SFOpera - Sheri Greenawald on Culture Shock, Generation Divides and Retiring in 2020

Sheri Greenawald on Culture Shock, Generation Divides and Retiring in 2020

At the end of 18 years as the Director of the San Francisco Opera Center, Sheri Greenawald is excited for what comes next. She hopes it’ll look a little more like her hometown of Morley, Iowa.  

It’s not the microscopic population she misses. (Morley hovers at just over 100 residents.) Nor does she yearn for the isolation of rural life.

Rather, it’s that endless blue sky she craves — blue as far as the eye can see. That, and a little more space to roam. Those are her wishes as she heads into retirement this December, the culmination of decades in the opera industry.

Greenawald, 73, has had the kind of starry career that has taken her far from the those wide open spaces, into the cramped heat of the world’s biggest, busiest cities.

An acclaimed soprano, Greenawald circled the globe touring opera houses from Venice to New York, Munich to Paris. She was the heroine in composer Daniel Catán’s world premiere of Florencia en el Amazonas and an original cast member in Leonard Bernstein’s opera A Quiet Place

But her voice has been as powerful off stage as it was on. In 2002, she turned her attention to education, drawing on nearly a half-century of experience as leader of the Opera Center. 

In that role — and as artistic director of thea associated organization, the Merola Opera Program — she helped shape hundreds of young artists, including high-profile names like Nadine Sierra, Lucas Meachem, and Elza van den Heever.

It all takes her back to those Iowa playgrounds. It was there she found her creativity — and the leadership skills she draws upon to this day.

“I was always the general, ordering everybody about,” Greenawald chuckles. The alpha dog of the playground, Greenawald let her imagination dictate the games.

Sometimes she would stuff a sock with yellow corn and pretend it was a sack of gold for her friends to find. Other times, she and the other children explore the nearby junk pile, constructing treasures from the cast-offs.

And then there were days that were less frantic, more pensive. “I would get on the swings and sing. Just swing and sing, sing and swing.” 

It was idyllic, the way you could run out the front door in Morley and play until sundown, without a care in the world. Greenawald’s father was the principal at the school up the hill, and her mother was a teacher. The town, as she recalls, was simply a road with some houses on either side.

Her career started to take shape, though, in the summer of her 16th year, when she left home to attend a music camp at the University of Northern Iowa. She was a bass player, there to practice her strings. But she signed up for voice lessons on a lark, and one of her assignments was to sing a hymn.

“The voice teacher at the University of Northern Iowa heard me,” she says. “He looked up from the piano and said, ‘What are you planning to do for the rest of your life?’”

At that age, she didn’t have her mind set on being an opera singer. She doesn’t even know now if she ever consciously decided to be one. But opportunity after opportunity kept cropping up. “It sort of snowballed,” she says. “I think a lot of people decided for me.”

After zipping through her bachelor’s degree, Greenawald landed in New York City, ready to take the next step in her profession. But Manhattan was a culture shock for the singer from rural Iowa.

“That was my first time seeing homeless people,” she says. “I was terrified to get on a bus. I didn't know where the hell it was going to take me.”

Home became a YWCA on the East Side of Manhattan, on 77th Street near Third Avenue. To make ends meet, Greenawald says she juggled a string of jobs: digitizing the payroll at Kraft Foods, for instance, and working as an assistant at Philip Morris International. She propped up a copy of the first Ms. magazine at her desk there, her own subtle jab at the office gender politics.

One of her favorite gigs early on was at the Scribner’s publishing house, literary home to celebrity authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald. “I had read everything by Fitzgerald,” Greenawald says. “It was exciting to be in that building where I knew Edmund Wilson had been, where Scott Fitzgerald had been.”

The city also brought her closer to other artists in the opera field: composers like Thomas Pasatieri and twin directors David and Christopher Alden, among others.

Still, Greenawald admits she wasn’t completely sold on opera until around age 30. “At one point, I was going to drop out and go back to med school,” she laughs. “I had all kinds of madnesses early on.”

But the roles kept coming, and Greenawald’s popularity as a performer grew. She was the maid Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro, the governess in The Turn of the Screw, Pamina in The Magic Flute. Here at San Francisco Opera, she made her Company debut in 1978 with Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio

“I had a good reputation in that I was a singing actress,” she says. “One of my strengths was my ability on stage, that I could create a character well.”

But her close relationship with former San Francisco Symphony music director Edo de Waart forced her to reevaluate her relationship to the art form. “When we would travel to Europe, of course you had to fill out a landing card,” she explains. “And when it asked for occupation, I would write ‘singer.’ That’s what I was. An opera singer.” 

There was one trip, however, when de Waart stopped her. “Edo was the one who said, ‘You don’t think of yourself as a musician.’”

That launched a conversation that has stuck with Greenawald ever since. “So from then on, I called myself a musicienne,” she says, using the French term. “It made me more serious.”

Being taken seriously had been a hurdle on occasion, even for singers as successful as Greenawald. She’s had to confront the idea that she’s just some “dumb singer,” a lesser musician than her counterparts in the orchestra pit.

“A lot of nonvocal musicians have that attitude toward us,” she says. “I’m sorry, but we have had to learn a language. We’ve had to put that together with music, and we have to stand up and run around on stage and act as well. So don’t call me a lousy musician if I can do all that.”

But for every moment of tension, there were countless moments of levity and triumph. Greenawald lights up as she recalls blasting music from the band Queen with co-stars like Susan Graham or opening a prop letter on stage, only to find the lyrics of “Rockin’ Robin.”

Since 2002, she’s been sharing her experiences with the Adler Fellows, her hand-picked group of resident artists at San Francisco Opera. She works one-on-one with them, offering coaching and classes.

Greenawald credits her own teacher, the late Audrey Langford, with transforming her life. She taught Greenawald the mechanics of singing — everything from tongue placement to a general awareness of how the body reacts while singing.

“Your shoulders are up around your ears. What are you doing?” Greenawald growls, giving a rumbling impression of her famously chain-smoking mentor. But now Greenawald offers the same instruction to her Adler Fellows. 

She often has to disabuse young artists of the notion that they must suffer for their art. “The preconceived concepts are the hardest to get rid of,” she says. But she’s adamant that great singing should not hurt.

“There's a difference between pain and effort. And when effort tilts over into pain, that's probably when you should stop the run, right?”

It’s a different world for opera singers than the one Greenawald grew up in. The advice she gives them has had to change to suit the new terrain. In the 1950s and '60s, for instance, conductors reigned supreme. Now, Greenawald says it’s the directors who are “the leading force in the production.” 

And then there’s the music young singers hear — the sounds that become standard in their minds. As a budding musician, Greenawald could reference popular vocalists like Barbra Streisand and Marnie Nixon. They performed primarily with what Greenawald calls “head voice,” a term that describes when the voice resonates in the upper part of the body.

But in the last few decades, Greenawald noticed that pop music increasingly relies on “chest voice,” where the voice resonates lower in the larynx.

“It’s very hard. Sometimes when I've encountered young kids, they don't even know how to sing in their head noise. They don't even know where it is,” Greenawald says. “So teaching them how to get into their natural voices becomes complicated because the sound samples now are so different, with what they're hearing and raised with.”

Those changes, however, pale in comparison to the digital revolution the coronavirus pandemic has brought to the performing arts.

“I can envision whole productions being on a Zoom call,” Greenawald says. She would like to see opera “go whole hog” in its efforts to bring the medium to film, with the kind of grand, cinematic vision of Hollywood musicals like La La Land.

But as excited as she is about the possibilities, she is concerned that digital productions could one day supplant live performance.

“My only worry is that there still is nothing like the raw human voice unamplified in a house, making its way over an orchestral sound and hitting you in the chest,” Greenawald says.

As she prepares to step away from the San Francisco Opera Center at the end of this year, Greenawald is busy planning for a new life in Cincinnati, Ohio, where she’ll be closer to her daughter. She already plans to add more animals to her life: Her 13-year-old tricolor cat may soon have to contend with a new puppy, she says.

And she’s looking forward to indulging her passion for photography. Human portraiture is too obvious. She hopes to focus more on photographing architecture and plant life, especially in tight focus.

Sure, she has gotten offers to do more opera jobs. “But I go, ‘Wait a minute. I’m retiring. That doesn’t mean I’m looking for another job,” she laughs. Greenawald says she may continue to teach a little, but other horizons beckon. That, and getting in the same shape as actor and fitness guru Jane Fonda.

“That’s my goal: to be Jane Fonda,” she says, bursting into a laugh. Ever since she learned Dalton’s theory as a child — that atoms can neither be created nor destroyed — she’s taken that principle as a mantra for her life as a whole.

“Atoms can't be destroyed. So you can't really destroy me. I'll be here in one form or another,” she says. Given the hundreds of students she’s worked with over the decades, it’s as true for atoms as it is for her own legacy, enduring with each generation on the opera stage.

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