“Carmen” and “Don Pasquale” may be alternating onstage at the opera this weekend, but that won’t stop cast members in the two operas from fraternizing. Daniela Mack and Alek Shrader, who are playing, respectively, the title role in “Carmen,” and Ernesto, the male protagonist in “Don Pasquale,” will most definitely be sleeping together. They happen to be married.
If it’s not romantic enough that they met playing Cinderella and Prince Charming in Rossini’s “La Cenerentola” in San Francisco, here are a few other Mack & Shrader love nuggets:
*At final dress rehearsal, as Mack was about to go onstage to sing her climactic and most challenging aria in the aforementioned “La Cenerentola,” Shrader, standing next to her in the wings, blurted out that he had feelings for her. Bad timing, maybe, but Mack said “I went on with my heart racing. I was riding high. ‘He likes me.’” It was in the parking lot, after the last performance, that he asked her to “go steady.”
*Mack unwittingly delivered her own engagement ring from the United States to Europe, where Shrader was working. Shrader’s sister had asked her to carry a wrapped “Christmas gift” from home in her luggage. Shrader proposed on Christmas Eve.
*In a production of “Idomeneo” they both appeared in, Shrader played a role which required him to be made-up to look 80. “I kept looking at him, thinking, ‘is that what it’s going to be like?’” Mack told Pasatiempo.
*An accompanist intent on turning a joint recital by Mack and Shrader into the “Newlywed Game,” decided to ask the couple embarrassing questions onstage, in between numbers. In response to the question about his wife’s “most annoying habit”, Shrader answered, without waiting, that she has the song “Strangers in the Night” perpetually stuck in her head. “That’s true,” she said. “I don’t know why. It won’t go away.”
One of the first rules of being a singer is not to date one, Shrader told a reporter over lunch at the opera. That being said, the two seem to be breaking the rules fairly well, managing dual demands of separate careers, international travel and a three-year-old marriage. “If one of us isn’t working, the other tags along,” he said. “Twelve weeks is the longest we’ve been apart, and it was agonizing.”
“When I first heard her voice,” Shrader said (the two were in the Merola young artist training program with San Francisco Opera) I was literally stunned. Then I thought, ‘I need to get into the practice room before she hears me again.’”
“I fell in love with the quality of his voice,” Mack said, describing the same summer. It’s a beautiful, distinct quality. Our voices fit well together. “
The recent interview at the opera involved each member of the couple meeting individually with a reporter, on breaks from separate rehearsals. This lead to a certain amount of “he said, she said.”
Q: “What is it like to sit in the audience and watch your partner perform?”
A: Shrader: “When Daniela recently premiered in “Dead Man Walking” (playing Sister Helen Prejean) I don’t think I’ve ever been more nervous in my entire life. I knew what a big deal the role was. What it meant to her. It was her first time singing it. I know how much she cared. It made me want her to crush it.”
A: Mack: “Alek only told me that story recently,” she said. “I get that way too. It’s almost worse than being onstage. In the audience, you have to sit still and be quiet and hold in your nerves. I’m not good at that.” “Last summer Alek was in Glyndebourne England, doing the same role in “Don Pasquale. “ I was there all summer hanging out. At dress rehearsal he was under the weather. Knowing that made it really hard to sit there. My heart was beating so fast. I know what it is to deal with nerves.”
Mack, who was raised by an Argentine mother and American father in Houston, says that although she definitely has a little of her mother’s outspoken, Latin fire, she’s a lot more demure than the character she’s singing this summer, Carmen. “It’s fun. I get to live in somebody else’s skin. I pretend to be an aggressive woman. I like all my characters for different reasons. I love Rossini, and Alek and I met doing “Cinderella.” I identify with her quite a bit. She’s sweet. I like her very much.”
Shrader said, “Ernesto believes the best in people. He’s an optimist, clumsy, a little oblivious. I try to be optimistic. I try to retain a grounded sense of reality. That’s healthy for an opera singer.” In Santa Fe in 2010, Shrader played the title role in “Albert Herring,” a Benjamin Britten comedy set in rural Britain. “Albert means to do well but can’t get ahead. I can connect with that. I’ve had times when I say, ‘why is this happening to me?’”
“Daniela is the first mezzo I dated. I think they are much more down to earth than sopranos. Tenors are the worst. Real divas. I see myself as a baritone, personality-wise. Or maybe a bass-baritone–except I’m not obsessed with fishing. There is a certain zen and enjoyment from what I do that doesn’t come from applause.”
“I’m living through a vocal shift. I’ll have different roles in the future. I used to sing the super-high repertory, but that’s not where my voice lies anymore. Someday, when my voice is at its heaviest, I might get a chance to play the role of the Duke in Rigoletto. That’s on my bucket list.”
This summer in Santa Fe is not the first time the two have had the opportunity to sing in the same production, or at least, be in the same city performing. In February, Mack was playing Kitchen Boy in Dvorak’s “Rusalka” at the Lyric Opera of Chicago; Shrader was Count Almaviva in “The Barber of Seville,” presented by the same company. “We’re getting used to the lifestyle,” Shrader said. “At least one of us is working, twelve months a year. “ As graduates of the Merola and Adler fellowship programs of the San Francisco Opera, they have often worked in that city.
Talk of starting a family has already begun. “Did Alek tell you he’s been ready to have a family of six for about 19 years?” Mack asked. “We both come from small families. He doesn’t know quite what that means. But I’d love to have a lot of kids. There will have to be a shift in my career, but I have a great many friends who are singers with kids, and they make it work. We’ll be travelling with a nanny or a relative. My Mom has already volunteered