Cheryl North :: Interviews

Cheryl North Interviews Audra McDonald prior to her performance at a special concert with the San Francisco Symphony, April 26, 2010

Material from a Classical Music Column for the Preview Section, Bay Area News Group, April 16, 2010

If both your grandmothers were piano teachers, five of your aunts toured singing gospel music as "The McDonald Sisters," your mother was highly musical, and you dad played trombone, drums and piano, it's more than a little likely that you too will have music in your blood.

Such is the case with Audra McDonald, the remarkable singer/actress with the sumptuous soprano voice who is scheduled to sing a program of favorite show tunes, classic songs from movies, intimate standard fare, as well as some original new songs composed especially for her with the San Francisco Symphony at 8 p.m. Monday, April 26 at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco. Ted Sperling will conduct.

McDonald's more-than-just-musical dad, Stanley McDonald Jr., worked as a high school principal, and her high-achieving mother, Anna Kathryn McDonald, was a university administrator. Both happened to be in Berlin, Germany when Audra was born on July 3, 1970. Home, however, was Fresno, California where she and her younger sister were raised.

Audra graduated from the Theodore Roosevelt High School's School for the Arts Program in Fresno before heading to New York City where she studied acting and classical voice at the Juilliard School in New York City, from which she graduated in 1993.

Her success story continues upward with only a few bumps along the way, one of which occurred when she fainted from stage fright while auditioning for a Broadway production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel. She still got the part and, in 1994, it resulted in her winning the first of what would eventually add up to four Tony Awards.

Like her parents and other family members, she is adept at multi-tasking. Besides a busy singing career, she is also a highly acclaimed actress with an Emmy Award for her acting abilities in the hit ABC television show, Private Practice. Ever affable and gracious, she even took a few minutes last Friday from a rehearsal in New York City for the show's upcoming April 23 episode in order to call me in response to my request for a telephone interview. During our ensuing conversation, I could occasionally hear snatches of cast members' chatting and a few calls from the show's directorial staff in the background.

When I commented on her many and diverse achievements singing and acting in Broadway musicals, television, movies, and on the great classical concert stages and opera houses of the world, as well as singing a couple of solo stints with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, she modestly blamed it all on a childhood diagnosis of hyperactivity.

In addition to all the above activities, she quipped, "I'm even still playing the piano, working especially hard on conquering Beethoven's wonderful Pathetique Sonata."

Her answer to a query about her favorite songs and composers was "It depends on my mood, I guess. However I always seem to love anything by Stephen Sondheim. And, amazingly, he's still composing even though this is his 80th year!"

Certainly, not every classically trained singer feels or sounds at ease in both the world of classical music and the world of the Broadway musical or popular song. Classical singers are expected to have the vocal heft to project their voices so that even their soft (pianissimo) passages penetrate like lasers from the stage, over the orchestra seated below, and on through the audience to the hall's very back rows - without the aid of microphones.

Pop singers, on the other hand, can benefit mightily by using a microphone for volume, since their medium thrives on a sense of intimacy and closeness.

Audra McDonald, however, can meld easily into either world. Her sumptuous soprano voice can easily soar up to a concert hall's rafters. Yet, this same voice can be corralled to croon into a mike to create the intimacy of a whisper up close and personal right into a listener's ear.

When I asked her what she would be doing if she were not an actor/singer, she fervently replied, "I would love to do anything that involves working with children. My daughter Zoe Madeline (born on Valentine's Day, 2001 and named after her costar in the stage production of Terrence McNally's Master Class, and her close friend, Madeline Kahn) is the reason for my existence."

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