Johann Sebastian Bach had a house overflowing with kids. His first wife passed away leaving him as a single parent of four until he met and married his second wife, who graced him with six more. Could it be that the rebellious teenage daughter Leischen in Papa Bach’s Cantata number 211 “Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht” (“Be still, stop chattering“, also known as the Coffee Cantata) was modeled on one of his own?
Jeanette Sorrell, founder and artistic director of Apollo’s Fire, “a Baroque Orchestra in Northern Ohio”, thinks so. Bach’s daughter, Elisabeth Friderica, who happens to also be his only daughter who married, shared a name with the cantata’s main character. In the playbill for “Bach’s Birthday Part II: Family Frolic,” Sorrell wrote: “To me, the fact that Bach chose ‘Leischen’ (Elisabeth's nickname) for this character seems more than coincidence.”
The Family Frolic program concluded with the Coffee Cantata. This performance served as the main event for part two of Apollo’s Fire’s celebration of Bach’s 330th birthday. The orchestra teamed up with its Young Artist Apprentices four times to share this story with audiences across the Northeastern Ohio region.
The musical tale is set in Café Zimmermann, a once-famous coffeehouse in Leipzig, Germany. The cafe was home to over 600 concerts conducted by Bach during his time as director of the Collegium Musicum there. In the cantata, three main characters sing us a tale of adolescent rebellion. Schlendrian, the father whose name translates to “stick in the mud,” wants his disobedient daughter to give up drinking coffee.
Kathie Stewart, a founding member of Apollo’s Fire, explained in the pre-show lecture that “At that time in Germany, the job of the dad was to find a proper husband for his daughter.” After refusing to buy her a dress and ribbons or to take her on walks, Schlendrian, performed by Jeffrey Strauss, finally convinces his daughter to give up the sweet, hot brew by saying he will not find her a man to marry.
Madeline Apple Healey performed the role of Leischen. She's one of the Young Artist Apprentices showcased in this series and she was typecast for the role. When not touring as a soprano with Apollo’s Fire, you can find her getting her coffee geek on as a barista at the Phoenix Coffee Company roastery in the Ohio City neighborhood of Cleveland.
“She’s a sneaky one, I have to tell you though…” Stewart said of Leischen. With the help of Herr Zimmermann, sung by Corey Shotwell, Leischen let all the eligible bachelors in Saxony know she will only accept a marriage proposal from a suitor who first promises to let her quench her thirst with “coffee, sweet coffee, forever.”
Not nearly long enough to be an opera, the song cycle has enough drama that performances often involve movement about a stage by the singers. The arrangement by Apollo’s Fire is notable for two reasons: Sorrell translated the lyrics to English and musicians were also part of the staging.
The show was billed as multi-generational for a few reasons. The program included works by Bach’s children, for one. Members of the Musettes Ensemble, the youth choir in which Healey got her start, also performed, and Stewart’s daughter, Sarah Lynn, the flute soloist, even happens to be a barista at Slow Train Café in Oberlin.
Family Frolic was a joy to watch, and filled with memorable moments: Shotwell as Zimmermann refilling Leischen’s cup; Healy as Leischen waving her cup under the noses of all the instrumentalists; and the youth choir bopping their heads up and down in syncopation with the closing chorus.
Healey, Lynn, and Stewart are all coffee drinkers in addition to their performing talents. Stewart’s typical sip is a pour-over or French press. When not at the Oberlin Conservatory, Lynn can often be found indulging in her favorite coffee drink, a Slow Train cortado. Healey likes trying many coffees, though a current fave is Phoenix Coffee's Burundi Buhorwa Lot 1.
According to Sarah Blue, marketing manager for Apollo’s Fire, the Coffee Cantata performances are a wrap for this season. If you share Leischen’s craving and want to try quenching it aurally, give a listen to a recording of Bach’s Cantata number 211.