Interview with Mary Setrakian
Milan, November 23rd 2006
By: Eva Simontacchi
Eva Simontacchi: You are doing something
very special in your teaching because you are connecting the acting to the singing.
You do this in the States, and now you are holding classes here in Italy too, side
by side with your performing. Could you please explain how all this began?
Mary Setrakian: Well, my early days of studying
voice started in college at Stanford University. I then decided that I really wanted
to continue my studies and master my singing technique, so I went to Boston at the
New England Conservatory and received a Masters in Voice Performance. My last summer
in Boston, I went to Tanglewood which is a Music Festival in Massachussetts, and
I studied with a wonderful teacher, Phyllis Curtain. After all of this classical
study, I decided that I wanted to move to New York because I really wanted to sing
on Broadway. I met a wonderful voice teacher through Phyllis Curtain, her
name is Joan Heller. She was living near New York at the time, so I was studied
with her. She put all of the pieces together for me for a classical technique. I
really loved her work and how she approached the singing, and I thought I could
apply this technique in all the styles I wanted to sing: Classical, Musical Theatre,
Pop, Jazz, even Rock and Roll. As I pursued a musical theatre career in New York
I realized that I needed to work on my acting. I found an incredible acting teacher,
Susan Batson, who changed my life and career. She is the one who taught me
to connect my acting technique with the singing technique I had perfected. I went
on to perform on Broadway and tour with Broadway shows including "Phantom of
Miserables," the title role in "Evita," and "Hello Dolly." And
then I started teaching. You know, my first student was Nicole Kidman for
"Moulin Rouge." Nicole studies acting with Susan Batson, and Susan
said to Nicole: "You must study with Mary before the audition." So she was
my first student. We worked on connecting the acting with the singing technique.
So! this is how it came about. Then I started getting a lot of students and side
by side with my performing I was also teaching. This technique of connecting the
singing with the acting is really connecting the mind with the body. It's not separating
them. In our society today, so often, we get very disconnected. To avoid pain and
uncomfortable emotions we get very in our head, in our mental state without connecting
the body. This typically happens with singers studying technique. They want the
sound to be so good, they only think of technique and get locked in their head.
They make pretty sounds, but it has no human connection with the body. Teaching
singing with the voice and the emotions together has been a very special journey
for me. My personal dream is to share it with the world. I have always loved Italy
since I vacationed there with my family when I was 11 years old. Three years ago
I met up with a special friend who had studied at Tanglewood at the same time I
did 24 years ago, an Italian composer, Luca Francesconi. At Tanglewood he
studied with Luciano Berio while I studied with Phyllis Curtain. Luca's
work inspires me so much, meeting him again and hearing his work with the LA Philharmonic,
"Colbalt, Scarlett, Two Colors of Dawn," I got a burning desire to come to
Italy again. Fate must have heard me, because a few months later, a wonderful Roman
actor, Domenico Stante, found me on my website. He was looking for a voice
teacher in New York. He saw that I was teaching a course at Black Nexxus,
Susan Batson's Acting Studo. We corresponded through e-mail and he came to
New York and studied with me for the month during my course. It was just wonderful!
He went back to Rome, and I wrote him an e-mail, and said: "You know? I've always
wanted to come to Italy to teach and perform", and with that he said, "Well,
I've always wanted to produce, and I love this technique of connecting the acting
with the singing." He immediately scheduled a course. I do concerts with orchestras
and little concerts that I call my "Salons," so he also scheduled two Salons
for me at "L'Arciliuto" in Rome in Piazza Navona. That was almost two years
ago. I have returned now to Italy eight times and have taught over twelve courses.
It's just been so special to share this with actors and singers here in Italy. That's
how it all came about.
E.S.: We would all like to know more about you.
How did it all start when you were a little girl? How were you driven or attracted
into this world of music and acting?
M.S.: Oh, what a great question! I come from a very
musical family. Both my mother and my father are fantastic singers. My mom is English,
Scotch Irish, and my dad is Armenian. My dad's mother, Roxanna Setrakian,
was match-marriaged to my grandfather Arpoxit Setrakian when she was fifteen
and he was thirty-two. Well, she never had more than a grammar school education,
but she was an opera singer!...and a two handicap in golf...and an expert in Asian
art. She was a brilliant woman! And my father just loved singing. I think he would
have loved to have been a professional singer and actor, but he went into the family
business in grapes and wine. I remember him when I was three years old, with my
three brothers. He'd put us around a microphone and we would all sing together.
I have these wonderful audio tapes of me singing when I'm three and a half a duet
with my dad "I want a girl just like the girl that married dear old dad"
singing my heart out with my dad playing the ukulele. So, he's the one that instilled
this wonderful love of music. I think that I was born to do what I'm doing, and
I'm so lucky because he always gave me the permission – and my mother too – to pursue
this very difficult but fantastic career. Difficult because there's a lot of rejection
along the way. You have to keep hanging in there, but I've been very supported by
my family for this love of music. So I'm very grateful!
E.S.: Let's go back to your courses here in Italy.
How are you going to organize the classes? Are you going to follow a program so
that the students might follow your classes each time you come back?
M.S.: Since I started this work in Italy almost 2 years
ago, I have a lot of students who return and do the course again and again as well
as brand new students in the workshop. I'm always bringing each student to their
own personal new level in the 5 day workshop (all in one week). In the class, there
are professional singers who are working right now professionally in Italy; and,
in the class, I have students who are making their debut singing--they've never
sung in their life in front of anybody before. Perhaps an actor, a writer, a composer.
I do this combination of different levels in the class on purpose. I think it's
very important. Often a student who is an actor but who's never sung before can
take his acting technique and apply it to their singing immediately. Often the professional
singers are very in their head about the technique. And for them to see a brand
new student who's never sung in their life connect their acting with their voice
and see the results and how gorgeous and amazing and profound it is, is an incredible
learning tool. Also for the actor, to see the singer with this gorgeous voice connecting
their acting for the first time and taking that courageous step is a gift. So the
combination is quite interesting. Yes, I always am thinking ahead of everybody growing
to their next level, whatever that is. I really try to be very individual with each
student. I don't just do a general class and everybody gets the same exact work.
Every student has a different issue, whether it be about their acting technique,
their singing technique, connecting it, tension in different places...everybody
holds their body differently, everybody is a different instrument. That's the other
wonderful thing about the voice: that your body is your instrument, and there's
nobody exactly like you. So it's quite a wonderful process. I find that in the classes
the support of each student for the other students makes the growth in only five
days dynamic. I'm am always surprised myself how fast the growth is. Almost more
than you'd get in a private lesson.
E.S.: I agree, I saw that with my own eyes.
M.S.: Yes, you did. And I make sure that it is a very
supportive atmosphere. We're really in this together. It's not about competition...
And you know, sometimes we get jealous of each another: "I want to be like you!"
and that's a wonderful thing to confess, but we're really there for each other to
each one trying to grow to the new level.
E.S.: Can you give some specifics about the technique
of connecting the mind and the body for our readers?
M.S.: The specific voice technique is of course an
intrigal part of my work. This is the typical job of a voice teacher, which is to
teach the student how to breathe correctly, how to support, and how to connect these
two things, breath and support, with the voice. There are many different theories
from different teachers. Some teachers I agree with, some teachers techniques I've
heard of I think can actually hurt the singer.
technique I give to my students goes hand in hand with how the body really works,
so when you get it right, it's easy! It's what the body wants! Next I immediately
connect these technical aspects of singing with the acting. For example, the "need."
The need is something very important in Susan Batson's work, and in my work. And
the need is something you have when you're a little child. A need to be loved, a
need to be seen, a need to be heard, a need to be somebody. There are all sorts
of different needs, and the actor is to connect to the need sensation and sing and
speak through that sensation. So this is again connecting the mind with the body,
and it's very profound because something magical happens. It makes the voice sound
even more delicious. This sound is something that I can't teach...It happens because
you are speaking through the sensation of the body with the technical aspects of
the mind, but they're both immediately connected. It's very, very powerful. And
then it becomes universal. The audience is immediately drawn into the story and
connected to the same need. The people in the audience are released. It's very powerful
E.S.: I believe you are going to come back to Italy
in February. Have you scheduled other courses in Milano and Rome?
M.S.: Yes. End of February, March. And, as you know,
I've just done my very first concert with big band in Milano, and I'm hoping to
sing more concerts with orchestra, big band, different groups, yes! I am planning
E.S.: Then, of course, at the end of the course,
there's the student showcase.
M.S.: Yes, the student showcase. I always perform at
the student showcase as well because I want to have the students know that the work
that I'm teaching is the work that I do too. And it's very important for me to show
the students that they have this permission to take this step and have this courage.
There's an intimacy in this work. I think is very special. It makes the performance
more than just a pretty sound. It's human. It's humanity. My dream is to help each
student live in their God given potential--to live in their potential as an artist,
as a human being, and share this with the world. And our world needs this very much...to
be healed...to be released...to be given hope. This can happen through the art of
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Publishing Date: 03/02/2007