An Interview with Kara Cornell

Editor's note: Kara Cornell, former Cameratan extraordinaire, was staying in the Rollett Home for Wayward Musicians while she performed in Opera Theater's production of Orfeo these past few weeks, and it seemed like a good chance to catch up with her.  Although we have been in touch since she left Pittsburgh, I realized that I didn't really have a timeline for her since she graduated. The picture is from the 1999 Madrigal dinner at LaRoche College - Kara is in the middle, along with other disreputable characters, sorry, I mean former singers Joe Haughton, Petra Dierkes-Thrun, Adrian Rollett, and Ken Kumpf.   A more recent and possibly equally unflattering photo of Kara can be found below.  Here is the whole scoop, and remember, you saw it here first:

Rebecca Rollett:  Tell us what you've done since you left the Camerata.  You graduated from CMU in...

Kara Cornell:  2002.  At that point I moved back to Long Island with my parents, and went to Stonybrook University for my masters degree.  I continued to live in Long Island, and ended up being hired for four productions. Their mezzo would get sick or be deported, and since I learn music really fast, they would think of me.  I lived there until 2006, when I moved to Albany to be with my then boyfriend, now husband Ben.

Note from RR - since this is mainly about Kara's musical career, we won't go into a lot of personal details.  However, I can't resist telling you that besides developing a voice studio on Long Island, Kara during this time became a Cat Whisperer.  Her mom was (and still is) involved with an animal shelter, and they had a lot of feral cats that couldn't be adopted out unless they could be socialized.  It turns out that Kara has a gift for turning even the most unpromising animals into housecats.  Unfortunately, her performing and teaching schedule precludes her from exercising these abilities now...

RR:  Fill me in on summer programs and other singer stuff:

KC:  I did the Aspen summer program in 2005, which is where I met my current teacher, Irene Gubrud.  I also sang with the California Music Festival in Oakland, (CA), where I sang an abridged version of Orfeo.  Other than that, I haven't done a lot of young artist programs.  My career path  hasn't been what you learn about in conservatory - I've made my own way.  I have sung a lot of leading roles with small companies.  This has been invaluable in terms of forcing me to learn roles and giving me the chance to work one on one with a lot of great directors.  On the other hand, I don't have the connections that I would have gotten had I sung in the chorus and covered roles in  big summer programs.  Those connections, however, while useful, are not what make you a good performer.

RR:  What has been your favorite (or least favorite) production you've been in since leaving school?

KC: It's hard to think of the worst one - there are so many to choose from.  I think that maybe my favorite is a production I did in 2009 with Hubbard Hall Opera Theater in Cambridge, NY.  I sang the lead in The Tragedy of Carmen.  Every since I began my undergraduate studies I was told that I would never sing Carmen, because I don't look the part.  I'm sort of tomboyish and look more like a pants role mezzo.  I proved everybody wrong in this show.  People who knew me didn't know what to think, but people who didn't know me would say things like "Wow, this is the perfect role for you.  Isn't it nice when you get cast in something that fits you so well?"  This past year I sang the role of Hansel in Hansel and Gretel for the same company, and a lot of people didn't realize that I was the same person as last year's Carmen. 

RR: What about oratorios and other choral performances? 

KC:  I've done a Judas Maccabeus (Handel,) with the Brooklyn Philharmonic, and a bajillion Messiahs.  There are a lot of choirs in the Albany area, and I've consequently been able to do a fair amount of choral work .  The largest choir is probably the Albany Pro Musica, and I have soloed with them several times now, including in the Bach St. John Passion and Corigliano's Fern Hill.  I've also performed the Christmas Oratorio, Elijah, and other oratorios with choral groups in the area.  There are really no other lyric mezzos in Albany that can sing early music, so I have a monopoly on the solo roles!

RR:  You mentioned the other day a music theater production you had done (Cinderella in Into the Woods with the St. Petersburg Opera.)  Have you done much music theater?

KC:  Most recently I sang Petra (the maid) in A Little Night Music, also with the St. Petersburg Opera.  I had to work with a music theater coach to learn how to belt in a healthy manner, especially as they were using the original orchestration that calls for a 32-piece orchestra, and we weren't amplified.  The current Broadway production is using 6 instruments. 

I really like doing good music theater.  A lot of the current are just going for shock value, and have little artistry to them, but there are many good shows with great music.

RR:  Where would you like to see yourself in a few years?  I know that you are teaching at Russell Sage College as well as performing.  Do you hope to continue the teaching?

KC:  I certainly enjoy teaching, but it is hard to reconcile a teaching schedule and a performing schedule, and I would love to make all of my living doing productions. 

RR:  Finally, thinking back to your days in the Camerata, what sticks out in your mind?

KC: Other than drinking beer on the tour buses on the way home from runout concerts, and the madrigal dinners, I would mainly say that I remember it being a lot of fun and very light hearted.  Although the Camerata sings music that non-musicians might think of as very serious, it shouldn't be this thing that is way above us, like, oh you must bow to this music.  Music like this should be a part of everyday life, and I think that is what the Camerata does.  I think I learned more in the Camerata than I did in music school, despite the fact that I had a great experience at CMU.  When I joined the group half-way through my freshman year, I didn't know how to sight-read, I didn't know anything about musicianship, and being thrown into that situation forced me to learn a lot of things very quickly.

RR:  I've always felt that a good choral experience can be a terrific learning experience, and I'm glad to hear you found this to be true.  And I've always loved what a fun group of people it is.

KC:  And after seeing the 11 pm Heinz Chapel concert I can see that not much has changed!

To find out more about Kara and keep up with her performances, check out her website at

And you can find pictures from the Heinz Chapel performance on our Facebook Fan page by clicking here: