Interview with San Francisco Opera Center’s Sheri Greenawald

[Note from William: Many of the major American opera companies, and their counterparts elsewhere in the world, have “Young Artists” programs for developing the opera singers of the future (as well as covering roles and singing the smaller parts of the season’s operas). With this interview with the San Francisco Opera Center’s director, Sheri Greenawald, I will begin a series of occasional interviews of persons involved with these Young Artists programs.]

Wm: How did you become interested in opera performance?

SG: Originally, I had planned to attend medical school, and was geared to take the pre-med science requirements. My father taught physics and chemisty and my mother was involved in science teaching as well. I thought that is where I belonged.

[Below: Sheri Greenawald; edited image, based on a Kristen Loken Ansteg photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

But I happened to attend a band camp at the University of Northern Iowa with a string player.  At the camp, I signed up for voice. When an instructor heard me sing, I was asked “what are you planning to do for the rest of your life?”.

Wm: I saw you in all seven of the leading roles you performed at the San Francisco Opera between 1978 and 1986. This was a period when many of the great recording artists of the stereo era also performed here – Leontyne Price, THE THREE TENORS, Sutherland, Sills, Scotto, Caballe.

[Below: Sheri Greenawald is Lauretta to the Schicchi of Giuseppe Taddei in San Francisco Opera’s 1979 production of Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi”; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

One does not speak of any of these artists as being “over recorded” and yet there were many artists, yourself included, who ARE described as “under-recorded”.  Do you agree with my personal observation that today there are as many great voices as performed in the 1960s and 1970s, but that the catalogues of studio opera recordings do not reflect this?

SG: Actually, I think that your position is easily defensible. The big recording studios have to make business decisions. They know that Renee Fleming’s CDs will sell, so they go with her and a few other artists simply to stay alive. It is sad. People should have more recordings available from artists like Sondra Radvanovsky. Now one has to go to YouTube even to hear some singers.

[Below: Sheri Greenawald in the title role of Massenet’s “Manon” in a 1986 performance at the San Francisco Opera; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Wm: As head of the San Francisco Opera Center you oversaw three somewhat different approaches to training young artists. How do you describe the differences between the Merola program and the Adler Fellowships? And how did these differ from the former touring company, the Western Opera Theater?

SG: Unfortunately, the Western Opera Theater died my second year here, because the financial complications that the San Francisco Opera has faced this millennium has made it necessary to make deep programmatic cuts. I am not sure that any American opera company can afford a significant touring component anymore.

The Merola program differs from the Adler fellowships in regards to their legal status. The Merola program is owned by a non-profit Internal Revenue Service Section 501(c)(3) tax exempt organization. It contracts with me to be its artistic and music director.

How is it different? I think training is training. I do not think my approach differs from one to another. However, the Adler fellows are resident artists, who live in the area for the duration of their fellowship.  That’s the only difference. When they become “Adlers” we can really “get to the bone” on things.

Wm: The relatively short periods of ”vocal prime” of some of the most famous opera stars – including Maria Callas – became obvious at the time when such educational interventions as American collegiate vocal curricula and major opera company “young artists” programs were expanding.  How is the phenomenon of the rapid vocal decline of such artists leading to new techniques in your training programs and in American vocal programs in general to lengthen vocal careers?

SG: Well, you still have people that come in and have a meteoric shot but a short career. That will happen all the time. You can teach technique to an artist, but whether they will use the technique is another story. There will always be diverse human personalities.

Additionally, I believe that almost all artists have vocal crises at times in their careers. Although our San Francisco Opera Center alumni leave with the tools they need at the time, many will find the need to return for additional assistance. For instance, a somewhat famous baritone, who is a former Adler fellow and now is launching an international career, recently came back to us for some additional work coaching, as he knew he needed some scrubbing and polishing still.

When I was a performer, I had teachers in London that I would check in with from time to time. If you are to be an artist with an international career, you will spend so much time on the road, that it is absolutely critical to have someone somewhere who knows your voice and whom you trust to advise you.

One of the realities is that the voice is affected by physical changes in a singer’s body over time. Sopranos between ages 30 and 35 will often experience a physical change, and a huge shift in their 40s and another in their 50s. Pregnancies and menopause will often have a major impact on one’s singing. One usually adjusts, but here the expertise of a teacher in helping one cope with physical changes can be critical.

And it is not just physical change. An emotional experience, such as the unexpected death of a person close to you, can be so traumatic that it affects the voice. Although one hopes an artist adjusts, many of these physical or emotional crises can be career killers.

Wm: To me, the most welcome change over the past decade or so has been the emergence of what I call “bel canto Wagnerian singing” – a power voice that is able to sing each of Wagner’s phrases with a beautiful sound, such as we associate with Regine Crespin in the previous generation. The most famous current example to me is Placido Domingo, but all of these “Rings” we are seeing on the West Coast are filled with such singers.  Do you agree that Wagnerian singing is getting prettier? Are there some aspects of Domingo’s training, as opposed to just genetics, that has allowed him to sing Wagnerian tenor roles so beautifully in his late 60s?

SG: I think that Domingo is phenomenal. Not everyone can sing so beautifully, and yet be older than anyone else on the stage. The way he sings Wagner, is what Wagner wanted us to hear. The beautiful Wagnerian singing that one can hear now fulfills Wagner’s dreams.

That he is able to have such a long career means, to a great extent, that he has retained the athletic ability to produce the quantities of breath to sustain that great artistry that we associate with his singing. The production of breath is an athletic activity. What causes an opera singer’s voice to fade out is the aging of the “breath” muscles. After a certain age, one simply does not have the athletic ability to provide enough breath to sustain the voice for the long periods of time that an operatic singer must. I could probably even now sing well enough for a while, but not for an extended period.

Wm: Yet having a lot of breath does not assure that the music is beautifully sung. Why is that Domingo and so many of the new generation of American artists sing Wagner so sweetly?

SG: I believe that what you hear are properly functioning vocal chords, and is a result of artists being trained to employ correct techniques. As to other Wagnerian singers whose sound you may not have liked so well, there is a certain Germanic technique that I believe is anathema to the vocal chords. I myself  do not understand how it is taught, but the result is a breath compression that is too low for my taste.

[Below: Sheri Greenawald (right) as Marzelline in a 1978 San Francisco Opera performance of Beethoven’s “Fidelio”, her debut role with the company, seated next to the Rocco (Marius Rintzler); edited image, based on a production photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera Archives.]

Wm: David Holloway, in an interview on the Santa Fe Opera summer apprentice program, that will be posted as part of this series on young artists programs, stresses the point that selections to that program are based on the company’s needs for covers and smaller roles for the five operas of each Santa Fe Opera summer season, and that they often pass over what they regard as a wonderful voice that they would otherwise want to have, because that voice does not fit with their needs for that season.

When you choose the Adler fellows, are the company’s needs for particular covers and smaller roles a consideration, or do you go for the voices that you have ranked highest, irrespective of the specific roles you would expect them to sing?

SG: The Merola program produces operatic performances, so, like David Holloway, I have to recruit singers to fill out the casts of those shows. However, I am also able to recruit a group of singers that I call my “wild card group”, selected regardless of whether there is an obvious part for them, and out of that group many of the Adler Fellows are chosen. Recent examples include Leah Crocetto and Heidi Melton. Elza van den Heever, whom you have interviewed (See Rising Stars: An Interview with Elza van den Heever) was a “wild card”.

With the Adler  Fellows, General Director David Gockley is still looking for the best singers, regardless of near term repertory needs. Within the two years of a typical Adler Fellowship, there will be something for that fellow’s voice. We still are looking for those young artists with obvious career potential. This includes counter-tenors, who may not normally find a position in a Young Artists programs, and those with obvious big Wagnerian voices, such as Daveda Karenas (who will sing Brangaene with a major North American company within the near future).

Wm: In the recent interview I did of Elza van den Heever, she credited the two years of her Adler fellowship working with you as launching her international career as a soprano. How do you approach the task of convincing a mezzo to refocus her voice? What specific techniques did you teach her that prepared her to sing Mozart, Donizetti, Verdi, Puccini and Wagner roles, as she now does?

SG: Again, the technique remains the same. How you apply it is how you make the difference between the styles. I am here to make the voice function. I am not here to create the singer’s sound. I try to make sure their vocal chords are developing.

[Below: Cendrillon (Sheri Greenawald, right) is now united with her Prince Charming (Delia Wallis) while her Fairy Godmother (Ruth Welting) look on, during a 1982 San Francisco Opera performance of Massenet’s “Cendrillon”; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

As to the issue of switching voices, it was my belief that she was a soprano who was being trained as a mezzo. However it would be irresponsible to advise a student to make the shift from training as a mezzo to training as a soprano without justification, so I am very careful not to suggest such a change unless there is  good evidence that my opinion is sound. In Elza’s case her strength was not in the middle of her voice, it was in the top of her range.

Wm: Is it sometimes not so obvious where the strength of the voice lies?

SG: Yes that’s true.  Currently I have a 24 year old private student and we had been undecided about whether she is a mezzo or a soprano. We asked Dolora Zajic, who concluded that the way her voice breaks suggests that she is a lyric soprano. There actually is very little difference between a lyric mezzo and a lyric soprano. If you are a mezzo, there is a certain color to the voice between F2 and C3, but that timbre does not show up for a while.

The same issues come up for men as well. It takes awhile to really know whether a singer is a light lyric baritone or a tenor. With the bass voice especially, one needs time for the voice to settle.

Wm: Would you explain to the website’s readers the difference between a singer having a healthy vibrato and not?

SG: A properly functioning voice will have an even vibrato. If you have damaged your vocal chords you have problems maintaining that evenness and you get an unpleasant tone.  You can tell when it is working correctly. It is balancing the “overtones” and “undertones”. If there is tension in the chords, they do not work properly. If the breath is not produced evenly, the vibrato is too slow and spreads.

Wm: And may sound like Burt Lahr as the Cowardly Lion in “The Wizard of Oz”.

SG: That can happen as a singer ages, but also whenever in a career that the vocal chords are not functioning properly.

The “straight”, vibrato-less tone that some people like, including some teachers, is caused by clamping down on the vocal chords, but this is not a technique that I would wish my pupils to adopt.

Frank Sinatra would produce a vibrato-less tone for the main part of his songs, then would add a flourish of vibrato at the end. This technique may have worked for Sinatra, but this is not a proper way to sing opera.

Wm: Dolora Zajic is not only  a superstar mezzo, but is an important resource for other singers, is she not?

SG: Dolora is very interested in young singers who have the larger voices. She believes that young singers who are obvious Wagnerians or Verdians can be tremendously misunderstood by their teachers. She is getting wonderful results in working with them.

Wm: As the print media consolidate and evaporate, the classical music “beats” increasingly are merged into “entertainment and the arts” sections so that a writer might be expected to cover films, rock concerts, ice shows and rodeos as well as opera.

You have been quoted as decrying the tendency of some of the electronic sites as being too absorbed with the physical appearance of the artists, particularly the men, rather than the vocal performance. Have you considered creating a course to teach opera critics how to do a better job on reporting on the quality of the singing in an opera they are reviewing?

SG: Oh goodness, no! But I do fell sorry for those people. I did meet a reviewer for a Midwestern newspaper, who was that paper’s sports editor. I can understand them wanting guidance.

Wm: What advice would you give a young singer, seeking a career in opera?

SG: The business has been complicated by the economic downturn. Opera companies are looking for safe casting, because the lifeblood of the company comes from filling the seats.

A young singer must really understand how critical it is to have a solid technique, that will withstand the stress and strain of all the other particulates that come into the making of a singer. You have to be an actor. With singers like Natalie Dessay currently performing, a “stand and sing” singer will not excite people.

Singers need to be solid musicians, who can learn music by themselves, but they also should have coaches whom they can access when they are are on the road. Acting is critical, but a singer must have the vocal technique.

Some of the things that voice teachers have students do, I regard as “unvocal”. A young soprano may be asked constantly to sing Fiordiligi’s Come scoglio from Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte”, that should only be tackled by the mature voice.

Artists have to ask two questions about their voice teacher: (1) When you finish your lesson, does it hurt? and (2)  Do you run out of voice at the end of the lesson?

If the answer is yes to either question, consider finding another teacher. Then ask the question: does the teacher’s advice work consistently? When the teacher is not there, can you recreate the sound for yourself? In other words, does the product you paid for work?  If not, what is the point of taking lessons from that person?  If you do not see and hear evidence of progress, find another teacher!

Wm: What artists have you admired over the course of your career singing and teaching?

SG: First, among the teachers, the former Wagnerian soprano Margaret Harshaw, who was the teacher of soprano Carol Vaness. My favorites of the past include Claudia Muzio, and, of the more recent past, Renata Scotto, Magda Olivero, Eleanor Steber, Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti, Alfredo Kraus and Nicolai Gedda. All of these artists had long careers. Dame Gwyneth Jones had a very big voice. It takes a ton of breath to fill the chest cavity to create the sounds she did.

Wm: When performing at San Francisco Opera, you alternated between highly melodic operas of Beethoven, Massenet and Puccini and later 20th century works by Tippett and Reimann. What are your thoughts on the role of melody in opera.

SG: I think that the human ear longs for melody, and  to  recognize melody in what is heard. I think that many of the 20th century works are beautifully written. I especially love Britten and how his vocal lines are accompanied by his orchestration.

Some composers understand the human voice, and some do not. You can write atonal music and still write music that fits the human voice. Among the contemporary composers, I believe that Thomas Pasatieri, Daniel Catan, Jack Heggie and Dominic Argento are examples of composers that truly understand the human voice.

Wm: Thank you, Sheri.