Known for her ability to bring great musical and theatrical depth to her performances, soprano Carrie Hennessey is a powerful, versatile and talented artist. She will play the part of Josephine, the daughter of Captain Corcoran and the love interest of the sailor Ralph Rackstraw in Music in the Mountains’ upcoming performance of “H.M.S. Pinafore” Friday.
She took a moment in her busy schedule to talk with MIM Executive Director Cristine Kelly to answer a few questions about her singing career and life in the busy world of opera performance.
Q: Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas, in particular “H.M.S. Pinafore,” have been credited with creating the bridge between opera and modern musical theater. As a singer, what is the difference between opera and musical theater?
A: This is a fantastic question, and one that I’ve been pondering. Gilbert and Sullivan really did bridge that gap in style of storytelling. Switching hats from singing opera and symphonic works to singing musical theater can be an incredible challenge in the shift of technique with each style. In a show like, for instance, “Wicked,” that would be a complete change in vocal technique because there is “belting” throughout the show. The range sits lower, and I would actually need to change how I treat each register of my voice. In the shows of Gilbert and Sullivan, that is not the case. The registration for each role sits similarly, for me, to the lyric soprano roles of Mozart. Even though these pieces can be sung by both operatic and musical theater voices, Ryan Murray has chosen more operatically trained voices. I won’t have to shift my mindset in my technique, because I will be surrounded by other operatic singers, and therefore won’t stick out like a sore thumb when I sing full out!
Q: What remains so enormously appealing to audiences after all these years?
A: The themes of making fun of the ranks, classes, of people is always an attraction. To show that people in power aren’t always deserving of the power that they have and showing these faults through incredibly humorous, and likable characters is a recurring theme. Even in their personality flaws, the audience likes them, and in the end they choose to do the right thing. Gilbert and Sullivan have an amazing way of hooking the audience immediately through the catchy melodies,then throwing in the witty, and sometimes incredibly complicated lyrics, to keep the audience on its toes. The audience is then along for this incredible ride and must feel, after they’ve seen one, they must come back for more! It’s absolutely delightful music and incredibly hilarious lyrics at times!
Q: What do you find challenging about the role of Josephine?
A: I think that with any character in Gilbert and Sullivan, the trick is to find the humor. Josephine could easily be played overly forlorn as she thinks that she must be a slave to duty and class, and not follow her heart because the man she loves is a simple sailor. There is so much opportunity to poke fun at her struggle with this situation, and Gilbert and Sullivan have plotted that all out for her character. The other challenge for every character in this show in particular, including the chorus, is diction throughout the show but especially in the quick passages in the finales. G&S are well known for throwing many, nearly impossible words into the fastest tempi in the shows, i.e. in “Pirate of Penzance” “I am the very model of a modern major General”. Speaking the text in rhythm helps me to pace my breath and figure out where it makes most sense to breathe. This, for me, is the toughest vocal challenge in the piece.
Q: Your career is certainly blossoming with engagements throughout California, and a planned summer European tour. How do you balance singing and family life?
A: This is another great question! In short, Google Calendar is my friend! Of course that’s very simplistic, but is the only way that our family can schedule as needed. My family is incredibly supportive and we work with one another really well. The other necessity is using every moment of the day possible. I study and memorize music while running on the treadmill. I sing while I cook and clean. We all pitch in. The kids know what needs to be done around the house, and they do their part. We all do. It’s not a perfect science by any means, but we keep communication lines open and make it happen as a family. I owe much of my success to their support. The final trick to keeping everyone in the family happy, is to them be sure I am present with them when we are together. I have to put down the computer, the phone and score and just be together. Some days are easier than others to do that, and again, my family is fantastic in understanding that. But, when it’s family time, we just do our thing!
Q: Do you have any pre-performance rituals?
A: It’s funny, yes and no. Some of that depends on the show and how I am feeling that day. If I’m not feeling 100 percent I have to be pretty strict with what I do, but mostly I am simply extremely aware of what I need to do in accordance to how my body feels. In general, I drink lots of water and eat often throughout the day to keep the stream of energy going. I also usually do a light workout with lots of stretching to be sure my body is ready. I try not to plan too much, but just keep the day as simple as possible and do whatever it is my body needs to do. Early in the day, I will look at any rough spots in the music, and then put the score away. I do like the ritual of getting ready for a show. In opera, I love the wig and make up time, it relaxes me and gets my brain in the right place. I love getting the gown on, being in the performance space and being present with whatever I have the great opportunity to perform that day. Performing is ritualistic for me, but it isn’t all about me or my preparation necessarily, but more specifically it’s about my instrument being fully ready to honor the music, the other performers and the connection we have the opportunity to make with the audience through music.
This special performance Friday is a benefit for Music in the Mountains. Tickets are $85 and are available at BriarPatch Co-op and the MIM Box office. “H.M.S. Pinafore” will be at the Miners Foundry Cultural Center in Nevada City.
The evening event begins at 6 p.m. with the concert at 7:30. For information and a complete list of concerts, visit MIM at http://musicinthemountains.org.