On February 5, 2023, soprano Mikayla Sager will sing Mimì for our upcoming Barbara K. Jackson Rising Stars of Opera program at the Mondavi Center, in collaboration with the San Francisco Opera Center. Here is a conversation we had with Mikayla about Puccini, the prestigious Adler Fellowship, auditions, opera in general, and her advice for young singers.
Christian Baldini: What are some of your favorite operas, and why?
Mikayla Sager: Some of my favorite operas are Der Rosenkavalier, La Traviata, Il Trovatore, Adriana Lecouvreur, Don Giovanni, and Eugene Onegin. I am typically drawn to operas with very fleshed out characters with interesting and dynamic relationships to one another. I love fiery, passionate roles, and have found I can either relate the role I sing/would sing from each of those operas listed.
CB: Have you worked with living composers? If so, how was that experience? If not, what would you hope to gain from such a relationship?
MS: I don’t have extensive experience working with living composers, but I have greatly enjoyed the times that I have. When I have in the past, I found it very fun to watch the creativity of a composer unfold before me, and to see how flexible things can be to suit the particular singer they are writing for. It is much easier to deeply understand the character you are portraying when the composer is in the room, and you can consistently have conversations revolving around the creation of that role.
CB: You are a part of one of the main young artist programs in the world, as an Adler Fellow for the San Francisco Opera Center. What are some of your favorite perks of this position?
MS: The Adler fellowship is a particularly unique and special program, because we are given extensive performance experience on one of the largest operatic stages in the world. I think the greatest “perk” would be knowing that you will always be given the support you need to prepare your assigned roles at the highest level, as we have access to some of the greatest coaches and mentors in the world. There are of course other perks, such as having exposure to important people in the industry, but I would say the most important thing for me personally is knowing that I am constantly supported by people with extremely sharp ears!
CB: Tell us about the auditioning process. How was your preparation for it? Is it extremely competitive? How is the atmosphere once you are in the program?
MS: The first step is applying to the Merola opera program, which is a three month long summer festival that operates adjacently to the Adler fellowship. You apply online with audio samples, and from there you are either granted an audition or asked to apply again in the future. They usually receive over a thousand applicants. From there, you audition live, and then they on average accept 25 people. During your time at Merola, you audition for San Francisco opera on the war memorial stage, and that is when they make decisions as to who will be picked for the Adler Fellowship. At the end of the summer, they notify however many people they decide to pick for the coming Adler fellowship year. In my year they picked four singers, and one pianist. It is considered extremely competitive, and you are expected when you are in the program to be always prepared and extremely professional.
CB: Why is opera important to you? What does it mean in today’s world?
MS: Opera is important to me because I think it is an art form that can make us understand each other on a deeper level. Opera evokes big emotions and revolves around subject matter that we don’t typically encounter in everyday life. For me personally, I find it can make us relate to each other beyond surface level or superficial things. I think often we can learn a lot of life lessons through the vehicle that is opera.
CB: What would you say about La Bohème, and about Mimì (or Rodolfo) to someone who does not know the opera? What should people listen for in this kind of music?
MS: La Boheme is an opera full of luscious, gorgeous lines that are extremely pleasing for the listener. Mimi is a very pure character, with a big heart and a lot of love to give. Mimi and Rodolfo’s love story is extremely heartbreaking, and has to be taken in context of the period it was written in. I think it is important for the audience to remember that because of the lack of medicine to cure Mimi’s illness, that she is an extremely selfless character and despite having absolutely nothing and in need of some help. Because we are only doing Act I, this facet of her character won’t necessarily be seen, but I do think it is important should the audience then go and see to the rest of the opera. From a musical standpoint, I think the audience should let this extremely romantic music just wash over them, and leave the hall reminded of the feeling of falling in love.
CB: Do you have any suggestions or recommendations for young singers?
MS: my biggest piece of advice to young singers is to keep your blinders up and focus on your own progress. Try to not waste time thinking about what other people are doing and focus on how you can grow your artistry.
Canadian soprano Mikayla Sager is fascinated by the richly drawn, unapologetically intense characters of the verismo repertoire. Following her recent concert performance with San Francisco Opera, the Chronicle declared her “an extraordinarily gifted young soprano… Sager delivered Desdemona’s arias with a combination of intensity and hushed majesty.” When Sager is onstage, audiences are guaranteed a multidimensional portrayal that balances authentic vulnerability and full-blooded strength.
As a second-year Adler Fellow, Sager performs on stages across California this season. In San Francisco Opera’s centennial, she appears on the War Memorial mainstage as Sister Felicité in Dialogues des Carmélites, Kate Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly, Guardian of the Temple in Die Frau ohne Schatten, and as Image No. 1 in the world premiere of Gabriela Lena Frank’s El ultimo sueño de Frida y Diego. Elsewhere, she brings her Mimì to performances with Bohème out of the Box and the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra. Additional concert appearances include The Future is Now, the Adler Fellowship’s final concert, and Eun Sun Kim Conducts Verdi, under the baton of SFO’s new music director.
Sager has previously appeared as Violetta (La traviata), Fiordiligi (Così fan tutte), Vitellia (La clemenza di Tito), Micäela(Carmen), and Donna Anna (Don Giovanni), as well as Pamina (Die Zauberflöte) and The Fox (The Cunning Little Vixen) during her education at Manhattan School of Music. Following her debut as Norina (Don Pasquale) with Venture Opera, Opera Canada praised her “edgy intensity… she augmented her vocal prowess with enviable acting skills.” Concert highlights include a concert at Festival Napa Valley, conducted by James Conlon, a Hawaii International Music Festival tour, numerous recitals, including an appearance at Carnegie Hall, and a performance at David Geffen Hall with the New York Philharmonic.
Sager has earned recognition and support from the Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonygne Foundation’s Elizabeth Connell Competition, Jensen Foundation Vocal Competition, Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions (District Winner), Vienna International Music Competition, Festival Napa Valley’s Manetti Shrem Prize, National Opera Association’s Carolyn Bailey and Dominick Argento Competition, and Gran Teatre del Liceu’s Tenor Viñas Competition in Barcelona.
Sager draws inspiration from many other art forms, include architecture and ceramics, as well as an unconventional childhood aboard a sailboat that traveled around the world. These days, her travel companion is her rescue dog Remy, whose fiery personality would suit any operatic stage.