By Alison Rooney
The Chapel Restoration features artists from around the world, but on Oct. 21 it features two from just around the riverbend as soprano Julianne Heckert and baritone Michael McKee, both from Garrison, return for their second tandem performance there, accompanied by Paul Heckert on piano.
Whereas last year’s program included classical works, this year the pair’s selections are farther-ranging: from Yip Harburg to John Prine, Barber, Menotti and Bernstein to duets by Schumann and Fauré. Paul Heckert will also locally premiere some songs he composed to poems by Lord Byron and Edgar Allan Poe.
Heckert and McKee’s first concert was the culmination of three years of teacher-student collaboration, which began when McKee started studying voice with Heckert after hearing her sing with the St. Philips Choir. He recalled, “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, asking for voice lessons,” Heckert continued. “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 initial 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 concurred, “Taking the risk of getting up in front of people, wanting to give the audience something good, makes us get ready, bear down, seriously.”
This year, with more shared singing experience, they decided to spend more time with duets. McKee said: “Julie and I have worked together on music of all kinds over several years now, so we’re tuned in to each other, as it were, and have an appreciation of each other’s approach to the work. This is our second recital with Paul Heckert, and of course he and Julie have made music together for as long as they’ve known each other, so that chemistry works into the mix very well.”
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.”
After graduating, McKee worked as a professional actor in Seattle and shifted to New York, where he did what actors do: showcases, commercials, tending bar. “It got tiresome, and I started feeling as if success as an actor wouldn’t overlap with success as an artist anyway.” 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, followed by a challenging musical role there, Mr. Peachum in Weill’s 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.”
Heckert also studied theater in college, earning a B.A. from Skidmore. She grew up in Garrison and spent her early days at a place where she spends a lot of time 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 dancehall girl in Paint Your Wagon there! I always loved to sing, but I didn’t take voice lessons until I got to college.”
Right after college graduation, Heckert landed a job understudying all of the women in the chorus of the touring production of Evita. After returning to New York City she studied voice. 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. Eventually she returned to Garrison with her husband, Paul.
McKee, in the meantime, had also shifted north, moving to Garrison in 1999. “I really loved New York City,” he said, “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.
Heckert is excited about this year’s concert. “It’s a lovely program, devised from music we just wanted to sing. The whole point of the exercise, for me, seems to come down to sharing those compositions that just won’t leave my brain or voicebox until they’ve been shared. The challenge is to find the most honest, relaxed place for the song to come from. That might be most easily done with songs that are old friends, but sometimes new pieces just have a way of sitting right and feeling like old friends from the start. I feel that way about the Schumann and Fauré duets Mike proposed we sing. It has been a joy finding the harmonic blend in those and the other duets we sing as well.”
The concert will take place at 4 p.m. and is free of charge, with contributions welcome. Free parking is available at the adjacent Metro-North lot. For more information visit chapelrestoration.org.
Note: This article contains some material from an earlier Philipstown.info interview with Heckert and McKee.