Sawyer Craig is Uncommon
"She's a bit of a Renaissance woman."
It’s safe to say that if you’ve been to an opera performance in the past few years, you’ve noticed Sawyer Craig. Whether in Opera NUOVA’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as Tytania, performing a operatic duet while roller-skating (not a typo) in last year’s Desautels Faculty of Music Opera Scenes, in Flipside Opera’s “Opera by the Pint” where she sang in the musical styling of a cat (also not a typo), or in Manitoba Underground Opera’s production of The triumph of truth and time as La Bellezza, Craig has the kind of voice and stage presence that you sit up and notice.
The tireless coloratura soprano, who graduated from the Desautels Faculty of Music last spring with her Master of Music in Voice Performance, and who will be performing as the soloist with the University of Manitoba Symphony Orchestra on November 27, 2019, seems to be able to do it all flawlessly and memorably. However, performing hasn’t always been easy.
“The first performance I actually remember was a choir concert when I was maybe 8 years old,” says Craig.
“It was memorable mostly because I actually fainted and fell off the risers,” she laughs.
But we all learn valuable lessons from our mistakes, and Craig is no different.
“That was pretty mortifying, but I guess not mortifying enough to stop me from singing! I just eat a banana before I perform these days,” she quips.
While Craig has sung for most of her life, and had a wonderful family who supported her talents, she didn’t really consider a career in music when she graduated from high school.
“I was all set to do a general sciences degree,” she said of her initial plans for university.
Thankfully for all of us who have heard her sing, those plans changed.
“I had a bit of an epiphany as I was going through the university application and admissions process,” she says.
“It sounds a bit silly, but I realized that I could fail even if I chose to pursue what I perceived as the ‘safe’ or ‘normal’ thing, and I figured if I was going to risk failure and rejection either way, I at least wanted to fail at something I was really passionate about. Thinking that way, a life in the arts made perfect sense,” she says.
Spoiler alert: she hasn’t done much failing.
Coming to Desautels
Craig, who earned her Bachelor of Music in Opera from the University of British Columbia in 2015, decided to pursue an advanced degree after graduating.
“I came out of my undergrad with the knowledge that I needed to strengthen my process and technique, and I knew from my time at various summer programs that the singers studying at the University of Manitoba were strong in those areas,” she says of her reason for choosing the Desautels Faculty of Music.
“I kind of just knew that as an artist, the Desautels Faculty of Music was where I needed to be,” she says.
She hasn’t regretted that decision.
“I really loved and felt nurtured by my time in the M.Mus. program,” says Craig.
“As far as my favourite classes go, Mel Braun’s oratorio course is amazing, and I loved Song Interpretations. I also took Directing with Katherine Twaddle, and that opened me up to so many new ideas,” she says.
“It’s difficult to say what the most important advice I’ve been given is, because my mentors were so incredibly generous and wise,” Craig says of what she’s learned from her time working with Desautels Faculty of Music instructors and profesors.
“They gave me – and honestly, continue to give me – so much. When I’m stressed, I always remember Mel’s advice – specifically, the nugget about singing being a twelve-step program. Laura Loewen always empowers me to make bigger choices musically, and then to own them. And my main voice teacher, Monica Huisman, has always been such an amazing guide towards singing – and living – really honestly, and being true to my own instrument. I couldn’t be more grateful. I’ve been very lucky,” she says.
Monica Huisman, Craig’s major practical study instructor, has equally glowing things to say about her.
“Sawyer possesses a truly wonderful instrument with such potential – such an easy coloratura, with a very unique sparkle to her sound,” says Huisman.
“She is so musical and creative. She thrives off of poetry, and really sees singing as an art that is across a broad spectrum. Her passion is the deeper meaning behind the music, and she is incredibly smart. The journey we were on in her degree was equal parts sweat, determination and trust. She performed the role of Tytania in ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ by Britten this last summer, at Opera Nuova, and she delivered with such poise and artistry.” She adds.
“There has been such growth to this young singer, and that, combined with her incredible developing directing skills, whatever capacity she pursues this art form in, she will succeed,” Huisman says finally.
The concerto competition
While Craig has been successful throughout her academic career, she had her eye on the Desautels Faculty of Music’s concerto competition. The annual competition, in which students compete for the opportunity to perform as soloists with either the University of Manitoba Symphony Orchestra or Wind Ensemble, is a big deal for musicians. Young musicians don’t often have the chance to be accompanied by full orchestration of a piece, and, as a result, Desautels students jump at the chance. Craig sailed through the 2018 preliminary round and went on to the finals.
“The finals themselves felt special. I really loved and felt challenged by my repertoire, and I was truly in such great company,” says Craig of the final competition night.
“I honestly didn’t expect to win, because I had the chance to listen to some of my colleagues’ performances that night, and I was just blown away by their art,” she says.
“When my name was called, it was a bit of a shock, but, of course, a happy one, made all the better because I shared the win with some of my closest friends!” she adds.
Where does she find the time?
While Craig has worked this past year to prepare for her performance with UMSO, that’s hardly been the only thing on her plate.
In addition to performing with Opera NUOVA this past summer, Craig was asked to be the stage manager and assistant director of the Desautels Chamber Opera Group’s production of Rodrigo, by G.F. Handel, which was performed earlier this month.
“I loved the experience,” Craig says. “Both jobs are about facilitating and supporting other artists’ work, which is one of my favourite parts of working on stage, as well,” she says.
“I find all three skill sets – singing, directing, and managing – really feed each other. I get insight as a director from my singing and insight as a singer from directing,” she says.
“Sawyer is a multidisciplinary artist and a bit of a renaissance woman,” says Katherine Twaddle, who is the coordinator for Opera for the Desautels Faculty of Music, and the director of Rodrigo.
“In addition to her talent as a singer Sawyer has vision and skill in stage directing, hair and makeup, costume and design concepts. I’m pretty sure there is some dance in there too. She brings her all-encompassing vision to her singing performances. With her directing, as in her singing, Sawyer’s innovative ideas are inspired by the composer, so there is a wonderful synthesis between the visual and the musical in her productions. Her imagination takes her outside the box but is firmly rooted in the music and text,” adds Twaddle.
Preparing to be “Uncommon”
Craig has been practicing for the past year for her performance with UMSO, and will be performing Six Songs for a Fairytale Princess, by Karol Szymanowski, with poems by Zofia Szymanowski, and also Je t’aime, by Isabelle Aboulker.
“[The pieces] were suggested by my teacher Monica Huisman, and I chose them because, honestly, after I discovered them, I just wanted so desperately to sing them,” says Craig.
“They’re these incredibly unique, romantic, hauntingly beautiful, gorgeously orchestrated songs. I love a challenge, and these songs really provided that with the sort of dynamic and linguistic demands they present. The poems describe these sort of otherworldly, dark fairy tales,” she says.
And, for someone who can sing in roller skates (let alone stand up in them), and meows opera, why not add a few additional challenges?
“They are in Polish, a language I’ve never had the opportunity to tackle before. So my preparation has really been about exploring how I can meet those challenges and hopefully let the audience into the really fascinating and descriptive world of this music,” says Craig.
“Then the Aboulker is just pure fun – the composer describes it as a “vocalise for distraught soprano” and it has a hilarious sense of melodrama. It’s a joy to sing, and I can’t believe I get to do it with the orchestra!” she smiles.
Craig’s performance will be part of the Uncommon Women” UMSO concert, which features a number of women composers, including Joan Tower (Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman No. 6), Ethel Smyth (Serenade in D Major), and Isabelle Aboulker (Je t’aime).
UMSO director Naomi Woo has worked on research projects that sought to revive works by women artists who have been historically overlooked. While Uncommon Women is not directly related to Woo’s ongoing work to highlight great music that has gone untouched due to historical gender bias, it’s part of a larger theme.
“I am definitely interested in is how much amazing music there is by women that rarely gets performed, and all the structural reasons why that neglect is the case,” says Woo.
“In my other projects on women artists, a common theme has been presenting women’s work in a way that isn’t necessarily just related to the fact that they are women, but rather focuses on why their work is so valuable, important, and worth presenting,” she says.
“For example, in A Certain Sense of Order, created collaboratively with Sasha Amaya and Catherine Kontz, we were interested in presenting the poet Anne Sexton in a way that focused on her poetry, rather than just her – admittedly interesting – life story,” says Woo.
“Likewise, an ongoing project with poet Sophie Seita involves re-performing the works of female artists, poets, musicians, et cetera, including Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and Pauline Oliveros, and really focuses on the music,” she adds.
“In this concert, one of the reasons to take Joan Tower’s title of ‘Uncommon Women’ is that so often, women’s music gets lumped together as if it were all one common thing,” says Woo.
“There’s not just one ‘common style’ of being a female composer,” she says. “This music is all worth playing because it is really good music.”
“It seems likely to me that every female artist has encountered barriers or dealt with prejudice based on gender at some point or another,” says Craig.
“We’ve come a long way in the world of western art music, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a long way to go, and work still to be done. The fact is, the history of classical music is overwhelmingly male, overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly European. In terms of representation, it’s dominated by a narrow point of view,” she adds.
“That isn’t to take anything away from the great, well-known composers of the classical canon. My favorites include Strauss and Mozart, and always will. But I do think it’s important to be mindful that that’s sort of baked into the culture. I don’t know how qualified I am to give advice about how to be a good ally, because I myself am very privileged, and am just doing my best to stay open and listen, and to put forward diverse voices in my own work,” says Craig.
Are there any composers Craig thinks more people should know about?
“Oh, there are maybe too many to count!” she says.
“If you haven’t heard any of Lili Boulanger’s works, you’re missing out! I’m working on her cycle Clarières dans le Ciel right now, but there are also so many brilliant contemporary composers and so many really excellent female performers, too many to name. To do this question justice I’d need to write a book!” she exclaims.
Well, given what we know about her work ethic, talent, and diverse musical interests, the Desautels Faculty of Music wouldn’t be at all surprised if Sawyer Craig also added “author” to her growing list of achievements!
You can hear Sawyer Craig and the University of Manitoba Symphony Orchestra perform Uncommon Women on Wednesday, November 27, 2019 at 7:30pm, at Westminster United Church, 745 Westminster Avenue, Winnipeg, MB. Tickets are $15 for adults, and $5 for students. You can also learn more about Sawyer’s work on her website: https://www.sawyercraigsoprano.com/