by Louise E. Wright
While most of us dread the onslaught of winter weather, cabaret artist Anne Ellithorpe of Wyndmoor celebrates the “white stuff” with “Snow on Snow,” her debut CD. The title of this collection of Christmas favorites derives from a lyric in the traditional English carol “In the Bleak Midwinter.” Chosen for sentimental reasons, it recalls the early days of Ellithorpe’s marriage.
Having traveled to London to study at the Royal Academy of Dance, Ellithorpe met and married her husband. The kitchen window of the couple’s first home overlooked a wintry churchyard, and on Sunday mornings they would awaken to the sound of bells. “Snow on Snow” also echoes that time by including all sorts of bells, even those of Westminster Abbey.
“Bells, frost, snow, ice: that was our vision for the CD,” Ellithorpe explains, referring to herself and music director Rick Jensen.
Born in Florida, Ellithorpe grew up outside Los Angeles. (Ed. note: She requested that her age not be mentioned because “it tends to be very limiting for women in this business.”) A competitive Highland dancer, she came to classical ballet late, starting her training as a teenager. “I became a dancer by accident,” the Wyndmoor resident admits. “I was always interested in dancing and singing, but I had an intellectual interest in law. I lacked the money to pursue law, but I was offered scholarships to dance.”
Working freelance, Ellithorpe graced the stages of such venues as Disneyland and the Hollywood Bowl; she also taught dance and did performance coaching. The Boston Repertory Ballet awarded her a work-study scholarship although she did not perform with the company. “It never really got a season going,” she explains. Having taken Royal Academy of Dance examinations here in the U.S., Ellithorpe headed for England to continue her studies. Little did she realize that instead of furthering her dance career, she would exchange it for married life.
An element of serendipity also contributed to Ellithorpe’s career as a vocalist. She was living in Salem, Massachusetts, when a friend overheard her singing her daughter, Emily, to sleep. About to audition for the well-regarded Paul Madore Chorale, the friend encouraged Ellithorpe to do so as well. “I don’t think I can sing in public,” Ellithorpe said to herself. Having to do so in Salem’s cavernous Old Town Hall only intensified her doubts.
Without hesitation, however, Madore accepted her. “I think you have a real voice,” he encouraged. Highlights of Ellithorpe’s two-year tenure with the chorale include John Rutter’s uplifting “Requiem,” performed just after the death of her grandmother, and Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” which she describes as “surfing, a trip with a giant ocean of sound surrounding you.”
When her husband’s work necessitated a move to North Carolina, Ellithorpe sought professional training. In 2003, she began working with Lisbeth Brittain Carter at Meredith College. She explored different forms of vocal expression such as musical theater and opera, singing with the North Carolina Opera for a season.
What she discovered was that although she appreciated opera, it was not right for her. “Opera does not move me as an art form,” she explains. “It is not something I culturally relate to in the same way I relate to American music.”
As a performer, she disliked having to conform to someone else’s artistic vision. Adding to her frustration was the fact that because her voice, as she describes it, is “big” and “warm,” she was often asked to sing outside her range. “They wanted me to sing mezzo,” the soprano complains. “I’m not a mezzo.”
Ellithorpe gravitated to the cabaret scene, attracted by its intimacy and flexibility. “Cabaret is all about intimacy, conversation,” she says. “It’s a circle of communication — between performer, audience and musicians — that takes place every evening. It’s exciting and scary. Maybe what’s exciting is that it is scary.
“You’re opening yourself up — you’re being you — not performing a role” as one would in opera or musical theater. She likens the cabaret performer to the actor who, instead of simply pretending to be someone else, actually inhabits the role. In cabaret, however, “You inhabit yourself.”
This emphasis on personality allows the cabaret performer flexibility. In opera or musical theater, Ellithorpe points out, there isn’t “much room to change things up from night to night.” In contrast, cabaret gives the performer freedom “to sing a song one way and the next night, if you’re feeling something different, to sing it another way.”
Cabaret’s flexibility also permits tailoring the lyrics to suit the performer.
Ellithorpe’s show “Say Yes to Christmas!” includes a duet of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with Jensen, her accompanist as well as music director. Instead of “drinks,” however, they sing of gingerbread and candy canes, a change not only appropriate for the holiday season but also indicative of Jensen’s love for Ellithorpe’s baking. (While living in Salem, she worked as a pastry chef at a German bakery.) Similarly, they replaced “brother” and “sister” with “husband” and “daughter,” thus reflecting Ellithorpe’s roles as wife and mother.
Ellithorpe teamed up with Jensen eight years ago at the suggestion of Tony-nominated actress Sally Mayes. As music director, Jensen collaborates on song selection, does all of Ellithorpe’s arrangements and, as she puts it, “takes my ideas, turns them into piano music and adds ideas of his own.” She sums up their relationship: “I’m honored to work with him.”
In addition to master classes, Ellithorpe hones her skills by attending workshops at Don’t Tell Mama in New York City almost weekly. In 2007, she participated in the prestigious Cabaret Conference at Yale University, winning one of the coveted 36 spots for which singers from around the world auditioned.
Just as Ellithorpe’s careers as dancer and singer came about “by accident,” so too did her CD, only in a more literal sense of the word. About to debut a show entitled “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing,” she experienced a leg injury so severe she required almost a year to heal. “I needed a project I could sit through,” she laughs, “and Rick said, ‘You should record a CD.’”
Starting work last January, they decided on a holiday theme because they knew they’d finish in time for Christmas. In addition, Ellithorpe points out, “Christmas music suits my voice.” True to cabaret form, she has made these favorites her own. There is a jazzy vibe to several of the selections and a definite honky-tonk sound to “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”
Although she has performed extensively in the Philadelphia area, there is no venue ideally suited for cabaret, which requires an intimate room with a piano —and the piano is a must.
She concedes that cabaret, often misunderstood as “bad, off-color comedy or singing,” gets a bad rap. Real cabernet she defines as “a classy, sophisticated evening out for intelligent people who enjoy good music.” Certainly Philadelphia deserves as much, especially since, as Ellithorpe points out, it hosts a large community of cabaret performers who are immensely supportive of one another.
Ellithorpe’s holiday offering, “Snow on Snow,” is available at Scarlet Begonias in Flourtown, Kelly-Cataldi Home in Glenside and amazon.com. For more information, visit www.anneellithorpe.com