Soprano Sharon Sweet’s name became a household word in the late 1980s. Based in Berlin as a member of the Deutsche Oper, she played leading roles in high-profile German, French, and Italian operas in Europe. Following her 1989 American debut as the title role in Verdi’s “Aida” in San Francisco, she became a star at New York’s Metropolitan Opera and her singing career soared.
She settled in the Princeton area in 1999 when she became a member of the faculty at Westminster Choir College of Rider University. “I always knew I was going to teach eventually,” she says in a telephone interview from her office at the college where she is “Teaching, teaching, and teaching, and a lot of master classes.” She is also preparing for an event.
Sweet and other vocal artists are set to perform in a program of her devising called “Sharon Sweet and Friends” on Sunday, March 3, at 3 p.m. in Westminster’s Bristol Chapel. “I wanted to turn it into a benefit for Westminster’s opera program,” Sweet says. Admission is free, but priority places at $50 per seat assure contributors of a premium seat, an invitation to a post-concert reception with the artists, and the knowledge that they are supporting a segment of a major musical institution.
The program includes compositions by Richard Wagner, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Giuseppe Verdi, and Leonard Bernstein. More than half of the 11 pieces programmed are by Wagner and Verdi. Sweet sings in two excerpts from Wagner’s “Tannhauser” and one from Verdi’s “Falstaff. “I selected the program,” she says. “After all, it is a Wagner and Verdi year.” Both composers were born in 1813, 200 years ago.”
Sweet plays no part in the performances by others. “When I’m not singing, I’m not doing a thing,” she says with a laugh. “We have two great musical directors. They don’t need me to stick my fingers into things.” The musical directors are William Hobbs and J. J. Penna, both pianists.
Special guests are Kevin Langan, bass, and Tom Studebaker, tenor. The program introduces three new Westminster voice faculty members to the community: Kathy Price, soprano; Sean McCarther, baritone; and Eric Rieger, tenor. They join Westminster voice faculty members Elizabeth Sutton, soprano; Sally Wolf, soprano; Amy Zorn, alto; Elem Eley, baritone; and Tom Faracco, tenor. Performing Westminster graduate students are Kelsey Stark, soprano; Hannah Strong, mezzo soprano; Kyle Van Scheenhoven, tenor; Brian Mextorf, baritone; and Nicholas Tapley, tenor. Margaret Cusack acts as emcee.
“This is a ‘death by opera’ program,” Sweet announces, exuding cheer and an earthy sense of humor.
The March 3 program wipes out some of the difficulties that arose in the first “Sweet and Friends” concert in February, 2011. “Two years ago,” Sweet says, “there were more people in the chapel than there should have been. The fire marshals could have given us a citation. People were standing in the stairwell and sitting on the stairs. We had to turn away 150 to 200 people. This year the program will be simulcast to one of the library classrooms.”
Funds raised will go directly to the opera program to fund scholarships and other needs.
Some will be used to renovate and expand the Quonset hut known as “The Playhouse,” Westminster’s venue for opera presentations. The acoustics in the Playhouse are fine for operatic programs, Sweet says. However, the Playhouse, a World War II relic, lacks the red carpet atmosphere associated with opera. The WCC board has approved spending more than $1 million for modifying the structure, according to Sweet.
Financial support from Westminster for opera is very limited, Sweet says. “The budget for the opera program is fixed, and has been unchanged for years. It costs around $25,000 to hire an orchestra. That’s about half of the opera budget. Everything we do in the opera program comes out of that budget. That’s why we’re only able to do one production a year with orchestra. We do two full operas a year, one without orchestra. We would like to do both with orchestra. We want to give students performing experience as close to real-life as possible.”
An assistant professor of voice, soprano Sweet teaches all voice types at Westminster and knows what is easy and difficult for students. “The easiest thing to teach is to enjoy it, to embrace your love for music and for your musical gifts.”
“The hardest thing to teach,” she says, “is to embrace your gifts realistically,” in other words, to develop self-knowledge. “Sometimes students come with a preconceived idea of their voice. It’s difficult to embrace what your voice really is and what it is capable of doing. It takes time for the voice to mature; it takes time to develop your gifts; it takes time to learn to be realistic.”
Sweet tells an Arturo Toscanini anecdote: The legendary conductor once asked an unprepared oboist if he had practiced. When the oboist admitted that he had not, Toscanini observed, “Every day you don’t practice, your competition gets one day ahead of you.”
Sweet subscribes to Toscanini’s philosophy about consistent work. She says, “If you practice, everything will take care of itself.”
“You have to be ready when an opportunity presents itself. You have to realize that there is no guarantee for a career. Nobody can predict a career,” she says.
The acceptance of uncertainty was brought home to Sweet after a visit to the Ithaca College School of Music in upstate New York, where she earned a master’s degree in vocal performance. Sweet observed Leslie Bennett, her mentor, teaching a person with limited musical means. After the student left, Sweet and Bennett discussed her prospects. Bennett declared, “My crystal ball is permanently in the repair shop. I taught her the same technique that I taught you, and will let God do the rest.”
The hard-nosed Sweet underlines the importance of being able to accept rejection. “Rejection defines our character,” she says. “Rejection made my spine grow stronger. After unsuccessful auditions, I thought, ‘You guys have to deal with me because I’m coming back.’ Not giving in to rejection shows how strong the fire in your belly is.”
Sweet was born in upstate New York in 1951. Her father began a career as a lyric tenor. However, after his service in World War II, he selected to work in a leather mill and train voices on the side. She started piano at age five and studied both piano and voice as an undergraduate. Ithaca College awarded her an honorary Doctor of Music degree in 2009.
Sweet left the opera stage for Westminster Choir College in 1999 while her career was flourishing. “Both of my knees were replaced because of arthritis and I couldn’t do the stage work the way I wanted to,” she says. “Also, I was suffering from vertigo. My size contributed to my arthritis, but it’s not the reason I stopped performing. I always knew I was going to teach eventually. I started teaching a little earlier than I thought I would; God had other plans for me.” She wishes strongly that her own account of her departure from the stage would be as widely accepted as the incorrect story that she turned to teaching because her size prevented her from getting the roles that she wanted.
Sweet’s husband, John, a Presbyterian minister, has a church in the Frankford section of Philadelphia. He did graduate work at the Freie University of Berlin when Berlin was the home base for his wife’s career, and, after the family returned to the United States with their three children, finished his PhD thesis on John Milton.
“When deciding where to move after Germany, we decided on Princeton,” Sweet says. “We were attracted by the good public schools and the good music program. As a graduate of Princeton Seminary, my husband had roots here. I had to be near New York. I ‘love’ [she underlines the word with her voice] living in Princeton. It’s a great place to raise a family.”
The Princeton schools were flexible enough to allow father John Sweet to teach the Sweet children German as part of their public school education.
The Sweets have three children, all in their early 30s. Son Joshua is the eldest; twins Sarah and Zachary follow. Joshua teaches German in Downingtown, Pennsylvania. Sweet calls his 2-year-old son “the love of my life. He’s growing up with three languages, English, German, and Spanish. His mother is an immigration lawyer, fluent in Spanish. They taught him American Sign Language before he could speak.”
Son Zachary is a cellist. He plays with orchestras in the Binghamton, New York, area, and makes his solo debut in the Antonin Dvorak cello concerto this April in Ithaca. I remind Sweet that when U.S. 1 talked to her in 1998 she said that playing cello is ALL Zachary wants to do. “It’s still ALL that he wants to do,” she says.
Daughter Sarah is a singer. She and her husband have moved to Cincinnati from Minneapolis, where she was a soloist with the Exsultate Ensemble “and is getting restarted,” Sweet says. “She doesn’t want a big solo career. She says, ‘I lived it through yours, Mom.’”
Sharon Sweet and Friends, Westminster Choir College, Bristol Chapel, 101 Walnut Lane, Princeton, Sunday, March 3, 3 p.m. Admission free. For patron tickets, $50, call 609-921-7100 ext. 8213. www.rider.edu/wcc.