6/5/2019 0 Comments
Six years ago, I had just wrapped up my MFA degree at the University of Iowa. Upon moving back to Minneapolis, I was quickly snatched up to teach on the faculty of a local university theatre program. During my summer orientation, the chair of the theatre program introduced me to four students who were entering the program that coming fall. One of those students turned out to be Sarah Modena! Immediately, Sarah and I clicked, and in the two years that I was on faculty, we collaborated on multiple productions and projects. I still remember the day that Sarah came in to audition for my 2014 production of Rat’s Tales. It was here that Sarah sang for me for the first time, and I still remember the chills-up-my-spine-feeling and just being completely gobsmacked by her pure, gorgeous singing voice. When I founded Collective Unconscious, I knew that I wanted Sarah involved in our work, and I’ve enjoyed the evolution of our professional collaboration. With each new Collective Unconscious production, I’ve tried to find new ways to continually challenge Sarah. With our fall production of Into the Darkness, Sarah will be taking on multiple new roles--singing, playing the piano, and music directing. Earlier this week, I sat down with Sarah to chat about her new roles for this production, and the process of workshopping the songs with composer-lyricist Dan Dukich this past May. Here is an excerpt from our conversation together...
DAVID HANZAL: Can you tell me about the first time that you heard music that deeply affected you?
SARAH MODENA: I heard music a lot in church growing up. It was the same kind of sound all of the time, but it was really pretty. The first time, though, that music really affected me was watching The Nutcracker. Tchaikovsky’s music was so dramatic and conveyed so many emotions--I didn't realize that instruments could sound like that!
DH: When did you start making music yourself?
SM: There are lots of videos of me as a little kid constantly banging on the piano and singing. My parents had me start taking piano lessons when I was six, and I kept on studying through high school. Growing up, I also studied viola, guitar, hand bells, and organ. Church was also a big influence and something that I was really highly involved in all through high school. I was in church choir all growing up.
DH: When did you start studying voice?
SM: When I was fifteen, I began attending North Hennepin Community College and I auditioned for chamber choir. I don’t think my voice was well developed or particularly good, but Karla Miller [the director] liked me and she could tell I had an ear for music and harmonies. From then on, I started taking other voice classes and acting in musicals. Eventually, I transferred to Minnesota State University Moorhead for a year. It was there that my teachers started talking to me about pursuing operatic training, due to the quality and color of my voice. They told me that I needed to really kick it into gear and get into a conservatory before I got too old. Even though opera might have been something I could have been really successful at, I was more passionate about theatre so I didn’t pursue opera beyond a few years of private voice lessons with Judy Bender.
DH: You’ve performed in every Collective Unconscious production since our inception. Into the Darkness will be unique in that for the first time you won’t be playing a character onstage, and instead you’ll be wearing several other hats--singer, pianist, and music director. In these new roles, what has been the biggest challenge so far?
SM: Learning--and helping notate--Dan [Dukich]’s songs. I love Dan’s songs--they are poetic and ethereal, and the melodies are soaring and beautiful. But while Dan’s music is really beautiful, it’s also really hard. He doesn’t take shortcuts or write in easy keys There are lots of sudden key changes and time signature changes, as well as vocal harmonies that you can’t learn by ear.
DH: Dan is a very experienced singer-songwriter and sound designer, but I believe Into the Darkness is the first time that other people are singing and playing his music without him. Because of this, we had to spend time notating everything for you and the other musicians. I noticed that during the May workshop that you worked very closely with Dan in notating the vocal music, as well as the piano accompaniment. What was that process like for you?
SM: Initially, I thought I could just listen to Dan’s demo recordings and that I’d be able to pick it up by ear from the basic chord structure. It wasn’t like that at all because his music is very specific and complicated. It turned out that we actually had to notate every single note, and we had to painstakingly go measure by measure to make sure it was exactly correct. Dan had partially notated some of the songs in a way that made sense to him, but he didn’t always know how to put his vision on to the paper--but he always knew what he wanted it to sound like. I had to fill in the rhythms for him, which is hard when the time signature is constantly changing. During the workshop, we worked hand in hand--I would often sing or play options, and he would say yes or no, and then we would transcribe that down on the paper so that it would make sense to another singer.
DH: Over the past four years, you’ve been very closely involved with all of Collective Unconscious’ work, and you’re considered one of our “Core Collaborators.” What is it like being a member of a company, versus a one-off collaborator?
SM: I enjoy both kinds of experiences. As a company member, I enjoy the rapport, trust, and shorthand that we can have. Something that I particularly value about working with Collective Unconscious is the importance of people’s energies and what they bring into the room that’s not just raw talent--kindness and a willingness to be on a team is valued as much as training and a good work ethic. It makes the rehearsal process a lot more enjoyable as an actor, and I can’t wait to see how it will be as a music director!
To support artists like Sarah working on our upcoming fall production of Into the Darkness, please consider making a tax-deductible gift on our GiveMN page here. Thank you for your support!
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