Sarah Connolly: Down to Earth Diva

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Stateside appearances of Sarah Connolly are always reason to celebrate, even if they don't generally come with the fanfare that accompanies other divas among her peer group. Even more to be glad for this weekend, however, is a double-header featuring the British mezzo.

Following a recital tonight at Alice Tully Hall, Connolly continues her run tomorrow evening in Strauss's Capriccio at the Metropolitan Opera. The former is a pinch-hit for Connolly, replacing the previously-announced February 20 recital of Diana Damrau and Helmut Deutsch. Often it’s last-minute engagements such as this that give performers their hotly-anticipated big breaks, and Connolly is no stranger to them: Her own career-changer came in 1996 when she was asked to record two Handel arias with Harry Bicket and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment for a Channel 4 film, A Night with Handel.

At the time, Connolly was a steadily-working mezzo but dealing with round after round of rejection—a feeling most singers know all too well. “At 32, my lack of stage experience and choral background seem to be causing problems, on paper,” she writes on her Web site’s candid autobiography. “Faced with the same question again and again: ‘Yes, but what have you DONE?!’ I answered exasperatedly, ‘Clearly bugger-all on stage, but I’m willing to try anything!’”

That anything included a spot as Messagiera in David Freemean’s production of Orfeo for English National Opera.It was during the rehearsal process for this production that Connolly received the call for Channel 4. Freeman gave Connolly the night off to record and film her spot. When that wrapped at around dawn, Connolly had about an hour for a cat nap before going into a stage and orchestra rehearsal of Orfeo.

"He said, ‘If you turn up yawning, I won’t be amused,’” Connolly says via phone from her New York apartment. When asked if she did feel the urge to do so after a Handelian all-nighter coupled with a day-long Monteverdian marathon, she laughs. “If I did, I bit my lip.”

It’s rare to hear a singer speak openly about the rocky paths that most careers tend to take, however Connolly is happy to elaborate on each pratfall, rejection and soul-searching moment that has occurred along the way to the top. Born in County Durham in 1963, Connolly was surrounded by music as a child—particularly the operas of Verdi, Puccini and Britten—and initially set out to become a classical pianist. While at the Royal College of Music, she studied both piano and voice but began to transition into singing, developing a love of lieder and even dabbling in jazz performance (her senior recital included her own arrangement of a Gershwin tune).

For a while, in fact, Connolly admits that she toyed with the idea of moving into jazz performance, particularly after some unsuccessful auditions for the Royal Opera House, English National Opera and National Opera Studio. She even recorded her own jazz demo, one she remains proud of to this day. However, Connolly found more variety in the classical repertoire and was more at home with its environment. “I was a bit concerned about the late-night, smoky, rather sexist life of a jazz singer. There you are as a woman surrounded by largely men, and I didn’t feel entirely comfortable with that.”

Of course, the irony with being a mezzo—especially one as well-versed in Handel as Connolly—is that she is able to play the man, often on stage surrounded by women as she was playing the Composer in the Met’s Ariadne auf Naxos last year. The variety that classical music offered over jazz is not something Connolly takes lightly. Even her Lincoln Center program covers a swath with lieder by Schumann paired with British composers Howells, Gurney, Bennett and Britten (the latter will also be featured on her upcoming recording for Chandos).

“It’s not impossible, but it’s not entirely normal,” Connolly concedes of her career and repertory. Early on she found singers whose colors she was drawn to—notably Frederica von Stade and Anne Sofie von Otter—and mirrored her repertoire choices after theirs. That such a rep was also a perfect fit for Connolly’s own earthy, sensuous mezzo was a lucky stroke of happenstance. But in speaking with Connolly, you get the sense that her rock-hard determination could have made her a basso profundo if that’s the direction she wished to take.

One road you probably won’t see Connolly going down, however, is that of the prima donna. Unlike her Capriccio costar Renée Fleming, we probably won’t be seeing a perfume line or flower named for her. And Connolly is just fine with that. She’d rather invest in the music that has kept her weathering even the roughest of career storms rather than her image. “When I’m onstage I’m as glam as I can be, but [when] offstage I don’t put on a fresh layer of makeup just to see the people at the stage door,” she says with another deep, resonant laugh. “I’ve just come back from the gym and you see a lot of girls there with full makeup on. You just think, ‘Why?!’”