Soprano Sari Gruber answers our questions on her path to music and long history with NYFOS, as we anticipate her return to NYFOS this November in Blitzstein’s No For An Answer and Weill’s Der Silbersee.
If my research is correct, you’ve been singing with NYFOS for over 20 years! How did you first get involved with NYFOS? Are there any moments from your concerts with us that stand out as especially meaningful?
Every concert I’ve had the joy of working on for NYFOS has been meaningful to me. If my memory serves me correctly, my first NYFOS concert was Ned Rorem’s “Evidence of Things Not Seen” for the Chicago Humanities Festival in 1998. I had known Steve Blier as a vocal coach during my Juilliard days, and was convinced he disliked me. Profoundly. (The inner dialogue of an insecure young singer can be brutal.) It goes without saying that I was shocked he hired me. As I was preparing the Rorem with Michael, I was on one hand delighted to delve into Ned’s work with him, but terrified that Michael, also, was on to the fact that I was clearly not qualified to sing with NYFOS. Somehow, I managed not to get fired, and had a most memorable concert with Ned, himself, in the audience and speaking with him afterwards. It was not until Steve and I were working together very closely in 2007 that we discovered that we had both, inexplicably, been terrified of each other for more than a decade, and that this is what we had misinterpreted about each other for a decade. What a revelation this was for us both — also the portal to the deep intimacy of a treasured collaborative relationship.
As a highly process-oriented singer, I always derive the greatest satisfaction from the evolution of interpretations, the weaving together of the program’s story line, and the collaboration with Steve, Michael, and my singer colleagues. Much of this creative process takes place in the comfort of Steve’s living room, where the hours of intense craft are peppered with teatime, cookies, joviality between sets, and marvelous camaraderie with friends old as well as new. There are few places in this business where one can comfortably go out on an artistic limb (or make – gasp! – a mistake), and this is one of them. Rolling out a new twist on a song in this environment brings honest critique as well as praise from all in attendance, rejuvenating the artist with each iteration and rediscovery of the song. Naturally, this translates to the stage palpably for performer and audience alike. I always feel like the concert hall is the extension of Steve’s living room, filled with the extended NYFOS family.
There have been so many personal discoveries and victories for me along the way, aided (sometimes abetted) by my colleagues. Whether it’s FINALLY getting that tricky Sondheim lyric (“Country House” still gives me PTSD), exploring in-the-moment tenderness of Schubert’s phrasing in “Im Frühling,” or truly reigning in the revengeful power of a woman singing “Norwegian Wood,” I always feel acutely alive and in the moment as a singing actor while onstage for NYFOS programs. Having been born a tragedienne at heart, but with a light lyric soprano voice, I had easily been relegated to “dusting” and “dying” on the operatic stage. I cherish the many moments NYFOS has stretched my dramatic and vocal muscle, moving from a psycho-sexually twisted “Golden Babies” by Bolcom to Porter’s vulnerable come-hither torch song “Please Don’t Make me be Good.” Here, I get to explore all the other personalities and capabilities denied me by Fach, but gifted to me by song and NYFOS.
I’ve heard a rumor that you earned your undergraduate degree in biology. Can you share how you shifted focus toward a career in the arts?
Well, I was SUPPOSED to! I matriculated at Yale, hoping to get my degree in Biology so I could eventually go to med school, while doing as much theater as possible on the side. There were so many wonderful activities to participate in, so I immediately I joined an a capella singing group focused on jazz, and performed in a couple of musicals. By the end of my first year, Organic Chemistry was throwing a not-so-minor wrench into my medical aspirations. Furthermore, I discovered that successful bio majors were shoveling coffee grounds into their mouths to pull all-nighters and some went so far as fudging with others’ lab experiments. It was just too competitive, so I decided to become a lyric soprano instead. (Rim shot)
At the beginning of my sophomore year, I got a call from contralto Lili Chookasian, who had just joined the faculty at the Yale School of Music. She had heard me sing an audition, and called me that evening to say, “Honey, you have no idea what you’re doing, but I’m going to teach you how to sing.” Over the next three years, after changing my major to Music and Theater Studies (both non-performance majors), I sang six full recitals in dining halls (with Rob Berman and later Andrew Gerle at the piano), performed the Witch in “Into the Woods” and Kate in “Kiss Me, Kate,” and ultimately formed an undergraduate opera company in order to perform Susanna in “Le nozze di Figaro” as the basis of my senior project in Theater Studies on the relationship between music and words, a breezy 60-page tome. (I am happy to say that Opera Theatre of Yale College — nee Yale Undergraduate Opera — still exists, and over the past 25 years has given numerous professional singers their first operatic experiences.) In three years, Lili whipped me into technical shape enough to get me into Juilliard, and I had the great privilege of attending Tanglewood the summer after graduating from Yale to study art song. I was somewhat art song obsessed by this time. After listening to NYFOS’ recording of Arias and Barcarolles over and over, it’s no wonder I was terrified of the legendary Steve Blier when we met for coachings at Juilliard…
Given your background, what would you advise a young musician who is on the fence about pursuing a degree in music?
Be sure to study something besides singing and music. Live a little. Actually, live a lot. If you don’t have life experience from which to draw as a singer, you don’t have much to say in your song. Most of all, if you can think of anything else you would enjoy doing for a living besides music, DO THAT. If you cannot live without giving over the entirety of your soul, body, and bank account to music, then godspeed.
You’ve had particular success singing two of the most iconic roles in the operatic repertoire: Susanna and Musetta. How do you approach these characters, which have such a deep performance history?
I always try to find the strength in the characters I play, and if I cannot find it (which is rare) I cannot sing the piece. I am simply not good at faking anything onstage, or, frankly, in real life. Both of these women, who by now seem like BFFs, are able to survive and triumph over their circumstance through intelligence, ferocity, passion, and kindness. Above all, I treasure their honesty as I see it, and hope that my understanding of their profound humanity minimizes the coquettishness sometimes demanded in both roles. Both roles have helped me understand parts of myself I might never have had a chance to explore otherwise, and I am forever grateful to have spent so many hours doing so with the likes of Messieurs Mozart and Puccini who shared a love for these marvelously complex women.
Your spouse has had a long career in arts administration. Has his perspective informed anything about how you’ve managed your career or how you view the opera industry more broadly?
My husband, Bill Powers, Managing Director at Pittsburgh Opera, has been the single most grounding force in my life. I entered this profession never expecting to find true love or true partnership, and in him I have been so blessed to find both. This is not a career for the faint of heart, onstage or off; not only have we survived the demands of a brutal business, but we have a happy family and a blissful life which we work very hard to maintain. He has some of the best “ears” in the industry (if I may be so bold), and has a wealth of knowledge, particularly with developing young artists. His 25 years in opera administration have seen tremendous change in the industry as well as the art form. Witnessing his adjustments (and sometimes struggles) with these changes has been immensely eye-opening to me. I get to hear the nitty-gritty of what REALLY happens behind the scenes in a way that most singers have no understanding of. We singers have it so easy in comparison to the administrators, who often work for weeks without a single day off and can be on call 24/7, depending on the neediness of the artists in town or the eccentricities of Board Members. As a singer, it is a humbling reminder that our individual performances could quite literally not happen without an enormous team helping us.
What was the last music you listened to before answering these questions?
A voice student singing “Cara Sposa” from Handel’s “Rinaldo.”
When you aren’t making music, what is your favorite way to spend your time?
I am an avid perennial gardener. I started gardening when my husband and I were having problems with infertility, and I desperately needed to grow something because at the time I could not grow a child. Since that time, even after having our daughter, my garden has been a place of refuge and peace, and I am sure to have something blooming 8 months out of the year.
NYFOS is devoted to ‘song’ and the wide variety of styles that term encompasses. What is special about ‘song’ to you?
Song holds my heart as a singer. Song activates all my passions for words and music together, without the contextual crutch of opera. Musically and spiritually, song is home, where I go to church, where I feel most alive. NYFOS brings song together in a broader sense than any other classical organization, in that it draws on many musical genres for its programming. With Classical music, Musical Theater, Jazz, Blues, and Rock (among others) placed on an even playing field, I realize that good music is good music, and as a singer, I have something to bring to all of it.
What is your favorite song? (Qualify your answer to this possibly impossible question as needed.)
Whatever I am singing at the time. The other answer might be, “All of them.”