I tell my students every single day, that good art is about authenticity. What is true? What is beautiful? What beacons goodness? What rewards? What comforts? What challenges us? This evening, armed with a nervous writing hand and a battery challenged I-phone, I left a long day, completely and pleasantly underprepared for an impeccable refresher course in my own advice.
Ann Hampton Callaway granted me the kindness and pleasure of an interview. She is performing in her Omaha debut concert this weekend. As part of her legacy concert series, she is presenting a remarkable set of Barbra Streisand favorites with the Omaha Symphony. Callaway lauds the project with heartfelt affection: “Singing these songs and the beautiful way that they’ve come out in the fresh arrangements that we’ve put together, are incredibly inspiring and are going to be doubly meaningful after what we’ve been through in the pandemic…. To sing… with new meaning... is going to reinvigorate audiences to follow their bliss; to live their bucket list dreams.” She continued with a bright smile,” Getting to tell stories about Barbara and my experience with her as a songwriter and as a singer to a fresh audience is going to be an absolute joy.”
Callaway has been to Nebraska before, once in the mid 1990s for a PBS special. But Omaha audiences are going to enjoy her candor, insightfulness, and of course, her voice, for the first time live this weekend at the Holland. She seems to be the kind of person who has never met a stranger. But at the same time, she exudes a depth and treasury of experiences I was so fortunate to explore for 40-some-odd minutes.
Callaway released a single in August 2021, “Information Please,” based on a story by Paul Villard, from a 1966 issue of Readers Digest. It was a thrill for me preparing to meet her; we had this story in common. Every weekend of my freshman year of high school I heard It performed as a prose piece at speech competitions and it haunted me in a beautiful way. Callaway also recalled the story from childhood, but was again presented with it during the pandemic. The song is featured on her forthcoming album of Ann Callaway originals; the first completely-Ann-Callaway-content album of her impressive lexicon.
Her longtime friend Amanda McBroom created the lyrics at Callaway’s request, and Callaway composed the music. “You have to have a certain kind of mind that is able to distill story.” She continued, “I just knew that Amanda McBroom would be the right person to tell the story… there’s an innocence in the character. I wanted it to have the voice of a child but have the poetry of the man who wrote the story. I thought she really managed exquisitely.”
Music, songwriting, and collaboration are clearly a vital sustenance for Callaway. Upon my asking about McBroom, she whisked me away to two nights ago, when the two of them were at a party, improvising around a piano, surrounded by friends-in-music and songwriters at her home in Tucson, AZ. “That’s the kind of life I want to live… is just to have those spontaneous nights with wonderful people and share music and inspiration.” I probed about the relationship so many of her friends share around music and she continued, “When you know someone in your bones, there’s a connection that goes beyond social. It’s a spiritual connection.”
Callaway has set and composed music to her own texts, text from the Rig Veda, modern literature of various scale, and she is even the only composer to ever collaborate on a text with Cole Porter: the 1992 recording “I Gaze In Your Eyes” was a text the Porter estate allowed her to compose in song. So I asked her, “Do these awesome texts find you? Or how do you pursue this caliber of material?”
Much like the song-craft obviously flowing, intuitively, through her veins, her response sang back at my like prose. She began with a quote by the French poet, André Gide: “Art is the collaboration between God and the artist, and the less the artist does the better.” Then in her own words she continued, “Every night when I go to bed, I just pray to be an instrument. Let me say what needs to be said. Let me serve and be a useful messenger.”
Callaway has had the goal of writing poetry daily since 2014 and has written a poem every day since 2020. That discipline echoes in her resolve of expression. It renders a warm, calming presence when you converse with her. If you listen to her body of work, that authenticity radiates the same in her voice, her lyrics, and her compositions.
I was blessed further to talk with her about her family, her collaborations, her legacy concert series, and even her mother’s craft as a musician (her mother was a graduate of Dana College, believe it or not).
When I asked how her mother ended up at Dana College she giggled, “it was a nice Lutheran School her parents thought would be good for her.” It was impossible not to revel in the gladness and imagination Callaway seeks in every possible corner of the human experience.
So, we moved onto Barbra Streisand and this weekend’s concert of songs she’s presented. Callaway has a collaborative relationship with Barbra. I asked her how that history affects her performance of some of these hits; to which she responded, “…her way of being in the moment and interpreting a lyric, helps me to be in the moment …and some of the great skills she had to really interpret a song, as few singers know how to do, I’ve really tried to live up to.”
Callaway has been developing this Barbra Streisand legacy concert since 2012 when she was inspired by their collaborations, to share how she’s learned and grown with these incredible songs. She also wanted to express the humanity of Streisand’s story, her own story, how they connect with what we all go through, and what she has learned from those intersections.
Come experience this concert at the Holland: this Saturday October 23rd at 7:30 or Sunday October 24th at 2:00. Come enjoy, in the landscape of Ann Hampton Callaway’s extraordinary voice, the concert she described to me: “There’s a lot of different notes of love and a broad spectrum of ups and downs in the show: laughter, tears… and of course living through a pandemic all these songs become brand new because they have new meaning. Tomorrow I will sing “The Way We Were” in honor of people who didn’t have a proper goodbye. [And] suddenly those words are brand new… and it’s pretty profound.”
I grew up in church music and musical theatre. From my collegiate career and beyond I've traveled through opera, the symphony, the theatre and worship as a student, a performer, an entrepreneur, and a journalistic correspondent. I'm thrilled to have an opportunity to share with you some of the incredible and fascinating endeavors I continue to undertake in music and the arts. I don't need you to see the world the way I do, but I'll do everything I can to help you enjoy it as much as I have.