Tiffany Du Mouchelle, accompanied by pianist Elena Fomicheva, performs "Cuantas veces, amor" (Neruda) by Ian Krouse.
Published March 9, 2016
When Tiffany Du Mouchelle was a young girl growing up in suburban Michigan, she and her neighborhood friends would produce backyard musicals. They’d sing along with cassette tapes of the tuneful Andrew Lloyd Webber favorites “Cats” and “Starlight Express,” making all their costumes and sets, and choreographing all the moves.
“I remember our performances ran too late and went past my bedtime,” says Du Mouchelle, adjunct assistant professor and the new head of the Department of Music’s voice program. She was 7 when her mother had to haul her out of the backyard spotlight. “I had to go home and go to bed instead of finish my performance.”
Her path has led to a naturally well-lighted office with a grand piano in Baird Hall, where she balances teaching her students with steady performance plans that continue UB’s tradition in new music. That path, though, was anything but straight and smooth. Wanting to sing and being able to sing are very different things, Du Mouchelle says. She didn’t get into a university voice program until several years after graduating high school.
She will never forget physically shaking with anxiety while studying at both the New England Conservatory and the Longy School of Music, often the youngest in her class. She could barely get through the piece. She dedicated literally years to the hard work that brought out her best voice, overcoming her inclination to hide her real spirit and occupy the role of the dutiful student.
And then there was the kidney donation. When she was completing her master’s, she learned her mother needed a new kidney to survive. Du Mouchelle was a perfect medical match, but she faced the possibility the serious operation could affect her voice or the singing technique she was working so hard to perfect.
“The greater fear and more likely reality was that I could lose my mother in a very short time,” says Du Mouchelle. “I chose to respond in action to what I knew, rather than what I didn’t.
Her mother is now 63, and her daughter’s kidney has been “thriving” for almost seven years.
So it was anything but easy.
Nevertheless, that path from backyard songstress to Baird Hall’s newest star in new music shared one constant: Du Mouchelle loved the spotlight, with a passion for performing, for seeing the loop between her audience and herself that left her with that almost addictive feeling of sharing her music with others and watching them respond.
“I love the stage,” says Du Mouchelle, now in her second semester as head of the university’s voice program. “It’s definitely where I love to be the most.
“I just can’t get enough of it. I don’t feel I have to hide anything there. Whatever I put out there is exactly what I’m supposed to do. Anything goes,” she says, “especially when I am presenting programs of my own making. I can put what I want out there and I don’t have to feel censored in any way. I’ve worked really hard to open myself up and be really honest. I’ve always felt more honest on the stage,”
Throughout her career, Du Mouchelle struggled to channel that creative experience of opening herself and losing that inhibiting tension singers often endure. But once she got onstage, she found a presence and confidence, the same intangible and instinct that led her to reach the high E’s when singing Andrew Lloyd Webber as a girl — a distant musical experience Du Mouchelle says gave her courage to believe she might someday be an accomplished singer.
“I would be completely open on stage,” says Du Mouchelle, a French name from her father; her mother is Polish and Ukrainian. “Everything would flow through me. My singing would be so much easier. I felt I could connect with the text I was singing. I felt like I had the right to do that when I was on stage. I didn’t feel I had the right to do that when I was in a lesson because I owed it to the composer and to my teachers to be as perfect to the page, but not as perfect to the performance.
“I was much more appropriate to the piece when I was in performance. Being on stage freed me.”
Du Mouchelle’s singing resume spans the globe, from the residence of the U.S. ambassador to Egypt in Cairo, to the Skalholt Summer Music Series in Iceland. Geography aside, Du Mouchelle’s credits entail more music than could be covered in this article, from musical theater and cabaret to genres most people have never heard of. Her UB Department of Music biography praises her “musical versatility,” “electric stage presence” and “exceptional dramatic sensibilities.”
“Most recognized for her fearlessness in exploring new and challenging repertoire,” the biography reads, “she ushers the voice into new realms of expressivity, including a vast array of musical styles and languages, featuring 35 different languages and exploring the genres of classical, world, contemporary, cabaret and theatrical works.”
Her many credits and honors include the prestigious Richard F. Gold Career Grant for American Opera Singers, performing at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, the Bang on a Can All-Stars, at Disney Hall and at the New York Historical Society. That’s such a limited list. There’s also performances at the Acropolium in Carthage, Tunisia; serving as soprano-in-residence at the Yellow Barn Music Festival; and the Australian premiere of Stockhausen’s chamber opera “Sirius” at the Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music, to name a few.
“I’m a little sick of (Adele’s) ‘Hello’ because I’ve heard it a few too many times,” says Du Mouchelle. “But I can sing along with it.”
That trademark voice of hers is nothing short of remarkable, especially heard from within the same room. It can be soft and delicate, or it can bring to mind the power of famous female opera stars. She can belt out a Broadway tune with the best of them. Or she can use that theatrical experience and her expressive, Met Opera-esque facial features to mold different sounds that are beyond simple singing. Her diction and mechanics, two of Du Mouchelle’s singing priorities, are always a prominent part of her presentation. She can do “kulning,” a Swedish yodeling technique that is a type of herding call.
Du Mouchelle also has performed Afghani songs called “Speaking for the Afghan Woman” by William Harvey featuring texts in Pashto and Dari. The texts in Dari are poems by Afghan female poets, all of whom have been repressed from being heard and have even been exiled or killed for speaking out.
Her faculty recital — to take place at 7:30 p.m. March 24 in Baird Recital Hall — features one piece called “Lohn,” meaning “far away” or “distant,” and comes from Occitan, the Old Provençal language in which the text is sung.
The piece — about love from afar — blends Du Mouchelle’s musical versatility with concrete sounds of birds, wind and rain, synthesized electronically and remixed with state-of-the-art technology.
She sang an excerpt a cappella (the translation: “Never will I enjoy love, if I do not enjoy this distant love, for a nobler and better one, I do not know anywhere. Neither near nor far. So high is its true real price that there in the kingdom of the Saracens I wish to be proclaimed her captive.”). Her power and articulation and expression brings to mind an ensemble of instruments, all coming from the same vocal chords.
“Compete with reverb immersed in the sound,” is how she describes it. It’s environmental. A singer without Du Mouchelle’s talent, dramatic pedigree and courage would be well over her head.
The third piece of her recital, “Justice Arias,” portrays aspects of the Greek heroine Clytemnestra as she contemplates her husband’s return from the Trojan War before she kills him in retribution for the death of their daughter, Iphigenia. Du Mouchelle fuses what usually are two separate roles — one of actress and one of the soprano — but maintains separation with different articulation.
It all flows from that same source: the singer who declares she might have started singing because she “just might have wanted to be heard.”
“We all want to be heard in some way,” Du Mouchelle says.
Singing is using energy in the right way, she adds.
“It’s very empowering. Someone who can open up and make yourself be heard appeals to everything in life. A l0t of people are driven to music because it is very therapeutic. To be able to belt out something feels really good. You have to be relaxed and open to making sound to successfully release sound.
“You have to release yourself to release the sound.”