins Bailey, Amanda Powell and Evelyn Wright with instrumentalists Justin Gunter, Sonia Hu, and Danur Kvilhaug Friday, May 12 at Convivium 33 Gallery, 1433 E 33rd St., Cleveland. $15 suggested donation; no one will be turned away for lack of funds. A portion of the proceeds will go to local charity Collaborative to End Human Trafficking.