Today marks the fifth anniversary of the death of Makiko Narumi, the Japanese contralto who I befriended shortly after I moved to NYC in 1998. Since her passing at the age of 33 I hadn't been able to listen to her voice but on Friday I began playing some of the many recordings she had given me.
At first it was something of an adjustment to hear her singing again; her voice was really a work in progress during the first couple of years that I knew her. Makiko had a very deep natural contralto timbre and her teacher, the late Beverley Peck Johnson, thought it would expand Makiko's vocal opportunities to extend her range upward and brighten the colour of the sound somewhat. As they worked on this, Makiko's instrument changed in texture considerably. It is interesting to listen to the various recordings from different stages of this development and hear the incremental alterations. Shortly before her death, Mrs. J helped Makiko to 'unlock' the top B. Continuing to work after Mrs. J's passing with Robert White and Rita Shane, Makiko solidified her 'new' sound and was lining up some exciting performances when she was diagnosed and everything came to a screeching halt.
I think everyone who heard Makiko perform was moved by the spiritual quality of her voice. Her personality - her sense of fun and her ability to connect with people - made her an incredible person to spend time with. And her enchanting way with the English language was often a source of mirth, especially for herself.
Just at the point when Makiko would have become widely known on the international vocal scene, it all came to an end. For people in the Juilliard circle, in Aspen or at Tanglewood who were lucky to experience her brief performing career Makiko remains a sort of underground treasure. When she sang Rossini's 'Di tanti palpiti' from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera as a semi-finalist in the Met Auditions (1999) people were buzzing about the unusual timbre and suave technique. Shortly before her death she sang the Mahler 2nd at Carnegie Hall; the 'Urlicht' with its sense of quiet rapture held the house in a trance-like state.
I have so many photographs and so I'll end this recollection with a gallery.
Top row: with Met Maestro Joseph Colaneri and master-coach Nico Castel (5/99); with soprano Erika Wueschner and tenor Albert Lee (5/99); with mezzo Lauren Curnow after a performance of Chabrier's L'ETOILE at Juilliard (5/99); with divas Giulietta Simionato, Licia Albanese and Mary Costa after the Albanese Puccini Foundation gala (10/99)
Second row: with tenor Jason Ferrante and soprano Janna Baty after FALSTAFF at Tanglewood (summer 2000); with baritone Randall Scarlata after the Tanglewood FALSTAFF; the cast of FALSTAFF with Maestro Seiji Ozawa; with male soprano Michael Maniaci, Erika, and mezzo Kathleen Flynn following the dress rehearsal of CENERENTOLA (11/2000) in which Makiko sang the title role for an indisposed colleague.
Third row: a happy Makiko after the CENERENTOLA dress; with mezzo Kathleen Flynn, tenor Anthony Dean Griffey and soprano Lauren Skuce after the memorable Juilliard production of THE RAPE OF LUCRETIA in which Makiko sang the title role; with baritone Brian Leerhuber who sang Tarquinius; and with the beloved Eve Shapiro who directed the Britten opera. The performances took place in February 2000.