Sondheim concert at Cadogan Hall – Lucy Schaufer on making a personal connection to the music

lucy1On Sunday 4 June, Grammy Award winner, mezzo soprano LUCY SCHAUFER, will be bringing both her operatic and musical theatre talents to London’s Cadogan Hall, where she will perform in Sondheim: Smiles of a Summer Night.

The concert, with direction from Alastair Knights, celebrates the music and lyrics of Stephen Sondheim. The 33-piece Alex Parker Orchestra will showcase work spanning Sondheim’s entire career, with songs from musicals including Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park With George, Into the Woods, Follies, A Little Night Music, A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum, and many more.

Schaufer has performed internationally as a guest artist for companies including the Metropolitan Opera, New York; LA Opera; Houston Grand Opera; Washington National Opera; Grand Théâtre de Genève; Théâtre du Châtelet; Hamburg State Opera; and Opéra national du Rhin.

Schaufer spoke to Musical Theatre Review’s Polly Sisley ahead of the concert about exceeding theatrical expectations and life outside of the limelight.

Can you tell me a bit about how you first got into performing?

To begin with, I grew up in a very musical family, we all sang, but I’m the only one who does it professionally. My very first job was singing and dancing four shows a day, seven days a week at an amusement park in Chicago.

I grew up with musical theatre, it’s my first love and always has been. When I went to university, I trained classically and kept a balance in my head and my heart between musical theatre, the classical world, and the absolute devotion to living writers and composers.

I studied in the States – I did my undergraduate degree at Northwestern in Evanston and my masters at the University of Texas in Austin. I also did a wonderful summer programme at Israel Vocal Arts Institute which is run by a wonderful woman named Joan Dornemann, one of the head coaches at the Metropolitan Opera. I studied there for a couple of summers before I got a job at the new Israeli Opera, my first big professional gig. That led to a job where I met my husband and hence why I’m here in England.

Your repertoire includes musical theatre roles as well as opera roles. Do you have to approach these roles with a different mindset?

You have to serve to the composer and their style. If I can vocally honour that style then I will agree to that role. But at the same time, I would never in a million years even think of auditioning for Mamma Mia! because I can’t serve that music.

So, when I approach the preparation, I adjust, find the colours, and prepare to the best of my ability to honour that style. I think preparation is needed for any role. Sometimes I need more preparation for my opera roles, not because they’re more difficult, but because they are different, just different. The process between musical theatre and opera roles is exactly the same, but you just have to be flexible in your preparation.

lucy2How is your preparation going for Sondheim: Smiles of a Summer Night? 

I met with Alex Parker (the concert’s conductor) early last week. We’ve got a bunch of rehearsals coming up. In the meantime, I’m also rehearsing for the Buxton Festival where I’m playing Florence Pike in Albert Herring.

Sounds like you’re very busy…

Yes, I just flew in from LA the week before last, so I’m drinking a lot of tea at the moment.

You’ve had a brilliant start to the year with two wins at the Grammy Awards…

Yes! One is personal, but the other Grammy was for The Ghosts of Versailles: Best Engineered Classical Recording, so that was for the team. At the same time, we got an Olivier Award nomination for 4.48 Psychosis, based on the Sarah Kane play for the Royal Opera House. It’s been a really great spring. I’m living the dream Polly, I’m living the dream!

Where do you keep your Grammy?

Well, I don’t have it yet. The awards they hand out on the night are actually blank and you have to give those back. They then engrave the plates individually. It should be arriving in the next few weeks.

Where am I going to keep it? Well, back to that amusement park story of my first job – I had to play an ageing ex-movie star, and in the show I had a fake Oscar. So, I do have a fake Oscar I could put next to the real Grammy?

It’ll probably go in my office somewhere, but I’m not sure yet. I sure don’t want to get all pretentious about it. I know the standard thing is to put your award in the bathroom to be jokey, but for a while, I think I want to honour it.

I might have to clean off a shelf in the office, but I’ll put it somewhere I can see it. Heck! It’s not something I ever imagined would happen, it’s such a brilliant surprise.

A part from the shock, how did you feel when it was announced you had won that Grammy?

Well, I wasn’t able to get to that specific ceremony, I went to the evening one as I had just arrived in LA. My brother-in-law and his fiancé picked me up and we were sitting in a Californian pizza kitchen when people were texting me that we had won. I sat there stunned. All three of us wept happy tears over our pizza and salad.

I remember thinking ‘I hope this is a game-changer for the right reasons’. I had that ‘poke me, is this really happening?’ feeling. It was a live performance recording and it was an ensemble performance of such an incredible nature; there was over 80 of us on the stage. I was lucky enough to be in the top six, so I got the statue.

Darko Tresnjak, who directed A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, was our director. It was the sense of teamwork that I really liked. Shock, pride, and deep pleasure, of course.

400x300.fitandcropCan you give us an insight as to what we can expect from Sondheim: Smiles of a Summer Night? 

I’m going to repeat what Alex said at rehearsal because I think he’s so right, his planning for this concert has been meticulous. He’s chosen repertoire that he feels suits us. We’re all individuals and we all have a way of putting our signature on our work.

Lauren Morris is one of the youngsters in the concert and she used to be one of my students at the Royal College of Music. We are singing ‘One More Kiss’ from Follies together.

Laura Pitt-Pulford is also in the cast, we did The Sound of Music together at the Curve Theatre; I was Mother Abbess and she was Maria.

I think you’re going to get signature roles and performances from people who really suit their repertoire, so there’s going to be a personal connection to that music. I also think it’s fascinating that Alex has asked me to sing ‘Johanna’, from Sweeney Todd. I think it’s an interesting choice, especially to hear it from a woman. I love that idea. I love how it stands for the universality of the music. I believe that a concert performance always offers that extra level of human connection and that’s what I think Sunday night is going to be about.

I find it interesting that Alex and Alastair have asked you, a woman, to sing ‘Johanna’. Do you think that choice symbolises the concert’s fresh outlook?

Absolutely. I’ve been working with Alex for around four years and I’ve learnt he takes what is established and goes forward with a new approach. I really think that’s what we do in theatre. We honour what has come and yet we stretch further.

Alex is willing to take risks, like me singing ‘Johanna’. He wanted to hear a classical voice in that song. It’s rich, it’s big, and it’s personal. Alex and Alastair want to stretch, risk and find new ideas. I think they really choose wisely and creatively. I have a lot respect for them.

What do you enjoy doing when you’re not performing?

Everything is about baking, jams, jellies and tea. I make all my homemade jams. Last year I must have made pounds and pounds of jam and I sell it for charity or for a good cause. If we need something to eat for rehearsals, you know I’m going to be baking. I think it’s important that colleagues eat together. I cook, I bake, and that makes me really happy.

If you weren’t a performer, would baking be something you would take up professionally?

No, not at all. I do it for fun and because I love it, but I’ll always be in the creative arts. I’m a producer at heart and I teach because I love seeing light-bulbs turn on. I did work on Wall Street to keep a roof over my head, so I guess there’s a business side to my brain, but I’d definitely only be in the arts.

You mentioned that you’re a producer as well as a performer. Can you tell me a bit about that?

I started a company right after my Dad died called Turn the Page Productions. I’m turning the company into a charitable foundation that will commission, produce, and set up performances of new works. My legacy will be leaving, hopefully, at least 25 new works in the repertoire.

I want to support up-and-coming composers. I don’t know if it will all just be classical, but I hate that word ‘crossover’. Music is music and we’re all part of the same family. My commissioning could be cross genre.

That’s my plan for my future, the next page in my career. I’m going to continue performing for as long as they’ll have me, for as long as I have the energy to do so. Christ, I’m not dead yet, I’ve got a way to go! You’re probably young yourself, young and upcoming.

I’m 19!

You see! If someone hadn’t have given you the opportunity to write for Musical Theatre Review we wouldn’t be speaking now, sharing our ideas. Someone had to believe in you and that’s important. I want to be that person in music.

Sondheim: Smiles of a Summer Night will be performed at the Cadogan Hall, London on 

Lucy Schaufer’s engagements include Susanna (The Ghosts of Versailles), Marcellina (Le nozze di Figaro) and Berta (Il barbiere di Siviglia) for Los Angeles Opera, music by Bernstein at the BBC Proms with the John Wilson Orchestra, Ib (Becoming Santa Claus, world premiere) for Dallas Opera, Old Woman (Flight, London premiere) for Opera Holland Park, Jenny (Higglety Pigglety Pop) for Aldeburgh Festival and the Barbican, Carolina (The Elegy for Young Lovers) for English National Opera, Der Trommler (Der Kaiser von Atlantis) and Ma Moss (The Tender Land) for Opéra de Lyon.

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