Kara Cornell didn’t see her first opera until she was 18 and concedes: “Madam Butterfly went over my head.”
Her late and halting start, however, hasn’t hampered her much. The Long Island native and Feura Bush resident has been a staple of Hubbard Hall Opera Theater since she moved to the Capital Region in the fall of 2006. Also a busy regional performer around the country, Cornell and her colleagues at Hubbard Hall will make a rare appearance in Albany on Sunday when they perform a condensed piano production of Bizet’s “Carmen” at the University at Albany’s Performing Arts Center.
“The way I got to opera was through musical theater,” said Cornell, who moved to the area after marrying Delmar native Ben Chardy. “I think that’s a pretty common story. But that first time I went to the opera, I really didn’t understand it. Now I appreciate the drama and the music. I know how moved you can be by it.”
WHAT: A condensed production by Hubbard Hall Opera Theater
WHERE: University at Albany’s Performing Arts Center, Albany
WHEN: 3 p.m. Sunday
HOW MUCH: $10, $5 for students, faculty and seniors
MORE INFO: 442-3997, www.albany.edu
Cornell says that as a child she was a bit withdrawn and never sought any kind of spotlight.
“I auditioned for a fifth-grade play, and my teacher called my mother and told her, ‘Do you know your daughter can sing?’ ” remembered Cornell. “My mother thought she had a wrong number, because I was very shy and never said that much. I did that play, but then I really didn’t sing again until I was 15, and I probably wouldn’t have if I didn’t have good high school teachers who encouraged me.”
Cornell laughs when remembering her musical tastes in high school during the late 1980s.
“Yeah, I listened to Debbie Gibson and Richard Marx,” she said. “They were two of my favorites. But when I went to college, I got accepted at Carnegie Mellon and got a scholarship because of my voice. What could I do? You don’t turn down a scholarship, and then I became totally immersed into classical music. I came out of there knowing how to sight read, knowing languages, knowing the opera. They were the four most pivotal years of my life.”
Within that first year, Cornell had performed in “Candide,” by Leonard Bernstein, and had also sung before a large audience in Pittsburgh.
“ ‘Candide’ had one foot in opera and one foot in musical theater,” said Cornell. “Then I sang in this huge theater in downtown Pittsburgh, and it was just amazing to be in that place with a large orchestra playing while you’re singing. I was a freshman but had been picked to do professional work in the city. So even though I had never been exposed to European opera, I was learning quickly.”
After graduating, she left western Pennsylvania and headed home to Smithtown, lived with her parents and got her master’s in music at SUNY-Stony Brook. Along with performing at Stony Brook, she started performing with regional opera companies. When she moved to the Capital Region, she immediately was given an audition by Hubbard Hall Opera Theater founder Alexina Jones.
“I’ve known Kara since she started with the company, and when she first came here she had already been touring all over the country,” said Jones. “She’s a professional, and she’s been with us in some capacity every season. We pay all of our performers, and while some of our people we bring in from all over the country, we’re fortunate to have a good group of talented people like Kara right here in the Capital Region.”
The Hubbard Hall Opera Theater is held each summer in Cambridge, but the group does get together to do smaller touring shows on occasion at other times of the year. Before its Sunday afternoon performance at UAlbany, the group will put on a show tonight at the Dorset Theatre Festival in Vermont.
A classic story
“Carmen” is the story of a beguiling gypsy whose pursuit of a naive and passionate young corporal leads to seduction, obsession and betrayal. Joining Cornell in the condensed performance will be Alvaro Rodriguez as Don Jose, Patrick McNally as Zuniga, Charles Martin as Escamillo and Alexis Rodda as Micaela.
According to Frances Pallozzi Wittmann, a professor in the music department at the University at Albany, Cornell’s appearance is one of the highlights of the school’s spring semester.
“She’s a beautiful singer and very engaging on stage,” said Wittmann, quite an accomplished performer herself, having sung at the New York City Opera, Glimmerglass Opera and the Lake George Opera Festival. “She’s a very effective performer.”
Wittmann said she and Cornell have become friends since she first performed at UAlbany in 2008.
“I know her personally pretty well now, so I’m probably biased,” said Wittmann, “but she’s a very supportive and warm person. She’s very accessible to my students, and they’ve had plenty of opportunities to talk to Kara about the professional singing world. She’s very supportive.”
Cornell has ventured into the academic world, serving as an adjunct professor for The College of Saint Rose while also giving vocal lessons from her home. She’s also happy to report that her younger sister is a huge opera fan.
“She’s a freshman at college and the president of the opera club,” said Cornell. “She grew up with me doing opera, so she knows so much more about it than I did. When she went to see ‘Madame Butterfly’ I asked her what she thought and she told me ‘It was short.’ That’s quite a contrast from my reaction when I was her age.”
Cornell was recently in Fayetteville, Ark., for a three-day run of Jonathan Dove’s “Flight.” She will also be appearing at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Troy on Feb. 18, and will then head to New York City for a series of concerts later in the month.
“I don’t love the traveling, but I figure out a way to make it easier,” she said. “I want to enjoy the whole process of my career, and I love working with people who are passionate about what they’re doing and think outside the box. I would also like to get paid more, but I do really enjoy what I do. I love it.”