SFOpera - Soprano Sheri Greenawald on the Power of Cookies

Soprano Sheri Greenawald on the Power of Cookies

It was an opening night tradition: to exchange gifts to celebrate the start of a show. But as soprano Sheri Greenawald recalls, she was “as poor as a church mouse.” Her opera career was still young. And she didn’t have the money to go out and buy presents for her fellow cast members, celebrity singers like Frederica von Stade among them.

But Greenawald did have a talent — for baking. So that night, as Jules Massenet’s opera Werther opened at the Houston Grand Opera, her costars each received a big plate of cookies.

Since those early days, Greenawald’s career has exploded, taking her around the world to perform and teach. She sang Der Rosenkavalier in Venice. The Marriage of Figaro in Amsterdam. Don Giovanni in Munich. 

For the last 18 years, she has been in California shaping young artists as director of the San Francisco Opera Center. This December marks her retirement: She counts over five decades working in the opera industry. It’s taught her, among other things, the power of cookie dough. 

Greenawald breaks into a big, booming laugh as she remembers the time she spent sharing a house with mezzo-soprano Susan Graham in Wales. “You know the Pillsbury cookie dough that we get in those tubes, right? It comes in tubs there, like a big margarine tub.”

They were in the Welsh capital Cardiff to perform Der Rosenkavalier, with Graham singing the infamously taxing role of Octavian. And before each performance they would go to the archfarchnad — Greenawald gleefully growls the Welsh word for “supermarket”to stock up on dough.

“Boy, that cookie dough went down really fast because she needed that energy,” Greenawald says. “It was really important because of course Octavian is endless and it's so physical. She was sweating her brains out all the time.”

Greenawald herself confesses to enjoying a nice steak as fuel ahead of a long performance. That, and a bottle of Coca-Cola. 

“I know that sounds crazy,” she says. She had colleagues who would munch on apples between acts or brew a tea out of Ricola cough drops. But for her, it was always Coke. “It gives you so much sugar in your mouth. You don’t get dry. The carbonation sort of cleans out the crap.”

But baking has been part of her life long before she ever knew the stage. Back when she was a child living in Morley, Iowa — a town of approximately 100 — her life revolved around school. But every year in August, right before classes started, there was the Jones County Fair.

Greenawald estimates she was around 9 years old the year she entered one of the fair’s baking competitions. Good food wasn’t hard to come by in Morley. She remembers drooling over the egg noodles her godmother rolled out and simmered with beef. And for the competition itself, her mother armed her with the recipe for blackstrap molasses cookies, teaching her to press little designs with her folk into the top of each ball of dough.

She took the cookies to the fair — and they won. Greenawald went home with a blue ribbon. “I think I maybe got, like, five bucks or something too. Something to put in your pocket.” The trick, she says, is to balance the sugar with the salt.

Nowadays, she still occasionally whips up cookies to treat the performers she works with. It’s an opportunity to break the ice — and care for the human in each artist.

Her backstage ritual even caught the attention of journalists: The San Francisco Examiner newspaper in 1980 observed that she used to “stir up batches” for “rehearsal break treats” at the San Francisco Symphony.

Here, she shares her variation on the Nestle Toll House cookie — with extra brown sugar to give each cookie a satisfying crunch. It was a favorite of her one-time partner, conductor, and former San Francisco Symphony music director Edo de Waart. 

Plus, just in time for Thanksgiving, she offers a family favorite: her mother’s recipe for pumpkin bread, which she wrote out by hand for Greenawald to keep.


Sheri Greenawald’s Rehearsal Break Cookies 

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
2. Combine the following ingredients:

  • 1 cup butter
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoons Baking soda
  • 1 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup white granulated sugar
  • 1 cup brown sugar, somewhat packed
  • 2 1/2 cup white flour
  • 12 ounces of chocolate chips

3. Drop in generous teaspoon drops on the cookie sheet.
4. Bake for 9 to 11 minutes and enjoy! 

The Greenawald Family Pumpkin Bread

Makes two loaves

4 eggs
3 cups white sugar
3 1/2 cups flour
2 tsp. baking soda
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 cup oil (Sheri Greenawald’s mother used corn oil)
2/3 cup wate2 cups pumpkin purée  

1. Combine ingredients.
2. Divide into two loaf pans. 
3. Bake at 350 degrees for one hour.

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