Monday, February 2, 2015

ARTISTS CORNER: Soprano Kara Shay Thomson

Kara Shay Thomson
Soprano Kara Shay Thomson returns to the Opera House stage this season as Floria Tosca, a role for which she won popular and critical acclaim in 2009. Since that time, Ms. Thomson has performed the role of the jealous diva at opera companies such as Portland Opera, Atlanta Opera, and Dayton Opera. You will remember Ms. Thomson's glorious performances in previous productions at Sarasota Opera both in the title role of Samuel Barber's Vanessa and as Santuzza in Cavalleria rusticana

Continue reading below to learn more about this artist who is so quickly establishing herself as one of the leading ladies of the next generation of great opera singers.

Q. Where are you originally from and where do you make your home now?

A. As a PK (Preacher's Kid), I moved around the Midwest quite a bit during my adolescence.  I was born in Cininnati, OH but made my home in Rock Port, MO, Fairbury, NE, Terre Haute, IN, and Warrensburg, MO.  I returned to Cincinnati 11 years ago and love living there with my husband and 10 year old daughter. We love our neighborhood and having my Dad close by to support us when I am travelling.

Ms. Thomson as Santuzza in the
2010 production of
Cavalleria rusticana
Q. What was your first moment performing in front of an audience on stage?

A. Well, as a PK, I was on stage from a very young age.  Our family offered an evening of song and scripture and it is where I learned how to communicate my message to a congregation. My parents continued to foster my musical talent and I was lucky to perform in various venues throughout my childhood and early adult years. Opera was not a part of my upbringing so my first moment on stage in an opera was as Ciesca in Gianni Schicchi at The New England Conservatory in Boston, MA. It was my first opera – EVER!  

Q. What drew you to become a professional singer?  Was there a specific “Aha!” moment of clarity?

A. I was working in Lynchburg, VA as a Minister of Music and Youth  for Fairview Christian Church and I decided I wanted to find a community chorus so that I could continue singing.  That was a great decision as I met my husband in that chorus and the conductor introduced me to a wonderful soprano, Carol Gutknecht, a soprano with the former New York City Opera soprano with whom I started studying. She gave me "Marietta’s Lied" from Die Tote Stadt and I fell in love with the German Language and the sweeping lines of the piece.  She encouraged me to enter the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions for my region.  I prepared my pieces and went to the audition.  I had a terrible audition and was so out of my element but I stayed to hear my comments from the judges.  One judge in particular told me that if I was happy with my life in ministry that I should embrace it and go back home but if I felt like this music was a part of my soul, then I needed to go get the tools necessary for this art form.  So, Carol  helped me choose The New England Conservatory and I entered the intense Opera Program under the direction of John Moriarty.  In two years I quickly acquired language skills, stage craft, and hours of endless vocal coachings and lessons, working with Patricia Craig, to prepare me for my apprenticeships. I thank Carol, my husband, and the nameless judge who made me realize this what I was created to do.

Q. Did you have other career aspirations in the works before you decided on singing?

A. I had many aspirations other than singing opera for a career.  I started with the idea of Music Therapy and then migrated to teaching music.  I received a Bachelor of Science in Music Education K-12  and thought that I would lead the next  Mid-West High School Show Choir to the State Championship.  But, after I realized that teaching was not right for me, I returned to my roots in the church.  In all honesty, if I had not found Opera, I would have sought out a career as an Activities Coordinator in a Retirement Village.

Q. You have become very well known for singing the role of Tosca, especially in Sarasota. Is it challenging singing the same role over and over again? 

Ms. Thomson as Floria Tosca in
Sarasota Opera's 2009 production.
A. Everytime I arrive for a production of Tosca I know that it will be full of new experiences.  The music is always constant but my colleagues, directors, production teams, and conductors bring something to share. Each one of us arrives with our own interpretations and it is our job as artists to meld those ideas together to fit our own production.  I have carried the same score with me to each production and I like to put in Maestro's comments,  artist choices, and directors notes so that I can call on those ideas in other productions.

But, I will say that for this season, I put away my treasured score and have made a "VDR Only Score!" I have been working from a clean score and putting in only Maestro DeRenzi  notes. This does not mean that I don’t bring my own interpretation and experience to the role, but I really feel that coming back to Sarasota gives me a chance to completely break down the role, get rid of bad habits, focus on the text and Puccini’s stage direction so that we give this audience the most authentic performance of Tosca ever!

Q. Through the many productions you have done, I imagine you have gotten to know the character of Tosca very well. Have you learned everything there is to know about her at this point? 

A. If I thought I had learned everything about this role I would not continue to pursue this character. We are constantly evolving in our daily lives and all of the events that happen to us as people affect us as artists.  I am a different person than I was when I sang here this role in 2009. I have experienced so much personal loss and also amazing moments filled with unbridled joy in my life since then and all of those events color my performance.

Floria Tosca is so much a part of me that I am able to take risks both vocally and dramatically to challenge myself so that I can find the most honest performance each and every show.

Ms. Thomson in Act II of Tosca at Sarasota Opera
Q. What do you want the audience to know about the character of Tosca after the curtain comes down?

A. That I can’t wait to sing it again!!!! I love this role!!! Every performance is unique and alive and the energy from the audience feeds the performance on the stage! So, if they happen to be seeing it for the first time or the 50th time, it will never be the same! I sing each performance as if it may be my last, so I don’t hold anything back. My hope is that they do the same by coming back again and again to Sarasota Opera.

Q. I imagine you are looking forward to performing this role again in Sarasota.  What do you enjoy about singing at Sarasota Opera?

A. What do I not like?! Singing in Sarasota is a gift to every performer. The audience is so supportive, excited, and filled with passion for Opera.  Sarasota Opera offers a place where artists can grow and explore new or familiar roles and multiple performances to fully embrace your characters. But for me, it all comes down to the fact that Maestro DeRenzi and the entire Sarasota Opera Association believe that Opera is not a dying art form.

Baseline:  I love working with everyone here in Sarasota and spending 3 months away from my family is only made better by the gorgeous sunshine and the mutual respect we all have for each other in this company!
Ms. Thomson in Schoenberg's Ewartung at New York City Opera.
Q. So, to sum it up, how many performances of Tosca have you done so far?

A. When I last added them all together, I have done 89 performances in at least 19 different productions.

Q. Thus far, what is the most bizarre experience you have had during a rehearsal?  During a performance?

A. I had a rehearsal for Korngold's Die tote Stadt where I was dancing around like crazy and crawling on the floor and my rehearsal skirt, shall we say, flew off my body.  Luckily, it was not a performance!

In performance, the majority of my mishaps have happened in Tosca.  I have been thrown to my knees and ended up sliding on the gown having to stop myself from saying "hello" to the pit.

In Sarasota, I tripped on a ground cloth and flew into the air where my fabulous colleague, Grant Youngblood,  turned over a chair and rushed to grab me in mid-air.  Everyone thought that it was so exciting but my Dad was in the audience and after the performance said he knew something had happened because for a brief moment he saw scared Kara Shay and not Tosca.

I have had the candles blow-out before I place them at Scarpia’s head and had to go back and relight them. ( it was also a photo night so I was not going to mess up that great final moment in Act II)

During a Student Matinee, I had a young woman who was so involved in the show that when I stabbed Scarpia, she yelled out “Oh No She Didn’t!!"  I loved that she had gotten so caught up in her first opera! It was fantastic!

Probably one of my favorite moments that the audience never saw was when I went to jump in one production, I ran up the stairs, did my quick check of the jump pad and saw that the crew had drawn a dead body outline on the black jump pad.

Ms. Thomson in the title role of
Samuel Barber's
Vanessa in 2012
Q. Do you have any pre-performance rituals?  Performance superstitions?  Good luck charms?  If yes, why?

A. I like to be the first one in the Make-up chair.  The calm energy of the being first helps me focus and then it allows me time to say hello to all of my colleagues before down-beat.  I usually don’t eat very much before the show but I always eat a banana before Act II of Tosca!  I don’t know if it helps but it gives me the extra “uumph” to wield my deadly knife!

Also, I always wear my Jade Elephant Necklace that my mother gave to me.  I wear it in rehearsal and always have it with me at each performance in my dressing room.

Q. How do you relax in between performances?  What hobbies do you enjoy at home and “on the road”?

A. I am a huge fan of the television show "NCIS" so if there is a marathon on the USA channel then I am ready to get out my needlepoint, a bottle of wine, and sit back and say hello to my friends on the television: Gibbs, Ziva, Tony, and McGee!

When I am home I spend most of my time being involved with my family.  I have been known to throw a few good parties for our neighborhood as well as top-notch sleepovers  for my 10 year old daughter and her friends.

I miss being able to cook in my fabulous kitchen.  Right before I arrived in Sarasota I purchased a brand new professional series range and a Vitamix. I couldn’t bring my oven but I packed up my Vitamix and a couple of my favorite knives and brought them with me.  I find cooking so relaxing and it makes me so happy when I can bring people together for a wonderful meal.

Q. I’m sure work/life balance takes on a whole different meaning being a professional singer who travels.  How do you stay connected to family and friends when you are “on the road?  

A "Welcome Home" sign from
Ms. Thomson's neighbors in Ohio
A. Facetime has been a life-saver for our family. Sometimes we just connect through Facetime while we are doing everyday chores.  I will come home from rehearsal at 3pm and call my daughter Emma Shay. We will do her homework together or just talk about her day. My husband uses Facetime to have me help him re-create a favorite recipe I have left behind for him to cook or just to look into each other’s eyes and say how much we miss each other. Sometimes the days don’t go by very fast and Facetime makes it seem like we aren’t that far apart.

As someone who has been on the road for a few years, I would tell all of the Studio and Apprentice Artists to make sure that you connect with your loved ones at least once a day.  Even if you think that you don’t have anything exciting to tell your family, sometimes it’s just enough to hear that person say “hello”.  We can become so involved in our “Opera World” that we forget to share it with those outside the inner-circle. Connect, share, and make your family a priority because they are the most important support system you have in this career.

Q. As we have people that travel from around the United States to attend performances at Sarasota Opera, are there any towns or cities that you have a strong connection with whether from growing up or attending school?

A. I have had the opportunity to live in many different parts of the United States and would love to connect with them again here in Sarasota.  So, if we lived in these cities together:  Lynchburg, VA, Boston, Ma, Terre Haute, IN, Cincinnati, OH, Rock Port, MO, Warrensburg, MO, Maryville, MO,Enid, OK, or any of the many cities I have had the opportunity to perform in,  please don’t hesitate to reach out and say hello!

After writing down all of the cities I have lived in, I realized that it must have been a grand plan for me to move around so much in my formative years. I never knew that I would be in a career where I spent more time on the road than I did in my own home. Perhaps all of those moves gave me the ability to make a home wherever I go.

Don't miss a note of Ms. Thomson's performances in Puccini's Tosca opening February 7th and running through March 28th. As an added bonus, here is Ms. Thomson singing Tosca's famous aria "Vissi d'Arte" from the Sarasota Opera production of Tosca in 2009.

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