Lezlie Sterling

Opera singer Carrie Hennessey studies a score while her son, Aidan, 11, does homework.

Sacramento opera singer juggles parenting, performing

Published: Sunday, Feb. 17, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 4AANDE

The life of an opera singer is no party.

There is a voice to safeguard, languages to learn and all that traveling.

Add parenting to that mix, and you've entered a whole other realm of difficulties.

Unlike classical musicians, many of whom are in concerts by their late teens or early 20s, singing opera is mostly the purview of the mature artist in his or her late 20s, 30s or 40s. That means many opera singers are bringing up children.

Such is the status of Sacramento-based soprano Carrie Hennessey.

For Hennessey, 38, developing a fledgling opera career and raising an 11-year-old son and a 13-year-old daughter is a challenge.

"I use every second of every day," said Hennessey, who will sing the role of Lauretta in the Sacramento Opera's upcoming performance of Puccini's "Gianni Schicchi" at the Community Center Theater. That one-act opera, originally destined as part of a triptych of three one-act operas called "Il Trittico," will be preceded by "Puccini: The Man & His Muses," a set of fully staged and costumed vignettes of arias and duets from works such as "Madama Butterfly," "Tosca," "La Bohème" and "Turandot." Michael Morgan will conduct.

For Hennessey the only way to pull off dual roles of parent and opera singer is to rely heavily on Google Calendar and be savvy at multitasking.

When she is at the gym, she is tackling the treadmill while reading an opera score. As she moves on to the free weights, she dons headphones, pumps iron and listens to opera performances. "That helps me get the full scope of a piece. I focus on the orchestration," she said.

It gets trickier when she assumes the role of mother, because Hennessey is intent on giving her kids the full attention parenting demands.

Her day begins at 6 a.m. in the Natomas home she shares with her husband as she preps son and daughter for school. By 7:30 a.m., they are gone, and she is off to the gym.

"When I get home from the gym I have to make sure to take two or three hours (to) shove myself into a practice room," she said.

Hennessey practices from about 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Then begins her daily routine of teaching private students. She may coach at a Sacramento Children's Chorus rehearsal, especially when choristers are cast in opera productions. (In 2011 the chorus performed in the Sacramento Opera's "Il Pagliacci.")

Then she's back home to cook dinner. "The crockpot is my best friend," Hennessey said.

When cooking she likes to include her son in the process. They hunt for recipes. It's important bonding time, and the offshoot is that meals get made, she said. After dinner, homework commences. "This is where I make sure that all projects are on track."

The homework sessions are typically done at the dinner table with both kids present and Hennessey doing homework of her own, foreign dictionary in hand to complete language study for upcoming opera projects. Because Hennessey's daughter is studying the trumpet, the two will work together on that.

After 8 p.m., Hennessey pores over opera scores again. At 9 the kids are in bed.

"Thereafter it's hubby time. This a winding-down time where we might have a glass of wine, and watch 'Downton Abbey,' " Hennessey said. "It's a way of keeping the marriage together; it's our time to communicate and a perfect way to end the evening."

That full schedule is likely the norm for many opera singers. The cast being assembled for "Schicchi" and the staged arias and duets includes Brian Banion, who is cast as Simone in "Schicchi," soprano Marie Plette, who sings La Ciesca, and soprano Leslie Sandefur, who will sing the staged arias and duets with other singers. All three are juggling parenting with opera careers.

"The life of an opera singer is a difficult one to begin with, and especially so for singers who are parents," said Rod Gideons, general director for the Sacramento Opera. "Few are cut out for the demands of being on the road and away from loved ones for extended periods of time."

One who is: 40-year-old Banion, who makes his West Coast debut with "Schicchi." He has a 10-year-old daughter he raises with his wife in Columbus, Ohio.

Banion will have spent a complete month in Sacramento by the time the opera is done.

"This is the first time I've worked in the Pacific time zone, so it's been a real challenge trying to find the right time to communicate with my daughter, given my rehearsal schedule."

For the production, he rehearses from 2 to 5 p.m. and again from 6 to 9:30 p.m. The only time he can catch his daughter at home is during his dinner window, if her schedule allows, he said.

Banion describes his touring time as an opera singer as a "lonely and unglamorous experience." But he also believes that doing the work of opera singer is easier away from home.

"When on the road, you dedicate all your time to the production, but when you're home you have the production work added to your parenting schedule – and I find that much more stressful," Banion said.

Hennessey has also endured lonely times on the road. "When I started with a theater group in 2007 that's when things got tricky. I was missing that birthday party and other things," she said.

But she believes being an opera mom also brings great benefits.

"Now my kids are older and more flexible. They've been to a lot of my rehearsals; they've been to my shows, and met directors and conductors," she said. "They get the 'close up and personal,' and that's something a lot of kids don't get to do."


PUCCINI: THE MAN & HIS MUSES AND GIANNI SCHICCHI

When: 8 p.m. Friday; 2 p.m. next Sunday

Where: Community Center Theater, 1301 L St., Sacramento

Tickets: $19-$119

Information: (916) 737-1000; www.sacopera.org

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Read more articles by Edward Ortiz



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