Interview with Daniela Mack

‘Barber of Seville’ Star Daniela Mack on Finding Inspiration — and Navigating Hardship

At age 7, it started: a lifelong passion, sparked in the dark of a theater. Daniela Mack was attending her first opera, Giuseppe Verdis La Traviata. It would plant the seeds of a career for the Buenos Aires-born singer, a mezzo-soprano who would one day tour the worlds great opera houses, with a voice critics compared to “polished onyx.”

But the coronavirus pandemic hit her household hard. Both she and husband Alek Shrader perform opera for a living. Their on-stage reunion this summer in San Francisco Opera’s Partenope was canceled, as were many of their other performances.

It’s been months of upheaval, to say the least. And — as if that weren’t enough — Mack was preparing to move house with her family when reached by email for this interview. As she explains, the quarantine has given her time to reflect on everything from her own musical roots to the state of diversity in opera.

Looking ahead to 2021 — when she returns as Rosina in Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, a role she models after her own grandmother — Mack offers her personal tips for how to stay sane during tough times, as well as a glimpse into her own opera love story.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: How has the quarantine and the spate of cancellations impacted your relationship with opera as an art form? How has it reshaped your life?

DANIELA MACK: Like every one of my colleagues and friends in the arts, nearly all of my work has been put on an indefinite hold because of this pandemic. I have done a lot of reevaluating over the last four months in quarantine.

I have been a singer at heart since I was 15, and a professional singer all of my adult life. I have continuously worked on every aspect of my artistry in order to do my job to the best of my ability. But in the absence of the job,” the work has taken on a different form.

These days, most of my development is as a human being, learning more about myself and the society I inhabit, finding real meaningful connection with my friends and family, and building resilience through these difficult times.

Finding the motivation to practice has been more difficult without the immediate goal of performing live, but when I feel the need to sing, I gravitate towards other genres a lot. I have found it soothing to revisit music I loved when I was younger and old repertoire that I learned very early on in my studies.

That has reminded me of my first joys in singing. I love opera dearly, and I miss the stage so much, it feels as though a part of me is missing. I am hopeful that, if everyone does their part, we will be able to return to the stage as soon as it is safe to do so, and we will all be stronger and more grateful for it.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: As a teen, you went from doing piano lessons to singing — and you got voice lessons at age 15 from a teacher at Rice University. What was the most difficult part of making singing your career?

MACK: I think what was most difficult then is still the most difficult part today. The calling to be a performer is such a gift and a privilege. Making a path as an artist is invigorating and can be rewarding almost on a spiritual level.

But the flip side is that it comes with a guarantee of being judged, rejected, and discouraged. Developing a way to tune out the negative energy has taken time and is still a work in progress. So much of this career is out of our control, and rolling with the punches is essential!

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: You met your husband, tenor Alek Shrader, at San Francisco’s Merola Opera Program, before you both went on to be San Francisco Opera Adler Fellows. What was your first impression of him?

MACK: I met Alek at a sushi restaurant in San Francisco the day before our Merola summer started. Before I knew anything about him as a performer, I was instantly drawn to his cool and down-to-earth attitude.

He was unlike most singers I knew in that he didnt seem concerned with playing the game of the business. He was simply himself and quietly as charming as could be. And he was funny! I was smitten very early on. It also didnt hurt that I thought he was the most handsome guy Id ever met!

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Theres a lot of stigma around on-stage, off-stage romance, especially when youre starting out as a young artist, as you were at Merola. How did you navigate that?

MACK: I remember being pointedly told that dating a singer was a bad idea, that inevitably one of our careers would thrive and the other would suffer, and that bitterness would ensue. I think that can be true for some couples, but neither one of us has ever felt a detrimental competition with the other, and our priority has always been our connection.

When you find your person, what they do for a living isnt a concern. In our case, having someone who understands what the other is going through implicitly has been a tremendous gift through the years.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Youre starring in the role of Rosina in the comedy The Barber of Seville for our 2020–21 Season. How many times have you performed Rosina around the world, and how do you keep things fresh?

MACK: Rosina is one of my favorite roles to perform, and I know her well! I have sung in eight productions and somewhere around 50 performances. (To my shame, I havent counted!)

Every time Im part of a new take on the piece, her character development changes a bit. The devil is in the details, and even if Im in a fairly traditional telling of the story, I love to add little eccentricities to her character and her physicality. Giving her a new habit keeps her human and interesting for me.

Also, the cast changes constantly. No two stage partners will deliver their lines in the exact same way. The comfort and familiarity I have with this role affords me the chance to live in the moment, and to be much more authentically reactive.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Youve told other publications that you modeled your Rosina after your grandmother — which might strike some as a surprising choice. How did you arrive at that decision? And how did your family react to your portrayal?

MACK: Yes! That pertains specifically to this production at San Francisco Opera. When [The Barber of Seville director] Emilio Sagi first created it in 2013, I came into the process viewing her through a fairly modern lens.

I remember him modeling this very specific set of coquettish mannerisms and glances, and my mind went immediately to my grandmother. She was a tiny, youthful spitfire of an Argentine woman, whose mother was from Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. She was so theatrical in her demeanor, and everything was larger than life and loaded with intention. If she had been allowed to be on stage as a young girl, she would have been perfectly at home in the limelight. If she were alive, I think she would be proud to be channeled for this feisty and charming Rosina.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: What would be your dream role — real or imagined? What story would you most like to tell on stage?

MACK: I have such a long bucket list of roles that fall all over the map, its hard to choose just one! My high-school self would be ecstatic to sing Dolly Levi in Hello Dolly. My present self would love to sink my teeth into Berliozs Dido in The Trojans.

I also just love the prospect of new and contemporary music being written for, by and about complex women. There are so many interesting subjects throughout history whose stories I would love to tell.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: The recent killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and others have prompted the arts industry to reevaluate diversity in the field and commit, in words and action, to creating a more equitable environment. How do you hope opera houses respond? What would be the ideal outcome?

MACK: I am saddened every day that I read of another senseless death, and seeing, perhaps for the first time, entire organizations take a very public stance against racism and these atrocities has been encouraging.

I have many brilliant Black colleagues who have so graciously shared their experiences of inequity in our field, and I defer to them in this very necessary conversation.

I can only say that there has been a long overdue and much needed awakening in society, and specifically in the arts. Everyone can agree in theory that art and music is and should be accessible to everyone, and that the opportunity to participate in its creation should be open to all. But the sad reality is that our art form remains exclusive and monochromatic.

My hope is that company leaders will aggressively embrace diversity and equity within their own administrations, welcoming all creative voices to contribute their perspectives and ideas in meaningful ways, enriching all of our work as a result. Diversifying representation on stage, behind the scenes, and in creative leadership is crucial to welcoming new audiences into our theaters, and consistent diversity in casting will help to nurture future audiences and keep our art form alive for everyone to enjoy.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Have you ever witnessed an episode of someone being treated unfairly — or been treated that way yourself — because of your identity?

MACK: As a woman, I have over the years experienced some misogyny, mostly veiled in humor, as most of my female friends have. But as a cis, straight Latinx woman who presents as white, I have been privileged not to experience unfair treatment as others have for their identity.

I come from a mixed-race household, and some of my closest family membersexperiences opened my eyes to many unwarranted and terrible injustices. Our industry, thankfully, tends to be more inclusive and accepting of people than most.

Even so, I have witnessed instances over the years when well-intentioned people generalize and joke around, not realizing they are actually being insensitive towards others. I do believe, though, that most people (myself included) are educating themselves on sensitivity with open hearts and minds, especially in todays world where information is at our fingertips at all times.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: What message would you like to send to others struggling during this period of uncertainty? Any advice on how to cope?

MACK: I see you. This time we are all living through is unprecedented and the fear and uncertainty can be overwhelming. When I think back to the most painful and difficult moments in my life, I am comforted when I remember that they passed, and that my spirit is stronger now than it was before.

People are resilient, and our strength reserves are always deeper than we realize. One gift during this crisis has been the chance to strengthen human bonds, and virtual banding together with those I love in the face of hardship has helped me feel less alone.

Taking as little as five minutes each day and quieting my mind, whether through meditation, simply sitting and breathing in silence, or listening to beautiful music has also helped me these last few months.

Also, the forced realization that I cannot control everything around me, only how I respond to it, has been simultaneously scary and liberating. I find that I grip tightly in some ways, and release in others every day. I feel best when I accept the ebb and flow, rather than trying to fight or correct it, and the more patience and gentleness I have with myself, the easier and more manageable the days feel.

Stay safe, stay home if you are able, and please wear your masks.

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