The Many Hats of Sheri Greenawald

In May 2002, Pamela Rosenberg—then general director of the San Francisco Opera, welcomed the appointment of internationally acclaimed American soprano Sheri Greenawald, as the director of the San Francisco Opera Center. Known as San Francisco Opera’s “training wing,” the Opera Center includes the Merola Opera Program, the Adler Fellowship Program, and the Schwabacher Debut Recitals.

With a distinguished international operatic career under her belt, Greenawald brought a successful singer’s experience as well as a teacher’s skill to her new leading role as a nurturer of opera’s future stars.

How did you decide to become an opera singer?

I grew up in Iowa, in a community of about 100 people, so the only contact I had with opera was through the Firestone Hour and the Ed Sullivan Show. But I remember that when I was in third grade and kids were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up, I drew a lady with a large bosom and declared that I wanted to be an opera singer. However, since I was always good at science and math, I was planning to be a doctor as I grew up. But, at 16, someone heard me sing at a music camp and that changed my world.

I ended up going to the University of Northern Iowa as a music major, and studied with Charles Matheson. Then Virginia Hutchins came to Iowa as a guest teacher, and after she heard me sing, she took me to New York to sing for Maria de Varady. I met composer Thomas Pasatieri at the same time. After graduation, I moved to New York and lived out of the YWCA studio club for women.

When you were studying, did you face any particular challenges mastering your voice?

I was lucky. I was very precocious musically and had a vibrato when I was 5, so I didn’t have many vocal challenges. I was also a cheerleader in high school. When you lead the cheers, you learn how to use the breath in similar ways to singing (which is controlled screaming). I credit cheerleading with having given me a sense of how to use my breath. This has been one of my strengths.

As you age, menopause does most female singers in, because the support mechanism weakens; but if you are a master of your breath, it can help prolong your years of singing.

How did you start singing professionally?

I did some things at Hunter and Brooklyn colleges, and at the Manhattan Theatre Club. Then I met Matthew Epstein, who introduced me to the Alden twins, Christopher and David, with whom I played together a lot and by playing, I don’t mean just performing. There was also a sense of play in our collaboration, and that is so important for singers—to be playful because this fuels spontaneity and frees up the voice. Then I landed a job with Texas Opera Theater.

So your transition to the professional world went smoothly.

Yes, but there were also challenging moments. At 25, I was ready to go back to med school, but fortunately, I got the job in Texas. Then at 29, I found a British teacher, Audrey Langford, who saved my life, because she spoke to me about anatomy and physics. It’s amazing how other teachers don’t go into these important details. So there were always serendipitous moments that kept me going in the beginning, as well as hard work. I remember Matthew Epstein saying: “I can get you the first job, but you need to get the second one yourself.” And then I had success, which kept me going.

Success feeds success, but the beginning is hard. As a singer, you end up putting all your eggs in one basket, and you can’t go at it hedging your bets.

As a teacher, when would you advise a singer to stop trying for a professional career?

Well, large voices take longer to develop. If you have a large voice, and if you’re still rejected at 30, you might want to hang in there for a while. But if you’re a lyric coloratura, and you’re still getting rejection in your early 30s, you might want to think about it. The reality is, not many people are going to make it in this profession. Luck does play a part in a certain way. In my case, I met people who introduced me to other people who were helpful to me at the right time. But nothing would have happened if I didn’t have something to offer or if I wasn’t prepared.

When did you stop singing?

I sang on a professional level until the age of 56. We lyric sopranos have a problem around that age because we can’t really go into character roles like mezzos. In my 50s, I also started teaching and doing masterclasses, and I discovered I enjoy working with young singers.

My parents, who are both science teachers, taught me good deductive skills. I don’t flatter singers at all; I work with what they have. One of my favorite sayings is: “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, but you can make a purse.” I believe you can improve anyone’s vocalism, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be a star. There are basic tenets to what makes vocal cords function. I can make you function vocally.

What characteristics do you look for right away when someone auditions for you?

I look not only for a unique instrument but also whether the singer is a communicative performer. Sometimes the voice is so spectacular that even if the singer is not such a great performer, we’ll try to work with him or her to improve that aspect.

It doesn’t take a genius to recognize talent. When the Merola board members attend the general director’s audition, they instantly recognize the singers who will be stars.

What disturbs you most during an audition?

Very little. It bothers me if I hear an interesting voice that’s not being produced correctly, or if [the singers] make musical mistakes but this usually doesn’t happen at the level of our auditions. Mostly, I am looking for the positive.

Have you initiated any major changes since you started as director of the Opera Center in 2002?

It was fairly easy to come in here when things were set up so well in the first place. One of the things that, unfortunately, I’ve had to do was cancel the Western Opera Theater tour, which caused a lot of chagrin, including my own. We did the 2002 tour, and I had to cancel the 2003 tour. Nobody is doing touring anymore because it’s so expensive!

I completely understand everyone’s sorrow over that. I did crazy tours when I was growing up in the business. You learn a lot when you’re on tour; it’s a real test of your professionalism. I don’t think I reinvented any wheels. I try to keep the wheels rolling, but everybody comes with their own subjective opinions about what is important. For instance, now I always bring in a breath specialist, Deborah Birnbaum, because for me, one of the most crucial issues is breath.

How does the Adler Fellowship program work in conjunction with Merola?

We select the Adler recipients from the Merola program.

When do you hold auditions for the Merola?

We start in October and we have about a four-week period of auditions in San Francisco, Chicago, Houston, and New York—four sections of the country.

How many people get accepted usually?

Every year the formula for Merola has been 23 singers. Starting this year, it will also include five pianists and one stage director.

How long can someone stay in the Merola program?

You can come for two summers. It’s an 11-week training program in the summertime.

After that, do singers need to audition for the Adler?

No. Being in Merola is like one long audition process for an Adler Fellowship. That’s very advantageous for me, because by the end of 11 weeks of having seen their work in coachings, masterclasses, and on stage, and just being able to socialize with them slightly, I really know my candidates.

I understand that the Merola participants also perform in two full-length operas.

Yes, I produce two full-length operas, and a semi-staged concert for those I call the wild-card singers: unusual voices that didn’t fit in any particular production but whose talent we still want to explore. Often that’s where the dramatic voices will end up. Then, we have the Merola Grand Finale, a big semi-staged concert at the end of the summer.

What are the Schwabacher Debut Recitals?

James Schwabacher was one of the founding members of Merola and chairman of the board for many years. He endowed this program. We do four recitals in the spring. Usually, one of those recitals is by a recent Merola graduate. There’s also one by a Merola graduate who’s out in the world performing. A current Adler will also get one, and recently, we’ve presented Steven Blier with the New York Festival of Song in one of his recitals, and the Adlers are his singers.

What is a typical day like for you with so many responsibilities?

I do a lot of work online everyday. Then I work with the Adlers on a given day. I have to be coordinating productions, hiring conductors and stage directors, looking for designers—my producing responsibilities are very much a part of my day. I attend Merola board meetings.

Do you work with the Adlers vocally too?

If they choose to. I offer feedback when they coach, for example, asking: “Are you coming across the way you think you’re coming across? Here’s what I see; is that what you meant?” We’re a pretty tight-knit group. My job is to tell them if something needs improvement.

How do you find working with David Gockley?

I’ve known David since I was 25. I was in his troupe in the second year of what was then known as the Texas Opera Theater. I like to think David was a champion of mine. He hired me a lot at Houston Grand Opera. I knew his family and his children. So he is not a mystery to me, nor am I to him, I’m sure! I love Pamela Rosenberg as well and I have tremendous respect for her.

You’ve lived in Europe for 11 years. What would you say distinguishes American singers from European singers in how they present themselves professionally as a result of their training?

The argument I always heard in Europe was that Americans always came extremely well prepared and were technically proficient. The biggest complaint about Americans was that they didn’t have an individual sound. I think the reason we’re technically prepared is that Americans are into efficiency as a rule, sometimes to the detriment of life experiences. Efficiency is drummed into us from college on: you have to be a good musician. It’s literally part of an American contract that states you must arrive at your job knowing your role. It’s how we approach our work, which I think is very admirable.

Having worked in Europe, there were times when I was thinking: “Why don’t you know your part already?”

The idea of efficiency also fuels my whole theory about vocal technique. A voice teacher needs to make the voice function efficiently, meaning healthily. Then whatever sound comes out is that person’s individual sound. I don’t believe in making a sound; I believe in helping singers produce their sound as efficiently and effortlessly as possible. Of course, singers end up making a sound, but hopefully, it’s their sound.

Everyone comes with their own baggage so I don’t have a particular formula when I teach voice.

With your intensely busy schedule, do you have any time to teach privately?

Oh, yes, I do! I really enjoy it. One of the great things about my position here in Merola, and particularly in the Adler program, is that I’ve been able to watch a lot of other people teach voice, like Robert Lloyd, Jane Eaglen, Dolora Zajick, Tracy Dahl, Tom Allen, and Håkan Hagegård. I have friends who teach, and we talk about technique constantly.

Some teachers start to guard what they think are their secrets. Well, it’s not about the teacher. It can’t be about your secrets; it has to be about what’s going to work for the singer. Certain words and imagery work for some and not for others. You just have to keep trying. It’s scientific in that way, you have to keep applying yourself until you find the solution in unlocking the concepts for each singer.

What I first say to any private student that comes to me is: “I want you to tape this, and when you listen to it, if you like what you hear, then call, and we’ll see each other again. If you don’t like what you hear, you don’t have to come back.” The singer is the client; it’s not about me. That also applies to singers who start to think that it’s about the teacher. It has to be about empowering the singers to deal with their own demons in singing, and giving them the tools to understand what they’re doing. That’s why I think talking anatomy is so important.

One of the most fascinating things I did was when I invited a physicist/horn player from the University of California at San José to explain resonance to my kids. We worked with spectrographs, and the way he talked about sound demystified so much! For instance, he said that “pitch” is a subjective word, not a scientific word. “Frequency” is the word that physicists use. His semantics really pulled back a lot of curtains! It enlightened me so much that it even changed the way I talk about sound, because I understand it in a much more objective way.

What are your thoughts on today’s visual audiences and the importance of looks on stage?

Let’s face it, it seems that people in America are just completely obsessed with the visual! There is no way to say to a singer that it doesn’t matter. If you’re a lyric soprano—which is the biggest pool of singers in the world—you can’t be overweight anymore. When you’re a lyric soprano, which I was, there’s always someone with another beautiful voice standing next to you. Some people [have on their] album covers: “The most beautiful voice in the world!” Yeah, yeah, yeah. I can’t stand it. It’s like: Come on! Who are you kidding? By whose standards, yours or mine? That’s just hype!

You have to have a particular package if you’re in that voice type. Now the truly dramatic voices are few and far between. With those voices, you can just barely get away with being heavy now. Even within that voice category, I constantly encourage girls to keep the weight down; if for no other reason but health. You can be severely heavy up until you’re about 40, after that it will become increasingly difficult to support.

Since you’re so aware of the scientific and functional aspect of singing, when you were performing, how did you maintain a balance between that and the emotional aspect? When you were on stage, did you let go of the technical side completely?

No, you never can. You have to work out the technical issues for yourself before the first rehearsal. During rehearsals, you’ve got the time to make the role yours, but you never let go of technique. One thing that made me different from other people was that I never marked in rehearsals. The one time I did, I had bad performances because I didn’t “sing the role in.” It’s important to sing the role in, particularly when you get busy and you’re jumping from job to job. If I was singing “Traviata,” I’d mark the high notes once in a while, but mostly I tried to sing them in rehearsal. When I did Violetta for the first time in Opera Theatre Saint Louis, every time I was in a staging for the aria, I sang it.

Some singers mark because they want to save their voices.

But I don’t know what you’re saving if you have a basically sound technique, and as long as you give the cords time to rest, and you drink a lot of water. If your technique is poor, then you’ll be in trouble. I mean, would you expect a runner to half-run his practice races? Would you expect a sprinter not to sprint, and then suddenly on the day of the race, sprint and win?

How did you approach a complex role like Violetta, from an acting point of view?

I read the novel and the novel-based play that Dumas fils himself had written and which Verdi actually saw. If you compare the play to the libretto, it’s almost a direct translation. I watched Garbo playing the role and then I just went to the score. I would coach the role and I would always want to shy away from those crazy accents, so my coach would constantly say: “Go to them, because they’re indicating her illness.” Those accents can be her suppressing a cough. The little details that you can find in a score are so important! If you do what’s in the score, kids, you’ve got your characterization; you don’t even have to think!

Any words of advice for our readers?

Objectify, objectify, objectify! The more you can learn to be objective in this business, the easier it will be for you. If you aren’t having luck in auditions but you’re really convinced that you have something special, then objectify: What is going wrong in that audition? Is it that my technique is not good? Am I with the right teacher?

I had five different teachers in my career. Leaving one’s teacher is very emotional and complicated, but it’s your vocal cords and it’s your life!

Maria-Cristina Necula

Maria-Cristina Necula is a New York-based writer whose published work includes the book “Life in Opera: Truth, Tempo, and Soul” and articles in “Das Opernglas,” “Studies in European Cinema,” and “Opera News.” A classically-trained singer, she has presented on opera at Baruch College, the Graduate Center, the City College of New York, UCLA, and others. She holds a doctoral degree in Comparative Literature from The Graduate Center. Maria-Cristina also writes for the culture and society website “Woman Around Town.” To find out more and get in touch, please visit her website.