Arena Stage and is back for another full run. As great as Mary Bridget Davies is as Janis Joplin (interviewed prior to last year's show), Sabrina Elayne Carten is equally brilliant portraying people like Aretha Franklin, Bessie Smith, and Odetta, showing the roots of Janis Joplin's artistry. These two singers will knock you out of your comfortable seats, so you have this one final chance to experience this excellent play (rock show). Ms. Carten was nice enough to spend some time with me on the phone. The following is my best attempt to transcribe the interview. A few words were garbled and I hope I got them correct, at least in spirit and overall meaning. Tickets available here.
INTERVIEW WITH SABRINA ELAYNE CARTEN
David Hintz - I really loved the play the last time it was in town.
Sabrina Elayne Carten - Oh, great.
DH - But I am interested in your background, which is where most interviews tend to start. What did music mean to you when you were a child?
SEC - Music was everything. I come from a musical family--my Mom sang professionally. She was a recitalist in classical music. I grew up in the church singing from the time I was about three or four years old. Music has just always been a part of my life and when it left being a part of my life, I felt empty and I needed to get back to it.
DH - Do you play any instrument or any of your family play instruments or has it always been about the voice?
SEC - No, when I was young, my sister played oboe and flute, and my cousins played guitar, bass, and trumpet. I just didn't stick with piano like my mother wanted me to (laughs).
DH - Mmm hmmm. So what you were influences as you were starting, after you got going in the church and then got a little older, what direction did you go?
SEC - I went into classical music. From the church singing there were spirituals, as we were not a clinical gospel church. Also, I grew up by singing the chorals of Handel's Messiah when I was like 14 or 15 and that was what I just found interesting. We spent our Saturdays listening to the Met broadcast on the radio and going to musicals in the city and on Broadway and I just leaned toward classical music.
DH - Ah, and you grew up in New York city?
SEC - I grew up in New York City, born and raised in the Bronx.
DH - OK, you definitely can get a lot of music there.
SEC - Yeah, lots of music. Of course, we also listened to Motown and I would have the Jackson 5 poster up on my wall as a kid and I would listen to a lot of band music as I got older such as Graham Central Station, and such.
DH - Great band, definitely. How deep is your connection to the blues? Did that come later on as you were coming of age?
SEC - It came later on. I started listening to it, as my father had listened to a lot of it. He would listen to Muddy Waters and Dinah Washington, you know. I guess that was my first taste of blues music. And I enjoyed it! And then as I got older, I would be doing an opera and there would be a blues club and a lot of my friends would tell me to check it out.
DH - And how about Janis Joplin, when did you first experience her music?
SEC - I listened to Janis, probably by accident from one of my older cousins. It was a great musical experience in my family, since they would listen to everything and finding enjoyment in lots of different forms of music. So, it was not uncommon to wake up in the morning and Leontyne Price might be playing and some time in the afternoon, it could be Janis Joplin or Fleetwood Mac. It could be anything.
DH - Right, now on to your extraordinary technical gifts. Did you have a lot of training, especially to get ready for the Opera?
SEC - I went to school and majored in Math, but I always sang, too. I had private teachers, you know, I studied voice in New York, and was able to get an interest in something bigger. One coach led me through a lot of different voice lessons bringing technical aspects together and I was lucky enough to have teachers who worked on enhancing the gifts you already had, instead of putting you through things that you do not. And so doing it that way gave my voice a chance to develop on its own and go in the direction it wanted to go to.on its own. My mother didn't feel that at 18 or 19, you were ready as a singer. She felt that you needed to your voice bloom and blossom in a way that it naturally wanted to go and then enhance what is there.
DH - Actually that sounds like a pretty good philosophy, especially with the kind of versatile singing you do.
SEC - I think when you first start singing with voice lessons, you want to avoid learning how to do imitations.
DH - Ah, right.
SEC - You learn how to imitate sound and you need to give your voice time to figure out who it is. And even still, I don't sing now the way I did when I was 21. The voice is different and changes every few years. i try to constantly stay in some kind of study situation with a voice teacher who provides recorded lessons when I am on the road. And when I am home, I try to get one or two lessons before I have to go back on the road again just to keep checking to make sure everything is ok. If you can pick up from a technical standpoint, you know, breathing habits or valleys in bad places that may not sound bad, but they confuse the technical aspect of the instrument. And you gotta keep it together ALL the time.
DH - Definitely. How about on the acting side of it? With your work in opera, they must have pushed the acting aspect with the music.
SEC - Oh yes, even if you are on stage or you are just performing an aria, you have to find a way to get in tune with the words and to actually make the music leap off the page. You can sing every note, but to really understand the music is the job and you can make the music live and then the listener can feel the joy, can feel the pain, can feel the excitement of the moment. You must learn to feel that emotion with your voice and your body, so when you look, use hand gestures… you know my voice teacher in the early days would say 'I don't want you waving your arms around, you use your voice and understand what you are singing, make it mean something, make it related to you.' At least get it to where you can understand--like he said to me when I would sing the part of a mother, well you don't have any children, but there is something you can relate that to. You have to do that at all times. Otherwise you will just be on autopilot just singing a song. It has to have a back story, even if you invent it.
DH - uhn huhn
SEC - You know sometimes you may be in a wonderful relationship and never have a break-up and you have to sing a song about heartbreak. So you could invent a story and it doesn't even have to be about a person, it could be your car not starting. How that made you feel-it just has to be something tangible that you understand. Even if other people thought it was ridiculous to think it that way. But you want to make it real to the other person. So they can hear it and relate it to their own heartbreak. They are with you in that moment.
DH - That sounds like classic method acting.
SEC - Yes.
DH - And how familiar were you with the parts you have to play in 'One Night with Janis'--when I interviewed Mary Bridget Davies last year, she said that although she knew Janis Joplin (musically), she did not want to do an impersonation. Now you have the more difficult role of having several famous singers to do in 'One Night', so how do you approach that?
SEC - Well from the very beginning, Randy Johnson our Director and writer, was really adamant that he did not want imitations because it was not a tribute show. He didn't want people to feel like they would be just listening to tracks of them singing. You know, he wanted really understand who these artists are. Especially in my case, understand who these ladies are because they are all so different but there is still a common thread. And so I took time to learn the basics about their lives, the time periods--and I did not just listen to them, but artists similar to that time period within that genre. So if I were to work on Bessie Smith for example, I would listen to her, to Dinah Washington, and I listened to BIllie Holliday. I would look at these women, the political climate of their times, what they may or may not have had to deal with in doing similar traveling as African-American women.
DH - Right.
SEC - In a time period where you know, they may have been singing in a club, but had to sleep in the car because they couldn't stay in a hotel. Or they sang in a club and had to drive 200 miles to the nearest hotel where they could sleep for the night. So I would listen to the pain of that time and try to bring it back into it. I always wanted to keep in the back of mind that yes, but it may have been a painful time, but they had a lot of pride in what they were doing. You know, they were proud of the music they were creating and the music that they were sharing. You know, you look at Odetta and the folk music which is basically an early kind of gospel.
DH - Yeah.
SEC - This leads itself much more to traditional Negro spirituals. So you want to go about it that way. Then for Aretha Franklin, now you jump ahead 30 -40 years with all the changes. African-American women are stronger, there are more of them out there in the business, they are on TV, they are bigger personalities now because they can be. And so I spent a lot of time listening to her music then to understand phrasing and rhythm and take that and mold that to what was comfortable to me and what I thought portrayed them in a great light. And I did not want to be accused of being an imitator as I did not want to imitate those fabulous singers.
DH - Right.
SEC - Each in their own way were amazing and I think Mary (Bridget Davies) and I are amazing in our own way and she is NOT a Janis impersonator. She brings herself to the stage every night and I try to bring myself to the stage every night.
DH - As far as I saw, I think you do that. And I may be an old folkie, but I think your Odetta is the one that does it for me. That is pretty magical and does recreate the early folk era and like you say, with the spirituals, too.
SEC - Thank-you.
DH - Yeah, was it harder to get handle on any particular one of them or was the process the same for all?
SEC - Oh, it is a process that is the same for all of them, but I want to say what might have been the hardest of all them might have been Aretha and Bessie Smith. I wanted be true to Aretha's stylings and not imitate her look. So I had to find my own look through that music.
DH - And the Aretha song (you do) "Spirit in the Dark", of course you sing as a duet with 'Janis Joplin' and is that like the show stopper every single night you do it (laughter)?
SEC - Every single night (laughter).
DH - Yes, that is an amazing number. It ends Act One, so it was expected to be a big number…
SEC - Yeah, any time we do it, when we first started and we put it at the end of Act One, the first time in front of an audience, we knew we had something really great. It was a great idea, of course it is a fictional moment, but it plays off itself perfectly.
DH - Right… so what do you do to keep your voice in shape when you do so many shows on a long theatrical run?
SEC - Well, I try to get my voice training. I have to warm up and avoid singing cold. I always, always warm up for a half hour or 45 minutes before the show. I start off doing some easy vocal exercises throughout the day, just a little bit here and there. You want to be able to move your voice the way you want to move it and not the way you have to move it because you didn't do something. So I will also get my body moving, do some weights, get on the treadmill and then eat correctly and you just want to keep it together… keep it warm, try to keep your allergies down, and you hope for the best. You can keep your trumpet in a case and protect it from the rain, but your voice is out there.
DH - A little tougher.
SEC - It is in your body. They tease me all the time because I will say 'ooh the night air, I gotta get inside'. And they laugh, but now Mary understands that. (laughter). She is now saying it, too, the night air...
DH - Now with this play, is it tougher than an opera run, or can an opera run ever have as many shows as this?
SEC - Oh no, opera could never do eight shows a week. So this is a harder schedule, but you get used to it. I have done a lot of other vocal stuff. I did Showboat on a National tour and did eight shows a week, I've done a few things where some opera companies do a lot more performances where there are maybe fourteen performances in the space of three weeks. But that is a lot of performances. Here, you know it is eight shows a week, so you prepare yourself accordingly.
DH - Umm hmmm, now how on earth did you get on the 'Mike Tyson: The Undisputed Truth' show. Did I read that correctly?
SEC - Yes, yes, Randy Johnson our director co-wrote that with Kiki Tyson, Mike Tyson's wife. When they got ready to put that show on, he said 'we need some music'. We need to have something else happening to give Mike a chance to relax and it will join all these stories together. And one day, he called me and asked what are you doing? And I said 'oh I'm working' and he asked if I had a gig and I said no, so he asked if I wanted to come out to Vegas that Friday. I said 'sure' and I went out there and met Mike Tyson, Kiki Tyson, and the producer and they liked me and I went back to Vegas three weeks later, where we did six performances at the MGM Grand and in fact the musical director, the drummer, and the bass guitarist are all from our band in 'One Night with Janis'.
DH - Oh really-ok.
SEC - Yeah, so we were all out there. It was a great experience and it was a lot of fun.
DH - And although he has done that version elsewhere, it sounds like that would be the version of the play I would want to see (chuckling).
SEC - Right, I think the reviewers in Vegas thought we did a great job and I think we put it together, it went well, and it enabled him to keep it going. So we wish him well.
DH - Great. And what is the American Spiritual Ensemble?
SEC - Ah, the American Spiritual Ensemble is a group out of Lexington, Kentucky. It was founded by Dr. Everett McCorvey who was Director of the Opera at the University of Kentucky. And he decided the Negro spiritual and gospel music were getting confused and people thought they were the same thing and he said they were not and decided to form this group around African-American opera singers who perform and keep the Negro spiritual alive.
DH - OK.
SEC - We go out on tour probably three or four times a year. We have been to Spain, we have something in Ireland in a couple weeks, we went down to Costa Rica, we've been a lot of different places. It is an amazing group of friends who are from all over the world--the Met, the Los Angeles Opera, and many more. It is just a great organization of about maybe 20 people… there are 100 people on the roster, but we usually tour with about 20.
DH - So it is an ongoing entity with a collective of artists. I'll keep my eyes open for that one.
SEC - I think you would enjoy it. It is really fabulous.
DH - It sounds great. So what is next for you after this play is finished. Do you have anything lined up yet?
SEC - Well, I think we are still moving on with this play!
DH - It has obviously done well, since it is getting a good return run here.
SEC - Yeah, at the Arena Stage next, then off to Kansas City, and San Jose after that, and then hopefully New York. That is what we are hoping.
DH - It is really good, and although I never saw (a different play) 'Love Janis', what I like about this play is how your character is so important because of the contrast/comparisons in history of the music you do along with that of Janis Joplin.
SEC - Right, and I like how our play does not dwell on the darker side of life, her drug addiction and everything and I don't think that is important. I think with the creation of reality TV, everyone wants to see the sad part of someone and I think the main thing about Janis was and is her music.
DH - Right.
SEC - Her music has transcended her death. Her music changed the dynamic of women in music. I mean, there was this happy go lucky '50s music and she was that woman who got out there, wore pants on stage, and sang about things that weren't being talked about. And also keeping a lot of music that was being recorded by black artists and giving it a new spin. But never denying the fact that they were done by Big Mama Thornton, or done by Aretha Franklin.Janis made them famous, but these tunes existed prior to her ever performing them. So this is a great way to see that all music influences everyone. You may not even know it, because I feel like some of these women are like Janis' alter ego. This is the music that runs through her head. This is the music that shapes who she was as a performer. I think what you listen to definitely does that. I listen to a mix of a lot of different things, but I have my favorites, I like Streisand, you know more legit, quote unquote, voices. Because I felt my voice lent itself to that. So I began to understand that a lot more and this opportunity helped me explore and find other things that I could do with other music that I love. I might have thought that's not for you, you can't really do that, but it turn out I can! (laughs)
DH - Yeah, that is kind of similar to when I talk to young musicians and I do all this name dropping of older bands they have never heard of from thirty years ago that was roughly doing something like they are doing, they actually enjoy that. Whether it is history of what they have known or what they discover, they see how they kind of fit into it all. It is an amazing fabric--really, the 1960s was where a lot of that started with the guitar bands from England and Janis Joplin on the west coast with the American blues turning into rock'n'roll.
SEC - Right, it changed… I mean, blues and Negro spirituals, both rock and blues come out of Negro spirituals, which is the only real indigenous music from the United States. Most everything else is from Europe, you know, but with music of Native American Indians and then the music of American slaves that changed the dynamic of music. I mean Gospel was created way after the blues, because they realized that the blues music was keeping the kids from coming to church, and so you got blues musicians who came into the church to do music, or came out of the church to go to the club. So they formed this into gospel music, taking these chords and making gospel chorales out of which had been called the Devil's Music. But they saw that that music brought the people in. And if we can bring you in with the music, then we can give you the word of God at the same time.
DH - (laughs) That's right, classic.
SEC - So now you've got the Stones who love Muddy Waters, go on shaping it and you've now got another genre of music, now you've got rock'n'roll coming on and so forth.
DH - It is great to hear so much history from you. It sounds like you've done your homework over many years now,
SEC - (laughs) or a quick study in a few months!
DH You talk the part well, Professor. (laughter). So in conclusion, the play is here at the Arena Stage for nearly eight weeks (June 21st to August 11th) and I plan to come out and see it again. I am sure it will do well.
SEC - Oh, tickets are going fast. My family is from Virginia and my cousin was telling me that many relatives are coming to various shows, but much of July was already sold out and such. So we are excited about it and (the Arena Stage) is a great theater and we hope for a great second run there.
DH - Well I had a blast time. Thank-you!