Amanda Silliker didn’t mean to deceive, but neither was she telling the whole truth.
Silliker, the brilliant and captivating dramatic mezzo-soprano singer from Bellefonte, opened her recent concert by saying she chose the selections to reflect the passage of the seasons, not to show off her voice.
In musical terms, her reflection would have been a half note.
Accompanied by pianist Svetlana Rodionova, Silliker treated the audience at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Centre County’s Moser Hall to a virtuosic performance. From the bluesy ache of Gershwin’s “Summertime” to the Broadway wistfulness of “Try to Remember” to the fury of a Verdi aria, Silliker’s evocative power and subtlety were on full display.
I left entranced, but what do I know? I’m just a guy who asks a lot of questions and taps at a keyboard. People run for cover when I even hum a jingle.
For an expert’s take, I turned to another audience member, Rich Biever.
Biever, a local musical theater director, knows a thing or two about singing. He has an Indiana University degree in voice and choral conducting and an MFA in directing for the musical theater stage from Penn State, and he gives voice lessons.
From a technical standpoint, Biever said, Silliker was astounding.
“She has a seamless voice from top to bottom,” he said. “She’s able to negotiate register changes seamlessly. Her voice is balanced in all the areas. It can go from pianissimo to fortissimo and be stunning in all dynamics and all registers.”
That’s not surprising given that Silliker, who studied vocal performance at Penn State, has performed Wagner’s “Liebestod” and the Verdi “Requiem” with the Penn State Philharmonic Orchestra, Beethoven’s “9th Symphony” with the Nittany Valley Symphony and Mozart’s “Requiem” with the Johnstown Symphony.
Her upcoming performances include a showcase at the National Opera Association in New York.
“Being a mezzo, there’s a darker quality to her sound that I find very pleasing and wonderful to listen to,” Biever said. “And it’s very dramatic when she goes to the extremes of her range.
“When she goes to the highest range of her voice, it’s incredibly dramatic because the bulk of what she sings is in the mid-range. It’s just a very startling, wonderful sound.”
What truly impressed him, though, was her control.
“She’s able to modify her sound according to the piece,” he said. “So if the piece requires a lighter approach, she’s absolutely able to do that without sacrificing the quality of her sound.
“She doesn’t have to prove at every point that she’s a mezzo, or prove that she can hit a high note, or prove she can sing a dark, low note. If it’s low but light, she can do that.”
Silliker, Biever said, is a rarity: a classically trained opera singer equally adept at show tunes and standards. Among her stage roles, she has played Mother Abbess in “The Sound of Music.”
“I know that she would say she is a singer,” Biever said. “But I would say she is an actor who sings.”
Don’t misunderstand him: Silliker is an “incredible musician,” a “supreme artist of the music” who understands her craft “inside and out.”
“But she comes at it from a storytelling perspective: beginning, middle and end to each piece, no matter how light or serious,” Biever said.
During her UUFCC concert, Silliker’s dramatic flair was most evident in two opera selections. She closed out her first 45-minute set by transforming herself into the wailing, tormented Azucena recalling her mother’s execution in “Condotta ell’era in ceppi” from Verdi’s “Il Trovatore.”
For the concert finale, Silliker revealed her comic touch while singing two numbers from contemporary opera composer Jake Heggie’s “Of Gods and Cats.” To punctuate the end of “In the Beginning” she trilled a spot-on feline purr, and with “Once Upon a Universe” she switched back and forth between a chastised young god and his cosmic mother scolding him for breaking his creations.
“I think she loves to sing, but I think what’s under that is she wants to communicate to the audience,” Biever said. “It’s not just the beauty of her voice.”
Her acting ability more quietly manifested itself in “Drift down, drift down” by Landon Ronald, one of several 20th-century composers to whom she paid tribute.
Through nuanced vocal shadings, Silliker conjured a picture of a pensive woman gazing out a window at falling snow.
“She had developed a character and the snow symbolized something in that character’s life that was bringing hope to her. The snow was significant in some way,” Biever said.
Silliker’s stage presence extended to off-the-cuff remarks between songs — a plus in Biever’s opinion.
“One of the things that struck me was the informality of it,” he said. “It was very formal in terms of how it was structured and planned and rehearsed and presented, but she chatted with the audience in an informal way, and that’s not done in a typical recital.
“She was relaxed and informal that way, which I think helps break the ice for the audience to know how to behave. We all become more relaxed, I think.”
Her program also helped establish a casual mood: two varied sets mixing tones and styles, rather than one vocal fireworks display after another, a potentially draining marathon.
Judging from the standing ovation, nobody in the audience felt tired at the end. Silliker may not have set out to dazzle, but that’s exactly what she wound up doing.
So take a tip from a music fan who may not know how to sing but knows a top singer when he hears one: Do your ears a favor and catch one of Silliker’s upcoming concerts.
Chances are, you’ll be singing her praises, too.