OPERA NEWS INTERVIEW
On the Beat
Sylvia McNair on her new CD, Romance, and why there’s no point in singing words unless they mean something to you.
by BRIAN KELLOW
A NUMBER OF years ago, SYLVIA MCNAIR left opera behind and embarked on a second act singing the Great American Songbook in concert and cabaret venues. In 2006, she joined the faculty of Indiana University, and recently she collaborated with the University’s Latin American Music Center on Romance, a recording of love songs by Antonio Carlos Jobim, Agustín Lara, Consuelo Velásquez and others.“Let me tell you how much I wanted to do this project,” she says during a recent phone interview from Bloomington. “Two things you need to know — I lost track of time. We would be in the studio for five or six hours at a time, and it seemed like five minutes. Number two — I did not get paid one dollar for doing it. It is owned by the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University, and I wasn’t paid for my time — I wasn’t even given gasoline money. I’ve come to a place in my life where I can afford to do things because I really want to do them and love them so much. This was a heart-led project.”
For a girl from Ohio with no Latin background at all, McNair might have seemed an unusual choice for the project, but she relied on a group of top-flight language coaches to prepare for it. “I love singing in Spanish,” she says. “There are no closed vowels, and the consonants are soft. Portuguese is difficult. The sounds don’t resemble what’s on the page. What I ended up doing is sitting down with my Portuguese coaches and writing out the entire Portuguese text in symbols of the International Phonetic Alphabet. They weren’t teaching IPA when I was in school. The first time I started to look at IPA symbols and associate them with a sound was when I started coaching with NICO CASTEL during the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in March of 1982. He said to me, ‘How many Italian vowels are there?’ I said, ‘Five, of course.’ He said, ‘No. There are seven.’ He showed me the closed and open symbols for the ‘o’ and the ‘e.’ Now I know the IPA really well, well enough to read as I’m going. When we recorded the Jobim songs, which are in Portuguese, I had about half the text memorized. The other half I read in IPA symbols in the recording studio, rather than trying to read Portuguese. Now, I know a lot of students read your magazine. I mean this as a good advertisement for learning the IPA — back to front, top to bottom.
“There were a lot of Latin–Americans involved in this project, and they all told me that they grew up hearing NAT KING COLE or FRANK SINATRA sing this stuff. They learned it hearing the American accent, and they’re Spanish-speaking people. They said, ‘We always thought that was the way it was supposed to sound!’” In a discussion of pop singers who know how to inhabit a lyric and those who don’t (MARGARET WHITING once said that she never thought much about the meaning of pop lyrics until she had been singing for a couple of decades), I mention that it vexes me to listen to master-class teachers tell students to infuse their voices with “more colors” — when “colors” appear only when a singer is emotionally engaged in the moment. “I almost ripped CLAUDIO ABBADO’s head off one day for saying that to me,” says McNair. “Colors only come with age and experience, because age and experience give you an opinion, and opinion makes colors. These coaches sit behind the keyboard and are all smug while the poor singer stands there not knowing what they mean by ‘more colors.’ And yet, one thing I’ve learned about teaching is that I will occasionally hear myself say something to a young singer that someone said to me twenty years ago and made me want to rip his head off. At least I then say, ‘Oh, God — I used to hate it when people said shit like that to me!’”
McNair maintains a hectic performing schedule around her teaching activities at Indiana University. She has only a handful of private students; mostly she teaches in the classroom — English diction and Vocal Performance Workshop. “Formerly known as the Opera Workshop,” she laughs, “but I’m trying — I’m trying — to broaden their vision and help them get better at speaking onstage and doing musical theater and not just opera scenes.” Her comments sound reminiscent of a famous I.U. faculty member, EILEEN FARRELL, who introduced pop and jazz classes to the university, and with whom McNair once studied. “Miss Farrell taught us microphone technique and style and how to deliver a great lyric. She was a rebel, and I admired that so much. She was at her best when she was shaking it up and rocking the boat. I used that as a prototype, I suppose. I think she drove the administration crazy — but then, so do I.”
I can’t let McNair off the phone without a reference to her recording of SAMUEL BARBER’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, with YOEL LEVI leading the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Seldom have JAMES AGEE’s words resonated as powerfully as they do in McNair’s poignant performance. She feels that the entire recording was a kind of sense memory for her, because growing up in Ohio, she had a background similar to the narrator’s. “At age seven, eight, nine, while I was lying on the ground on a blanket while my aunt fixed the green beans and corn on the cob, I knew I was different from the other people in the family,” she says. “No one ever helped me understand that, which is what Agee is talking about in that piece. When you know at a very young age that you don’t quite fit in, it changes your whole childhood, and that’s why I locked into that lyric. I sang that piece because of James Agee, not because of Samuel Barber. If I had a tree that grew money, I would commission somebody to write something ballady and pop for that lyric — something I could sing now — because I love those words.”