News & notes from Claudia Hommel

Past notes are linked at the bottom left.

October 13, 2017

Hello to friends and fans!

There's a good reason I don't keep a blog... life is passing too fast for me to document it with blog-like regularity. Here we are almost at the end of 2017. When last I wrote 20 months ago, I promised incredible projects and performances for 2017 but they are not the ones I expected!

Spurred on by Faith Prince's suggestion (see my 2016 post), I started to explore the Parisian song scene to see how to bring a cabaret workshop to France. The first track I followed was musical comedy schools (of which half a dozen have been formed in the past decade). In June 2016, I sang at the Chateau les Milandes to fête Josephine Baker's 110th birthday and the 15th anniversary of the revitalized chateau. This gave me the opportunity to meet with a few school directors back in Paris. Our offer was too "riche" for their programs. French performers and students are not used to paying tuition at US rates. But Laurent Mercou of l'École Professionnelle de la Comédie Musicale invited me to come on my own to lead a four-day "stage" in December. I loved working with the mostly college-age performers and they seemed to enjoy the process of working on individual personalized songs. But in the end we realized that the distinction between Musical Comedy and Intimate Song plays out in ways that can frustrate a young performer who dreams of being in the chorus line—so lesson learned.

While in Paris, I learned that the Centre de la Chanson, a major center for songs and singer-songwriters, was closing down (rather abruptly, in fact) for lack of state subsidies. The dependence on state funding, the lack of a membership-driven base to keep it alive, got me to thinking about how we could bring our successful experience with the Chicago Cabaret Professionals to our French cohorts. How do you find what we call "cabaret" in Paris? With difficulty! I started looking for performer-colleagues in Paris to explore together.

When I returned home, I called up Lynne Jordan (a singular powerhouse and fabulous cabaret performer) and my longtime colleague Elizabeth Doyle to start thinking about how to create a real singers exchange with Paris. We had to work fast. A Chicago grant application was due in mid-January. Roxane Assaf and Natalja Aicardi jumped on board and we were off and running.

While I managed to have several solo performances in Chicagoland, Cleveland and the Detroit area during the year and a few SongShop concerts as well, the wheels for our first Chicago Paris Cabaret Connexion were turning. The amazing thing is how the pieces fell into place for three fabulous days in Paris, September 15 to 17, 2017. Where one person stepped aside, another stepped in her place. In Chicago, Roxane found us a logo designer par excellence. We didn't get the grant but a dozen singers stepped forward to sing two benefit concerts that raised $5000. My fans helped me raise an additional $3000. And registration fees from our Chicago delegation came to another $3000.

On the Paris side, I recruited Mylène Launay to be our French correspondent, without whom this project simply wouldn't have happened. Meanwhile, discovering French scholar Jacques Protat via his online report about New York style cabaret led me to Christian Stalla, editor of the Collection Cabaret at the publishing house l'Harmattan. Christian led us to historian Michel Trihoreau, Marie-Thé&@232;se Orain, Yves Bertrand, and a passel of young singers to participate in our first exchange. Marie-Thé&@232;se found us fellow singers like Anne Sylvestre, Xavier Lacouture, Gilbert Laffaille to share a round table discussion, and most importantly brought our project to an essential administrator Danielle Mazens who offered us a theatre and publicity and a structure for the future. My master class accompanist Jean-Claude Orfali brought us Michéle Barbier, singer-songwriter who had been Josephine Baker's private secretary from 1969 to 1971. Mylène brought Christian Bassoul and dozens of fans from the Sunday petit bal musette de la rue Mouffetard.

What a triumph, beyond everyone's expectations; every event of the packed program took place with results surprising and positive. When I left Paris on September 18, a French committee was in formation around the table at Danielle's office. Our next task: to organize the 2018-2019 Cabaret Connexion in Chicago.

And did I mention that I was inspired by a new colleague in Detroit, Tara Sievers-Hunt to pick up "Summers on the Seine," my Jazz Fauré Theatre Project musical theatre piece? We renamed it "Saturdays on the Seine" and, by taking Cheri Coons' Story into Song workshop at Chicago Dramatists earlier this year, I've learned more about my heroine Lydia the seamstress and her Liza Doolittle-like relationship to the artist René d'Orsay. There's more work to do in the next year but the characters are getting impatient to be seen in a staged reading.

Finally, to bring things up to date, on October 1, it was an honor to receive the Special Recognition Award from the Chicago Cabaret Professionals for our work with SongShop. I thank Ruth Fuerst for writing an outstanding parody of SongShop Week to Week to Irving Berlin's Dancing Cheek to Cheek. I thank Dr. Susanne Baker, director of the Community Music Division at DePaul University School of Music who presented the award and who has provided us with the essential homebase since 2003. I thank my colleagues of Chicago Cabaret Professionals who continue to make cabaret visible in our city and beyond. And most of all I thank the dozens of singers who have bared their souls, opened themselves up to the vulnerable process of connecting to their songs and connecting those songs to their audience. Good work!