Denver Art Song Project (DASP) is a professional performing group which focuses on producing innovative, themed art song programs in Denver, Colorado. Founded in 2015, DASP has three major goals: production of professional performances, promotion of Colorado-based singers, creation of a digital legacy for these singers, and education through the cultivation of an art song community.
Tenor and co-founder Eapen Leubner shared some of the ways in which DASP is achieving their goals: "We have a High School Art Song Competition, which is our premiere educational event. Ithaca College, of which [co-founder Mallory Bernstein] and I are both alumni, is donating a $10,000 contingency scholarship to the School of Music as their grand prize. So the winner, if they decide to go to Ithaca College, will start their education with $10,000 off of their bill, which I think is fantastic and inspiring, and even if they don’t go, they will get a cash prize and will have had the experience in which they sang a song and earned a prize. We will be building a recital around the winners and however many honorable mentions we have. DASP will perform, they will perform, and these young vocalists will get the opportunity to perform on stage with professional musicians. We will also have a master class with one of our judges, Dr. Ivy Walz, another Ithaca College grad who now teaches there. We want to serve the musical community by providing another way to get kids excited about performing art songs.”
Additionally, DASP offers a family matinee for all of their programs, which admits the whole family for a $25 ticket. Leubner shares: "This ticket covers parents and as many kids as they’ve got. it’s a really cost effective way to be educational and also entertaining. We trim the show so it’s only as hour long without an intermission, and we try to make it very accessible for kids, depending on the age. Our Monsters, Creatures & Legends: Art Songs that Go Bump in the Night show is definitely for younger kids, whereas our Pillars of African American Art Songs is about more complex themes and is recommended more for upper-middle school and high school students." Looking for adult fun? DASP has partnered with Arts at Cabrini for cabaret-style performances where snacks and drinks are offered.
DASP was the brain child of Leubner, pianist Mallory Bernstein, and engineer Michael Bevers. Leubner and his wife moved to Denver from New York City in 2014 after the birth of their third child quickly made them realize they had outgrown their one-bedroom apartment. "We could upgrade to a two-bedroom in New York, or we could have a normal sized house out here in Denver. So that’s how I ended up here," he explained, "I realized if I was really going to commit to living here and being a participant in the arts community, I would want to make something special and unique that would be a contribution to the community at large."
You pull on a thread, and suddenly things start to unravel...
Leubner and Bernstein began collaborating after the move to Denver. They quickly discovered they had much in common: "We were both Ithaca college graduates and, although we didn’t meet there, she was pursuing her Masters degree in Fairbanks, Alaska while I was there singing Nemorino with Opera Fairbanks. So she was actually in the audience, and I was on stage, but we didn’t discern that until later. And then we met in Denver." Bevers had also been a great collaborator whilst recording, and the three decided they wanted to make a recording for fun. "You pull on a thread, and suddenly things start to unravel," said Leubner.
The group started with some small recitals and released their first album as the Denver Art Song Project on October 19th, 2015. They began to make plans for a full 2016-17 season, deciding for the first time on repertoire and on the principle vocalists who would be involved. Leubner explained, "When we looked at the lay of the land in Denver, we saw there were a number of excellent, and bigger than us, professional classical organizations: Opera Colorado, the Colorado Symphony, Boulder Opera Company, Opera Theatre of the Rockies. There were all these companies out there doing opera really well, but there wasn’t one organization out there with a laser focus on making art song performance, and that seemed like a gap we needed to fill. We have an opportunity here to make art song accessible."
DASP believes in accessibility and providing context for art songs. Supertitles are projected at every performance so that the program doesn't stand between the audience and the performer. "One of our core audiences is people who are not into classical music- people who may think 'I hate opera!' but know they like singing. Looking down at the program to try to understand what’s going on is a barrier to entry, and by removing that barrier through projected supertitles we can put people on a path from going to a show in which we explain everything to a slightly more formal setting. If we really are going to embody art songs for everyone, we need to give audiences the tools they need to enjoy it."
Another benefit of the art song? Length! "One of the reasons why I like art songs is that they’re low investment for the audience," Leubner offers, "If you don’t like an art song, in three to five minutes it’s going to be over and something else is going to happen!"
Supertitles are not the only tool that DASP uses. Performances also incorporate pieces of visual art that can be projected visually along with the supertitles to reflect the mood of the piece being performed. They will also sometimes create a set with a larger, overarching theme, to provide context and understanding for the audience.
However, there are some challenges: "People used to gather around at the piano and sing art songs because, then, they were just songs. It’s like somebody just put the word “art” in front, and now it’s like a tough sell. This is one of our biggest obstacles to overcome - they are still just songs. But people don’t do that anymore now that we have things like Netflix to entertain us. So with DASP, we want to start connecting through singing on a Friday night again. Every once in a while, let’s sing songs for one another and talk about art that we like. Let’s connect it to poetry. Let’s make a multi-disciplinary approach to support this genre that people don’t understand anymore."
People ask if we are a performing group, but I sometimes think that we’re a co-op.
When asked if Leubner sees Denver Art Song Project expanding their multi-disciplinary approach to partnering with other types of artists, he responded “Absolutely. We are looking to create a platform for our artists to mix and match art forms. One key thing that I want to bring to the genre is that, when we do a show, we have multiple singers and those singers curate the show. They choose the repertoire based on a theme that we all decide on. Sometimes, we will have a guest curator for a whole show – such as Stephanie Ann Ball, who curated our Pillars of African American Art Songs. People ask if we are a performing group, but I sometimes think that we’re a co-op. We all get together and we cooperatively build a show. It helps bring the passion that we have onto the stage.” It is in this way, by collaborating with and engaging the creative minds of artists of other disciplines, that DASP creates even more opportunities for young artists.
A plant... needs to face adversity to grow beyond what it is now.
Leubner firmly believes that Art Song is not a dying art by any means, or something to be handled with kid gloves. He someday hopes to have a recital of "low-larynxed classical singers" performing elevated pop songs with meaningful poetry. When asked if art song needs to be protected in today's world of Netflix, Facebook, and instant gratification, he responded, "If protection means keeping it formal and in a concert hall setting, I do not think so. If a plant is protected, it’s not going to be able to grow strong. It needs to face adversity to grow beyond what it is now. It needs to feel wind and rain and snow. It needs to either die – which we hope it doesn’t – or gain what it needs to grow into what it’s meant to be."
Leubner continues: "I think there are so many ways people can make art songs for everyone. By keeping the approach broad, we have an opportunity to experiment with the genre, challenge it, maybe not protect it too much, and find ways to draw different people in. If someday, somebody who started as an audience member of a DASP concert sees that Stephanie Blythe is singing an art song recital in Denver and thinks 'I want to see that!' then my work is done.”
If you would like to help support Denver Art Song Project, consider donating! DASP is able to keep expenses low by partnering with other arts organizations, meaning that a great percentage of this money will be paid directly to artists.
Witness the magic for yourself – if you find yourself in the Denver area, check out their next production...
Pillars of African American Art Songs:
Stephanie Ann Ball, curator/soprano
Mallory Bernstein, piano
Guest artist to be announced.
Friday, Feb 9, 2018 7 p.m. Arts at Cabrini
Saturday, Feb 10, 2018 7 p.m. Blair Caldwell African-American Research Library
Sunday, Feb 11, 2018 3 p.m. Wash Park Center for Music and Arts