By Alison Rooney
Garrison’s own Julianne Heckert, soprano and Michael McKee, baritone, will perform in recital at the Chapel Restoration on Sunday, June 12. Philipstown.info recently sat down for a talk with both singers. This is their first tandem concert, but they have worked together before in the recent Depot Theatre production of Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera, and as members of the St. Philips’ Church Choir. The concert, which will feature a wide range of material, from operatic selections to art songs, is the culmination of three years of a different sort of collaboration, that of teacher/student, which began when McKee started studying voice with Heckert after hearing her sing at St. Philips. He recalls, “I was so moved by the experience of listening to Julie sing. Seeing that she knew how to sing, I thought she could teach me how to sing.”
“Mike came to me three years ago, asking for voice lessons,” Heckert continues. “We started working. Since he was smart and wanted to sing so badly, he progressed really quickly. He joined the choir and did solos.” The joint recital was Heckert’s idea, “From my history, there is nothing like a concert to get you to prepare and really learn a piece of music, rather than just singing it once a week in lessons.” McKee concurs, “Taking the risk of getting up in front of people, wanting to give the audience something good, makes us get ready, bear down, seriously.”
The teacher/student roles have shifted through the rehearsal process to that of collaborators, although McKee says he will always think of Heckert as his teacher. Heckert interjects that “I think of us as colleagues” but McKee insists, telling Heckert that “I would defer to you on just about every artistic choice except for repertory. I pick my songs and then I trust your judgment — you always have an open mind.” Heckert calls McKee “not afraid to choose ambitious repertoire,” to which McKee adds, “Everything I’ve sung at St. Philip’s has gone beyond my ability to sing confidently, so I’ve always been challenged to stretch and take a leap. Threepenny was difficult music and also a risk, so I’m used to it. Performing is stepping off a cliff and flying: you have to believe.” Helping steer both performers toward doing their best in the concert is the music director, Paul Heckert, who happens to be Julie’s husband. Julie sings his praises, so to speak, “He’s doing a good job of supporting us through the songs and helping us learn them right. He doesn’t beat us up too much — he’s gentle!”
McKee did have prior vocal experience. He majored in theater, took voice lessons and performed in musicals during his undergraduate years at the University of Washington, “but I didn’t take it seriously then. Now I’m applying myself to learning the art and craft of it. My experience of Julie as a teacher is she’s always been really tuned in to the emotional commitment of the song, along with the technique, in equal measure.” After graduating, McKee worked as a professional actor in Seattle, and shifted to New York, as part of the “mythology of being a professional actor at that time, although the regional theater movement was going strong, the auditions were all held in New York. So I did what actors did: showcases, commercials, tended bar. It got tiresome, and I started feeling as if success as an actor wouldn’t overlap with success as an artist anyway. So it wasn’t happening.” Reflecting on what would be more satisfying, McKee went back to school to study psychology, eventually receiving his Ph.D. in the field. Clinical psychology has been his “second” career for over 20 years now.
A few years ago, at Heckert’s urging, McKee returned to acting, playing Helen Keller’s father in The Miracle Worker at the Depot Theatre. “I looked at the script, went and did it and then I got bitten by the bug again. It’s time-consuming, but very fulfilling. I’ve worked out an agreement on the home front for one play a year. Last year, that was Threepenny Opera.“ Also fulfilling has been singing at St. Philip’s, “I’ve had a great opportunity to do solos in oratorio as well as many duets with Julie, so our artistic collaboration has evolved.”
Julie Heckert also studied theater in college; she has a B.A. from Skidmore in the discipline. Heckert grew up in Garrison and spent her early days at a place she spends a lot of time at now: the Depot Theatre, where she is the house manager, frequently found staffing the box office and welcoming patrons to the shows with her warm smile. “I was a teenage dance hall girl in Paint Your Wagon there! I always loved to sing, but I didn’t take voice lessons until I got to college.” Despite calling herself “green,” right after college graduation, Heckert landed a job understudying all of the women in the chorus of the touring production of Evita — “My grandmother had a friend who was best friends with Ruth Mitchell, Hal Prince’s right-hand woman, and I got an audition. There I was mixed in with the gypsies and hoofers. I got my Equity card and traveled to Chicago, Kalamazoo, you name it!” The tour ended in Los Angeles, and Heckert stayed on there for a couple of years before returning to New York City, where she studied voice “at a wonderful little private studio, Singers’ Forum, on 21st Street.” It was during those years, that Heckert truly got to ‘know’ her voice, “My voice tends to like to do that operatic thing. I’ve tried to argue with it “¦ but I can’t. If I had my choice I’d be Janis Joplin or Judy Garland. But there is a limit to my instrument. My life is somewhat colored through the prism of this opera sound.”
Shifting her focus to a new type of music, Heckert started singing with the Collegiate Chorale. “Robert Bass was the maestro at that time. I learned a lot and it was satisfying. Paul and I would perform in recital at CAMI Hall three or four times a year. It was an old-fashioned little hall, a little stage with a Steinway, and you could rent it for a reasonable fee. That was how I satisfied my yearning for operatic singing; that plus workshops. I dipped my toe in the water and discovered that I didn’t want the life that total devotion to a singing career in the city involved. The life I wanted is the life I have.”
Convincing her husband to move to Garrison, Heckert returned to her childhood home and was happy to discover that it hadn’t changed all that much. “The Depot Theatre still smells the same! There’s something in the spirit here, very grounding.” McKee, in the meantime, had shifted north, moving with his wife Christine Foertsch from mid-town Manhattan, where he lived for 15 years, first to Croton and then to Continental Village before settling in Garrison in 1999. “I always thought of Old Albany Post Road as my dream, and now we are smack-dab in the middle of it. I really loved New York City, but it was a struggle wanting to be an actor and giving it up. Now I love it here and still get to enjoy the city.” McKee and Heckert have two children each, and are very much involved in community life in Philipstown.
The concert will feature solos as well as duets, McKee calling it “a nice blend,” and every selection was chosen carefully. “It took a year to prepare for it,” says Heckert, “and a year isn’t too long. A lot of work goes into just thinking about it. The music will inform you if you let it. There were some songs I chose that I found I just couldn’t sing — so I had to let them go. They weren’t right for my voice type. If you’re singing well, correctly and honestly, the music won’t let you lie. You have to sing what is right for you emotionally and range-wise.” McKee adds, “tonally and rhythmically too.” Accordingly the music will include selections from Mozart to Lee Hoiby, two songs by Ned Rorem and material by Ricky Ian Gordon. Heckert calls each song chosen “a real journey. It might be only two and half minutes long, but it’s taken us a year to get there.”
Both Heckert and McKee are looking forward to performing at the Chapel Restoration. Heckert reflects, “Singing is like love — you can’t argue with it, you have to do it for better or worse, you have to always find ways to do it. How lucky are we to live in a community where we can.” The concert begins at 4 p.m. this Sunday, and admission is free though donations to the Chapel Restoration are much appreciated. Parking is available at the adjacent Metro-North Cold Spring station lot. For more information visit www.chapelrestoration.org.
Photos courtesy of Chapel Restoration