All over the world there was singing to share.
We can almost see the Norman Rockwell brushstrokes. She sits at the church organ quietly by her mother’s side, this little girl, watching for the vigorous head nod when it was time to turn the page. This is how she would learn to read music, Tynan recalls, but then this is how she learned everything important. Tynan’s story, musical and otherwise, will always belong to her mother.
Joan Davis, pianist, conductor, and singer, would often bring her small daughter to work with her. Tynan’s earliest musical memory lives beneath a grand piano where she would peek at dancers as they jetéd across a ballet studio floor while Joanie’s nimble hands played grand and petit allegri. But there was always music in the Davis household: Saturdays buzzed with the Celtic drum and penny whistle-laden songs of The Chieftains and The Clancy Brothers - her father’s house cleaning soundtrack - and other days shimmered with Mozart and Robert Shaw Chorale recordings - her mother’s inspiration.
Tynan joined the Children’s Chorus of San Antonio when she was 9, learning solfege, singing in parts, and performing annually with the San Antonio Symphony. She sang her first Carmina Burana directly behind the booming bass drum, her first Britten War Requiem from the highest balcony of the Spanish baroque theater, Mahler 3rd behind the violins. She went to choral festivals and heard other choirs perform the same songs she learned. All over the world there was singing to share.
And when there was music to learn, Tynan and her mom would sit next to each other at the piano, plunk out her part, sing together. Her mother would pull her out of school to share days at music conventions and choral festivals so she could listen to and observe workshops and rehearsals. Singing together, learning together.
And when there was music to learn, Tynan and her mom would sit next to each other at the piano, plunk out her part, sing together.
After a stint playing the cello in middle school, Tynan kept up her page-turning duties for her mother, a sought-after collaborative pianist for several San Antonio high school choirs. When Joan Davis became the full-time assistant director of one, Tynan decided to transfer schools, join her mom, and immerse herself in the arena of choral singing. Private voice lessons, fully choreographed show choir concerts, choral masterworks concerts, and All-State competitions followed.
Choral singing progressed to opera and a performance degree from Stephen F. Austin State University. She finished school uncomfortable with her own instrument, though, at odds with her voice and the demands of classical singing, so she returned to her former school district in San Antonio and began teaching. Joanie’s daughter had come home. She would soon have a full studio of 50 students a week at three different campuses. She found joy in teaching, but it also rekindled her desire to sing and perform beyond the insular world of her childhood. With two suitcases and $3000 Tynan moved to New York.
“I wasted entire days at open calls, hoping to sing 16 bars,” Tynan says now. “I heard amazing singers through the doors. I heard terrible singers through the doors. Both kinds of singers worked. I knew I was somewhere in between.”
An ushering job at the Met stirred her classical roots, and she was first hired by the Bronx Opera, which led to an alto soloist position with Christ Church Oyster Bay, where she sang Vivaldi Gloria, Beethoven 9th, and Mahler 2nd. She found her way into the world of chamber music and even had a song cycle composed for her voice. The New York Times described her as “a marvel: a stylish singer and a perky actress whose presence lighted up the stage.” Marilyn Horne selected her to sing at Carnegie Hall for the annual The Song Continues workshop. It was the last time her mom would see her perform.
As career doors were opening for Tynan, Joan Davis was diagnosed with cancer.
Tumors alter trajectories, and so Tynan returned to her mother’s side for two years. She was no longer the little girl perched on the piano bench, but she was still learning to listen and observe, trying to decode the mysteries before her. She was a companion and a comfort now, not a page turner. Pages have a way of turning anyway.
Tynan sang at her mother’s funeral, a steady, unwavering voice of sorrow and joy, and more pages turned. She appeared in Le nozze di Figaro with Austin Lyric Opera, and as Rita the Rat in Fantastic Mr. Fox with Boston Modern Orchestra Project and Opera San Antonio. She sang with Wynton Marsalis for his Abyssinian Mass at Lincoln Center and with Matthew Aucoin, premiering his Celan Fragments, at the Rockport Music Festival. She was a soloist for the world premiere of Nico Muhly’s How Little You Are with Conspirare, and sang with the Grammy-winning vocal octet Roomful of Teeth. There was also a late-night romp as an opera zombie on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.
Tynan is currently on the national tour of Phantom of the Opera. “I’m just a singer of songs,” she says, still learning to love her own sound, but the listener is far ahead of her. We hear her heritage without knowing; it’s alive in the vowels and with every breath she takes. It’s the story of music, which becomes the story of musicians: Training, practice, and performance, graciously taking us all from one place to somewhere else. It’s Tynan’s story, from a ballet studio to the big stage, and it stays rich and sweet with only the occasional irony that comes from this life lived in music: She lost her mother, her first teacher and inspiration, but Tynan Davis finally found her voice.