Leading the Way: Part 3 of 5 — Sawyer Craig

Gain insight into Schulich conductors and directors. These women are Leading the Way.
We’re excited to see women taking the lead on the podium and in the director’s chair. With that in mind, we’ve asked some of our graduate students a few questions about who they are, and what they do.  

Join us over the next few weeks and get to know these formidable talents as they build their careers and shape our musical landscape.  

Sawyer Craig

Sawyer Craig (Current Gr Dip in Performance) is a multidisciplinary artist, and has found herself to be equally comfortable both onstage and off. Praised as a “standout” performer (Edmonton Journal), “particularly radiant in coloratura passages” (Opera Canada), and “a bit of a renaissance woman” (UMToday), the constant in her artistic pursuits is a passion for telling stories in unique, vibrant ways.

Sawyer did her undergraduate studies at the University of British Columbia in Opera Performance, following this with a Masters degree in Voice Performance at the University of Manitoba. Past highlights include portraying Tytania in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Opera NUOVA, making her directorial debut in Winnipeg with Manitoba Underground Opera’s Lost Voices, and performing Szymanowski’s Songs of a Fairytale Princess with the UMSO.

Currently based in Montréal, Sawyer is studying stage direction at McGill’s Schulich School of Music, where she is looking forward to directing Verdi’s Un Giorno di Regno in the spring of 2021.

 Un Giorno di Regno, directed by Sawyer, is on Saturday, April 10 at 7:00 pm bit.ly/SchulichWebcasts 

Your program of study is unique. As I understand, you're the first one to be in it — is that right? How did that come about?

I am the first one! It's a Graduate Diploma in Stage Direction for Opera. Essentially, I have a friend who was in the Masters program last year as a singer and knew I was pursuing directing. He heard Patrick Hansen, the Director of Opera Studies, talking about starting exactly this program and messaged me about it. I wrote an email to Patrick introducing myself, and asked to audition if such a program was in the works — and then that's exactly what happened. It must have gone alright, because then I ended up here, assisting and working on what has been a really ambitious and exciting season of music theatre!

Is there a moment that brought you to now — one that changed your course or confirmed it?  

I tend to see it as sort of a series of extremely fortunate events that brought me here, as opposed to any single moment. I have an incredibly supportive family, and I’ve been lucky enough to be surrounded by just crazily generous colleagues and mentors. The people I learn from and collaborate with really have inspired me every step of the way. 
If I had to choose one sort of defining artistic experience, it would be singing Szymanowski’s Songs of a Fairytale Princess with the University of Manitoba Symphony Orchestra in November 2019. It’s a bit ironic I suppose, for a director to choose that, as it wasn’t a staged performance. Nevertheless, the stars sort of aligned for me with those vivid, wildly expressive and challenging pieces, and the really beautiful way the collaboration happened with the orchestra and our conductor, Naomi Woo. They made me brave, and I do think that’s had a big impact on me as a director. It taught me how I want to lead, when I sit at the table.

What do you see as the role and responsibility of a conductor/director?   

For me, I think I’m happiest when I frame myself as a guide. I have a bit of an obsession with story structure, and I try to use that to build bridges between the audience and performers. Opera has a beautiful emotional immediacy as a medium; it’s more accessible than I think most people would think, at first glance or listen. I really aim to capitalize on that, staging things in a way that emphasizes our shared humanity and feels authentic. It’s also important to me (especially with my background as a singing actor myself!) to empower the people I work with and create an environment where they can really excel as storytellers.

What’s the toughest thing about directing? What’s the easiest/most fun?  

The toughest thing for me will always be taking things out! Cutting things, whether it be lines of recit, a ballet, or (perhaps worst of all) a good comedic bit, always hurts my heart. But it’s almost always a necessary part of the process. I’m somewhat of a maximalist by nature, someone who would blissfully sit through the full four hour version of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, but I do understand that that can be a bit too much of a commitment for the average operatic newbie. So balancing cuts and editing down a production is always my challenge.

What advice would you give to your starting-at-university self?   

I wish I could tell her not to waste so much energy worrying about being some unspecified measure of “good enough.” There is a slightly terrifying aura of scarcity that is hard to escape as a beginning singer, and I wish I could have learned earlier that in art (cliché as it may sound), abundance really is a state of mind. I would have had a lot more joy in those early scary days if I had known that.

What was the most surprising thing you learned during your degree?  

It’s maybe a bit silly, but I've learned that it’s not (too) crazy to pursue directing and singing, at a high level, simultaneously. I had always sort of carefully siloed those interests separately until I arrived at McGill, afraid that if I really went for it as a director, I wouldn’t be seen as taking my singing seriously, or vice-versa. At Schulich, it’s been an incredible relief, and enormously freeing, to be supported as an artist who does both.

Tell me a little about the upcoming production you're directing.  What makes you excited about it?   

What I love the most about Un Giorno di Regno is the bubbly, ridiculous, joyful comedy of it. I think audiences don’t often go to an opera expecting to laugh, because opera has this sort of prestigious, classist reputation. I’ve taken it as a personal challenge to make sure we subvert that expectation with this show. Jennifer Szeto, the brilliant pianist coaching and playing the show, described the aesthetic as "high art with lowbrow sensibilities", and that makes for a really delicious contrast. Plot-wise it shares a lot of story beats with my favorite rom-coms, and Verdi’s score is just fantastic and crackling with energy. My prep for it has really been a joy, and I think that will show in the performance.  

If you had a mantra/philosophy/phrase that sums up where you are now, what would it be?   

I say “be the cowboy” to myself a lot these days. I picked up the phrase from a Mitski album, and basically it reminds me to be bold, and take big swings. When things are as difficult and changeable as they are now, it can feel impossible to invite risk. I tend to be a bit careful at the best of times, so this past year, invoking my inner Calamity Jane has been essential. 

Dream piece to direct?  

It’s near impossible to choose! The aforementioned Marriage of Figaro, looms large, because it’s so richly drawn, and the characters feel so real to me. Really any of the Mozart/Da Ponte operas would be a dream come true. They’re just masterpieces, but they still leave room for interpretation and lots of play in their presentation. I’ve also always loved Poulenc’s delightfully bizarre Les Mamelles de Tirésias,  because of, really, everything about it. I love the strange and ridiculous in opera.

Conductor(s) / directors / leaders you admire? 

Obviously my teachers at Schulich, especially Patrick Hansen, come to mind. Their support and trust in me throughout this crazy year has been huge. I also met Aria Umezawa this year, and I’ve been a massive fan of hers for a while now. Her thoughts about process, ways of leading, and what opera can be, have really reframed how I approach directing. I also was able to be at a zoom lecture hosted by Barbara Hannigan this past year, who I’ve looked up to for years because she seems so unlimited in her approach to creating. Listening to her speak about balancing all her different roles (singer, conductor, director) was so affirming.

What do you want to see/hear more of in your field?  

I would love to see more new works exploring two areas: comedy and horror. I think we often feel pressure to make serious, “worthy” art, and I find that this means a lot of new opera lives more in sort of the drama genre. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I look at the types of story we tell, and who is represented how in those stories, and I think there’s a diversity that’s often missing. I love comedy and horror specifically because both genres can be leveraged to subvert audience expectation, our “defaults”, in ways that I think are exciting. 

Un Giorno di Regno, directed by Sawyer, is on Saturday, April 10 at 7:00 pm bit.ly/SchulichWebcasts

Stay tuned...
In the next couple of weeks you'll meet Nila Rajagopal and Melissa Tardif.

Read Leading the Way: Part 1 of 5 — Kelly Lin here
Read Leading the Way: Part 2 of 5 — Angela Hemingway here
Read Leading the Way: Part 4 of 5 — Melissa Tardif here
Read Leading the Way: Part 5 of 5 — Nila Rajagopal here


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