Jane Struss first sang Schubert’s “Winterreise” at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in the early 1980s, as best she remembers. The concert took place during a blizzard, a setting almost eerily apt for a song cycle whose nameless protagonist alternates, sometimes feverishly, between nostalgia for the love he had in spring and the bleakness of his wintry present.
“It was a little surreal,” the mezzo-soprano said by phone. “On the one side you looked out into the museum, where there are all these beautiful flowers. And on the other side there was this blizzard going on. Which was really fascinating because that’s kind of how the poetry goes, with this dream of what it was like in the spring and what it is now. So I’ve always had that image in my head.”
Struss has sung the cycle often, always in a conventional recital setting. Now she’s trying something new with her students at the Longy School of Music of Bard College. This semester she directed “Atelier Schubertreise,” which roughly translates as “A Workshop on Schubert’s Journey.” It culminates Sunday with staged performances of “Winterreise,” reimagined to take place in the Boylston St. MBTA station. Each performance will involve not one but six singers, each with four songs. Call it a crowdsourced version of history’s most solitary song cycle.
The idea for the setting, Struss said, came from a former student who, at a party, suggested a subway station as an excellent setting for Schubert’s “journey.” A pianist in the class took a photo of the stairs leading from the street down to the station. That photo will be projected on a screen at the back of Longy’s Pickman Hall, and Struss will use atmospheric lighting to evoke the setting.
Struss assigned each singer to come up with a character. “Some of them live in the station, some of them are coming to take a train,” she explained. “We have one guy who’s kind of schizophrenic and crazy. We have another person who’s just depressed and cries all the time; she sits on a bench and takes things out of her purse. Another sleeps against the wall in a sleeping bag, and she has this dream of spring.”
The workshop is part of Longy’s new project-based curriculum, which encourages students to create nontraditional projects as a way of gaining a foothold in a music world that presents fewer opportunities for more straightforward engagements. That accords with Struss’s teaching method, which emphasizes interactivity and student invention.
“We want most of the ideas to come from them,” she said, adding that she sees herself as guide to realizing those ideas.
And some surprising ideas have arisen in the workshop. One of the project’s four pianists told Struss that she wanted to do the song “Die Krähe” (“The Raven”) in a new way, Struss said. Instead of a raven flying above the protagonist, the pianist envisioned “walking into this very dark room in a very creepy house, with a music box playing. And so the singer sings it all very . . . creepily.
“It is the most incredible performance, as far from the way I would have ever done it as I can imagine. But I wish I’d had that idea when I was doing it.”
That’s the sort of thing that might not only aid these musicians in their careers but help sustain an art whose contemporary relevance seems always in question.
“I encourage my singers to find whatever it is in the music which connects to their lives,” Struss said. “To use their imaginations wildly and to understand that we are communicators, not recordings. And the communication part of it is absolutely what’s going to save classical music in the long run. That’s what we need to be doing.”
Presented by Longy School of Music of Bard College. At Pickman Hall, Cambridge, Dec. 18, 3 and 8 p.m. Tickets: Free to $20. www.longy.edu/about/events/David Weininger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.