Q&A with Sylvia McNair: Singer sounds off on musical career
The Charleston Concert Association, now in its 76th year, launches its new season Oct. 17 with a tribute to George Gershwin, featuring soprano Sylvia McNair, pianist Kevin Cole and dancer Daniel Gardner.
If you go
WHAT: “Here to Stay: The Gershwin Experience,” presented by the Charleston Concert Association
WHEN: 7 p.m. Oct. 17
WHERE: Sottile Theatre, 44 George St.
MORE INFO: To buy tickets, call TicketMaster at 800-745-3000 or visit www.ticketmaster.com. For information, call 727-1216 or visit www.charlestonconcerts.org.
The show, produced by Todd Gershwin, the great-nephew of George and Ira, includes multimedia elements and an insider view of the legendary duo.
The production is the first of four concerts to be offered at the Sottile Theatre. The Warsaw Philharmonic arrives Nov. 3 in Charleston, joined by 25-year-old pianist Yulianna Avdeeva, who won first prize in the 2010 International Chopin Competition. Avdeeva will play Chopin’s Concerto No. 2.
On Jan. 22, the 12-voice male ensemble Chanticleer will grace Sottile’s stage offering a program that ranges in styles from Renaissance to pop.
The Russian National Ballet Theatre performs Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” on March 5.
But first things first: Gershwin.
McNair is a renowned soprano who specialized in classical music, especially opera, for two decades before embracing the other music she loves: tunes from the Great American Songbook and Broadway.
She has performed at the Metropolitan Opera, Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, Santa Fe Opera, San Francisco Opera and a Salzburg Festival, and has appeared with major European and American orchestras.
In anticipation of her visit to Charleston, The Post and Courier asked her a few questions about her career and musical choices.
Q: You were classically trained and enjoyed a long career singing opera and oratorio. What caused you to embrace the Great American Songbook?
A: It’s true that my training and 20 years of my singing career were primarily in classical music. But I was raised listening to music from the Great American Songbook and it lives deep in my bones.
Inside my Master of Music degree, I have a minor in jazz studies. I worked with Eileen Farrell (a great “crossover” singer) on this material 30-plus years ago. It has always felt extremely comfortable and has always given my heart wings.
Q: How does your classical background inform your cabaret and popular performances?
A: Great music is great music! I aim to put the same musical values of excellent pitch, great diction and beautiful phrasing in everything I sing, whether it’s Bach, Mozart, Gershwin or Sondheim. I love it all.
Q: Do you have a favorite musical moment on stage?
A: Hundreds! (Hah!) Literally! You never forget your Met debut; I was nearly burst with excitement when I got to sing for Hillary Clinton; there are five stage productions at the top of my “Forever Memories” list in locations from St. Louis to Chicago to Salzburg; I remember feeling extremely happy after I performed the Mahler Symphony No. 4 at Carnegie Hall with the Berlin Philharmonic and Claudio Abbado. I could go on and on.
Q: What’s the worst thing that happened to you professionally?
A: OK, how many pages long is this article going to be? Let me begin this answer by saying that the “Best Things” list is long. Very long! But the “Worst Things” list would have to include these:
1. I was certainly disappointed when my record company folded (oh, sorry, was “acquired”). We still had so many projects in the works, and I’m sad they were never completed.
2. I’m disappointed I’ve not been cast yet in a Broadway show. I’m not getting any younger, and this is one of the reasons I decided to stop doing opera after 20 years.
3. It’s important to say that coping with the inequities in the music business is also a difficult challenge, for myself, yes, but also for my students. Watching the music business and all those opportunities disappear in this country is definitely heartbreaking and a “worst” thing.
4. But No. 1 on my list of “worst things” would have to be not listening to my own voice, doing what everyone else thought was a great idea for me, spending so much time and energy trying to please people rather than trusting my own intuition, my own strengths, my own “sounds.” That comes with age and experience, of course, but I wish I’d had the courage to listen sooner.
Q: Gershwin’s music arguably holds a special place in the canon. Have you sung much Gershwin? What’s your approach, and how does it make you feel?
A: I’ve been singing Gershwin for years. “Man I Love” and “Summertime” have been staples in my Tune Bag for nearly 20 years. “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” and “They All Laughed” have, too.
Today, my approach to it is to show how relevant these texts are even though they’re coming up on 100 years old. The hope and optimism in Ira’s lyrics for “Man I Love,” the quixotic feel of “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” the confusion in the lyrics for “But Not For Me” — “I know that love’s a game, ... am I the moth or flame? I’m all at sea ...” Who hasn’t felt that way in a love relationship?
These lyrics are relevant, they help us know love has had people tangled up since Day One. How does it make me feel to sing this music? When I sing Gershwin, or most of the songs in the Great American Songbook, I feel like I’m doing what I was put on Earth to do. It feels like my “center.” It feels like what my voice and musicianship were built to do. Time flies. I’m living my dream.