Q & A: Alek Shrader and Daniela Mack on Living Opera Careers Together

By Maria Nockin

Tenor Alek Shrader and mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack have enormous operatic careers and have sung all over the world both individually and together. The couple has joined forces in such operas as “La Cenerentola” and Handel’s “Partenope” and this summer they will be reunited in Handel’s “Alcina” at Santa Fe Opera.

I had the chance to speak with them on my way to the Santa Fe Opera, in anticipation of their work together in Handel’s beloved opera. Throughout our conversation, we touched on a wide range of topics, including their backgrounds and operatic heritage and growth.

Their Background

OperaWire: Where did you two grow up?

Daniela Mack: I was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina and spent the first six years of my life there. Then my family moved to Houston, Texas where I stayed through high school.

Alek Shrader: For the most part, I grew up in Alva, Oklahoma, although I was born in Cleveland, Ohio.

OW: Did either of you study piano?

DM: I started piano lessons in Argentina as a young girl, and continued until my senior year of high school. It was through my piano teacher that I discovered singing. We spent the last 15 minutes of each lesson reading through musical theater classics and Latin ballads for fun.

AS: I quit piano several times, but I played saxophone in my middle school band. I also played keyboard, guitar, bass, and drums, in my rock band.

OW: When and where did you see your first opera?

DM: I saw my first opera when I was seven years old. It was a college production of “La Traviata.” I loved every bit of it until the very end. I was bitterly disappointed that Violetta had to die, and of course did not really understand the intricacies of the piece. But the singing, the sets and costumes, and the spectacle of it all made an enormous impression on me. I remember going back home after that and pretending to sing like an opera singer locked away in my room. I think I fell in love with theater that day.

AS: Unfortunately, I was actually too young to remember.

Their Education

OW: Where did you go to college?

DM: I got both my bachelors and masters degrees at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.

AS: I got mine at Northwestern Oklahoma State University and Oberlin Conservatory.

OW: Who were or are your most important teachers?

DM: I’ve been very lucky in my career to have the ears and support of some wonderful teachers that I keep in touch with to this day. There are more of them than I can name, but in college, both my opera director and coach, Dugg McDonough and John Keene, were instrumental in guiding me towards discovering who I wanted to be as an artist. They both gave me wonderful opportunities that helped shape the performer I am. My wonderful voice teacher of ten years, César Ulloa, has guided my voice through many ups and downs and he knows my instrument and capabilities so well, that I trust his ears and instincts implicitly. And of course, my amazing husband, Alek, knows my voice better than anyone, since he hears it every day and in every condition. He has incredible ears and his honest opinion continues to be invaluable to me.

AS: My most important teachers were my parents, César Ulloa, Stephen Wadsworth, and Stephen Lord.

OW: What important aspects of singing and stagecraft did you learn from those teachers?

DM: My college professors gave me the foundation for stagecraft and musicianship that I still refer to. The biggest lesson I learned from them was the importance of being a good colleague and an active and authentic scene partner. César helped me navigate the tricky transition from a young artist and professional singer. Not only does he work technically with me but, more importantly, he consistently reminds me that even on my worst days, I can still ground myself and return to the basics of breath, which usually solves every issue.

AS: I learned to be supported, to be healthy, to be true, and to let go.

OW: Have you learned any life lessons from them?

DM: I’ve learned that even though I love and am passionate about what I do, my life outside of my work needs nourishing, care, and protection. A healthy balance and full life can only inform the art I create for the better.

AS: Each artist needs to find their own individual version of what I said before because that’s how they find out how to be who they are.

OW: What have you learned from your teachers that you would eventually like to pass on to the next generation of artists?

DM: I would like to pass on the importance of being gentle and patient with yourself, which are qualities my teachers have always shown me. When we are young, we crave immediate reward and quick results and don’t savor the journey toward our goals nearly as much as we should. I remember beating myself up over mistakes too much, and the older I get, the more I understand the value of being forgiving, waiting and working hard for the long game.

OW: Are there any artists or musicians from the past whose work has significantly influenced you?

DM: Some of my musical idols are Dame Janet Baker, Tatiana Troyanos, Cecilia Bartoli, Teresa Berganza, and Frederica von Stade.

AS: How far back are we talking? I like Pavarotti… I like Louis Prima. I never listen to influence my interpretation, but maybe my mood.

OW: Have you won any big competitions?

DM: I have never won a major competition, but was a finalist in the BBC Singer of the World in 2013.

AS:  I won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Award and I was a Sarah Tucker Grant recipient.

On Santa Fe “Alcina”

OW: What do you like best about your roles in “Alcina?”

DM: I love the meatiness of Bradamante’s music and the angst-ridden fast fireworks of the arias.

AS: I like my gorilla suit and Daniela’s voice.

OW: Can you give us a preview of the Santa Fe “Alcina?”

AS: David Alden explores a strange isolation where bonds and forms are tested or altered. Some escape to an island, some are trapped. Love keeps the beast at bay… coming soon to a theater near you.

OW: Have you worked with Maestro Harry Bicket and or David Alden before?

DM: I’ve been in the audience for several of their productions but this is my first time working with both.

AS:  I did this very cool “Alcina” production with them when they created it in Bordeaux which included Oronte’s Act II aria. In Santa Fe, it is cut due to duration.

OW: Which are your favorite roles?

DM: I love most of my roles for very different reasons, but Angelina in “La Cenerentola” is one of my favorites because she is a truly great human being, full of genuine kindness and love. Handel’s “Ariodante” has some of the most beautiful music ever. Carmen’s freedom and utter lack of care are fun to play with.

AS: I like Oronte for the gorilla suit.

On Future Roles & Performances

OW: What important performances do you have coming up this season and next?

DM: I am premiering the role of Elizabeth in Kevin Puts’s “Elizabeth Cree” at Opera Philadelphia, reprising Bradamante at Washington National Opera, debuting Beatrice in “Beatrice and Benedict” at Seattle Opera, and reprising Jacqueline Kennedy in “JFK” in Montreal. I sing “Carmen” at Opera Philadelphia, and Isabella in “L’italiana in Algeri” at Santa Fe Opera.

AS:  I will be singing in “Beatrice and Benedict” at Seattle Opera, “Candide” at Washington National Opera, and “Candide” at Santa Fe Opera.

OW: Daniela, what can you tell us about “Elizabeth Cree?”

DM: Set in London in the 1880s, this highly suspenseful and theatrical opera interweaves several narratives: the trial of Elizabeth for the poisoning of her husband; a series of brutal murders committed by a Jack the Ripper-style killer; the spirited world of an English music hall; and, finally, some “guest appearances” by luminaries from the Victorian Age. “Elizabeth Cree” is a work that combines the factual with the fictive and the historical with the imaginary.

AS:  It’s very good and creepy—I said CREE-py.

OW: How do you like portraying Jackie Kennedy, Daniela?

DM: Jackie was a daunting role to approach because she is such an icon and everyone has a notion of who she was. There was, of course, pressure to be as true to life as possible in the public scenes. David T. Little and Royce Vavrek created a truly beautiful and very human character, complete with flaws and strength, and gave me gorgeous lyrical music and text with which to bring her to life. I loved premiering the role and am ecstatic that I get to revisit her again so soon.

OW: Have you two done “Beatrice and Benedict” before?

DM: Beatrice is a role I’ve had my eye on for years. Berlioz wrote beautifully, particularly for the lyric mezzo voice, and I am so looking forward to being a part of this production!

AS: Neither one of us has performed the entire role, though we did sing excerpts during our time as Adler Fellows at San Francisco Opera.

OW: Daniela, what is your interpretation of Carmen’s character? Is she a bad girl or is she a woman who merely wants the same rights as the men of her time?

DM: I have studied Carmen since I was a freshman in college, and have never thought of her as a bad girl. She simply desires freedom in every sense. She says what she means, sees something she wants and goes after it, loves deeply and completely, if only for a short time, and is always honest. She is impulsive, knows well the power of fate, and regrets nothing. The result is that she leaves a certain degree of destruction in her wake, especially when it comes to José. I don’t believe she ever intends to hurt anyone, but she can be ruthless if provoked. There is no artifice about her, and she acts in whatever way comes naturally. I’m not sure that she would even say she wants the same rights that men have since men can also be prisoners of their own making. She wants the right to be who she is, without consequence, and will only answer to destiny.

On Stage Directors

OW: How do you feel about the emergence of the stage director as a major force in opera?

DM: As an actor, I like when a director stimulates my creativity, and as long as I can make sense of the concept and it is well married with the music, I am thrilled to be doing something interesting and engaging on stage. I also appreciate a well thought out concept and through-line as an audience member and love to see what interpretations a great director brings to a piece.

AS:  Nothing is better than a director with a story to tell and nothing is worse than the opposite.

OW: Does the stage director sometimes get you to stretch your range of visual characterization?

DM: Yes, absolutely! And that is how we grow as visual performers. Some directors have asked for movements and physicality, which fall out of the realm of everyday movement.  They appear strange and uncomfortable, which reflects the emotion of the characters. Others have asked for fluid movement inspired by dance, which is also a stretch because dance is not part of my daily routine.

AS: I always try to portray internal motives externally/visually. Sometimes a director will have a different visual “vocabulary” and I love learning new words. David Alden has a particular physical contortion that expresses the transformation from man to beast (and another for love to disgust, and another for pain to pleasure…)

Other Fun Topics

OW: What’s the experience of playing adversaries on stage?

DM: We play adversaries in “Alcina,” but we don’t have very much interaction on stage, so I’m not sure it counts. I certainly would enjoy exploring that new dynamic on stage with him. We have been sweethearts many times in the Rossini comedies, he has been my old and wise mentor as Arbace to my Idamante in “Idomeneo,” and my friend in “Die Tote Stadt.” I wouldn’t say no to a good old fashioned sword fight with him!

AS: We kind of adversate (copyright) on each other in “Alcina” since Oronte thinks Bradamante is a man trying to steal his girlfriend. I enjoy any chance to share the stage with Daniela in any capacity.

OW: What do you see yourself doing five years from now?

DM: Watching my daughter grow up, spending quality time with my family, and actively performing if I’m lucky!

AS: Whatever the heck I want.

OW: Do you ever have time for a private life?

DM:  I am blessed to be able to travel with Alek and our daughter most of the time, and we make our home on the road wherever the work leads us. But we are careful not to bring work home after rehearsal as much as we can. We enjoy our quiet life together too much not to make time for it!

AS: I make sure that I do.

OW: Do you have any interesting hobbies like cooking, painting, watching movies, or reading?

DM: These days, raising our daughter takes almost all my free time, and I love to read, cook and paint with her. I’m a huge Jane Austen and Brontë fan, so I look forward to reading those to her soon! Alek is a big movie buff, so watching movies has always been huge in our home. And occasionally I love to binge on Netflix series! It’s a great way to decompress!

AS: I watch movies and TV as much as possible and play board games when I can. I write stories constantly, I direct opera and short films carved into the schedule. I chase after and raise my kid.

OW: How much modern technology do you use in your work?

DM: Personally, I travel with my iPad Pro these days, which has all of my scores scanned on it. I am still learning new ways to use it, but it has been nice not to have to carry large and heavy scores all over the world.

AS: I use my iPhone, apps, and the Internet for translation and research daily, sometimes hourly. I’m using my phone right now.

OW: How do you feel about downloads replacing compact discs?

DM: Just like missing the feel of a book in my hand in the age of Kindle, I do miss seeing countless cd’s on my shelf. But I like having the luxury of listening to most recordings with the click of a button. Building a digital library is certainly a different experience than a physical one, but it’s vital to keep up with the times.

AS: Live and let live.


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