Sara Emerson is a classical singer living in Kalamazoo who grew up idolizing Dolly Parton and singing in front of anyone who would listen.
She went to Interlochen Arts Academy for high school, earned a bachelor’s degree in voice performance from the University of Michigan, and holds a master’s degree in music from Bowling Green State University, in Ohio. She made her international recital debut in Paris, regularly performs solo recitals throughout the Midwest, placed first in the Opera Idol Competition in 2015, and has sung at Carnegie Hall.
So why does 36-year-old Emerson relate to the nervousness of one of her young students, a private voice client whom she’s currently teaching to improvise?
“Part of being a classically trained singer and going to conservatory is to be perfect at what you do,” Emerson says.
But who wants to be perfect all the time? Not Emerson, a lyric soprano with a head full of curls and a big laugh she lets loose with regularity. A baby grand piano takes up most of her dining room in Kalamazoo’s Hillcrest neighborhood, and her 1-year-old son, Jameson, attends the lessons she teaches in her home. He imitates her high notes, leads students in stretches, does vocal warm-ups, and claps at the end of each song.
Emerson says that, as opposed to other musical genres like jazz and rock, where mistakes can be incorporated into a performance and improvising is accepted, classical music requires singers to sing exactly what’s on the page. The demand for that kind of perfection can feel constricting sometimes. Other musicians, she says, can “be freer and just go for it.”
She’s trying to instill that kind of intrepid spirit now in her student, who finds improvising scary, but as Emerson discusses different approaches to musical genres, she may also be healing an old wound.
In high school in Traverse City, where she grew up as the oldest of four kids, Emerson was refused admittance to the school’s top choir, a group she revered. Labeled an “opera singer,” Emerson was told her voice wasn’t the kind the choir was looking for.
Disappointed, she was inspired to apply to the prestigious Interlochen Arts Academy and was admitted, earning enough scholarship money to match the amount her parents said they could pay, with $50 left over.
Getting almost exactly the amount of scholarship money she needed was “goose-bumpy,” Emerson says, and going to the school changed her life, paving the way for her career as a successful performer.
Emerson, who settled in Kalamazoo with her husband, Mike McGarvey, a social worker, runs a busy private voice studio in Kalamazoo where she teaches a wide range of students, from schoolchildren to budding musicians to retired adults. She tailors each lesson to the student’s needs, sticking with technical approaches or drifting to imagistic language, depending on what resonates.
Coming into her own
She credits her ability to relax and trust herself to her development as a piano player at Trinity Lutheran Church, where she directs the children’s choir. She thinks of herself as a singer, not a pianist, but when the pastor there asked her to play piano for Wednesday services in 2013, she decided to take what she knew and just dive in.
“Piano made me come into my own as an artist,” she says. Instead of being “just” a classical musician, learning to improvise on the piano expanded Emerson’s comfort zone. Now she passes on those skills —how to try new things, how to get comfortable with mistakes — to her students.
Emerson also excels at bringing the music she loves to the whole community. She put on a children’s program called “Lullabies Around the World” last summer at the Kalamazoo Public Library, singing songs from her recently released first album, Lullabies. She donned a hot-pink gown and dangly diamond earrings for her winter “Opera Babies” recital at the Kalamazoo Public Library’s Oshtemo branch, where kids and their families stared agog at the power coming out of one person’s mouth.
“When I was a kid, my parents couldn’t shut me up,” Emerson jokes, noting that, in fact, her parents have always been deeply supportive of her career as the only professional musician in her family. Her father loved opera music, and her family had an eclectic group of records when she was growing up.
She sang onstage for the first time as a 3-year-old, volunteering to sing “This Land Is Your Land” — both verses — at a church picnic in downtown Detroit.
She went into classical music because she thought it would make her unique, she admits with a laugh, but found there are many more singers than opportunities, especially in the U.S., where audiences for opera productions are shrinking as their audiences become older.
Auditioning in that environment is a lot of pressure, but she doesn’t let it stop her. “You go in and you sing your best,” she says.
As a result, Emerson has landed roles in operas at the Metropolitan International Music Festival in New York City, the Connecticut Lyric Opera and the Asheville (North Carolina) Lyric Opera. She has also given concerts in Austria and at Carnegie Hall. Heady stuff, for sure, but she admits she was somewhat unfazed by singing at Carnegie Hall in 2010. She realized it was “just a place.”
“It was wonderful, but it wasn’t my end-all, be-all,” she says.
It’s all about the music
Not many of us get the chance to find out that Carnegie Hall doesn’t bowl us over, but Emerson — who loves solo recitals — says each performance she gives is her happiest.
She may have heady credentials as a performer but singing itself brings her the most freedom. “Some people — at opera programs specifically — are die-hard about the dramatics and costuming of a role,” she says. Then she waves her hand. “Just give me the music. That’s really what I like.”