Sylvia McNair had the classical music world at the tips of her fingers. Her powerful, Grammy Award-winning soprano voice serenaded audiences and world leaders alike through countless concerts and operatic performances spanning the globe for two decades. Then came a close encounter with the music of George Gershwin.
The late 1990s marked the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth. And, in celebration, symphony orchestras across the United States paid homage. “I had started getting invites to perform at places like the Hollywood Bowl, the New York Philharmonic, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in honor of Gershwin,” McNair says in a phone interview. “And, as I was singing this music, I was realizing, ‘This is pretty cool.’ I just really took to it. I felt built to do it.”
In 2002, at the 20-year mark of her professional debut, McNair bid adieu to classical music and embraced a directional shift in her music-making. That chance sequence of events has culminated in her most recent CD release, appropriately titled Subject to Change! The live recording contains 15 tracks encapsulating the Great American Songbook.
To some who have followed McNair’s career from debuting leading operatic roles to reigning as a recitalist, it might seem an unprecedented shift from arias and art songs to standards. But for McNair, nothing has felt more natural. “I feel like I’m doing some of the best singing of my life right now,” the energetic McNair says. “My voice is happy. My heart is happy.”
From Violin to Voice
It’s not the first major musical transition for the Ohio-born singer. Entering the world in 1956, McNair was just three years old when she began tickling the ivories. “When I think of three-year-olds now, it seems a little unusual,” McNair says, with a hearty laugh. “I think I knew how to read music before I knew how to read words.”
By age seven, she was playing the violin, which offered McNair her earliest musical aspirations. “My dream in high school was to grow up and earn a seat playing in the Cleveland Orchestra,” McNair says. “Being from Ohio, it was the logical thing to think.” McNair would go on to pursue studies in violin at Wheaton College. It wasn’t long, however, before she was persuaded by her violin teacher to take voice lessons.
“Violinists use the breath to shape a phrase the same way that singers do,” McNair says. But, the more immersed she became in her voice lessons, the more she found she was enjoying practicing that more than her violin. “Hindsight is 20/20,” McNair says. “Back then, I just thought that singing was more fun. Looking back now, I think that I was falling in love with words. Words give you a way to connect and communicate with people in the audience in a way that playing the violin just didn’t do for me.”
She ultimately would complete her bachelor of music in voice in 1978 before earning a master of music with distinction from Indiana University in 1983. During her time at the university, she caught the attention of a beacon in choral music: Robert Shaw. “It was my second or third year at Indiana, and I had been chosen by the choral director to be the soprano soloist for a choral mass that Robert Shaw was conducting with our choir,” McNair recalls. “He must have heard or seen something in me, because he gave me my first professional opportunities.”
Shaw helped launch McNair’s career, employing her for a multitude of performances and recordings that would eventually open the door to concert and festival debuts across the United States and Europe. “I was blessed that someone so legendary was willing to go the extra mile for me,” McNair says. “Robert Shaw gave me a lot of his time and effort, and I owe him everything.”
A Thriving Career and Life
From there, there was no stopping McNair.
After debuting with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra in 1979, she sang her first professional operatic role as Sandrina in Haydn’s L’infedeltà delusa as part of the Mostly Mozart Festival. That, in turn, led to appearances with Vienna State Opera, the Salzburg Festival, the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, Santa Fe Opera, San Francisco Opera, and the Metropolitan Opera, where she enjoyed several seasons before life took a turn and McNair sensed it was time for a change.
“A lot of it is as basic as ‘When a door opens, you walk through it,’” McNair says. “‘When the light turns green, you go.’ There were opportunities opened up to me, and I took them. I think people thought I was crazy when I made the decision to walk away and leave the Met. But, I had to follow my heart. And I’ve never regretted that.”
In 2006, shortly after a divorce from conductor Hal France, to whom she had been married since 1986, McNair was diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent several surgeries as part of her journey with the disease, including a mastectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy. It took a toll on her both emotionally and physically.
“I can’t even tell you what that does to you as a singer,” McNair says. “Having a tube passed down your throat, so close to your vocal apparatus . . . Singing isn’t just what I do. It’s who I am. It was a tremendous threat.” But, despite these personal setbacks, McNair speaks bravely and candidly about her experience. Though she doesn’t credit it with her directional change in music, McNair says surviving divorce and cancer did provide her with a new sense of strength.
“Everybody has got something in their life, and my story is not a secret,” she says. “And, if it’s something that can help someone else, I want it to be out there. I barely survived my divorce. It was painful and was something that was unwanted by me. Cancer was a different challenge. Both broke my heart in different ways. But both forced me to answer some tough questions about how I wanted to live . . . how I wanted to spend the rest of my time. And those were great questions for me to answer.”
Singing a Different Tune
Today, in addition to her new foray into jazz crooning, McNair has come full circle. She is a voice faculty member at her alma mater, Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, where she teaches English diction, opera workshop, and private lessons. Since 2009, McNair also has served as a mentor, coach, and judge for Michael Feinstein’s Songbook Academy, an intensive workshop for high school students under the umbrella of the Great American Songbook Foundation. “I enjoy a lot about teaching,” McNair says. “Having been in this business for 35 years, I have a strong opinion about singing that I enjoy sharing with students.”
Having found her niche in jazz and Broadway tunes, McNair said she doesn’t foresee venturing back toward classical singing. She’s quick to point out, however, that she wouldn’t call herself a “jazz singer.” She simply considers herself “a singer who sings music she loves.” “At the time I made this shift, I had been singing for 20 years,” she says. “The first 10 were so exciting because I was traveling and making debuts. That was thrilling. The second 10 were a harder walk for me, where I felt like I was just schlepping through. It became very hard work. What I’m doing now just feels right and true.”
Her one piece of advice to singers from all walks of life? Pitch and diction are paramount. “Sing in tune and let your words hit the back wall,” she says, emphatically. “As a singer, you have to have great care for words. If my students don’t remember anything else I’ve taught them, I hope they remember that.”