ASU opera singer rebuilds her voice and discovers new artistic path
Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2020 graduates.
ASU graduate student Stephanie Sadownik, DMA in voice performance, started suffering from undiagnosed vocal health issues soon after she auditioned for the voice program at the School of Music in ASU’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. So, she created new opportunities and carved out new artistic pathways for herself — all while refusing to give up on her dream of performing.
“Even though my first instruments were clarinet and percussion, I always sang, especially musical theater,” she said. “I was involved in all the school plays and musicals and loved performing.”
After nearly a decade of performing as a professional singer and teaching in community music schools in Las Vegas, Sadownik came to ASU to earn her doctoral degree in music and study with mezzo-soprano Stephanie Weiss, assistant professor of voice in the ASU School of Music.
Sadownik entered the voice program at ASU with significant unidentified vocal health issues that began after her audition. During her first year and despite her vocal difficulties, she performed her DMA recital with unique chamber orchestra programming of Mahler’s “Kindertotenlieder” and Respighi’s “Il tramonto,” was a soloist with the Chamber Singers Bach concert at Tempe Center for the Arts and performed in the Music Theatre and Opera’s New Works readings of “The Halloween Tree” and “Marie Begins.”
In her second year, Sadownik was diagnosed with a disorder that caused the muscles in her neck to function incorrectly, which led to her vocal health issues. Since there was no damage to her vocal chords, she studied speech pathology exercises and with the assistance of Weiss began to rebuild her voice.
Because singing and performing were still a struggle, Sadownik focused on her other main interests: directing and entrepreneurship.
She directed the ASU Music Theatre and Opera’s student lab productions of “Trouble in Tahiti,” an original adaptation of Purcell’s “The Fairy Queen” and double-bill “Nora at the Alter-Rail” and “Hand of Bridge.”
“Stephanie is a charismatic and versatile performer, stage director and producer, and one of the most creative, innovative and energetic people I have ever met,” said Weiss. “She possesses a world-class, colorful mezzo-soprano voice, which she uses in combination with her love for acting and storytelling to become a complete artist.”
Sadownik was the assistant director to David Lefkowitch for “Les Mamelles de Tirésias” for Music Theatre and Opera. She was selected to attend the competitive Yale Summer Directing Intensive for summer 2019. And, in fall 2019, she staged Dominick Argento’s “From the Diaries of Virginia Woolf” with Duo au Courant.
“Working with Stephanie as both a singer and director was exciting as she was able to use what she has learned from me as a singer and, in turn, teach me about the character I was singing from a director’s point of view,” said Weiss. “This was an extremely special moment for me as a mentor.”
Vocally progressing in her third year, she performed the role of Zita in Music Theatre and Opera’s “Gianni Schicchi.” She designed her final voice recital, based on the works of Chausson and Elgar, as an innovative, socially-active artistic experience for the audience. In addition to singing, she was the assistant director for Arizona Opera’s “La bohème” and the director for the ASU Music Theatre and Opera New Works reading of guest artist Laura Kaminsky’s “Hometown to the World.”
Sadownik was selected as a national semifinalist for the Fulbright Award to Germany. Though she did not win, she conducted research on Emilie Mayer, an unknown but prolific German female composer, at the Berlin Library and retrieved Mayer’s manuscripts as part of her doctoral document project.
She was a graduate teaching assistant for the voice program, Weiss’ assistant in undergraduate studio classes and co-instructor for the Undergraduate Opera Scenes class. In addition to teaching at ASU, Sadownik also teaches private voice lessons at Linton-Milano Music School in Mesa. She is the artistic director and co-founder of the Arizona Women's Collaborative, an all-female-identifying new works initiative composed of singers, composers and poets, which has commissioned and premiered 10 new works to date with music and lyrics by female-identifying artists.
Before coming to ASU, Sadownik was an apprentice artist with Sarasota Opera, PORTopera and a three-time Opera Fellow at Aspen Opera Center. She received her BM in vocal performance and a minor in Italian from the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music (2006) and her MM in opera performance from the University of Maryland (2009).
Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?
Answer: My "aha" moment and introduction into classical singing occurred when I saw my first live opera, “La bohéme,” by Puccini, and was utterly spellbound and deeply moved by the singing. I had no idea one could train to sing like that, and I was very fortunate to encounter a teacher in high school who encouraged me to do so.
Q. What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?
A. Opening night of my first opera I ever directed certainly changed my creative abilities and perspective. I had never directed anything before, and this was an original adaptation of Henry Purcell’s opera “The Fairy Queen” and William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that I wrote with my musical director, Kamna Gupta. We had undergraduates and graduate students involved, a live band, choreography and it was outside. It was the most difficult project I had even taken on and I was terrified, but I threw everything I had into this production. Through the difficulty, I found immense resilience in myself, faith in my own creative sensibilities, expansion in my capabilities in team building and vast enjoyment being a director. I was so pleased and proud with how the production turned out and how well the singers performed. It built my self-confidence immeasurably, knowing what I am capable of, that my voice and ideas are valid, and sparked a passion in directing I didn’t know I had. I realized, along with being a voice teacher, I really love working with young singers in helping them discover stagecraft for themselves.
Q. Why did you choose ASU?
A. I chose ASU because of the other graduate programs offered; it seemed the most diverse as far as what classes you are able to take, performance opportunities as well as having a wonderful faculty who I greatly admired.
Q. Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?
A. My amazing voice teacher Stephanie Weiss taught me the most valuable lesson: Never give up. Singing opera is difficult at the best of times, and there are moments of vocal transition and changes that everyone goes through. It can leave one feeling a bit hopeless and frustrated. Stephanie Weiss instilled in me that even when you are having a bad singing day, month or year, just keep going one foot in front of the other and you will eventually get the other side of the mountain. This has been monumental for me in so many ways.
Q. What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?
A. Go outside of your box. ASU is one of those schools that gives its students a bit of free reign when it comes to their schedules and what they can take. I would encourage all students to get out of their comfort zones, be a part of a club that interests them that may have nothing to do with their major. Meet new people and learn how to collaborate with others. You never know whom you will strike up a conversation with or who will be your next partner in some project. The more you expand your skill set, ASU will be there to help seed your ideas and projects and see them through to fruition.
Q. What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?
A. For a school that is technically in the middle of the desert, I was surprised and pleased with the amount of greenery and fountains on the Tempe campus. Waiting between classes, I would sit at the fountain in the School of Music courtyard or a take a nice walk through campus and visit the Biodesign Garden.
Q. What are your plans after graduation?
A. My hopes are to continue building my creative life as a teacher of voice, a stage director and a producer of new works. In all the uncertainty of these times, it is difficult to know how my goals will pan out. Nevertheless, the good thing about being a musician is that one gets used to uncertainty, and at least I have more time to practice.
Q. If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?
A. As an opera singer in the United States and for many musicians, the option of a steady job with one company is not a reality. Even as a teacher, you are working as an independent contractor, not usually a company employee. This makes obtaining and keeping affordable and quality health care especially difficult. I know so many artists, including myself, who are concerned about falling ill and having no recourse. If I had to choose just one problem, I would use the $40 million to work toward a functional, affordable and reliable health care system here in the United States.