In an exclusive interview with byteclay.com, Sarah Brailey, a soprano headed for success, spoke about her burgeoning performing arts career in general and her upcoming appearance with The American Classical Orchestra (ACO) in particular. Tuesday evening, Feb. 23, conductor Thomas Crawford leads her with the Orchestra and three other soloists in a rare, semi-staged performance of Franz Joseph Haydn’s opera “L’isola disabitata” (Desert Island). Her calendar bulges with works by Bach, Händel, Mozart, Haydn and Vivaldi with orchestras everywhere, balanced by many contemporary works with colleagues as diverse as Roomful of Teeth and even Kanye West.
Okay, you just read that first paragraph and scarcely recall that it’s about a soprano named Sarah Brailey, or that you read the words “opera,” “orchestras,” yadda yadda yadda and a bunch of composers’ names. Why? Be honest. It’s because all you’re saying to yourself right now is: “Kanye West?” You know it’s true so just admit it. So if you want to know more about him, you’ll just have to read on. Now, let’s get back on track.
Sarah Brailey is “a smart singer, a respected New York artist, intelligent, with a beautiful voice. She does old music, new music, everything really.” Wouldn’t you like it if your boss said things like that about you? Music Director and Founder of The ACO, Thomas Crawford, recently said such things about the soprano in an exclusive interview with byteclay.com. He’s basically her boss these days while she, the other soloists and The ACO are preparing Tuesday’s semi-staged opera. How did she get so smart?
It started long before she obtained a Master’s Degree in Voice from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, even before her graduation from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, where she obtained a Bachelor’s Degree in Vocal Performance. In fact, she was age four when she began studying cello with a nun, Sister Marcella, and later with Laura Thielke, now Director of Chamber Music at Walnut Hill School for the Arts, Natick, Mass.
A few years later, the future soprano also began studying piano. Her mother is an amateur pianist. Her father became an opera buff when forced to take a year off Medical School due to illness. And her older brother is a violinist with whom she yet enjoys playing chamber music.
“I always liked singing,” says Sarah Brailey, “even as a youngster. But I started studying voice, I guess you could say, in high school with a really terrific choir teacher, Michael Esser,” who is Central High School’s Choir Director in her hometown of LaCrosse, Wis. “I mean, he went way beyond the call of duty, even giving some of us private lessons.”
Nowadays voice instruction comes from bass-baritone Mark Schnaible, who actively performs worldwide, and from Lynn Baker, “who’s a fantastic vocal coach. She was part of New York City Opera’s full-time staff” before it closed in bankruptcy a few years ago.
Come Tuesday the soprano performs for the first time ever the role of Costanza, abandoned on a desert island, whose husband, Gernando, has been off more than 13 years chasing pirates. Her sister, Silvia, much younger by 13 years, is her only companion for the greater part of the opera. Her seemingly faithless husband returns for Costanza with his best friend, the much younger Enrico. The ACO, New York City’s premiere period instrument ensemble, presents this most-symphonic of all Haydn’s operas in a semi-staged concert.
Before now, Sarah Brailey has performed only Haydn’s larger concert works, among them, “Lord Nelson’s Mass,” “Die Schöpfung” (Creation), “Die Jahreszeiten” (Seasons). With Thomas Crawford she has performed Caldara’s “Maddalena” and Mendelssohn’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
Sarah Brailey dreams of regular appearances on opera stages everywhere and would love to interpret the role of Elisabetta in Giuseppe Verdi’s epic five-act opera “Don Carlos.” That happens to be the opera that sparked her father’s interest while convalescing so long ago. He heard the Metropolitan Opera’s live Saturday matinée radio broadcast of that grandest of grand operas, and he could not stop listening. He was hooked. “In fact, until I went to Eastman, my dad knew a lot more about opera than I did.”
Other dream roles include the bewildered and beleaguered Fiordiligi in Mozart’s comedy of manners “Così fan tutte” (roughly: Women Are All Alike). Sarah Brailey already enjoys singing the role of Elvira in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” (Don Juan). She recently sang Richard Strauss’ so-called orchestral song cycle, “Vier letzte Lieder” (Four Last Songs), at Brooklyn Museum, not far from her present home, in Prospect Heights. “I would jump at the chance to sing them again. What soprano wouldn’t?”
What differences does she find between Bach’s 17th-century sacred cantatas and Richard Strauss’ valedictory work from 1948? “For one thing, the Strauss songs require a huge orchestra. It can be a challenge to avoid being covered by its massive sound. It’s a different type of vocal athleticism involved in the singing. The Strauss doesn’t have any of the floridity often found in Bach’s writing but rather these long, soaring lines that require an immense amount of breath control.”
Sarah Brailey’s first exploration of Johann Sebastian Bach’s vast output were the arias in his “Johannes-Passion” (Saint John’s Passion), BWV 245. She got her start at regular singing engagements by joining the small chorus at Holy Trinity Lutheran church on Manhattan’s Central Park West. “The conductor soon started giving me solo work. Later I began singing at Trinity Wall Street Episcopalian church, also a lot of Bach. They have an enormous music program, more so than for your typical church gig.”
How does religion play any role in her professional singing, whether for Lutherans or for Episcopalians? “Music is my religion. It’s a source of comfort, constancy, security for me,” says Sarah Brailey, sounding almost as if she’s posing a question. “Throughout life it’s been the one thing I can rely on. It constantly teaches me about myself, the world, people, relationships and never ceases to inspire me in new ways. It’s my source of energy; it’s what keeps me going, my therapy sometimes.”
You’re still wondering how Sarah Brailey came to collaborate with Kanye West, aren’t you? All right, if you’ve kept reading to this point, then you probably deserve to know.
A few years ago, Sarah Brailey began performing fairly frequently with Roomful of Teeth, a vocal octet that only sings compositions written expressly for them—music that incorporates throat singing, overtone singing, yodeling, you name it. She is now their regular soprano substitute. One day the hip hop artist attended a performance and was so smitten with the Grammy-Award-winning ensemble’s unique sound that he made overtures about a possible collaboration.
Kanye West had never performed live the contents of his album “808s & Heartbreak.” Pulitzer-Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw, Roomful of Teeth’s alto, wrote new backup vocal arrangements for the album, and the group performed them last fall onstage with the artist at a Hollywood Bowl concert.
Hm, what if he attended Tuesday’s semi-staged performance of Haydn’s “L’isola disabitata” and inevitably became smitten with Haydn and The ACO. Could Thomas Crawford—also a composer of choral works—perhaps be prevailed upon to compose a “hip-hopera” with the lead role to be performed by Kanye West, opposite Sarah Brailey as his leading lady, of course, and with Roomful of Teeth as chorus? It certainly makes one think, doesn’t it?
Call it coincidence, but last summer Sarah Brailey was able to leave her day job with Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), where she started as a full-time executive assistant and, with a growing concertizing schedule, convinced them to allow her a flexible part-time schedule as a writer for their Communications Department. So she no sooner than begins fully supporting herself as a professional singer in her adopted New York, than she ends up in Hollywood performing with Kanye West.
You can catch the smart soprano performing lots of Bach—but also Vivaldi and even works by contemporary composers—in and around New York City venues, most often Trinity Wall Street. And April 12, if you travel to Houston, you can see her with Roomful of Teeth. But Sarah Brailey first hopes to see you Tuesday, Feb. 23, at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, to see her perform as Costanza in Haydn’s “L’isola disabitata.” Come see why “The New York Times” likes her so much.
“L’isola disabitata,” 8:00 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 23
American Classical Orchestra
Alice Tully Hall
Broadway and 64th Street
New York, NY 10023