The Universe Makes Room for Sara Henry

Sara Henry, Soprano

Last summer, my voice teacher mentioned that another big-voiced coloratura soprano in our studio was also working on a fuller connection to  her middle, and that we should sit in on each other’s lessons to hear how the other was dealing with it. He introduced me to Sara briefly as she came into the practice room to begin her lesson after mine, and after a series of Facebook exchanges I was finally able to find a time to sit in on her lesson at Shetler Studios.

I have a really strong memory of that afternoon:  She was -and is- slim and sensibly dressed in belted jeans, a tidy tucked-in t-shirt, and trainers–the look I’m accustomed to seeing her in still.  Her rep book was the size of an enormous alter Bible.

I was not prepared for the profound sounds that I heard coming from this wide-eyed girl next door.

If I closed my eyes, I would swear that I have been whhhhisked back in time to sit in on a young Callas working out Lucia’s mad scene. Here is the liquid voice of a young cabernet savignon: intense tannin, plum, cherry, blackberry, blueberry, warm spice, vanilla, tobacco and sometimes leather. As it easily swirls in fioritura, she only releases more of the bouquet.

Sara, what was the first aria you learned?

All by myself? Che faro senza Euridice from Orfeo ed Euridice (It was actually the theme song to a t.v. program I used to watch back when I was living in Brazil. I guess I found it compelling, or well, at least it stuck in my head.) The first aria I was ever actually assigned, however, was Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix from Samson et Dalila.

So you started off as a mezzo? I’m not surprised at all, actually. When did you make the switch to Coloratura Soprano and was it difficult?

Oh, that’s a long story. I have actually done more fach flip-flops than just about anyone I know. It seems like every teacher I’ve studied with has had a different idea of what I should be singing. I think the main issue is that I have always had a relatively easy top, a darkish color in the middle, and a really strong lower register which all adds up to…???

What I can say is that my voice always moved really easily, so singing Rossini mezzo/or Handel castrati type rep felt great and totally natural, whereas if you handed me something like Quando m‘en vo, I would literally feel like I was suffocating trying to get through it (ironically, probably because I was singing too lightly in the middle range.) So I always preferred mezzo rep. But as I got older, I started getting offered a lot of heavier roles (like Carmen and Azucena) and I just felt like I‘d hit a plateau with technique.

That’s when I started studying with Ron [our teacher, Jean-Ronald LaFond], who immediately diagnosed me as an unbalanced coloratura. That was 2008, and it has been a long road uphill from there, trying to re-balance everything. The hardest part of it for me has probably been the psychological aspect. I am not much of a girly girl, and so many soprano roles are either ingénues or damsel-in-distress types, that I have had a lot more difficulty identifying with the characters I sing, not to mention figuring out how to physically embody them on stage. (Give me a good pants role any day!) The other hard part about being a coloratura: having to sing sustained high E flats. I am still waiting for the day, in which I am actually confident about that instead of approaching them with a mixture of fear and dread.

Is your family musical?

Sort of. My father used to be a pro bass player. He plays about 10 different instruments, all by ear, and having had very little formal instruction. On the other side of the family, my grandfather was a very talented jazz pianist. And supposedly, his uncle was some kind of Wagnerian who used to sing at the Old Met back before WWII.

Which singers do you admire? Why?

Too many to list, so here are my top five, although I could go on and on…

Renata Tebaldi–for her sheer vocal beauty
Maria Callas–because regardless of whether she was singing well or poorly, you always believed every moment of her performance.
Shirley Verrett–for her great range and versatility.
Marilyn Horne–because she sang Handel and Rossini with more balls than any countertenor I can think of!
Lorraine Hunt Lieberson–for being such a wonderful storyteller and singing actress

Do you sing in the shower?

Hmm. I always shower at night, so in order to keep the peace, generally no. I do however sing a lot in the car, and in the kitchen.

You sing in the car? That’s awesome. Do you ever get funny looks from other drivers?
You know, I don’t really know. Probably, but when I am singing in the car, I put myself under the voluntary delusion that if I’m not looking at them, they’re probably not looking at me. It’s silly, but it gets me by.

What is a technical reminder you give yourself while warming up?

My mantra of the moment is not to squeeze, cover, or muscle through register changes. I spent so many years doing those kinds of tricks to get by that I find that I have to be hyper-vigilant in order to avoid them.

What do you practice – exercises, new arias, difficult arias, etc.?

It really depends. Some weeks I am on the go so much that I am lucky to find 10 minutes here and there to work. In that case I try and spot check difficult phrases and try to run anything else that I’m currently rehearsing for that feels mentally or physically shaky. (I also do a lot of mental practicing–while there’s no substitute for actually working the muscles, I find that if I try to mentally digest the concepts while I’m out of the practice room, it‘s much easier to integrate them physically later.) When I do have the luxury of sitting down for a couple of hours, I try to do some exercises, practice new arias, drill recits, maybe check in with an old aria or two. (I honestly don’t like to practice things that have old habits too much, because I tend to get tied up in knots.) I also try to sing something else that a) is none of the above, and b) that I really like, because after all the technical work, it’s important to remind myself that singing is fun too!

Last month our teacher, Jean-Ronald LaFond awarded you the Kashu-do Gold Bracelet  in a surprise ceremony during our last studio class. He later said in a FB post to our studio:

“I give the gold bracelet when I feel a singer has reached a level of balance in their approach to the art of singing and the business of singing. Faith (in one’s self and the purpose of one’s talent) Courage (to pursue one’s true path) and Patience (to see one’s hard work bear real fruit). Hard work is a given…These are the principles of my approach to the Way of the Singer. Working at anything with passion and purpose will change us for the better! Sara, I am honored to have been able to accompany you on your journey, wherever it takes you!”

Congratulations, first of all. The surprise ceremony in the studio class was truly inspiring. Can you describe a little bit of your “balance in [your] approach to the art of singing and the business of singing”?

I think I was more surprised by it than anyone else! And totally honored as well!

Now, my approach to balance–that’s a good question. Of course, there’s the technical sense of it– we always want to strive for balance in vocal technique–balanced head and chest tones, upper, middle and lower registers, balance of breath and phonation, strength and flow. Really, balance should be the natural end goal, because once you’ve achieved it, everything can work together in harmony and no one aspect is pulling everything else out of sync. Finding balance in one’s approach to the business of singing and life of an artist in general–that’s a more complicated thing, because if you look around at this business and do the numbers (especially as a soprano), it’s really difficult not to feel pessimistic about career prospects after a certain point.

I think what keeps me balanced and level-headed, is:

a) Making sure that I have an active life outside of singing. Spending time with friends and family, communing with nature, traveling, keeping up with other projects and other interests not only helps relieve career stress, but also makes me a richer artist for having all the more life experiences to draw upon!

b) Having a healthy sense of humor about things And

c) whenever I feel totally frustrated and like giving up I remind myself of these two things:

1) If I have faith, do the necessary work, and persevere despite all, the universe will make room for me in the singing world. I may never necessarily make it to the Met stage, but there will be plenty of opportunities for me to do my art. So why not put it out there, and see where things go?

2) What I do matters. Despite all reports to the contrary, it does enrich the world and make a difference in peoples’ lives. It is as much an honor and a privilege to be an artist as any other way of serving the world. (It’s true, too, but believe me, it took me a long time to get to the point where I actually believed it.)

Anyhow, that is pretty much my philosophy at this point. It’s not a perfect system by any means, but it seems to keep me on the right path. 

You are amazing, Sara. I CANNOT wait to see what the universe has in store for you.

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