Soprano  Sylvia  McNair

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


[By way of introduction, the following text was taken from the artist's website in September, 2023. The CD cover photo with André Previn is from another source. Note that links on this webpage refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD]


Evening Gowns OUT, Jeans and Comfortable Shoes IN


OK, so, now what?  


35 years.  What?!?  The Performance History document and the Discography show plenty of evidence I spent more than 35 years making my living as a singer.  Most of those 35 years were spent working at the very highest level of the classical music business:  the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony – at Ravinia and on Michigan Avenue, the Salzburg Festival and the Philharmonics of Vienna and Berlin. Those were regular stops every season.  I still have a 5,000 Austrian Schilling note in my desk drawer from the days before the Euro.  Yes, there were days before the Euro.    


There were also life-changing experiences at Opera Theater of St. Louis, the Indianapolis Symphony, the Atlanta Symphony, and Carnegie Hall.  I sang at Carnegie Hall a lot.  It was all before social media, though, so no one knew. I got to sing a recital at the Supreme Court, by special invitation from Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and I got to sing with the Vienna Philharmonic at the Vatican for Pope John Paul II’s 80thbirthday, which I thought was just grand.    


Riding the wave of the CD boom, I made a lot of recordings in the 1980s and ‘90s. Over 70, actually.  Works by Bach, Handel, Mozart (lots of Mozart), Beethoven, Brahms and Mahler.  I was nominated for the Grammy award five times and won twice!  Those two Grammys are on a shelf in my home but you have to hunt for them. 


I might also have won a Grand Prix du Disque but I’m not sure.  I don’t speak French. 


After roaming the classical music world for 20 years, I made a bold – some might say stupid – decision.  I chose to walk away from all of it to spend more time singing songs I love from the American Songbook.  That would be the Great American Songbook, songs by Gershwin, Porter, Bernstein and Sondheim, which really are Great.  I also did musical theater productions, cabaret shows and a few jazz projects.  It just felt more authentic, it felt comfortable and I loved it!  My standard quote became:  “Doing music I love, with people I love, in places I love; for me life does not get any better”.


In 2006, I joined a faculty.  As Mrs. Anna (from ‘The King & I’) famously said: “By my students I am taught”. Those words certainly describe my experience as a teacher.  To touch the lives of students, or any young person, is to touch the future.  I have a lot packed into my head and heart from 35 years of professional experience.  Sharing it gives it meaning beyond compare.  But, truth to tell, most of the learning was actually done by me. 


However, like it or not (and I do both, depending on the day) That Was Then and This Is Now.


Today, I am fully retired and wondering why I waited until my early-60s to do that!  I am inventing a retirement career teaching ENL (formerly known as ESL) and adult literacy through a program at my local library called VITAL, Volunteers In Tutoring Adult Learners.  I often feel this is the most important work of my life.  Helping international folks understand and speak English with more confidence and humor is a great joy!


I've also begun volunteering with the Mobile Food Pantry, part of the Area 10 Agency on Aging's outreach in my community.


Many hours every week, I work for the Refugee Support Network in Bloomington.  I'm on the Board and I head-up the Special Friends.  Our clients are some of the bravest people I've ever met and it is an honor to work alongside them. 


I’m also a classical-music deejay on WFIU, the NPR affiliate at Indiana University.  It’s a part-time gig where I work with young, smart, funny people.  I’m hoping they make me smart and funny, too.  Besides, with them I always have Tech Help.  I still sing occasionally for my beloved Causes (please do visit that page of this website) and for ‘friends & family’ events.  So far, no one has run to get the hook.


Mahatma Gandhi said, “LIVE as though you’ll die tomorrow.  LEARN as though you’ll live forever”.  So I continue to attend lectures, take copious notes, and learn as much as I can.  Whether it's hearing a NASA scientist talk about the ISS or a pediatrician discussing the Flint, MI, water crisis or learning about the U.S. Constitution so I can half-way explain the First and Second Amendments to my ENL conversation group, I adore learning new things!  I’ve also joined a 20-voice ‘a cappella’ choir called Voces Novae where I sing in the No Stress section, also known as Alto II.  Let the youngsters worry about high notes, been there, done that …


Other than those retirement career activities, I exercise, do yoga, travel, read, Netflix binge and enjoy my awesome circle of friends!  Living the Dream.  I’m healthy, I’m comfortable, I’m happy.  Who could ask for anything more?


In October of 1995, I had the privilege and pleasure of meeting Sylvia McNair between performances of The Ghosts of Versailles, the then-new opera by John Corigliano being presented by Lyric Opera of Chicago.  A full list of her appearances with the Lyric Opera and the Chicago Symphony is shown in the box at the bottom of this webpage.

As we were setting up to record the conversation, our chit-chat involved a very famous Chicago athlete . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   Do you really think Michael Jordan is up there with Mozart?

Sylvia McNair:   [Laughs]  I was asked by Lyric Opera what I wanted to do while I was in Chicago, and one of the things I said was that I would love to have a chance to meet Michael Jordan because he is so gifted.  He is so talented, and watching him perform on the basketball court is proof of the same kind of miracle as listening to a Mozart opera or a Mozart symphony.  I think God has to prove his existence to us every once in a while, and he does it with composers like Mozart and athletes like Michael Jordan.

BD:   Is there any comparison with what he does on the basketball court and what you do in the throat any night on the opera stage?
McNair:   People laugh at me when I say things like this, but there are a lot of similarities between athletics and being a performer.  I was an athletic kid when I was in school.  I was on the basketball team and the track team, and in fact, one of my records on the track team in high school stood for many, many years after I graduated.  So, athletics has always been a part of my life.  We always have to keep our bodies in fit form.  I’m not saying by any means that we are as aerobically fit as professional athletes, but for example, when I sing the role of Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro [recording shown below-right], she is moving nonstop for four hours, running all over that stage, making sure that everything’s under control, or trying to make sure that everything’s under control.  You have to be very physically fit to wear the costumes that weigh so much, and are so hot.  You’re standing there under lights wearing wool and moving around all the time.  You have to take very, very good care of your body as a performing musician.

BD:   And after all of that, you have to think about the artistry involved.

McNair:   Yes.  You have to make sure you sound decent when you open your mouth and sing.  But just purely from a physical aspect, there’s a much greater physical demand on opera singers than people realize.  We
re not just producing a vocal sound that fills up an opera house, especially the size of the Chicago Lyric Opera.  It takes a lot of physical strength.  You have to have a strong back to sing like this.  And it isn’t just the physical conditioning.  We have the same kind of performance pressure that the professional athletes have.  We have one shot, and we are doing a high wire act without a safety net.  You either sink or swim on your performance.  That is certainly true for baseball players, and basketball players, and football players, just like for opera singers.
BD:   The baseball line-score has runs, hits, and errors.  Should we keep track of singers errors?

McNair:   I’ve often thought of that.  I’ve often wondered, if I had a .500 batting average, and only did 50% of my performances well, I’d never have another job.  Whereas if you have a .500 batting average, that’s big news.

BD:   That would be better than Ted Williams.  [As of 2023, he was the last player to hit over .400 in a season].

McNair:   [Laughs]  I guess we are not allowed to have anything less than a 1.000 batting average.

BD:   Is there any such thing as a perfect musical performance?

McNair:   I don’t know what
perfect means, so I guess my answer to your question is no.  I wouldn’t begin to know how to define perfect.  Every day, each person is different.  The conditions of the day changethe weather, the humidity, the happiness, the sadness of a person.  Everything in your life affects you, so when you open your mouth to sing a phrase of music, or pull your violin out of the case to play, you’re a different person.  The only thing that can exist is that we are always giving 110% of ourselves, and relying on our talent, and our skills, and our hard work to make sure that we are being the best we can be.  That’s one of my goals.  I don’t ever think of it as striving for perfection as much as making sure I have given at least 110% of my all-time best that day.  I have a goal that isn’t about perfection as much as it is about try to make sure that every performance is in some way better than the last one.  Every time I walk out on stage, whether it’s how I sing a phrase, or how I concentrate on the character that I am portraying, I try to make every performance in some way better than the preceding one.  I may not know what perfection is, but I don’t believe in imperfection.

BD:   When you get out on stage, are you portraying a character, or do you try to become that character?

McNair:   To portray isn’t really what I’m doing.  I’m trying everything in every way I know how to become the person that I’m being on stage.  I’m trying to pull up everything out of my own personal experience, and everything that I know historically to be true about a situation.  I’m trying to become that person.

BD:   Your vocal range and style dictate certain characters that you will assume.  Do you like those characters that are inherent in these parts?

McNair:   Yes, for the most part.  The characters that I play as an opera singer are people that I like very, very much.  My favorite lady that I get to become is Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro.  I adore her.  I think she’s terrific, and I love putting on the cloak of Susanna.  She’s a lot of fun, and she’s real smart, and yet she’s full of love.  She’s a great joy to become.  I also do a lot of performances of The Magic Flute and Idomeneo.  Those two ladies, Pamina and Ilia, are a little bit more distant.  In the case of The Magic Flute, it’s more of a fairy tale, and in the case of Idomeneo, it’s a story based on the Greek tragedies.  So, those people are a little more remote from my own personal experience.  But still, I try to find things in the text and in the music which make the job of becoming those people easier.  The exception to this rule is one of my other favorite parts, which is Poppea in The Coronation of Poppea by Monteverdi [recording shown above-left].  It’s a 17th century opera.  I do a lot of 17th and 18th century music in general, but Poppea is a wicked woman.  She insists that her lover, the Emperor Nero, kill his Secretary of State, and banish his wife from the Kingdom.  She uses her sexual prowess to manipulate Nero, and he gives her everything she wants.  He behaves badly.  He’s childish, and very emotionally underdeveloped.  In fact, in the real story, two years after the end of the opera, Poppea was pregnant with his child, and he kicked her to death.  So, he’s a real creep, but she’s no better.

BD:   Why is she interested in him?

McNair:   Power!  It’s all about power.  The second time I did the opera was in Salzburg two-and-a-half years ago.  The Salzburg Festival is a wonderful place, and they engage terrific conductors and directors.  But it struck me that I was having a wonderful time as an actress playing Poppea because not one bone of her body is like any bone in my body.  I could never demand that my lover kill someone.  It’s just so far from who I am, so it really was an acting challenge.  But I found I was having such a wonderful time because so many of the characters that I play in opera are more like the person that I am.  Poppea is the complete opposite, a complete antithesis of who I am, and who I feel I want to be, so it was much more of an acting challenge.  It was great, though, and I loved it.

BD:   Could you get all of your emotions out in that role?

McNair:   Yes.  You can really find ways to vent your anger, and get all that crap out of you by just pouring it into your performance of a wicked lady.
BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Performance as therapy?

McNair:   Yes, it’s true.  It’s absolutely true.
BD:   You try to become these characters when you go on stage.  When you walk off stage, how long does it take to be rid of them?

McNair:   Not terribly long.  That’s the thing about acting
it’s a cloak.  You put it on when you step on stage... or not even when you step on stage.  When you’re waiting on stage for the curtain to go up, I’m certainly not feeling like Poppea.  Then when the curtain goes up, the cloak is on, and as the curtain comes down, the cloak is off.  That’s not to say you aren’t emotionally invested, and therefore emotionally exhausted at the end of a performance, but it’s a cloak you put on and take off.

BD:   Do you leave it in the theater?

McNair:   You leave it there, absolutely.

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   We were talking a bit about Mozart, and some of these characters that are close to you.  Is there any one character that is really you?

McNair:   I like to think it would be Susanna, but that’s probably flattering myself to an embarrassing degree.  [Laughs]

BD:   Would Da Ponte say that was OK?  
[Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interview with Claudio Abbado.]

McNair:   He might.  I like her so much, and I’m sure that over the nine productions I’ve done in this past decade, that I’ve tried to become more like her through the Beaumarchais play, and also through the opera, which is a very much reduced version of the Beaumarchais play.

BD:   Is it, perhaps, easier to play Susanna in the 1990s than it would, say, in the 1930s?

McNair:   [Thinks a moment]  You’re probably right because the Beaumarchais trilogy is from the end of the 18th century, and it’s probably the first piece of feminist literature.

BD:   Now you can speak more directly to the women who are coming each night.  Maybe this would’ve been the best suffragette opera.

McNair:   Beaumarchais was an amazing man.  Doing The Ghosts of Versailles right now at the Lyric, I’m learning and reading much more about Beaumarchais than I had known just from my experiences with The Marriage of Figaro.  Beaumarchais was many, many things.  He was a judge, a lawyer, a writer, and a politician of sorts.  He was the first person who actually had visions of balloons delivering mail and dropping bombs.  He had images and ideas about things that were way, way, way in the future.  He was an extraordinary man, absolutely extraordinary, and he had an imagination that was very powerful and potent.

BD:   I wish we had a well-known setting of the third opera, La mère coupable [the guilty mother].  It has done it, but it’s not a major piece.

McNair:   Yes, and there’s Chérubin of Massenet.

BD:   Right.  When I’m giving lectures, it always shocks some people when I say that the Countess has a child by Cherubino.

McNair:   [Laughs]  It’s all there in the Beaumarchais.

BD:   Knowing that, at the end of the Mozart opera, should there be some nice glances between the Countess and Cherubino to look forward to the next event?

McNair:   It’s my opinion that any director who doesn’t foreshadow the relationship between Rosina
who is then the Countessand Cherubino is taking a perilous course indeed, because the fact of the matter is, according to the Beaumarchais, it does happen, and the seeds are certainly planted in the second act of The Marriage of Figaro.  So it would be perilous to not look at her.

BD:   Does your character, Susanna, help or hinder this in any way?

McNair:   I don’t think she hinders it.  Susanna is a fun-loving lady.  She and the Countess are very similar in age, and don’t forget that the Countess is really a commoner.  She’s not a royal by birth.  She’s not of royal heritage at all, so with a few different circumstances during The Barber of Seville, Rosina could have very easily ended up with a life that resembled the life Susanna has.

BD:   Does she appreciate that?

McNair:   When I do her, she does.  The only time I’ve ever done Rosina is in The Ghosts of Versailles, which is a fantasy piece that follows years after.  But I’m very appreciative of the Susanna-Rosina relationship in The Marriage of Figaro.  These two ladies are best friends, and they love each other very, very much.  Susanna would do anything she could to help Rosina get a smile back on her face, and some warmth in her soul, because her husband has just ignored her.  It’s all gone chilly, and I take these things very personally.

BD:   You’re a very happily married woman.  I wonder if your whole outlook would be different if your marriage was not going well, or if you had a number of affairs going on.

McNair:   It’s hard to say how I would feel if I weren’t thus.  The fact is I am married, and have been married for ten years very happily to a wonderful man [conductor Hal France].  But marriage is a very challenging enterprise, and you have to move with the ebb and flow of married life.  I’m certainly glad when it comes time to work on operas that are so much about relationships and love relationships that I have my experience on which to draw.  There’s a duet in Act Two of The Ghosts of Versailles between Susanna and Rosina.  The two women are looking back over their years of life with their husbands, and remembering how good it was when their husbands were still wooing them, and were very, very interested in their passion.  The two women lament that those things fade away.  The temperature goes down, and other things must keep you happily married.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Is there a secret to singing Mozart?

McNair:   My approach to Mozart singing
whether it’s operas, or concert arias, or even the songs for that matteris very instrumental in its nature.  It’s very easy to see how instrumental the vocal lines are, because if you take your hand and cover up the words underneath the music, you’ll see a line for the singer that is, in many, many cases, completely identical to one of the lines of the woodwind section, or the first violin.  You’ll see a very instrumental style of writing.  Because I was an instrumentalist for seventeen years as a child and as a teenager, I tend to approach all music as an instrumentalist.
BD:   I bet that in all those violin lessons, that your teacher was saying make a singing tone.

McNair:   [Laughs]  Exactly.  The only reason I started taking singing lessons when I was 20 years old was because a violin teacher said to me to take some singing lessons.  He said l would benefit a lot as a violinist if I’d learn how to use my breath as a violinist.  So I started taking some singing lessons primarily just to supplement my violin playing.  I wanted to be a violinist.  Being a mid-Westerner at heart, I wanted to play in the Chicago Symphony, or the Cleveland Orchestra.  So, I just started taking singing lessons for fun, and lo and behold, in about a year’s time I realized I was enjoying the singing as much or even more than the violin playing.

BD:   Didn’t Menotti write an opera about a violinist?

McNair:   He sure did [Help, Help, the Globolinks!], and Judy Blegen actually has done it.  She has been a leading soprano at The Met for years, and she also started out her musical training as a violinist.  People used to joke with me that Judy and I were the only two people in the world who could actually sing and play the violin at the same time.

BD:   From a huge array of roles, not just Mozart, how do you decide which ones you will learn, and which ones you’ll decline?

McNair:   I have a lot of people whose advice and counsel I seek out and trust.  I’ve also learned to say no.  I say no a lot more than I say yes.  In my career, I don’t do more than three operas a year, so I’m only spending 50% to 60% of my working time doing operas.

BD:   The rest are concerts?

McNair:   The rest is orchestra concerts, and recitals, and recordings.  All of those things are very, very important to me, so I spend a lot of time and energy doing them.  In terms of planning things over the long term, we’re trying to build the career and not make any mistakes.  I get a lot of strange offers, and you just get used to saying no and not minding it.

BD:   What is it that goes into deciding you will learn a new part?

McNair:   The most important thing is knowing your voice, and knowing yourself.  The better you know your voice and your musical personality, and knowing what you like and what you do best are all really important.  Knowing who I am more and more every day helps me make the right decisions.  Lots of roles get offered that are very heavy, and I do not want to take them on.  If I make a mistake, I’d rather under-estimate the weight and size of my voice, rather than over-estimate its strength, because if you ruin your voice, you can’t go out and get another one.  You’ve only got one chance to do it right.

BD:   Would you be happier if you could take the voice out of a case each day, and put it away each night?

McNair:   [Laughs]  Wouldn’t it be nice?  I’ve always said I’d rather be accused of doing too little than too much.  So those are my parameters.

BD:   You and Judy, and a violist, and a cellist should form The Opera String Quartet.

McNair:   Yes, The Diva Quartet!  [Both laugh]  We could ask Barbara Bonney, who was a cellist.  I played viola, too.  All violinists sort of play around at the viola, so that might help.  [Note... allow me to mention just a few violists who played violin, including Irving Ilmer who played violin in the Chicago Symphony before he became the Violist of the Fine Arts Quartet.  Another Chicago Symphony player, Charles Pikler, was in the first violin section before becoming Principal Violist.  Also, Richard Young played violin in a quartet and a trio before joining the Vermeer Quartet as Violist.  On a similar thought, the founder and First Violinist of the Vermeer, Shmuel Ashkenazy, told me that when he occasionally sits in with amateur string players, he usually plays the viola.]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   We’re talking about the size of the voice.  Do you sing differently in a very small house as opposed to a very big house?  Is your technique always your technique?

McNair:   A technique is technique to be sure, but when you’re in a big house, like the Met [3850 seats], or the Chicago Lyric Opera [3600], or the San Francisco Opera [3325], the three big American houses, you certainly can’t afford to coast.  You can’t afford to lay back.  Every phrase has to be fully sung and fully supported.  Otherwise, it just doesn’t go in the big spaces.  The opera houses in Europe, which is where I’ve done most of my operatic work, are smaller.  Covent Garden, Glyndebourne, Vienna, Berlin, and Salzburg are the houses where I work primarily in Europe.  Vienna seats about 1700, but the main floor of the Staatsoper, (the State Opera) is only 18 rows deep from the front of the theater, which is to say the edge of the orchestra pit, to the back of the theater.  That’s not very many rows!  I’ve never trusted myself that I counted right, so every time I’m there I count it again, and I keep coming up with 18 rows.  Then it goes up with four or five balconies.  So it’s not a huge space in terms of its depth or width, and the same is true for Covent Garden [2256].  However, La Scala [1800] is one of the driest, deadest acoustics in the world, but it’s still not a huge big space.

BD:   So you don’t sing differently from house to house.  Do you sing differently for the microphone?

McNair:   A little bit, to be sure.  In an ideal world, people say you shouldn’t really sing differently when you’re recording as you do when you perform, but I’ve just finished recording The Rake
s Progress [shown below], for example, and we sang it in a house that seated 2,800 people.  You have to sing differently when you’re trying to fill up a house that seats 2,800 people.  Then when you have a microphone that’s only three feet in front of your face, it is so near that it enables you to do things on a much more conversational, intimate basis.  Frankly, I prefer it.  I don’t enjoy singing that turns into shouting matches.  So many opera performances in the big houses turn into loud, louder, and loudest contests, and you lose so much music when you’re constantly concerned about volume.  I don’t think that loud, louder, and loudest necessarily mean good, better, and best.  So, I enjoy the intimacy of having a microphone close up, and being able to just slightly whisper the lines that are said as asides.  The microphone in a recording situation enables that, and in a large opera house, you can’t really do that too easily.


See my interviews with Anthony Rolfe-Johnson, Paul Plishka, and Ian Bostridge

:   Let me ask the big question.  What’s the purpose of music?

McNair:   It’s a question I probably ask myself at least once a day.  You walk down the street and you see people who don’t have enough food to last them for the day, or waterproof shoes on their feet, and you realize that you’re going to work, and are involved in what is essentially an elitist art form.  It’s a very difficult question to answer.  What is the role of music in general, and classical music in particular in our lives?  I don’t know what the answer is, I really don’t.  When I have this dialog inside my head, I usually remind myself that music is something that provides food of a different kind for the heart and the soul.  There are people who still want it, and there are people who need it, and as long as those people are there and are willing to pay for it
because tickets cost money, and making music costs moneyI will be there to provide it.  I consider myself incredibly blessed to be able to do what I do for a living.  Other than that, in this day and age, it’s very, very difficult, especially in this country, my beloved homeland, where the arts are suffering.  In Europe, classical music is as important to most people as the morning’s first cup of coffee.  Going to a concert in Berlin or Vienna, or seeing an opera in Milan is as vital for them as a good meal.  In America, the arts in general, and music in particular, don’t enjoy that kind of priority.
BD:   How can we get it to be a higher priority in our lives?

McNair:   It could become a higher priority if people could experience the wealth that it brings.  I don’t mean financial wealth, obviously.  Rather, I mean the spiritual, psychological, and emotional wealth that being involved with the arts brings.  My father-in-law and my mother are both school teachers.  My father-in-law has been involved with education for forty-two years, and one of the things he always told me was that involvement with the arts being helpful is a proven fact.  There is scientific data that backs it up.  It is a fact that teenagers and young children who have studied the arts in school have higher test scores, and more of them graduate and go on to college.  They have higher grades.  It is a proven fact.  We don’t need to be talking about unidentifiables.  We don’t need to be talking about how we feel about it.  It is actually there.  Studies show students who have been involved with music and the arts at some stage in their youth are better students, and hopefully better people.

We need to promote the idea that ‘Music is a Key to Success.  Can we pound this into the heads of the Wall Street brokers, and the lawyers, and the bankers, and everybody else who aren’t involved in music so much?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interview with Derek Lee Ragin.]

McNair:   I don’t know if it’s a question of pounding it into their heads, or rather just holding their hands and showing it to them gently, and with a smile, and hoping that they are able to see the riches it brings.

BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of music?

McNair:   This may sound like PR shtick, but it’s really not.  I tell you this truly.  Last evening, I sat through a performance here at the Lyric Opera of Handel’s Xerxes [with Ann Murray, Christopher Robson, Elisabeth Futral, Alison Hagley, Kathleen Kuhlmann, and Kevin Langan, led by John Nelson].  This is a difficult opera, even for a music lover, because it’s four hours long, and it’s Handel, which means it’s music of the 18th century.  So it is basically one aria after the next, and many of them are in the da capo form, which means it’s in an ABA format.  They go back and repeat the first section of the aria.  But in any case, I was really pleasantly surprised to see how many people stayed in the theater until 11:30 at night on a weeknight listening to the music of Handel.  The other thing that surprised me very pleasantly was that I saw a lot of people my age.  There were lots and lots of people who weren’t over sixty, including lots of younger people, and they stayed for all 4 hours.  I was impressed, and this has allowed me to be more hopeful.  The opera theater of St. Louis is another shining example of a community that can really get infused by their opera company, and be proud of their opera company, and get involved and have a ball with it.  The possibilities are there for classical music and classical musicians to bridge the gap, to climb across the footlights, and to get people interested and get them involved.

BD:   Are you at the point in your career that you want to be right now?

McNair:   Yes, I am.  My career is just my professional life, and my professional life is only one aspect of my whole life.  I’m certainly satisfied with where my life is in a professional way, but I refuse to have my career or my profession be everything in my whole life.  There are so many other things and people who matter a lot to me.  I basically have come to that enviable position of having the choice of what to accept and what to turn down, and given the fact that there are at least one hundred gifted people for every job, I consider myself extremely lucky, and I’m very happy about that.

BD:   Do you have any advice for younger singers coming along?

McNair:   Yes, I do actually.  I’m still a student, and will always be a student, but when I was in school, people didn’t encourage me to use my imagination.  They didn’t encourage me to do whatever I needed to do to maintain my own identity.  The places that I studied were more concerned with trying to make me fit the mold, trying to make me sound like whatever that particular voice teacher’s idea was, rather than taking all of the things that made me who I was
the musician, the singer, the personand encouraging me to put my own personal identity on the music.  So I would say to younger students that it’s really important to make sure you don’t lose your greatest tool, which is not your voice, but your imagination.  It’s also important not to try to wash away the things that make you individual, but rather focus on them, and nurture them, and make sure that they stay a part of your singing and your music making.

BD:   That’s great advice.  Thank you for the conversation, and for coming back to Chicago once again.

McNair:   Oh, it’s my pleasure to be here.

Sylvia McNair with Lyric Opera of Chicago

October/November, 1995 - The Ghosts of Versailles [Corigliano] (Rosina) with Hagegård, Dwayne Croft, Wendy White, Greenawald, Clark;
                                                Slatkin, Colin Graham, Conklin, Schuler, Tallchief, Palumbo, Dufford

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Sylvia McNair with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

At Orchestra Hall

October 6, 1990 [Centennial Gala] - Beethoven Symphony #9 (Fourth Movement), with Susanne Mentzer, Gary Lakes, Samuel Ramey;
                                                            Chicago Symphony Chorus, Margaret Hillis; Sir Georg Solti


To launch the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's 100th season, an all-star
cast of conductors and soloists was assembled for a gala
opening concert on October 6, 1990.
Left to right, back row: Associate Conductor Kenneth Jean,
pianist András Schiff, conductor Lorin Maazel, tenor Gary Lakes,
soprano Sylvia McNair, bass Samuel Ramey;
middle row: Music Director Designate Daniel Barenboim,
Lady Valerie Solti, Music Director Sir Georg Solti,
conductor Leonard Slatkin, cellist Yo-Yo Ma;
front row: violinist Isaac Stern, cellist/conductor Mstislav Rostropovich,
mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer, pianist/conductor Murray Perahia.

October 20, 21, 22, 25, 1994 - Mozart aria K. 369, and Mahler Symphony #4 conducted by Michiyoshi Inoue

December 31, 1996 - Works by Bernstein, Gershwin, Herbert, Kern, Loewe, Rodger, and Johann Strauss, Jr, conducted by David Alan Miller

January 16, 17, 18, 21, 1997 - Mahler Symphony #2 [Resurrection], wth Markella Hatziano, conducted by Bernard Haitink

December 31, 1998 - Works by Gershwin and Johann Strauss, Jr., conducted by David Alan Miller

At the Ravinia Festival

July 28, 2002 - Works by Rodgers, with Marilyn Horne, Rodney Gilfry, and John Raitt, conducted by John Mauceri

July 4, 2003  - Works by Gershwin, conducted by David Alan Miller

July 23, 2011 - Works by Gershwin, with Brian Stokes Mitchell, conducted by David Alan Miller

July 26, 2015 - Works by Hamlisch, with Maria Friedman and Jeremy Hays, conducted by David Alan Miller

August 26, 2016 - Works by Porter, with Kela Blackhurst and Ryan VanDenBoom, conducted by David Alan Miller

August 13, 2017 - Works by Gershwin, with Leslie Kritzer and Ryan VanDenBoom, conducted by Emil de Cou



See my interviews with Robert Shaw, John Aler, William Stone, Jerry Hadley, and Robert Lloyd


© 1995 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on October 19, 1995.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following year, and again in 1998.  This transcription was made in 2023, and posted on this website at that time.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.