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Evening Gowns OUT, Jeans and Comfortable Shoes IN

OK, so, what now?

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 ...

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Ron Kadish

Opera Singer Gone Wild: Sylvia McNair’s Musical Autobiography Subject to Change Jumps from Classical Stages to the Great American Songbook

35 years. Untold numbers of concerts and opera roles. Performances before presidents, supreme court judges, pontiffs (yes, you read that right). The bittersweet affairs of the heart, the struggles of a gutsy gal.

It’s all part of the striking backstory behind Grammy-winning singer Sylvia McNair’s musical autobiography, Subject to Change (release: October 7, 2016). Part cabaret confessional, part homage to the Great American Songbook, McNair’s album chronicles her move from the classical world into newfound artistic freedom, with a dose of life’s intensity along the way. Pieces by Gershwin and Bernstein, Previn and Porter (and probably one of the most unexpected covers of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia”) paint a wry portrait of one woman’s life in music.

“Completing a musical autobiography wasn't a decision as much as it was part of my evolution,” reflects McNair. “My journey has covered many miles, taken me to mountaintops, plunged me into valleys, brought great joys and required enormous sacrifices. It's not the world's greatest story ever told, but it's mine.  Also, the best stories are the true stories, and every word of this one comes straight from my heart.”

{full story below}

Sylvia McNair didn’t set out to be a torch singer or a jazz maven. She started off hoping to become a classical violinist, then falling in love with the voice. That love took her from the Midwest, across Europe, as she became an in-demand soloist for orchestras and opera companies.

Yet success never quite silenced the part of McNair that longed to do something a little different. She came to a point in her career when she had to choose between learning a new set of opera roles--or take a novel path, where her heart would lead her. She went with her heart. “For twenty years, when I was singing classical music exclusively, my managers always had a very hard time persuading me to go on recital tours, singing only art songs,” McNair recalls. “I fought them on it every time! I just didn’t enjoy the learning process, even though the songs of Purcell, Schubert, Brahms, Wolf, Faure, Debussy, etc, are miraculously beautiful, of course. I have found my comfortable, happy place singing the songs of America's greats:  Gershwin, Porter, Rodgers, Sondheim.  I'm leading with my heart, letting my true colors show.”

This pivot, these true colors play an important part in Subject to Change and how McNair shaped the set. “The fact that I came out of the opera world, after having started my musical life as a violinist, is unusual. Those two skill sets (such as they are) deserved a place in the show.” As did songs of heartache and loss, feelings McNair finally knew she could do justice, as a more mature performer and person.

Bringing the wit and heart, the requisite range of styles and experiences together proved a delightful challenge, one that McNair worked on with support from director Barry Kleinbort, who was instrumental in shaping early iterations of Subject to Change, and from her longtime collaborator and musical director, pianist Ted Taylor, whose instincts for musical storytelling and language give McNair ample room to spin her yarns.

These yarns tie her--humbly, she adds--to modern greats, composers who share her inability to stay put in one genre or field. “I wanted to highlight a few composers who, like me, are hybrids, working successfully in several genres of music,” McNair says. “I don’t put myself on the level of Gershwin, Bernstein or Previn, but they refused to be put in boxes and that’s something I relate to. Opera, musical theater, pop, jazz, they did it all.”

McNair touches on all those musical worlds, while keeping up an intimate conversation with listeners. She commits herself totally to performance, and it’s worth it. “It takes a lot of my mental energy and costs me a lot of my voice to sing this show. ‘Sylvia's Dilemma’ and the Bernstein ‘West Side Story’ medley, in particular, are very difficult to sing,” McNair notes. “I should probably choose easier songs but, at the end of a show, I do need to know I've done my Very Best Work and left it all out there in the theater.”

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Subject to Change