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Sarah Levine Simon: Singing for Her Supper

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Sarah Levine Simon (’72, voice) studied singing at Juilliard, but after leaving the School, the soprano’s educational path branched off in an unexpected direction—to a B.A. in literature and writing at Columbia University. Yet her passion for the musical life never wavered. Equally at home as a writer and a singer, over the years Simon has found new artistic outlets while maintaining a private voice studio and continuing to perform. An unreserved creativity permeates her work, including her newest venture—a series of musical cooking videos that have her singing about everything from sausage to strudel. 

Sarah Levine Simon’s Die Walküre-flavored video “Strudel Today” is one of several she has made that aim to bring opera to the masses, courtesy of YouTube.

(Photo by Daniel Hendricks Simon)

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When asked about her day-to-day life as a writer, Simon answered simply: “I get up at about 4:35 a.m. and I write.” Her play Rule of Thumb, written for the nonprofit Plays for Living, raises awareness of domestic violence and was performed at the American Bar Association and for New York City police officers. Her audio books Bernardo’s Farewell and Mouse Music are performed with orchestra and have been broadcast in various cities. And her collection of poems, Songs From a Quiet Room, provided the text for the songs by Bruce Lazarus (B.M. ’78, M.M. ’79, composition) that are featured in her videos.

With her videos, which are supported and promoted by Opera in Cinema, Simon aims to expose a broader-than-usual audience to classical music. “They don’t know they’re getting a dose of it,” she said, “whereas if you told them they were going to go to a concert, they might back out on you or feel stiff or uncomfortable.” Comedic touches like extras with colanders on their heads and a talking dog place the operatic songs in a lighthearted context. Simon noted that in today’s musical climate, producing videos and making them available online is more effective and practical than live concerts, with their high rental and promotional fees. She plans to continue making videos—“Bread Today,” “Pasta Today” (based on The Marriage of Figaro), and “Strudel Today” (which quotes from Die Walküre) are all posted on YouTube—and plans are underway for “Scallopini Today” and “Sausage Today.”

Simon has long exhibited a knack for combining her greatest interests. “It just sort of has fallen into place for me that I want to tell stories and I want to make music,” she said. She also loves to cook. Even as a student, Simon managed to find time for an array of activities. “My whole academic life got very mixed up with a lot of work life,” she said. “I’ve always been self-supporting and very independent that way.” While at Juilliard, she moonlighted as a Metropolitan Opera chorus member. She later studied public health at Columbia—mostly out of an interest in writing about the topic—though other activities eventually took precedence, such as being a “ballet mom” to her daughter Abigail Simon, who now dances with the Joffrey Ballet. As a writer, Simon has often integrated her love of music into her work. Yet she describes a reluctance to connect with words during her early years as a singer. 

Growing up in Pittsburgh, where she studied with the Belgian voice teacher Sylvie Derdeyne, Simon sang in French and Italian, but, she said, “I really wasn’t singing in English.” When she got to Juilliard, her teacher, Jennie Tourel, pushed her to focus on communicating through the text. Simon resisted, though she said that she now places paramount importance on Tourel’s advice. 

After Tourel’s death in 1973, Simon left Juilliard and received a grant from the Metropolitan Opera. There, she studied acting with legendary director (and former Juilliard faculty member) Frank Corsaro. “He demanded that you know who your characters were,” she said. Eventually, she found herself seeing stories in everything from lieder to abstract poetry. “It started me writing, actually, is what happened,” she said. “I kept discovering that narrative is a very powerful teaching tool.”

These days, Levine’s relationship with words is inextricably linked to her singing technique. “I believe that a lot of vocal problems go away when you’re at one with the text,” she said. “It feels to me like the larynx drops into a comfortable place and the breath flows better.” 

Simon shares her flair for dramatic narrative with her husband, the stage director and actor Roger Hendricks Simon, whose acting studio produced her audio books and cooking videos. Not surprisingly, all three of their children went into the arts. In addition to 25-year-old Abigail, there’s Noah, 36, a cartoonist and graphic designer, and Daniel, 27, a filmmaker and the videographer for his mother’s cooking videos.

Simon’s advice for Juilliard students aligns itself with her own imaginative approach to music. “Think outside of the box, because there’s no box anymore,” she said. Her eclectic professional life gives credence to this outlook.

 

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