Shawn McDonald

Shawn McDonald
musician, opera singer
Ann Arbor, Michigan

Tottered on: 1 June 2009
Temperature: 52 F
Ceiling: beadboard
Ground: Douglas Fir toungue and groove porch flooring
Wind: SW at 8mph

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TT with HD: Shawn McDonald

[Ed. note: The Metzger's event mentioned below has already taken place as of publiction of this Talk. Remaining events, including a June 14 lecture at the Ann Arbor District Library and the June 18-21 production of Die Fledermaus are listed out in detail here. ]

HD: Let's actually get some tottering action going! Okay, you are in total control of me, you're going to need to scoot forward just a little bit.

SM: I already kind of scooted forward, yeah.

HD: So, welcome to the teeter totter.

SM: Thank you.

HD: So, you're right in the middle of the run-up to the big production of Die Fledermaus? And the first event on the calendar is tomorrow, is that right? At Metzger's?

SM: Correct. We are doing a kind of promotion at Metzger's. We often will try to combine music and food together. And this year since we are doing an Austrian operetta, the closest we could find would be a German restaurant. So Metzger's has paired up with us, and we are going to be doing an event there tomorrow where you can get food and beer, and we'll do a short little presentation musically.

HD: Okay, and when you say "short presentation" that means you and a bunch of your fellow opera singers are going to hold forth?

SM: Yeah, actually some of the singers from our cast are going to be off from rehearsal for the night. They will come in and just present some of the scenes with blocking, and just have some fun.

HD: So whoever happens to show up at Metzger's that evening is going to get a special treat--is that the way it works?

SM: Hopefully, they will see it that way, yeah!

HD: So there's not like a special admission? Or is there?

SM: There is. We are suggesting a $10 donation to the company as a cover charge.

HD: And what is the actual name of the company? It's the Ann Arbor ...

SM: ... it's Arbor Opera Theatre.

HD: Arbor Opera Theatre. That's hard to say--Arbor Opera.

SM: We just say AOT.

HD: Well, that's easier. So, you said that the cast is going to be singing--you're not actually singing in this production from what I understand, right?

SM: I used to try to do that, wear as many hats as possible, but I just kept getting sick before the performances.

HD: Well, that's not good. So, sick in a way where you could not sing?

SM: Yeah. Steroid injections were the only way to make it through.

HD: So there's no drug testing in opera singing? [laugh]

SM: No. Interestingly, supposedly--I didn't realize this--that steroids are the drug of choice for tenors in general in the professional world. It makes the voice louder and higher.

HD: Huh. Okay, coffee, though, which you're drinking now, is apparently not a detriment to voice quality?

SM: It can be, but since I'm not singing, I'm not going to worry about it! [laugh]

HD: Okay, so it's not like you are being reckless.

SM: No.

HD: But you are the artistic director for the production, which means that you are in integral part of the production, which has a specific responsibility. Which I don't understand, but which you could perhaps explain?

SM: Well, I think it varies from company to company, but since our organization is relatively small, I am basically in charge of overseeing all of the artistic production aspects of it.

HD: Okay, so what is an example of an artistic aspect as contrasted with some non-artistic aspect?

SM: Well, in regards to the production, I work with the scenic people and the costume people to create the overall feel and look for the production. I try to control the quality of the output of what is going on, so that it has our "brand" of what people are expecting to see as far as the production. We have meetings where we decide what we are going to do. This particular production is a very traditional production. So there is nothing ...

HD: ... it's not like an avant-garde--what if Die Fledermaus happened in the year 2200?

SM: Right.

HD: But people do that sort of thing?

SM: Yeah, in fact we did our production of Don Giovanni and we set it in hell.

HD: So not the city in Michigan? [Ed. note: Hell, Michigan, is a town about 20 miles away from Ann Arbor.]

SM: No. In purgatory, actually, so.

HD: Okay.

SM: So everyone was in whiteface and they looked like they were dead. So that had a particular look to it. But this one is just a straight up production of Die Fledermaus in a traditional ...

HD: ... but it will have the earmarks of the AOT brand to mark in some way?

SM: Yeah, I mean definitely as far as the quality. So, what we are really hoping to do is present really professional quality theater here locally in our own community.

HD: And the actual performance is going to be at the Mendelssohn Theater?

SM: Mendelssohn Theatre. That's a space that we feel is conducive to a lot of productions, and it creates a real intimate sort of feel. It's a lovely theater, it has a good acoustic and people really like the close proximity.

HD: So even though you are not singing in the production, you are an opera singer.

SM: Yes.

HD: So when people ask you, "So, what kind of work do you do?" or "What line of work are you in?" is that your standard answer: "I am an opera singer."

SM: No, that's not my standard answer, actually. It's not how I make my money--but I am a musician. My degrees are actually both in voice and in keyboard instruments as well.

HD: So you studied piano in Germany for a while?

SM: Organ, actually. Just over a summer I was there. Undergrad I studied both organ and voice.

HD: Ah hah, okay. So keyboard instruments meaning organ as opposed to piano.

SM: Yeah, but I do play piano and that's how I make most of my money now.

HD: Playing piano?

SM: Yeah.

HD: So, whereabouts and how?

SM: Here in Ann Arbor I'm the minister of music over at Westminster Presbyterian.

HD: Okay, that's out on Scio Church Roac?

SM: Scio Church, yeah. I have been there in various capacities--this will be my 14th year they are. I just took over the head position for the music program this past year. And then I alsoI work over at Temple Israel in West Bloomfield. I am the pianist there.

HD: That's a lot of driving

SM: It is! It is! But it's a great congregation, it's a unique opportunity. It's the largest reform congregation in the country. They do a lot of different stuff that we don't get to do at our church. I'm also the director of vocal activities--the head of the voice area--at Marygrove College in Detroit.

HD: Wow. So three regular gigs?

SM: Yes. In addition to the opera company.

HD: Okay, so, but even if you don't introduce yourself as "I'm an opera singer" people find out in the course of a conversation with you, right? And I'm wondering, because people are generally stupid about such things, they'll say something like, "Hey, sing something for us!" Do you encounter that a lot?

SM: The most annoying time is when you're crossing the border into Canada. And they say, "What have you been doing?" And you say, "I've been performing for a benefit," or something. And they say, "Well, sing for me! [laugh]

HD: Do they really?

SM: Yeah.

HD: And they feel like they can demand that from you because they're in a position of power.

SM: Exactly.

HD: Okay let me try that: Sing for me or I'm going to hop off the teeter totter!

SM: I thought I was in control of the teeter totter, here. [laugh]

HD: Well, actually, you are. But see, I can just hop off and send you crashing to the deck. I am just kidding. You don't have to sing. I was just curious, because I'm sure it's a thing that would get to be annoying.

SM: It can be. It becomes a job. We do it obviously because we enjoy doing it, but it's not necessarily a spur of the moment thing.

HD: It's like, if an Olympic gymnast is walking down the street, and you say Oh, you're an Olympic gymnast so do me a backflip! Or you're a comedian, okay, so tell me a joke.

So, is there anything else you want to make sure that we cover while we're on the teeter totter? About Die Fledermaus production? It's going to be in English, right?

SM: It's going to be performed in English. It will be accompanied by orchestra. We always tend to get lots of phone calls asking about that.

HD: Really? What else would it be accompanied by?

SM: Piano? I don't know.

HD: Synthesizer?

SM: Exactly. Or a CD track.

HD: So, people are concerned that you might not have an orchestra.

SM: Yeah, you know we get a lot of response from people who come to the show, people who are now loyal attendees, but who at first said, Oh, we thought it would be amusing to go, we would come and see the community production of La boheme, and then they find out, Wow! This is really really great! But this one will be in English. It's a great one for the whole family, and the story is real lighthearted. I should point out, one of the special things this year is that we have a stage director from the Metropolitan Opera with us. His name is Bodo Igesz. He worked with Zeffirelli and he worked at the Metropolitan for 20 years.

HD: Now when you say "Zeffirelli" that is clearly a name that people will recognize who know this field. But to me I'm just going??

SM: You've never heard of Zeffirelli? The director?

HD: No, I'm sorry.

SM: He does a lot of movies as well.

HD: So people will be reading this talk and they'll say god, Dave has a cultural gap. [laugh] [Ed. note: Discussion of the correct spelling of Zeffirelli ensues] So he [Bodo Igesz] is there--he's a friend of our pianist and she brought him in. The singers are very excited, and that's one of the other events that we have: On Thursday he is actually doing a master class over at Westminster Presbyterian Church with a bunch of singers. And he is going to be imparting his knowledge about various operas.

HD: So he is going to be making people sing!

SM: He is going to be making people sing.

HD: And he's going to be giving them the tough love, I bet. Otherwise they won't learn anything.

SM: And the thing that is fun about that, people who come out to that event, we're calling it Opera Idol ...

HD: ... oh, no way!

SM: Each of the singers is going to be competing for a spot to sing in the gala. Die Fledermaus in Act II has this a party scene. And often times there are party crashers who come in, and they will perform as a guest, they'll come in and perform a special number ...

HD: ... so you have created a slot for the winner?

SM: We have created a slot for the winner of the Opera Idol competition. So there will be a judges panel as well ...?

HD: ... people will vote?

SM: People will get to vote.

HD: And is it like a fundraiser, too, where you pay for the right to vote?

SM: That's a good idea, we should maybe do that in the future. I think this time we were just trying to get people to get there. We're suggesting, just a suggested donation of $5 to hear him do the class.

HD: And where is I going to be?

SM: That's going to be at the Westminster Presbyterian Church.

HD: So, this party scene, where people crash the party, does this account for the adjective that I see repeated every single place that you guys have it advertised: It's a "frothy" production. I mean, what is this "frothy" business?

SM: [laugh] We'll have to ask our marketing people that. I think that "frothy" just refers to the fact--it takes place in the 1870s, and the quality of the music is very buoyant and exuberant. It's nothing heavy, the whole thing is very, very light. It's a comedy, all about mistaken identities, infidelities, but none of it is very serious.

And I think that's where they are getting the idea of "frothy." It's just a lot of fun. So even if you're not a serious opera fan, I think that was one thing we were kind of hopefully trying to tap into so that people could come and enjoy it and it's fun even if you don't like Opera.

HD: So even for kids?

SM: Even for kids. It's a long opera, so you need a kid with a decent attention span. And you probably want to bring them to the matinee, but yeah, it's definitely family-friendly.

HD: All right, listen, thanks for riding the teeter totter.

SM: Thank you so much.