San Francisco Opera | Stephanie McNab: From Hollywood to the Orchestra Pit

From Hollywood to the Pit: Flutist Stephanie McNab on Her Journey to San Francisco Opera

Late at night, when her home is finally quiet, she can bring out her flute to practice. School has ended and, with it, the challenge of distance-learning in the time of the coronavirus quarantine.

But summer has brought its own challenges, and musician Stephanie McNab now finds her days dedicated to keeping her 11-year-old son active with clarinet and piano lessons.

Only when he’s asleep can she retreat into her own world, practicing the instrument she’s played for 18 seasons with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra. Right now, she’s focused on revisiting her études, short musical compositions designed to test a musician’s skill.

It’s been meditative. It has her thinking of the life she lived 30, 35 years ago — a musical upbringing that collides with some of the most iconic theme songs in 20th-century pop culture.

Even as an elementary school kid, McNab remembers being perched on a sound stage with her brother, listening to the melodies take shape. Seeing actor-comedian Billy Crystal was a thrill, as was spotting the venerable Anthony Hopkins, fresh from his chilling, Oscar-winning performance as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. “I was obsessed with him,” McNab confides, looking back.

But those kinds of celebrity sightings were normal when your father worked for film studios like Paramount and MGM. McNab’s father Malcolm was the principal trumpet player for composers like John Williams, best known for soundtracks like that of Jaws, Jurassic Park,and Schindler’s List.

Whenever she saw the opening scenes of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, McNab could pick out her father’s sound in the opening theme, the confident swagger of its “bump-ba-dum-bah” defined by his trumpet. And for a while, whenever she flicked on the evening news, he’d be there too, the cry of his trumpet opening the broadcast for all three major networks: ABC, NBC, and CBS.

“My path into music was the example that I saw. It looked like a lot of fun,” McNab explains. Her mother too had been a professional bassoon player: JoAnn Caldwell met Malcolm McNab in the 1960s on tour for the San Francisco Ballet. Their daughter grew up surrounded by and inspired by musicians. “They got to play this great music, and they laughed and told jokes and seemed to socialize quite a bit.”

She still remembers the warm feeling of falling asleep as a child at night, hearing the low, comforting call of the bassoon as her mother practiced in another room. But forging her own career path would be tricky. With two professionals as parents, there were strong opinions about what her musical upbringing should be.

“They started me on Suzuki violin lessons when I was 3. As soon as I realized I could say ‘no,’ I think I did. That didnt last very long,” McNab says. Piano lessons followed. And then at age 8, NcNab’s father confronted her with a question: “What instrument do you want to play?”

It was an open-ended question. The possibilities were vast. For a split second, saying “trumpet” crossed her mind, but given her father’s high standing in the field, it didn’t seem like a good idea. So she made a choice that changed her life.

“The flute was the only instrument I could think of, which seems a little bit silly now,” she says. “But that’s how I ended up playing the flute.”

Not that that ended matters. Around age 13, her mother presented her with a bassoon, hoping her daughter would follow her example instead. “I was not on board with that at all,” McNab recalls.

McNab wasn’t even sure she wanted to be a musician at all back then. She had dreams of pursuing astronomy. But she kept up with her flute practice. Her public school in Los Angeles offered music education, and she found a mentor in her flute teacher, who “instilled a love of music as a tool of expression.” That made the instrument stick.

“I wish I could admit, Oh, this was my lifelong goal,but I just sort of bumbled into it,” McNab says. Music simply came easily — more so than math or other subjects in high school. She auditioned to be a music major in college and got in.

“You have to do it because you love it,” her father told her. It was a mantra she held dear. But as she progressed toward a professional career, picking up freelance gigs after graduation, she sometimes wondered: “Did I really earn this, or is it because of my dad?”

“Im very well aware that I did not have a typical upbringing,” McNab says. “I was surrounded by musicians and musicians who knew me, who watched me grow up. There are people who recognize my last name:Oh, McNab.So if anything, I heard my whole life, Oh youre Malcolms daughter.So I feel like thats what their first impressions were based on.”

McNab taught, played weddings, even did a few soundtracks, just like her father. That work was lucrative, she says, but also stressful. It required her to record music with little to no rehearsal. “With studio musicians, one of the big challenges is they dont get music in advance. They are reading music that is off the press.”

Her first piccolo job came in 2001 in Buffalo, New York — a gig that forced her to move from Los Angeles for the first time in her life. It also launched her on a career as an orchestral musician.

The next year, another big audition cropped up, this time in San Francisco. The opera was looking for a flutist. “There were 200 applicants. I think they heard about 90 people,” she says.

Pivotal was the way the audition was held: behind a screen. Her parents had connections in San Francisco, friends within the opera orchestra itself. But no one knew who was playing during the two rounds of auditions. The anonymity allowed McNab to be confident that landing the job was a victory all her own.

“I had to win that audition. And coming here, I realized that I really appreciated being somewhere where I knew that I did this. It wasnt my dad. It wasnt my last name. I had to win this audition,” she says.

It was the start of new chapter for McNab. Her debut came in a production of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot, conducted by then-music director Donald Runnicles. McNab was, in her words, “a little nervous.”

“At the end of the performance, Runnicles went up to the stage,” McNab says. Audience members tossed flowers as he and the cast took their bows. “I cant remember if he caught one or if he picked one up off the stage, but he threw it to me in the pit. And my brand new colleagues applauded and cheered. It was a moment where I felt I had arrived at where I was meant to be.”

Being part of the opera orchestra was like joining “a big family,” supportive and attentive to each other’s needs. McNab may have never intended to follow in her parents’ line of work — but doing so was a way of finding her own voice. That’s a message she now takes into the classroom, as she teaches the next generation of musicians. 

“This has to start young. I am a musician because I was engaged in music from a very young age,” she says. “If were going to invite diverse voices into the musical conversation, its not going to be with, Hey let me play this music at you when youre in junior high school or high school.Its getting those young kids, elementary-school age, engaged and doing it themselves.”

This moment is a wake-up call for classical music, she says. And its future depends on reaching kids in their earliest years, so they too can experience the confidence and community she first found on a Hollywood sound stage — and discovered yet again at the opera house.

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