• The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Sarah Jane McMahon

    Opera Lively is starting our coverage of the sublime operatic masterpiece Dialogues of the Carmelites by Francis Poulenc, being given in semi-staged form by Winston-Salem Symphony and in English translation on November 16 and 18, 2014 in Winston-Salem, NC, then the same production will go to Portland, Oregon, with the Portland Symphony on March 8, 2015.

    As the first step of our coverage, we interviewed the singer in the main role of Blanche, the beautiful American soprano Sarah Jane McMahon, not only on her participation in this opera, but also on her life and career.

    Tickets for the Portland show can be found by clicking [here].


    Photo Credit Michael Palumbo - mpphotography.com - Fair Promotional Use

    Singer - Sarah Jane McMahon
    Fach -
    Lyric Soprano
    Born in -
    New Orleans, USA
    Last in - Opera Grand Rapids - Micaëla in Carmen - Oct 31, Nov 1, 2014
    Next in - in addition to the Winston-Salem and Portland shows, concerts in New Orleans, Jacksonville, Rochester, Minneapolis, and Cleveland - see full schedule by clicking [here]
    Website - www.sarahjanemcmahon.com

    Artistic Biography

    Hailed by The New York Times as “bright, active, and fastidiously musical,” and by Opera News as having “a golden sound,” Sarah Jane McMahon is recognized for her “beautiful vocal sophistication” and “sparkling stage presence.” Recently, Sarah Jane sang a Gala concert opposite Placido Domingo and made her debut with The San Francisco Symphony, Munich Philharmonic, the Wiener Konzert Haus, Bremen’s Die Glocke, and the Santo Domingo Festival in The Dominican Republic. A frequent guest artist at New York City Opera, she performed Mabel in their new production of The Pirates of Penzance and was described by The New York Times as “the most polished and flexible singer in the cast” and “a deft comic actress.” She also received their coveted Kolozsvar Award for her performances as Galatea in Handel’s Acis and Galatea, and was lauded for her “silvery-voiced soprano” and “real star presence” in Purcell’s King Arthur.

    Selected by Maestro Placido Domingo to join the Los Angeles Opera, she sang with the celebrated tenor as the Fifth Flower Maiden in Parsifal, Naiad in Ariadne auf Naxos and The Milliner in Der Rosenkavalier. Sarah Jane also has performed with Bard SummerScape Festival as Xanthe in Richard Strauss’ Die Liebe der Danae, with the Washington Concert Opera as Dorinda in Handel’s Orlando, with Michigan Opera Theatre as Zerlina in Don Giovanni, Arizona Opera as Mabel in Pirates of Penzance, Opera Grand Rapids as Fiordiligi in Cosi Fan Tutte, Pamina in Die Zauberflöte, Maria in West Side Story and Micaela in Carmen, Opera Omaha as Fanny in Il Cambiale di Matrimonio, Toledo Opera as Violetta in La Traviata, Josephine in HMS Pinafore with both the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra and San Antonio Opera, with Central City Opera as Maria in West Side Story, Kathie in The Student Prince, Anne in A Little Night Music, and Lucia in Rape of Lucretia, with Chautauqua Opera as Mabel in The Pirates of Penzance, with Des Moines Metro Opera as Susanna in Le Nozze di Figaro, Lisette in La Rondine, and Abigail Williams in The Crucible, Opera Company of North Carolina and Mississippi Opera as Gilda in Rigoletto, Piedmont Opera as Clara in The Light in the Piazza, and Opera Theater of Connecticut as Violetta in La Traviata and Cleopatra in Handel’s Giulio Cesare. Her roles with the New Orleans Opera include Pamina in Die Zauberflöte, Micaela in Carmen, Valencienne in The Merry Widow, Musetta in La Bohème, Monica in The Medium, and Maria in West Side Story. Sarah Jane also performed Donna Clara, the Infanta, in Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg at Bard SummerScape Festival for which Opera News wrote: “Sarah Jane McMahon laughed and danced as the glamorous Infanta, making a golden sound with an alluring light vibrato that evoked the young Pilar Lorengar.”

    A summa cum laude graduate of Loyola University, New Orleans, and Yale University, recent concert appearances have included Christmas Concerts with The San Francisco Symphony and Shreveport Symphony, Carmina Burana at Avery Fisher Hall and with the Tulsa Opera and Ballet, the Rutter Requiem at Carnegie Hall, Knoxville Summer of 1915/Mahler 4 with the Portland Symphony and Ridgefield Symphony, Bravissimo! with the Canadian Opera Orchestra, Messiah with the Jacksonville Symphony, Winston-Salem Symphony, and Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, Mahler 8 with the Asheville Symphony, Gala concerts with the Sarasota Symphony and Youngstown Symphony, and Baroque concerts with Lyrica Baroque.

    Discography

    Sarah Jane has four CDs in her discography. She recorded the title role in the premiere recording of Emmerich Kalman’s Sari, available on Albany Records. She also has an album of sacred music dedicated to New Orleans and the survivors of Hurricane Katrina called I Thank My God, a Christmas album, Night of Silence, and an old standards album, Blessings and Silver Linings.

    Clicking on this link our readers will find more information about her albums and will be able to listen to samples of the tracks, getting acquainted with her beautiful timbre of voice and pure sounds: [click here]


    Photo Credit Michael Palumbo - mpphotography.com - Fair Promotional Use

    The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with American soprano Sarah Jane McMahon

    Questions by Opera Lively journalist Luiz Gazzola. The interview was conducted over the phone. To give her an idea of what we were planning to ask, we sent her the questions in advance and as you’ll see from the exchange, she typed up her answers but we did add to them in the live phone conversation. This is Opera Lively interview # 143.

    © Opera Lively - Disclaimer: this exclusive interview is copyrighted by Opera Lively with all rights reserved, and is not to be reproduced without express authorization. Brief excerpts can be used after consultation (use the Contact Us form) as long as proper credit and a link to the full interview on Opera Lively are provided. Links to the interview can be posted without authorization.



    Luiz Gazzola for Opera Lively – Hi, Sarah Jane. Is this a good time to talk?


    Sarah Jane McMahom – Hi, Luiz. Yes, it’s perfect. As a matter of fact I have written up the answers. If you’d like me to send them to you, I can.

    OL – This is actually quite helpful. I was expecting to record and transcribe our conversation, but transcription takes six or seven hours of work.

    SJM – Oh, no, I could save you that work. [laughs]

    OL – Since we are relatively close to the show, having your answers in written format is interesting to speed up the publication, but it does get less interactive in terms of follow-up on leads, and all. Should I read them and call you back?

    SJM – Oh, you don’t want to talk now? We can chat about my answers and do the follow-ups.

    OL – Great idea, let’s do that [she sends me her answers by email; I open them up on screen]. OK, ready to go. [From this point on, we’ll combine her written answers with our live dialogue]

    SJM – These are wonderful questions. Because of the detail of your questions, I really needed to sit down and write some answers. I probably spent over three hours on this. [laughs hard].

    OL – Oh wow [laughs]; I hope we’ll make it worth your while and put together a nice piece that will reward your effort.

    SJM – Ah, it was actually a good character study for me, as I’m just trying to perfect it before I perform it, because it is my first time performing the role. I just spent a lot of time doing it, but I feel that I learned a lot more than I knew before, from doing it.

    OL – OK, first question. Let’s start by talking about the character Blanche de La Force. It is curious to know that she is the only fictional character in the opera, all the others being real life persons, from the real story of the Martyrs of Compiègne at the time of the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution. The interesting part is that Soeur Constance had plenty of drama in her real life which could have been used as the core of the story. Sometimes I feel that Constance could have been more developed – she is lively while for example in Act One Tableau Three Blanche seems humorless. I wonder why the character Blanche was ever necessary. Have you read the historical texts? Why do you think this fictional character was created? In order words, what does Blanche contribute to the story?

    SJM - That's a good question--one I haven't thought about, probably because as a performer, I have my hands full focusing on the material we *do* have. I don't always have the luxury of considering the work as a whole and examining the universe of possibilities for an opera we *don't* have. This is the opera and the Blanche that Poulenc gave us, and I devote my energy to learning and understanding that role without giving much thought to the infinite ways the story could have been different. That said, if I had to hazard a guess, it may be as simple as Poulenc wanting to flex his creative muscles and not rely entirely on the historical record, or maybe he wasn't aiming just to tell an interesting story with Constance's actual "drama" -- maybe he wanted to tell the story that shines through Blanche's character. I think Blanche contributes greatly to the story. I think she represents humanity. The saying, “God writes straight with crooked lines” really applies to her. Blanche has faith, but in the beginning of the opera it seems that she mainly goes to the convent out of fear of the chaos of the French Revolution and to find a refuge. But through her interactions with the Prioress and Sister Constance, she is drawn closer and closer to the Lord and realizes this is her true calling.

    OL – Great answer, I don’t have anything to follow-up on this one. So, second question. Blanche’s psychology is very complex. She is shy and withdrawn, and very insecure. She is also very ambivalent and seems to act on impulse, always seeking the situation that will be most secure for her, but then she engages in paradoxical actions – she could have said “no” to martyrdom, but then she doesn’t; it is Constance, who seems much more nonchalant about death in her first dialogue with Blanche, who ends up trying to be the dissenting voice in approving the martyrdom – something I’d rather have expected of Blanche. Also, she comes up with that great quote about the fear of fear. How do you explain Blanche’s psychological traits?

    SJM - I don't know if it's a question of psychology as much as a question of faith. There's a parable Jesus tells about a father who asks his two sons to go to work in the field. One son grumbles and says he won't work, but ultimately he does the labor. The other son announces enthusiastically that he will work, but then skips out. That parable plays out, to some extent, in Blanche and Constance. Constance says all the right things until push comes to shove--her actions in avoiding martyrdom don't match her words. But Constance, who shows resistance in her words, grows in faith and acts heroically when the moment comes. It's a challenge to the listener--are we Constance, or are we Blanche? Do we say the right things and think we're good people but back down when it comes time to act? Are there Blanches we maybe look down on but who show more generosity and love than we do in difficult situations? It's a message of hope, too--even if we're not proud of what we've done or said in the past, we have a chance as long we live to act heroically when it matters.

    OL – Wow, this was a really fabulous answer, very articulate and very nicely put.

    SJM – I’m glad you like it!

    OL – But still, I get the impression that Blanche in many occasions doesn’t seem to be motivated by faith. Then, at the end, after going through several lengths to avoid execution, she comes out of hiding from the crowd, and offers herself to be also a martyr. Why do you think Blanche did that? Is she truly a believer?

    SJM - Blanche's growth in faith is the whole point of her story. Faith is a journey. No one wakes up one day, decides they have faith, and then lives perfectly according to that faith 100%. Faith has to grow and develop, and that usually happens through trials and tests that we fail. St. Peter denied Christ three times, but that failure led to a growth in his faith that ultimately leads to his own martyrdom. Blanche's story is classic -- even for the most revered saints, faith is a continual process of conversion to rid ourselves of selfish motivations and turn our lives over to God who gave us life in the first place.

    OL – I see. I want to ask you about a particular point regarding a staging by Olivier Py for the Théâtre du Châtelet with Patricia Petibon as Blanche. Her relationship with her brother Le Chevalier de la Force (sung by Topi Lehtipuu) seems frankly eroticized and incestuous. One wonders if Blanche went to the convent out of guilt from that relationship. Of course this is only this one director’s take, but what do you think of this idea? Another way to explain her a bit, would be to think of the death of her mother (her father mentions to her brother, early in first act, that his wife died giving birth to Blanche) and the consequences of that in her upbringing and subsequent quest for strong female role models. Any comments?



    SJM - I haven't seen the staging you reference, but in general, I'm usually wary of efforts to add elements to an opera that aren't in the text the composer has given us, particularly when it’s something like incest that is salacious and seems aimed at shock value. It's unnecessary. The opera endures on its own merits; there's no need to try to add to it or change it. Poulenc created Blanche and chose not to reveal her motivation for going to the convent. To the extent that question needs to be answered, it's left for the audience to decide for themselves. It's not the artist's role to step in and impose something on the audience that Poulenc didn't give us; the artist's job is to give life to the music and libretto that do exist. So it's up to each person to decide Blanche's motivation for entering the convent or decide whether that question even needs to be asked. For me, I think the end of the story reveals the beginning. Blanche's martyrdom is a result of her faith, and I think it was her faith that led her into the convent. It may have been a small seed at first, but her willingness to die for her faith in the end shows that it was real and substantial.

    OL – I share this opinion with you about directorial takes. I also don’t like it when the opera is changed too much by the director.

    SJM – Yes. I should add that I have worked with Patricia Petibon. I worked with her a few times, so I would love to see her Blanche. Unfortunately, I didn’t see that production, but I’ve done Candide with her in Europe, probably three times now.

    OL – It’s a spectacular production. It’s being released on DVD and blu-ray and will soon be on Amazon. The critics liked it very much. It was deemed by Le Figaro “a thing of wonder.” I also liked it a lot and gave it an A++ grade, the highest one we give.

    SJM – Ah, OK.

    OL – It wasn’t anything explicit, but the way Patricia and Topi Lehtipuu acted it, it gave me this impression. But like I said, I’m particularly troubled when the director changes the symbolic arc of a piece, like I saw in a production of The Ring of the Nibelung in Copenhagen, in which at the end Brünnhilde is pregnant and gives birth to a baby.




    SJM – Oh my Goodness! That is really far-fetched! [laughs]

    OL - Now, in the real story, the two oldest nuns were the ones who declined to accept martyrdom and quit the order. In the opera, the youngest one, Constance, is the one who tries to do that, and the second youngest one, Blanche, actually runs away from the convent, before she comes back. Why do you think this generational inversion was done?

    SJM - I'm not sure I would subscribe to the idea that Poulenc was trying to make a point about age by departing from history in this regard. The contrast to be drawn is contained in the opera -- Blanche v. Constance. I don't think Poulenc assumed audiences would know the details of the historical record well enough to draw inferences from his changes in the opera.

    OL - Acting in this piece is extremely demanding. Blanche goes from spoiled aristocrat to an enmeshed relationship with her brother to some conflicting and ambivalent relationship with her brother, to suddenly joining a convent in an attempt to avoid danger, to witnessing with horror the death of the first Prioress, to being in awe of Mme. Lidoine, the new Prioress, to upholding Mother Marie as a true motherly but harsh figure, to befriending Constance and being a bit rebellious then running away, to whining about being mistreated by the former servants who are now in power in the French Revolution, to suddenly offering herself to sacrifice. Whew! What an acting arc! How do you plan to go about it?

    SJM - Everyone always says, "Oh, this was such a demanding role." But you're right -- Blanche is in a league of her own! The opera crams an exceptionally eventful and dramatic lifetime into less than three hours, so it is certainly a challenge. But I love acting -- perhaps as much as I enjoy singing -- so this is a welcome opportunity to focus on conveying all of those emotions and moods in ways beyond simply singing a one-dimensional heroine or ingenue.. But Poulenc helps--the music helps convey all of that, which is perhaps part of why it can be so frenetic--there's a lot of ground to cover in a very short time.

    OL – [Sarah Jane highlighted in yellow the part of my question saying “to suddenly joining a convent in an attempt to avoid danger]. I see this part that you highlighted – we may have a difference of opinion here. I have an impression of Blanche as very shy, tentative, and frightened, she makes me think of a little mouse that runs into a room and suddenly finds it too dangerous, then runs back to a wall and scurries around always along the walls, not daring to walk into the middle of the room. Maybe it’s Patricia’s take on the character that influenced me since I still have her performance in mind. Maybe Patricia just chose to portray her as a more frightened character. You seem to see Blanche as stronger than I do.

    SJM – I do. But I mean, I don’t doubt she is fearful; I definitely think that, but I don’t find her shy, just from learning this music and living with this music. I feel like she really speaks her mind and is forthright in her decisions. I think of a shy person as someone who can’t make decisions and probably wouldn’t have the courage to enter a convent.

    OL – I listened to this opera years ago from a CD and I remember that I liked it very much but I didn’t have a clear recollection of the storyline, and now when I saw this Paris production [at the Théâtre du Châtelet] I got a lot of my approach to it from this modern take in Paris where they did it in contemporary clothes and with very striking imagery; Patricia as you know is a spectacularly gifted actress so maybe some of the impressions I got from the character was what she was imprinting on it, rather than what Poulenc intended. This might explain it.

    SJM – It could be, yes. But I think it’s obviously just what each artist brings to it. Perhaps Patricia thinks of Blanche differently than I do.

    OL - Is playing Blanche very taxing on the artist herself, who needs to find in her inner self the strength to experience and portray so many conflicting emotions?

    SJM - Yes! Particularly considering that the singing is so demanding -- it's a one-two punch. But that's what makes it fun -- that's why I love performing roles like this. It's a challenge, and there's a wonderful sense of accomplishment when it goes well and you feel as if you've done the character and the music and the audience justice by your performance. Of course, the opera is simply a grander reflection of real life -- we all have these conflicts, these struggles of faith and difficult choices to do the right thing -- so it's not as if I have to invent new emotions. The task is simply playing them up to the level of the drama and conflict in the story.

    OL - Now, let’s turn to the music. First of all, Blanche is a long sing, with many dramatic elements and a somewhat exposed start (although Poulenc is relatively gentle on the voice and apparently Constance has a more exposed start), with some relatively wild leaps. How difficult it is to sing Blanche?

    SJM - I have been told by coaches and colleagues for a few years now that I really needed to look at the role of Blanche because it would be perfect for my voice. I’m so grateful to now have the opportunity to perform this magnificent role. It is not an easy sing, but it feels very comfortable in my voice. I’ve found that with Poulenc -- I’ve also sung Tiresias in Les Mamelles de Tiresias, and that too, really suited my voice.

    OL – OK, but you did say it’s not an easy sing. Why?


    SJM – I guess I say it’s not an easy sing because it’s a long sing. You never get much of a break. But really, almost every line that I sing, it almost feels like it was written for my voice. I’m very comfortable in the middle register. That’s how I was trained. My teacher developed my middle voice because fortunately I had already the high notes so we wanted to focus on the middle voice so that the voice would be even from bottom to top. I really love it when a role lies in the middle voice. I guess most roles do. [laughs]. Traviata, for example, you have to have the high E flats, but most of the role is in your middle voice.

    The role of Blanche is not vocally tiring but it is emotionally tiring because you don’t get a break.

    OL – Right, that makes sense. Poulenc went for a sort of written-through opera with no numbers, and rather a long collection of flowing recitative with a lot of arioso use. It is very haunting and beautiful, and actually these vocal lines while they never get to be arias, are very melodious. What do you think of Poulenc’s vocal writing? Sometimes he reminds me of Monteverdi rather than of his contemporaries.

    SJM - When I first start learning Poulenc, I think I’ll never be able to learn it, and then after I live with it a little while, it all makes sense and I hear the tonality. He’s truly a singer’s composer. He writes so well for the voice, and I love singing his music.

    OL – I think that those instrumental preludes and interludes are among the most beautiful music in the 20th century, and the final scene with the dwindling Salve Regina chorus as the thump of the guillotine kills the nuns one by one, is probably one of the most sublime scenes in all of opera, not only in modern and contemporary opera. I love Dialogues des Carmélites.

    SJM – I agree with you. It’s very beautiful music.

    OL - How emotional it is for you, to sing this piece? You seem to be a very religious person; it’s got to have some impact on you – as a matter of fact everybody would suffer this impact, religious or not. Well, this piece put Poulenc himself in a hospital, dealing with a nervous breakdown in the middle of composition (not the only reason as his lover was dying, but it did appear to have played a part in his crisis). He finished it after he was discharged from the hospital. Some musicologists say that the themes of pain and suffering addressed by Dialogues des Carmélites and La Voix Humaine had to do with Poulenc’s own clinical depression. How did this role affect you?

    SJM - There's certainly a sadness in the violent, unjust loss of life, but I am an active Catholic and can see the beauty in giving one's life back to God. Really, we're all called to martyrdom in some way. Spouses are called to give up their lives in service of their husband or wife. Parents die to themselves to care for their children. Authentic love requires sacrifice. We don't all end up at the guillotine, but if we live our lives right -- if we love -- we die to ourselves by a thousand paper cuts, so to speak. It's painful, it's a sacrifice, but that sacrifice is beautiful and bears fruit and reveals the face of God, who gave His life for us on a cross. So this opera is emotional for me, but it's a deep mix of sorrow at depravity of fallen humanity and the loss of innocent life on the one hand, and on the other hand, there's the joy and beauty of that deep profession of faith.

    OL - What do you think of Poulenc’s other operas, La Voix Humaine and Les Mamelles de Tirésias? I love the former, but find the latter a bit over-the-top, although intriguing. You?

    SJM - I’m more familiar with Les Mamelles de Tirésias, and while it’s over the top, there is just something so funny about a woman being upset with her husband, deciding to become a man, and her breasts becoming balloons. You really wonder how he ever thought of that! It’s funny that you mention that, because I used to – and sometimes I still do – begin my auditions with Tirésias’ aria. That’s actually the aria I sang for Plácido Domingo and it got me the job [laughs] in Los Angeles, being a young artist under his mentorship, so I hold that piece close to my heart! [laughs] It got me a nice job. I’m not very familiar with La Voix Humaine.

    OL – La Voix Humaine is very, very depressing. It has high psychological impact, like Dialogue des Carmélites. It’s like a monologue – since we just hear one side of the conversation – of a woman on the phone talking to her ex-lover and it is implied at the end that she commits suicide. It’s a very strong piece.

    SJM – Ah, OK.

    OL - For me, Dialogues des Carmelites is a good way to show to those who think that opera died with Puccini, that it is not so. It is very diatonic, and very flowing and melodious. Poulenc was not exactly a modernist and he disliked atonal music for the most part. I do love atonal contemporary music but some audiences find it hard to stomach. What is your opinion on how modernist and contemporary operas can appeal to audiences? I feel that to keep the art form alive we need to keep up with the times and perform the operas of our day and age. What is your opinion on contemporary operas versus ancient ones? Sometimes seasons have the usual Trav-Trov-Carmen-Aida-Bohème and it hard to entice the public to attend the current works. Any ideas on how to solve this conundrum?

    SJM - I don't think modern operas should be performed simply because they're modern. Operas should be performed because they're beautiful. There are some beautiful modern works that deserve to be heard by more audiences (Light in the Piazza for example), but I wonder if opera simply is a language that modern people no longer speak with enough fluency. The classics -- the Carmens and Bohèmes -- became popular and entered the pop-culture canon of important operas when people still spoke that language. It's difficult for modern operas to become popular simply because the window of "opera fluency" is closing -- unfortunately, there aren't enough people interested in the form to make them popular. Of course, some of the classics remain popular simply because they're beautiful and stand the test of time.

    OL – On this one I believe I disagree with you a little. I’ve been working on writing a guidebook to the British composer George Benjamin’s 2012 opera Written on Skin, have you heard of it?




    SJM – No, I haven’t.

    OL - I’ll tell you, it’s an astonishing masterpiece, as good as the old classics. A journalist issued a line saying “Written on Skin: opera's New Masterpiece - If opera is a dead art form, somebody forgot to tell George Benjamin.” [Mike Silverman, Associated Press]. So, I think we do need to perform contemporary opera. So, I met the composer, and told him, “I have the impression that I’m meeting Giuseppe Verdi!”

    SJM – [laughs]

    OL – He laughed and said, “No, Luiz, I’m not as good as Verdi!” However, Olivier Messiaen the great French composer [of the opera Saint François d’Assise] who was Benjamin’s teacher at one point, said to him that he was like Mozart.

    SJM – Wow!

    OL - Of course, Benjamin being a nice man, he also said that it was an exaggeration but I think Messiaen might be closer to the truth than we might think, when we look closer at this extraordinary work of art that is Written on Skin.

    SJM – I’d love to hear that! But I don’t want opera to be dying. It just seems like unfortunately in our culture here we don’t learn about it when we are growing up, as much as maybe in Europe. I worry about opera companies that have folded and are trying to get ticket sales up, and that’s all that I mean.

    OL – Yes, that is a problem. Like Joyce DiDonato said in an interview with Opera Lively, the best outreach, the best way to make opera more popular, is just to put on stage good operas. If they are good, the public will come.

    SJM – Yes.

    OL - Dialogues des Carmelites is hard to stage due to the large number of difficult singing roles. I don’t know too many details about this upcoming Winston Salem Symphony show. It is listed as semi-staged, which usually includes costumes, some props, and full acting and movement from the singers, as opposed to the concert form where singers only act with their voices. What do you know about this production, and what the public should expect from it? I see five listed singers, while this opera has at least 13 singing roles, and this, when some comprimarios double up and sing more than one small role. Are we getting a full supplement of singers in Winston-Salem?

    SJM - Most importantly, we have a fantastic conductor, Maestro Robert Moody. He is absolutely terrific. He always knows the score backwards and forwards, and his musicality and phrasing is unmatched. For singers, he is a dream to work with because of his musical ability. And, although they might not always realize it, the audience benefits tremendously from his creative ideas for performances that are exquisitely executed as a result of his skill. For this production, I know we'll have a full cast, and it will be with costumes. I know that we are doing costumes because they just emailed me yesterday for the measurements! [laughs]

    OL – Ah, OK, that will do it, to know that there will be costumes. [laughs]

    SJM - The rest -- like whether there will be a set, etc .-- will be a surprise for me when I get there, just like the audience.

    OL – Probably they will have the orchestra on the stage and there will be no sets. [Editor's note: information obtained later seems to indicate that this is accurate]

    SJM – Right. But they keep telling me it will be fully staged.

    OL – Really? OK.

    SJM – Again, I will find out when I get there. It’s going to be a very quick rehearsal process, because I don’t arrive until the Tuesday before the Sunday show. But I know that we’ll have a full cast; I saw everybody’s names on the email.

    OL – Wow, it’s a huge enterprise.

    SJM – Especially because we are staging it in four days! [laughs] Maybe others are having rehearsals before I get there. Maybe they have started. I’m not sure.

    OL – I’m very curious to know if they will pull it off. It’s not being done by an opera company. I wonder if Piedmont Opera is helping.

    SJM – They probably helped them at least to find the singers. Maybe the University of North Carolina School of the Arts is providing singers. But I have complete confidence in Robert Moody. I’ve worked with him three times now, and it is always such a pleasure. He just really knows how to produce opera. I did Knoxville: Summer of 1915 with him and it was a magical experience. He just sets the mood and the tone; you feel it’s a full production even if you are wearing a gown and not a perfect costume.

    OL – Yes, I’m always surprised at what they are able to do in Winston-Salem. They have the UNCSA with a production school, music school, dancing school, so they can pull from a lot of resources that a company that size and with that budget typically wouldn’t have. So, performances in Winston-Salem often look world-class and much better than those given by companies of a similar size.

    SJM – I love working with them. Jamie Allbritten, he was fantastic when I did Light in the Piazza there, it was one of my favorite roles I’ve performed. I was shocked at the high level of artistry there, it was really wonderful.



    OL - I very much like Jill Gardner, an intelligent, cultured, and experienced singer. Are you excited about having her in the cast as Mme. Lidoine, the Prioress?

    SJM - I can’t wait to see and sing with Jill. She was in that Light in the Piazza with Piedmont Opera. I was Clara and she played the role of my mother. Her voice is spectacular, but more importantly, she is one of the kindest and most generous artists I’ve ever worked with.

    OL – She is, isn’t she? I love her too. She is the only artist we’ve interviewed three times on Opera Lively, because we love so much her answers! She prepares very seriously for a role, researching all the historical background and everything. She always has such interesting things to say about a character, that she changed my mind about Suor Angélica. I thought I didn’t like it, until Jill told me some interesting insights about the opera, and then it became my favorite one among the three operas of the Trittico. Back to Blanche, how long did it take for you to learn this role? What are the most difficult parts? How did you prepare for it?

    SJM - I’ve been preparing this role since the summer. Blanche has a lot of interjections with Constance, and that took a while to memorize, but i think the most difficult parts are Blanche’s “mini arias” scattered throughout the end of the opera, especially with her brother. It’s always a challenge to not get so emotionally involved that it makes it more difficult to sing! Especially when she admits to her brother that she is growing to like her life in the convent because she finally feels happy and free.

    OL - This opera is well represented in discography and videography, unlike many modern pieces. There are versions on video with Dame Sutherland, with Patricia Petibon, Dagmar Schellenberger, Alexia Volgaridou, and Anne Sophie Schmidt. There are also cinematic versions based on the play by George Bernanos that inspired the libretto, not to forget the CDs, with the reference recording featuring Denise Duval as Blanche and the great Régine Crespin as the new Prioress, and the one with Catherine Dubosc. Did you watch or listen to any of this in your preparation? Is this something you do, or do you prefer to prepare without looking at predecessors? Who do you uphold as great past singers of the role of Blanche?

    SJM – I usually like to watch and listen to as many recordings as I can get my hands on. I’ve had a hard time finding DVDs of this. The library of Loyola University in New Orleans really has rare things but I couldn’t find anything there. But the recording I listened to the most is one with Josephine Barstow as Blanche. Do you know that one?

    OL – I don’t.

    SJM – I believe it is with the English National Opera, and that has been my favorite one that I heard. I listened to another one and wasn’t very fond of the voice of Blanche; to be honest I am not even sure who that was. Her voice was so different than mine, it was just too distracting. Basically with this role, I’ve coached it numerous times, over and over again, and that’s really how I learned it through my own studying and my own coaching, and I supplemented it listening to the ENO version. That has been helpful because some of the English is the same as the one we are doing because we are singing it in English. There some phrases I’ve told the maestro I’d like to change. I’d like to sing them like Josephine Barstow was singing them because it’s just a prettier line. Singing in English is tricky. You need to pick the right vowels. So, that’s what I’ve been studying.

    OL - OK, enough with Dialogues des Carmélites. Now let’s talk about you a bit so that our readers get to know you better. So, you sang The Pirates of Penzance with the late New York City Opera. This couldn’t be more different from Dialogues des Carmélites… How fun was that? Do you have good memories from that production to share with us?

    SJM - We've established that I love singing and I love acting. But I especially love dancing! So Pirates was perfect. I got to do my cartwheels and splits, and Mark Kudish, who was the Pirate King, got me involved with the Broadway circuit which led to many Broadway concerts at Town Hall. Pirates led to other roles with NYCO, which led to my one-woman show at Joe's Pub, which led to other performances at Lincoln Center. It was a wonderful springboard for me and a great entrance into the NY scene.


    Sarah Jane in The Pirates of Penzance as Mabel - credit unknown, fair promotional use

    OL – Good for you! You’ve been featured in significant German language roles, three of them with Plácido Domingo (Parsifal, Ariadne auf Naxos, and Der Rosenkavalier). How comfortable do you feel in that repertory, and what can you tell us about your professional interaction with Plácido?

    SJM - I actually love singing the German repertoire. Another role I sing often is Pamina in Die Zauberflote. Maestro Domingo has always been the utmost gentleman when I have performed with him. I was fortunate that he asked me to join his company, Los Angeles Opera as a young artist, and I learned so much from watching him perform as well as the graciousness that he always displays.

    I should mention the most favorite German role I’ve ever done; I don’t know if you’ve seen it: Zemlinsky’s opera Der Zwerg – The Dwarf.

    OL – No, I haven’t. That’s one that I have in my “unwatched/unlistened to” pile – some 50 of those – and it is always hard to find the time to prune the list. I’ll get to it eventually.

    SJM – I sang the role of the Infanta. She was turning 17 or 18 and basically she had everything in the world so for her birthday she gets a dwarf. It’s a heartbreaking story because she is terrible to this dwarf; she calls him ugly and he just loves her – she is the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen – and then at the end of opera he dies of a broken heart.


    Sarah Jane in Der Zwerg - credit unknown, fair promotional use

    As horrible as that is, this role, kind of like Abigail in The Crucible, was just so different from how I am in normal life, that it was such an acting challenge! I felt that it was a big growth spurt for me to sing and portray that character. I did that at Bard, and two years later I did Die Liebe der Danae where I was Xanthe.

    OL - You did some musicals, like The Light in the Piazza, and A Little Light Music, as well as West Side Story (although I don’t know if the latter was in operatic or musical version). How do you compare and contrast singing musicals versus opera, in terms of challenges, pleasure you experience while doing it, etc.?

    SJM - I sing like I sing. I don’t change that. What I do change is the style. No one wants to hear Maria sung like Turandot! I love doing musicals because that’s what I grew up doing. I was a dancer first (mainly tap!) and it’s so fun when I get to use all of those years of training!

    OL – Right, but have you done the singing marathons with several performances in a row that some musicals will have? That could be challenging for the voice, unlike when opera companies do it in just a couple of performances.

    SJM – I’ve done it both ways. Most of the time it was a Thursday and a Saturday with a break in between, but when I did Mabel in Pirates of Penzance at New York City Opera I did sixteen performances in three weeks. I was singing something like six a week and one week I did four. We had a schedule like Thursday, Friday, two Saturdays, and Sunday – it went fine but it was tough, and I used to joke and say “the only way I’m doing this is because I’m living like a nun” because I’d sing the performance and just go back to my apartment and I’d not speak; I’d just eat and lay down and prepare for the next show. Mabel is a difficult sing – I was doing physicality with the cartwheels and splits, and also having to sing high E flats. It was a lot to do with so many shows in a row. I’m glad I don’t have to do that all the time. [laughs]

    OL – It could damage the voice, no? I interviewed Paulo Szot who had a two-year stretch in Broadway before he made a full transition to opera, and he said it was difficult. I wonder how his voice survived the experience. Is that a risk?

    SJM – It is a risk but I think that if you are singing correctly, if your teacher has taught you the right technique, as long as you are healthy, I think it is definitely doable, but it is much nicer to have the day off in-between like I do with most of my jobs.

    OL – And what about the microphones? Does that change the dynamics a lot and you have to relearn everything, being a non-amplified opera singer?

    SJM – No, not they’ve done for me in the past, like for instance in The Pirates of Penzance, we had a mix of opera singers and Broadway singers in the cast who were more used to using a microphone, basically we were all miked but they just adjusted the levels so that everyone would sing the same. I was singing like if I didn’t have a mike. If I’m doing a concert where I have a hand-held mic or one on a stand, I know how to adjust for that, but I don’t change how I sing. I just adjust how close the mike is to my mouth.

    OL – OK. Other powerful modern works you’ve participate in include The Crucible and The Medium. Do you like this repertory? In what sub-genre you feel most vocally comfortable?

    SJM - Abigail in The Crucible is one of my most favorite roles I’ve ever performed. It was a major acting challenge because she is so unlike everything I am and believe. Sometimes those are the most fun because you really get to be someone you are not...well at least for a few hours, and then I’m very happy to return to my regular life!

    OL - You are a Yale graduate. Impressive. In what way has your academic training influenced you as an artist?

    SJM - At Yale I had amazing coaches. I would sometimes have three and four coachings a day, which is really unheard of for a music program. They helped me to greatly improve my language skills. They also taught me the best ways to learn a role and how quickly I can learn a role!

    OL - Let’s talk about your discography. First, tell us about the title role in Emmerich Kalman’s Sari. Describe the experience of doing the premiere recording of the piece.

    SJM - I performed Sari at Ohio Light Opera when I was only 20 years old. It was a major breakthrough for a young singer to not only have such a wonderful leading role, but to also get a recording out of it! I am partial to operetta because I always love the music, (especially Kalman, who we don’t get to hear as often as Lehar or Romberg) and it really blends my love of both musical theater and opera into one. Ohio Light Opera was my first real professional opera experience, and I couldn’t have asked for a better one.

    OL - You recorded a sacred music album for the survivors of Katrina, a Christmas album, and now an old standards album, Blessings and Silver Linings. Please tell our readers about these albums and how you got involved with them and picked the tracks. For one thing, I really, really loved your English language version of La Vie en Rose, and very much enjoyed your voice in all sample fragments I heard. I was demonstrating your voice to a couple of people yesterday and showing to them how beautiful you sound. Hopefully they will also come to see your performance.

    SJM – Oh, good! I hope so, too! Thank you!

    OL – Back to your recordings. Are you planning to do more crossover, or will you focus more on classical?

    SJM - My albums are some of my most prized possessions, and I only say that because they were so rewarding to record. I had wanted to record a sacred album for as long as I can remember, and I decided after everything my family and New Orleans went through after Hurricane Katrina, there wasn’t a better time to buckle down and do it. I recorded it in my childhood church, St. Pius X, and we faced the challenges of recording with a leaking roof and crickets trapped in the air conditioning vents, but my recording engineer Pete Wolbrette worked endlessly to make it sound as beautiful as it does. I Thank My God had a good following, so I then embarked on my second dream of making a Christmas album. I’m still amazed and how this all came together, but with the help of my wonderful recording engineer, Misha Kachkachishvilli, and numerous musicians based in New Orleans, I couldn’t be happier with the final product. It has original string arrangements of beloved Christmas carols as well as original brass quintet arrangements of “Let the Bright Seraphim” and “The Little Drummer Boy.” It was really a dream come true.



    My last album was just released a year ago, and it is sprinkled with a classical jazz flavor, with old time standards such as "Over the Rainbow," "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," "La Vie En Rose," and a tribute to my hometown, "Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans." I wanted to record this album because many of these songs were my grandparents’ favorites and I wanted to have a little tribute to them. Also, I’ve been fortunate to have a career “crossing over” into many different genres, and I think this album shows how I do that stylistically. I would love to record another album in the future. I’ve had a few requests for a Lullaby CD, now that I have my sweet daughter, Caroline. We’ll see what the future holds!

    OL – Your daughter is so adorable! What a pretty baby!

    SJM – Thank you! Oh, I’m partial to her, but she is a doll. I’m missing her terribly. I haven’t seen her for two weeks, so…

    OL – How old is she?

    SJM – She is eleven months.

    OL – It’s got to be tough on you and her. Babies between eight and eleven months are more exposed to separation anxiety when Mom is not with them.

    SJM – Hm… Well, fortunately my mother watches her and also my mother-in-law, so she is very comfortable with them and knows them; so it’s not like she is with someone she doesn’t know, and we do Face Time all the time. She waves and tries to eat the phone. [laughs] She seems to be doing great, but it’s been hard for me. I’ve been performing away from her since she was two weeks old. I jumped right back in, but the longest I had been away was five days, so this is hard.

    OL – She does look very happy in the pictures. It is interesting, Face Time. New technology is taking over and making babies lives easier in preventing separation anxiety. The times are changing! [laughs]. Tell us about the woman underneath the artist. Where were you born? Was your childhood filled with music? Were your parents musical people?

    SJM - I was born and raised in New Orleans and am a very proud New Orleanian. I went to Loyola University in New Orleans and that is where I met my late voice teacher, Philip Frohnmayer. He taught me the true technique of singing -- how to breathe, how to sing pure vowels, etc. He and my other teachers at Loyola, namely David Morelock and Carol Rausch, encouraged me to pursue an opera career. I was concerned about the instability that might come with it, so I took some prerequisites for dental school in order to have the option to apply to dental school if I didn’t get into the Master’s program I was looking for. Fortunately, I got accepted at Yale University, and I got wonderful exposure while I was there, which led to my debut at New York City Opera. I’ve lived all over the place, but three years ago, I got married and my husband (also from New Orleans) and I are so happy to call New Orleans home!

    My childhood was filled with music -- I have two older sisters who are both musical. One is also a singer and the other a doctor of pharmacy by day but also a wonderful pianist. My parents like to sing, but never pursued music as a profession, but always encouraged music around the house. We all took piano for many years and I also danced for 15 years. I could never have even thought of pursuing this career without the help and support that my family has given to me.

    OL – Is your sister also an opera singer?


    SJM – She studied opera and got her degree in Vocal Performance, but then she actually went on to get her Masters in Communications, and she worked for the Birmingham Symphony for a while, and then she got married and had three children and that became her full time job.

    OL – Tell us more about what moment tipped the balance in favor of opera.

    SJM - I first encountered it at Loyola University. I was not interested in opera until I sang Adina in L’elisir d’amore when I was a sophomore. Up until then, I wanted to dance and only perform in musicals. After I saw the vocal challenges of Adina, I was hooked. I felt like if I could sing opera, I could sing anything! It was the biggest challenge of my life, and I couldn’t wait for the next operatic role to come my way.

    OL - What are your plans for the next five years? You have a baby daughter. Are you worried about balancing family with a singing career?

    SJM - I have Christmas concerts with the Jacksonville Symphony and Rochester Philharmonic, as well as Gala concerts with the Minnesota Orchestra and Cleveland Pops this winter and spring. We are doing the Dialogues des Carmélites again in Portland as well, on March 8, the same production and the same principal singers, with the Portland Symphony. I also have my first Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire in 2016! My daughter is definitely my most favorite role yet. She is the greatest blessing in our lives, and fortunately, she is very good natured and travels very well! We were just in Italy; we actually brought our daughter with us, and she did fantastic. I sang at the Vatican while I was there.

    OL – Wow!

    SJM – It was really exciting. One of my husband’s friends was being ordained a priest and we went to celebrate that with him.

    Of course, I’m worried about balancing family and career! What artist isn’t? It is hard to be away from my family, but fortunately, I have the most supportive husband I could have ever asked for. He encourages my performing because he sees it as a gift that I need to continue sharing. I couldn’t be more grateful to him because if I didn’t have his support, I could never have continued to do what I love so much.

    OL – Great, good for you. Back to A Street Car Named Desire – do you like it? Frankly, I don’t.

    SJM – Well, to be honest I don’t know it that well. I’ve seen it once and it was a long time ago, when I was in High School. I vaguely remember it. What I do remember is that Elizabeth Futral was Stella.

    OL – Yes, isn’t she great?

    SJM – Fabulous! Actually she is one of the big reasons I started to love opera. I saw her sing Lucia, and I just had never seen such a captivating performer. She was beautiful, she had a wonderful figure, she sang, acted, and moved beautifully. It was the first time I thought “oh wow, you can do all of this and also sing opera; it is not only in musical theater that you can do this.” When I was offered A Streetcar, this was the first thing that came to my mind. I just remembered her presence, but again, this was fifteen years ago, so…

    OL – I just find this opera musically not very compelling, not adding much to the stage play. Other than your music and your family, what else do you like to do for fun and relaxation? Do you have hobbies and other major interests?


    SJM - I love to cook and I love my Catholic faith. I would say those are my main interests besides my family. My faith keeps me grounded. I love that no matter where I am in the world, I can always find the Catholic church and feel at home again.

    OL – All right, these were all our questions; do you have anything to add?


    SJM – [laughs hard, after such a long interview]: I don’t think so! I’ve never had such a thorough interview! But it was really helpful to me, truly. I was up late, working on it. I’ve been up until 3 in the morning the last couple of nights. I had my final dress rehearsal for Carmen and of course I’m wired. [This interview happened on October 30 and she is opening Carmen at Opera Grand Rapids on October 31, 2014]. Last night I was typing up the questions and at 3:30 AM I thought, “OK, I have to start this again tomorrow.” [laughs]

    OL – Thank you for that; your answers were wonderful. I’ll ask Jill to help me get backstage to shake hands; she is from that area and has performed many times with them.


    SJM – I’d love that. Do you know Jake as well, her husband?

    OL – I do! I interviewed him too, he is a great guy. I love that couple, they are a lot of fun. I will see her tomorrow. I love Jill, she is incredible.

    SJM – She is. Please give her a hug for me, and Jake. He and I did Die Fledermaus together in Virginia. I sang Adele and we had a great time. I look forward to seeing Jill again in a couple of weeks.

    OL – I will tell her. I’ll send you the links for our three interviews with Jill and one with Jake. Jill always has great answers. Suor Angelica was the least preferred opera for me in Il Trittico, but when I talked with Jill about it, she had so many great insights about the character and the whole structure of the opera that it then became my favorite Trittico opera! She transformed my view of the opera, in one interview.

    SJM – Really? Wow!

    OL – Thank you so much for your time, not only the three hours, but now I took another hour from your life, so that’s not nice!


    SJM – [laughs] No, I enjoyed it. Thank you! I enjoyed speaking with you and I liked the questions!

    OL – Glad to hear that. All right, so have a nice evening, and I’ll see you in two weeks.

    SJM – OK. That sounds great, thank you so much.

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    Let's listen to her fabulous voice and admire her striking good looks in these video clips with Plácido Domingo in "Lá ci darem la mano" from Don Giovanni and "Tonight" from West Side Story :





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