Interview with Sheri Greenawald

Fate, Feminism, and Physics: In Conversation with Sheri Greenawald

If you Google “Sheri Greenawald Manon” you’ll come across an LA Times review written by Martin Bernheimer following Greenawald’s 1986 performance at San Francisco Opera. Bernhei-mer writes, “Every man who sees [Manon] describes her with the same adjective: ravishing. Sun-day night at the San Francisco Opera, the adjective fit. Massenet’s irresistible heroine was Sheri Greenawald, an American soprano who sang with uncommon sweetness, pin-point focus and compelling purity, and who looked like the embodiment of a porcelain figurine.”

In her portrayal of Manon, Greenawald brought to the War Memorial Opera House stage the beauty and innocence, the guile and charm, the fickleness of youth and the insatiable thirst for freedom that Massenet’s Manon embodies. Her performance was complete. And whenever a performer slips so perfectly, so completely into character that the woman on stage appears to be the exact woman the role was written for, you’ve got to wonder — how’d she do it?

To find out we called up Sheri — the brilliant lyric soprano, the director of San Francisco Opera Center and artistic director of the Merola Opera Program, the insightful teacher to budding and blossomed opera stars, and that tireless champion of young artists.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

San Francisco Opera: Have you read the LA Times review of your Manon performance?

Greenawald: Was that Martin?


San Francisco Opera: Yes. Pretty good review, don’t you think?

[Greenawald laughs.]

Greenawald: I must’ve been pretty fit at the time.


San Francisco Opera: It’s a gorgeous review. Makes me wonder about your process, about what you did to get into character?

Greenawald: At the time I was married to a French-speaking person. I was living in France and my coaches were French; I was immersed in French culture. Also, my then husband had given me an old beautiful illustrated copy of Abbé Prévost’s [Manon Lescaut] and so I had this incredible book that had hand-tinted illustrations and all kinds of things. I was completely immersed in the story.

It was the first full-scale production I did after the birth of my child. My daughter was born in March and this was the fall season, so it was my first job back. I had an apartment at Opera Plaza so I could be close enough to run home to nurse my daughter. It was a heady time for me that whole period.

Manons don’t come around all the time, so if there’s a production going around, you’re lucky to get in on it. And I just fell in on that. I was lucky that they hired me to do it. I guess it was my time, felt fated.


San Francisco Opera: Manon’s hard to pin down. It’s like, “Is she sympathetic? She betrays her heart for… money? Is she even a likable character?”

Greenawald: Yes, exactly. I always liked playing these poor women who were so tied by society that they had so little power over their destinies. It was always so interesting to play them and to find the through thread for them.

Manon is complicated in that she betrays the one who really loves her for jewels and money. She betrays her origins and her Catholic upbringing because the glitter of the gold is just too great for her, and you can sort of understand that in a 17-year-old. It’s like she’s very young. We always forget how youthful these poor creatures are, and how they are spoiled so early and die young. I’m always thinking about that too. I’m always thinking about the political. As a feminist I always thought about these characters very strongly in light of what power they didn’t have.

It’s very tricky when you have to play these women. Her big aria is “Adieu, notre pe-tit table“ [“Goodbye, our little table”] and she has a line in there when she is talking about the little table where they ate their dinners and she says, “Oh my goodness, how he loved me.” She doesn’t say, “How I loved him.” She says, “How he loved me.” She’s a child who can only think in terms of her own situation, she’s not really capable of empathizing and being outward driven. When you’re a child you’re still just concerned with your own survival in a way. She’s interesting in that way.

I had to find some kind of way to like her even though she was doing things that morally I wouldn’t have done. There was the rub.


San Francisco Opera: There’s a line in the synopsis for our 2017 production of Manon that says, “At the beginning, she’s the prey and then the prey becomes the predator.” Do you see Manon that way? As both prey and predator?

Greenawald: She’s the predator in as far as her beauty will allow her to be. She’s a commodity. The only power she has is in her sexuality and her appearance, and that’s the only power she has over these people. So it’s like “Oh dear.”

Women in those days didn’t have power. She uses what little power she has — very minimal power — but she uses it to get what she wants in the moment, and that’s sort of her deal is being in the moment.


San Francisco Opera: In an interview you did with Opera Warhorses you talk about “get-ting to the bone” on things with your students. What’s the bone for a character like Manon?

Greenawald: The bone with Manon is, well, with those characters, particularly girls from the 18th century, is in understanding how little power they had except through what they could wield out of men. That’s what it was about.

It was for me always to find that vulnerability. With those characters you have to remain vulnerable somewhere so that the audience can find something to like in a Manon. And it can’t just be pity at the end.

What I like to see is a realization of how victimized she really was. Even though she did victim-ize others, it was because she’d been so victimized herself. So, it’s sort of like opening up, find-ing a way to make the audience realize the whole system was wrong and that she was a victim of the system she was part of.

Maybe it’s because I’m a woman but I think that’s what we’re supposed to be doing, is revealing the truth of it, and the bone is the truth.


San Francisco Opera: The style of the 1986 production is so different from the 2017 pro-duction. What influence does the style of a production have on a performance?

Greenawald: Mine was done in period so you had to stay within the constraints of that period. You had to know what the mores of the time were because there is just certain behavior you just would not have done.

Massenet is one of my favorite composers too. You can say about Massenet what you can say about Puccini. Puccini and Massenet, so many of their musical directions give you such a clear picture of the character that I always say, “If you just do what they tell you to do, you have a per-formance, you don’t have to think.” Because every crescendo, every dynamic marking is exactly what they wanted emotionally. So if you just simply find it musically, then you will have found it emotionally as well. Two very brilliant guys that way.


San Francisco Opera: You’ve been such an inspiration to so many, but in particular to your students. Many of them describe your instruction as life-changing. What about your approach do you think was able to influence your students so profoundly?

Greenawald: Well, if they feel that way then I am privileged and honored to be part of their lives. For me, it’s so much about trying to help them discover themselves.

As an artist you have to have an awareness of yourself so much, and yet, you’re projecting the every person, you want it to be a universal you. It’s how to connect into the all and yet it has to be out of you as well. So, it becomes the kernel of the atom and yet it’s also the electrons zoom-ing around on the periphery.

You can very much compare it to an atom in a way. There’s the core and then there’s the energy that’s zooming around on the outside and that’s sort of how we are on stage — there’s our core but we’re always very active. I always think of it in those terms.

I think of everything in terms of energy. For me, one of the most life changing moments was when I heard about E=mc2. That was like, “What?! Oh my goodness! What?! Okay! Yay!” That was a huge moment in my life.

What we’re doing on stage is revealing the world to people, trying to reveal some of the world to people anyway, like I say, I’m always looking for that universal truth in anything that I can help illuminate for someone because those are the moments we look for and take home with us. And sometimes it’s a cry on stage, and sometimes it’s not the most beautiful voice but one that just penetrates you.


San Francisco Opera: One more question, who inspires you?

Greenwald: I always think of Heinz Zednick, the great German character tenor who I saw as Loge in the Ring at Bayreuth. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. Every time he was on stage I could not watch anyone else, he was so penetrating.

Then I saw him when he was in his 80s at the Metropolitan Opera and again, he was in his 80s, and again, every time he opened his mouth I was just riveted by him, he was just so amazing.

You know, people like him, those people are my hero

Innocence and Experience in Carlisle Floyd’s SUSANNAH
“Manon, it has to be Manon!”