Stella Adler Studio

INTERVIEWS with ARTISTS

BEN VEREEN

JEANINE TESORI

PSALMAYENE 24

SYLVIA MCNAIR

MICHAEL McELROY

DEIDRE KINAHAN

BOB ARI

PAUL TAZEWELL

PATRICIA ROZARIO

NANCY RHODES

MAIA DANZIGER

EARL “PEANUTT” MONTGOMERY

WILLIE RUFF

DENNIS D’AMICO

GRACE CACHOCHA

KAREN SAILLANT

JENNIFER HORNE

JEANIE THOMPSON

ROBERT PERRY

WAYNE SIDES

JAMIE LEE McMAHAN

“Deep at the center of my being there is an infinite well of gratitude. I now allow this gratitude to fill my heart, my body, my mind, my consciousness, my very being. This gratitude radiates out from me in all directions, touching everything in my world, and returns to me as more to be grateful for. The more gratitude I feel, the more I am aware that the supply is endless.”
- Louise L. Hay

“If the sight of the blue skies fills you with joy, if a blade of grass springing up in the fields has power to move you, if the simple things in nature have a message you understand, Rejoice, for your soul is alive.”
- Eleanora Duse

“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”
– T.S. Eliot

Ronald Rand in Let It Be Art

“Don’t cast away a flower or even a tree leaf without entering into communion with it and penetrating into its mystery. Listen to the twittering of a bird, watch the thoughtfulness of each small fish in an aquarium; gaze as often as you can at the stars – all this will help in your struggle for spiritual concentration.” 
- Richard Bolaslavsky

Oh Eagle, come with wings
Outspread in sunny skies.
Oh Eagle, come and bring us peace,
thy gentle peace.
Oh Eagle, come and give new life
to us who pray.
Remember the circle of the sky, the
stars, and the brown eagle.
the great life of the Sun,
the young within the nest,
Remember the sacredness of things.”
- Pawnee prayer

“And above all,
watch with glittering eyes
the whole world
around you
because the greatest secrets
are always are hidden
in the most unlikely places.
Those who don’t believe
in magic
will never find it.”
- Roald Dahl

Ronald Rand in Let It Be Art

Hirschfeld

“The meaning of life is to see.”
- Hui Neng

“Love is stronger than differences. We all live on the same planet. We walk on the same earth. We breathe the same air. No matter where I was born, no matter what color skin I have or what religion I was raised to believe in, everything and everyone is connected to this one life. I no longer choose to prejudge others, to feel either superior or inferior. I choose equality – to have warm, loving, open communication with every member of my Earthly family. I am a member of the earth community.”
- Louise L. Hay

“Deep at the center of my being there is an infinite well of gratitude. I now allow this gratitude to fill my heart, my body, my mind, my consciousness, my very being. This gratitude radiates out from me in all directions, touching everything in my world, and returns to me as more to be grateful for. The more gratitude I feel, the more I am aware that the supply is endless.”
- Louise L. Hay

“Enlightenment is always there. Small enlightenment will bring great enlightenment. If you breathe in and are aware that you are alive – that you can touch the miracle of being alive – then that is a kind of enlightenment.”
- Thich Nhat Hanh

“Many people are alive but don't touch the miracle of being alive.”
- Thich Nhat Hanh

“Mindfulness helps you go home to the present. And every time you go there and recognize a condition of happiness that you have, happiness comes.”
- Thich Nhat Hanh

Sylvia McNair 

 is a two-time Grammy Award winner and has enjoyed a three-decade career in opera, oratorio, cabaret and musical theater. Ms. McNair made her professional concert debut with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra while still a student. She made her operatic debut in 1982, performing as Sandrina in Haydn’s “L’infedelta Delusa” with the Mostly Mozart Festival. Ms. McNair appeared regularly at the Vienna State Opera, Salzburg Festival, Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, Santa Fe Opera, San Francisco Opera, the Metropolitan Opera, and as a solo performer with many major European and American orchestras. As a faculty member, she taught at the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University. From 2012 to 2019, Ms. McNair served as a judge and mentor for the Songbook Academy, a summer intensive for high school students operated by the Great American Songbook Foundation founded by Michael Feinstein. More recently, Ms. McNair has performed cabaret performances with the music of Gershwin, Porter, Sondheim and Bernstein at many venues including at New York City’s Algonquin Hotel’s Oak Room, the Rainbow Room, The Plaza Hotel and at the Ravinia Festival. She released over seventy albums, including two American Songbook recordings with pianist Andre Previn. Her newest release is “Subject to Change.” 

You’ve been a large part of the Songbook Academy, an amazing summer intensive program for high school singers performing the Great American Songbook in Carmel, Indiana. What first brought you to be a part of the Great American Songbook, and why has it mean to you?

This is the eleventh-year anniversary of the Songbook Academy, and I’m pretty sure it’s my tenth year participating. Michael Feinstein, who created it, has one year on me. Working with the high school students for a week every July has been a great experience for me.  I also feel safe in saying it's been a positive experience for all of us: students, teachers, mentors, guest artists and administrators.

Michael and I have been friends since 1998. We met in Washington DC where we were performing a concert at the United States Supreme Court, by special invitation of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. I’m so grateful for our continued friendship and especially his mentorship to me!

You’ve certainly had an amazing opera career, and then you’ve said, “When I decided to sing my heart, everything changed.”

Yes, I have a long history in classical music, having studied piano and violin since I was a young child. I made my living for twenty years as an opera singer, singing at the Metropolitan Opera as well as opera companies in Salzburg, Vienna, Berlin, London and San Francisco. As the years rolled on, the expectations became greater and greater, and so did the stress.

I was in my middle-forties and realized I couldn’t continue to carry the same workload any longer. I was tired of constant travel and I was burned out on opera.  In a moment of brutal honesty, I admitted I wanted to spend whatever was left of my singing days doing music I feel I was born to sing. I learned how to do opera but when I’m singing the American Songbook, I feel more true to my singer-self. I love to sing in English, and I deeply love singing the Songbook.

One of the phrases you’ve said as a teacher is: “Words first, music second.” What do you mean by that?

“Words first, music second” has several meanings to me. 95% of the time, the words existed before the music existed. Not often did composers write melodies first and then have lyricists write words to match. It did happen, but not very often.

As an artist, I have always approached music by learning the words first and the melody second. Even in opera! Especially in opera, where I was so often singing in a language I was not able to speak fluently. I approached everything by learning the texts first. I love words! I love using words to connect with people.

Words are the one thing singers have that instrumentalists do not. If singers don’t enjoy words, or don’t enjoy using words to express a song, I suggest they go study trombone! That’s what's gotten me into trouble with voice teachers!

Did singing begin early in your life?

My parents were both musicians.  My mother was a music teacher for thirty-eight years in the public schools and she also had long list of private piano students. Saturdays at our house began early and ran long! Piano students were in and out all day. My father was a musician by avocation, so there was always a lot of music in our home. Mom sat me on the piano bench for lessons when I was just three years old. Then I added violin to my daily practice regimen when I was seven.

I began taking singing lessons in college. But college being college, I wasn’t as serious about it as I should have been. Somehow, I managed to win the National Metropolitan Opera Auditions in 1982 and after that, things started rolling. I was one of the lucky ones, I didn’t have to do a lot of kicking down doors. Many of them just opened for me.

So, I walked through. Sometimes I had to run through, just to keep up with the assignments. And, so it went for twenty years. But then the questions and answers all started changing. “Is this really what I want?” “Is this who I am?” “Do I still really love this?” When I answered those questions honestly, I realized I needed to make a shift and head myself in a slightly different direction.

“If you follow your heart you cannot go wrong.” I’ve read it, I’ve heard people say it, I want to believe it. When I decided to leave opera, I walked away from good contracts in fancy places.  I took a flying leap off the edge of a cliff not knowing if musical theater companies would hire me or if cabaret performances would open up for me.

And the truth is, the transition did not exactly go according to my dreams. My singing career in musical theater, cabaret and symphonic pops did not ever grow to be what my career in classical music had been. I made my way in that world for fifteen years, and had some wonderful experiences!, but I never made it to the same level. I feel sad about that, but I know that following my heart was the right choice.

What has it meant to you teaching and working with high school students at the American Songbook Academy?

It’s interesting to work with high school students today knowing they were born in the 21st century! When they come through the door to sing lyrics by Johnny Mercer, Ira Gershwin or a song by Jerome Kern, they can only bring their fifteen or sixteen-year-old life experience to the song.

But they still know about love, they know about heartache, loss, they understand themes of songs.  So, they have experiences in their own life histories to help them get inside a lyric.

The forty singers who come to the Songbook Academy every July are vetted by an extraordinary team of teachers and, by the time we cull it to ten Finalists; we are hearing very mature performances by very talented kids! They are certainly a lot smarter than I was when I was sixteen.

I think it’s a great gift that today’s young people have this unique opportunity to sing songs by the great masters of the Great American Songbook.

That is one of the parts of the mission statement. We want to make sure this music is able to come alive in the hands of the 21st century singer. Michael Feinstein and I have had conversations about the American songbook, and I feel we need to keep adding more and more material to it. Maybe 1965 should be our cutoff; we have to keep reinventing the parameters.

There are so many great songs being written in the 21st century. How do you define the Great American Songbook? What is that best time frame? I think we may end up extending that closing bracket at some point.

It must be a great learning experience for you as a teacher?

Mrs. Anna, in “The King & I,” famously says:  “By my students I am taught.”  How true! I do believe that teaching is the best teacher.

When I joined the faculty at Jacobs School of Music and started teaching Singing, Stage Awareness and English Diction for Singing, I clearly met up firsthand with that statement. It’s really true. I sing so much differently since I started teaching singing. You hear yourself telling the students: “When you stand there, lift your top of your jaw and make sure the air is flying around on your palette,” and when you say these things, it makes you realize you better practice what you teach.

You have also given yourself to help others through important causes. ‘Songs By Heart,’ connecting people with memory loss to the joy of music, which you and singer Nancy Gustafson co-founded to bring singers and song into nursing homes and memory-challenged residences; ‘Christel House International’ founded by Christel DeHaan touching the lives of 5,000 impoverished children at Christel House learning centers around the world; and the ‘Bloomington Refugee Support Network.’

I know I am both lucky and blessed. When I look back on my life, I sort of see it in three chapters. The first chapter was growing up, being trained, learning as much as I could.  

The second chapter is figuring out how to make the most of it all! I was given so much by my parents and I had excellent teachers. I knew I had a big responsibility to be a good steward of my talent and of all the investment in education my parents made. So, I sang my heart out all over the world for thirty-five years. The last ten of those years, I taught on a music school faculty. I hope I was able to share with young singers much of what I learned. Doing it is great, sharing it is even greater!

The third chapter is the one I’m in now. At sixty-three, I want this chapter to be about service. I want to be useful to others. If that’s teaching singing, great! But I also enjoy my retirement career teaching ENL (formerly known as ESL) to international students. I enjoy .’ I try to live every day guided by the principle: Give whatever you can, wherever you can, whenever you can. That is my goal now.



"It is a law of life that man cannot live for himself alone. Extreme individualism is insanity. The world's problems are also our personal problems. Health is achieved through maintaining our personal truth in a balanced relation of love to the rest of the world. No expression is more emblematic of this relation than the creative act which we call art. No art by its very constitution typifies the social nature of that creative act more than the theatre. The theatre, to be fully understood and appreciated, must be seen as a manifestation of this process of interchange between society and the individual. It must be judged as a continuous development of groups of individuals within society, a development which becomes richer, acquires greater force and value as it grows with the society in which it originates. Only in this way can the theatre nourish us.  - Harold Clurman

The Soul of the American Actor Newspaper