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A Scorpio whose star is rising. (Sari Gruber).

I've always been fascinated by astrology. Not that I really believe the alignment of stars determines what happens in any given day, but I do often wonder why it is that my horoscope is right on the mark such a great percentage of the time. Sari (pronounced SHAree) Gruber, the opera world's newest "hot property," was quick to inform me that she is a typical Scorpio when I spoke with her just a couple of days after her birthday, November 19. I don't really know what being a "typical Scorpio" means, but I do think all the planets must have been perfectly aligned in Melrose, Massachusetts, at the moment of Sari Gruber's birth, whatever year that was. (She didn't volunteer that information, and I didn't ask.)

There is nothing about Gruber's childhood or adolescence that led her, or anyone else, to believe she would, as a young adult, be having spectacular successes on the stages of many of the finest opera houses in America and beyond. Her father, a chemist, was called to a project in Germany when Sari was but two months old, and the family moved to Tubingen. Her parents were opera fans and took her to the theater all the time. She saw Wagner's Ring when she was 5, she studied violin and, of course, she learned German at the same time she was learning English. When nine-year-old Sari's parents divorced, her mother brought her back to America with the sound of both languages in her ears. During the next few years, just before college, she sang a little, but nothing very serious. Her passions were theater and biology, and intending to have a double major in those two fields, she entered Yale. What she didn't realize until reaching New Haven was that the theater department and the biology department were on opposite ends of the campus. After a very busy and tiring freshman year, Sari realized that biology was going to have to go.

Having made a solid commitment to theater, Sari began to take voice lessons. Ordinarily, a theater major would be assigned to the voice studio of a graduate assistant, but the faculty's great contralto, Lili Chookasian, heard Sari sing and volunteered to teach her. "Miss Chookasian gave me so much," Gruber recalls. "First of all, she gave me the gift of knowing I could do this. And she taught me about performance ethics: that it's not about you ... it's about something bigger, about art." And so, Sari Gruber, the budding actress, became Sari Gruber, the budding diva.

She didn't start with opera, however. Sari fell in love with art song. The fact that she spoke German gave her an immediate appreciation for the marriage in song of great poetry and great music. She "couldn't get enough of it" and started learning two or three songs a week. By the time she graduated Yale, she already had amassed an impressive repertoire, and it seemed only natural for her to enter graduate school at Juilliard. There, she studied with Cynthia Hoffman, and after her first year, was accepted into the Merola Program of the San Francisco Opera, where she spent the summer being "highly intimidated." Suddenly thrown into an opera program, away from the safety of the art song milieu in which she felt so much at home, Sari "went home every night and cried." But little by little, the operatic stage became more and more comfortable. She returned to New York, finished her degree and performed with the Juilliard Opera Center, singing Sophie in Massenet's Werther, Susanna in Le Nozze di Figaro and Gretel in Maurice Sendak's production of Hansel und Gretel, which was broadcast nationwide on "Live from Lincoln Center." That was 1995.

In 1996, she auditioned for, and got, the role of Nanetta in Falstaff at the New York City Opera with Sherrill Milnes in the title role. (Newsday said, "Sari Gruber was delicate yet full of spice as Nanetta.") She also sang her first professional Susanna with the company. ("Nothing short of sensational ... pretty and very musical."--Opera Magazine) And with that production came Sari's decision to seek management. She sent out pictures and resumes to several agencies and had a few interviews. But when, after a performance, representatives of the Herbert Barrett office came backstage to introduce themselves, she knew this was the one. "They were the only ones who asked what I wanted to do."

Since then, Gruber has performed roles that span 400 years of operatic history: from early baroque masterpieces of Monteverdi and Rameau to the world premiere of Tobias Picker's Fantastic Mr. Fox, and dozens of more standard roles in between. Her review sheet has glowing quotes from all the New York daily papers, all the big international opera magazines and quite an array from national press sources, including the San Francisco Chronicle ("a standout performance"), The Boston Globe ("... she offered exquisitely Mozartean tone, phrasing and dynamics.") and the Anchorage Press ("Sari Gruber ... stole every scene she was in.").

Her favorite role is still Mozart's Susanna, but she says she never gets tired of Gilda, and she adores Ann Trulove.

With all her operatic successes, however, her first love is still the art song recital. "It's the way I got into this business," she reminds us. "It's how I was weaned. It is, for me, always the most important thing to practice and to come back to." She has appeared across the country in recital under the auspices of the Marilyn Horne Foundation, at New York's Alice Tully and Weill Recital Halls, with the New York Festival of Song, at New York's 92nd Street Y and Miller Theatre, and on the San Francisco Opera Schwabacher Debut Recital Series.

For Sari Gruber, singing recitals is simply "the best thing in the world." It gives her a chance to "flex different vocal muscles" and the opportunity to be twenty-five different characters in a single evening. "In an art song recital, if I don't look like the character who says these words ... if I'm not the appropriate age, or even sex ... who cares? I can sing it anyway." Her love and affinity for languages (She routinely performs in nine of them.) allow her a broad spectrum of repertoire. She has mandated her management to seek employment for her in recital, opera and orchestral engagements ... in that order.

Sari remembers with fondness her participation in the art song programs at both Ravinia and Tanglewood in the middle 1990s. While at Tanglewood in 1995, she met and collaborated for the first time with a young pianist who was then a student at Peabody in Baltimore, Cameron Stowe. He has been her accompanist almost exclusively ever since. "We have a wonderful relationship," Sari enthuses. "Cameron will be a life collaborator."

As for the other man in Sari Gruber's life: She is married to arts administrator, Bill Powers. Maintaining a satisfactory balance between her artistic endeavors and her family life is the highest item on her list of priorities.

Other extra-musical interests are in abundance. She's been dog-sledding in Alaska. She'd like to raft down the Grand Canyon and climb Machu Picchu; she wants to see the world--"not the touristy stuff"--but to experience cultures. She's an avid reader; she loves antiques. She's learned how to cross-stitch on buses and planes, and she's "into" cooking and baking. "I make a mean apple pie," she boasts.

As she thinks about this amazing singing career that has transpired in her life, Sari is delighted it all happened the way it did. "I'm thrilled I got my education first ... that life has given me the opportunity to be bilingual ... that I love science ... that I got a solid background in liberal arts. I have to be a human being first, then an artist." As for personal goals, Sari hopes to "keep getting better." To that end, she recently has started studying with Marlena Malas in New York, and she works on her repertoire with a number of the very best coaches in the business. Gruber has upcoming engagements that will take her to the Saito Kinen Festival in Japan and to the Maggio Musicale di Firenze, both under the baton of Seiji Ozawa, and will make her Lyric Opera of Chicago debut in the 2003-2004 season. Many other appearances for several years to come, both operatic and concert, are already on the books. The recital of this most remarkable artist at the MTNA conference in Salt Lake City has truly magical potential ... it's in the stars.

Sari Gruber will perform Tuesday, March 18, 8:00 P.M. in the Salt Place Ballroom during the 2003 MTNA National Conference.

Benton Hess is distinguished professor of voice (senior vocal coach) and musical director of the Opera Theatre at the Eastman School of Music. Hess holds faculty positions at opera institutes in Tel Aviv, Israel, and Urbania, Italy. He also is musical director of the Tacoma Opera.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:opera singer
Author:Hess, Benton
Publication:American Music Teacher
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2003
Previous Article:Partners at home and on stage. (Misha & Cipa Dichter).
Next Article:Catch the rising stars. (Rising Stars).

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