Heading Into Foreign Territory – Mezzo-Soprano Sarah Mesko Set For ‘Carmen,’ The Role Least Like HerBy Freddy Dominguez
(Credit: Dario Acosta)
Sarah Mesko is walking a straight path toward an important career.
The Arkansas native has built her success on solid academic training and noteworthy apprenticeships, and has received bundles of prestigious awards in return. She has performed with scores of professional companies in the United States, including the Met where she has paid her dues as a cover and in several small parts, and she has also dipped her toes up north in Canada and across the Atlantic in Europe.
Notices for even small roles have been positive and Anthony Tomassini at the “New York Times” noted her “expressive” performance as Ottavia in Monteverdi’s “The Coronation of Poppea,” which she performed last summer in her Opera Theater of St. Louis debut.
Though opera was not her first love, there was never any doubt that music would somehow be in Mesko’s future.
“I grew up surrounded by four wildly talented musicians in my family,” she told OperaWire in a recent interview. “My late father was a rock ‘n’ roll and Gospel pianist, worship leader, and brilliant arranger who could learn anything by ear; my mom is also a pianist who taught privately all my life and filled our home with classical music; my sister is an amazing R&B and soul singer who plays piano and guitar; my brother is an incredible jazz guitarist who also plays funk, blues, and a million other instruments.
“Music was a constant soundtrack in our lives.”
She started singing at church and tinkered with the piano until she took up the flute at 10 with an eye toward a career playing the instrument. Then, almost by chance, she was recruited to sing Third Lady in “The Magic Flute” at the Hot Springs Music Festival in Arkansas.
“I had never seen an opera before I was in one,” she revealed before noting that the experienced hooked her. “Opera incorporates so much of what I love: words, melody, drama, dance, costumes. I basically get to play dress-up for a living!”
It might be fun, but an opera career doesn’t guarantee a fast-ticket anywhere. Now that she has covered lead roles at large opera companies and sung lead roles in smaller companies, she’s learned to play the long game.
“I’ve always been very ambitious, and patience is something I’ve had to consciously cultivate to stay motivate, “Mesko added. “I have to just trust that big things are going to happen for me at big houses. All I can do is show up, keep growing as an artist, and hope that the right person takes notice.”
This season is special and it feels like the mezzo-soprano is on the cusp of something great.
First, Opera News recently placed her on a list among “a dozen her as a singer to watch” during the 2019-20 with the likes of Lise Davidsen, Diana Damrau, and Magdalena Kožená.
Then, on October 11, Mensko released her first solo album, “Daytime & Night Songs,” through Navona Records.
In this collection of pretty songs by Mira Spektor, Mesko showcases a supple, resonant voice anchored by immaculate diction and elegant phrasing. She also shows a knack for subtle characterization in short order — she is able to sound beguilingly wistful on one track and righteously imperious on the next.
And now on Oct. 25, Mesko will make her Tulsa Opera debut as the iconic protagonist of Bizet’s “Carmen,” a role she will revive in 2020 at the Opera Theater of St. Louis.
She comes thoroughly prepared.
Contextualizing An Uninformed Perspective
She first sang the opera as Mercédès at the Aspen Music Festival in 2007, with Julius Rudel conducting. She then had one outing in the title role in 2015 at Washington National Opera, as an alumna of their young artist program.
For Aspen, she plunged into the roles excitedly, gathering all the books she could find on Romani culture, only to realize that all that would help her relatively little for an opera written from an Orientalist point of view.
Her reading of the opera deepened when she studied the novella Prosper Merimée on which George Bizet’s “Carmen” is based. Though she understood the text to be, like the opera, “pretty racially uninformed,” it helped her understand the depth of the two main characters.
“Don José and Carmen are outsiders in their own communities,” Mesko noted. “José is not a typical soldier; he kills someone in his hometown and has to flee to Seville and join the army. He is already primed for violence, and is trying desperately to walk the straight and narrow because he has already seen what happens when he gives in to his instincts.
“Carmen is also not a typical 19th-century gypsy woman. A good gypsy woman would get married off at 14, never ever sleep around (especially not with non-gypsies!), and would do whatever the men in her family said. Carmen does not do any of that! She is fearless and defies everyone who threatens her freedom; she doesn’t follow anyone’s rules but her own.”
Playing Carmen for Mesko is a journey into foreign territory.
“My husband and I joke that, of all the characters I’ve played, Carmen is the one who is most unlike me — and that includes the trouser roles!”
Mesko describes herself as naturally “a sedate, peace-making person who avoids conflict.” Carmen is many things, but decidedly not that.
As Mesko sees it, Carmen “lies, steals, manipulates people … hell, she even knifes another woman in the face without a moment’s regret. At the same time, she is under the thumb of Spanish society, which despised and persecuted gypsies relentlessly, and oppressed by her own patriarchal gypsy society, too — an outsider among outsiders.
“Ultimately, she is the victim of a homicide perpetrated by a former romantic partner — a situation that is still all-too-familiar, even in 2019,” she stated.
After Tulsa, Mesko takes “Carmen” to the Opera Theater of St. Louis. She debuted at the prestigious festival season in a juicy supporting role — Ottavia in Monteverdi’s “The Coronation of Poppea”– last summer and is ready to make her star turn.
What makes OTSL unique is that it has a rule that all operas must be sung in English, a daunting challenge for any artist, especially in more traditional repertory.
But Mesko is excited about the proposition, especially after her experience last year.
“I can’t wait to return to St. Louis this summer! I haven’t seen the libretto for Carmen yet, but I absolutely love singing in English,” she enthused. “For my OTSL debut last summer, I was afraid that singing in translation would feel lame or fake, but that was not my experience at all. Knowing a role in both languages is such an incredible asset.
“Even now, going back to Ottavia in Italian, there are so many more nuances available to me because I was able to play her in my native language.”