Seraphic Fire may not be the only vocal ensemble to embrace a mobile approach to concertizing, but it’s certainly one of the best. The group’s origins lie in a series of concerts put on by founder Patrick Dupré Quigley for a Miami church. Rather than recruit new members every few years, Quigley decided to maintain his original choir and establish it as a professional ensemble – Quigley has his singers flown in throughout the year for a jam-packed week of rehearsals and concerts all over the Miami area. With a mission to present unique programs of lesser heard works, and with recordings, hundreds of performances and two Grammy nominations under their belt, Seraphic Fire is regarded as one of the preeminent vocal groups in the country.
21CM director Mark Rabideau had the chance to catch up with two members of Seraphic Fire during the group’s recent visit to the DePauw School of Music. Director of education and bass singer James K. Bass and tenor Patrick Muehleise shared their thoughts on making a living as a professional musician and connecting with modern audiences.
On transitioning from student to professional musician…
Patrick Muehleise: It’s a scary thing, sitting in undergrad and not sure what direction your career is going to go. We have a lot of performance majors that we’re pumping out in the U.S. One of the things [Seraphic Fire has] been looking at is how we can help those people transition from the academic world into the professional world. … The paths that we all have taken are very unique, for every single person within Seraphic Fire.
James K. Bass: We see this all the time at universities: We tell that young singer, “You’re sounding great. You’re right on track. Finish that senior recital, come back, get a master’s.” Now they’re 24 years old, let’s say. The voice teacher pats them on the back and says, “You’re going to sound so great when you’re 32.” Then the poor singer, who’s highly trained and has spent thousands of dollars, has nothing to do. The truth is that there are things for them to do, but no one’s told them where to find it. So we’re trying to pull the veil back.
On making a living as a professional singer…
JKB: You have to be willing to travel. The model for Seraphic Fire – it’s based in Miami. In the current roster, only one singer lives in Miami. We fly in on a Sunday night. Monday and Tuesday we have rehearsals. We’ll sing Wednesday [through] Sunday in different communities in the Miami area, and then we either fly home on Sunday night or to our next gig.
As a singer, if you say, “Well, I’m only going to live in this town,” you’ve limited your earning capabilities. But if you’re willing to say, “I’ll manage my body and my musicianship to be able to [travel and] learn things really quickly,” then you can make a living at this.
On connecting to modern audiences…
PM: The music we perform is something that has set Seraphic Fire apart since its inception. “Lesser performed” music is one of the things we want to focus on – so taking a new approach to things like the Monteverdi “Vespers.” Last week we did [J.S. Bach’s] St. Mathew Passion in Miami and used a different version. We did the “Mendelssohn cuts.”
JKB: We as an essential being have not changed. We still cry, laugh, love. When humans are no longer capable of feeling emotion is when classical music will no longer have a place. So this is never going to happen.
But what we have to do is find out how, in the modern framework, how can this same emotional feeling occur? The reason the art is timeless if because we react to it … [The Miami audience] is not atypical of the American classical art scene, where people are somewhat interested but a little uneducated about it. What you don’t want to do: you don’t want to take that casual classical listener and, the first time they come in the hall, make them feel guilty, intimidated, unwelcomed, shamed. And we also don’t want them to sit there for two hours!
This is a modern world. Our concerts are usually between 75 and 90 minutes without intermission. And in 16 years, we have never repeated a concert exactly, ever. When you come to one of our concerts, you’re like, “I don’t know what I’m going to hear. This is great.”
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.