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Leading Lady

Mezzo Daniela Mack takes on the principal role in the premiere of Elizabeth Cree at Opera Philadelphia.
By Henry Stewart 

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Mezzo Daniela Mack: from Jackie Kennedy to Elizabeth Cree
© Simon Pauly
“We make our life wherever the work leads us.”
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As Jackie Kennedy in JFK at Fort Worth Opera, 2016
© Karen Almond

DANIELA MACK MADE a modest yet auspicious debut at the Met in February, in Mary Zimmerman’s new production of Rusalka, as the Kitchen Boy—a relatively small role. But the mezzo has already established herself as a star in houses around the country—including, next month, at Opera Philadelphia, where she originates the title role in Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell’s new chamber opera Elizabeth Cree, based on a novel by Peter Ackroyd.

In spring 2016, at Fort Worth Opera, Mack dominated JFK, by David T. Little and Royce Vavrek, as Jackie Kennedy—“my first foray into contemporary opera,” she says during an interview in the offices of opera news. It was a considerable departure from her usual Rossini, Handel and Mozart repertoire, though her glittering, rock-solid voice and devastating dramatic skills didn’t show it. “I’ve never specialized in any one thing, and I think that keeps me honest in a way, as a singer certainly,” she says. “It forces me to reevaluate and revisit and relearn a lot of things continuously, and I think that makes me grow as a performer. As a person, as well.”

Elizabeth Cree in many ways will be Jackie’s opposite—and not just because she kills her husband. The characters come from different social classes, and Elizabeth lives in crime-ridden Victorian London during the time of Jack the Ripper. The opera opens with Elizabeth convicted for poisoning her husband, then flashes back to discover how she got there. Mack is excited that the audience watches the plot unfold through the lens of her character. “It gives me, as a performer, a great deal of control over what the audience sees,” she says. “We see [Elizabeth] as a young girl suffer atrocities and poverty and degradation, then overcome that. She finds the family that she never had, and love and acceptance that she never had, in the theater, which is relatable for a lot of us theater folks.”

Mack found theater relatively early. She was born in Buenos Aires, where her musical education began with piano lessons. She moved to the U.S. when she was six and grew up in Houston, spending summers back in Argentina with her grandmother. “I feel very much like a dual citizen,” she says. In Texas, she kept up her piano lessons into high school. One day, Mack’s teacher asked her to sing—“for kicks,” she says. Thereafter, they spent the end of each piano lesson going through show-tunes and simple art songs. At fifteen she found a voice teacher, who later guided her through applying to Louisiana State University, where Mack earned undergraduate and graduate degrees. “I have a lot of friends and colleagues in the business that just sort of fell into it, and they were a little bit older,” she says, “but when I was fifteen I knew that I wanted to pursue it.”

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As the Kitchen Boy in the Met’s Rusalka, 2017, with Alan Opie (Gamekeeper)
© Beth Bergman

Her father, a physician, introduced her to opera. They listened together to the Saturday Met broadcasts, and he drove his children to school with the radio tuned to classical. “When I was a kid, I always wanted to change the station,” she says, laughing. “But it did grow on me, and [my parents] took me to the theater from a very young age. My mom tells me that she would take me to the ballet—my grandmother was a lover of the ballet—in a bassinet. I don’t know if they [really] let people in with bassinets! 

“But I do remember going to the symphony with my parents, and I saw my first opera when I was seven. I remember it very clearly—it was Traviata, and I was bitterly disappointed by the ending. A lot of it was lost on me, obviously. My seven-year-old mind couldn’t come to grips with it. I just didn’t understand why she had to die. Later that day, I came home, and I sang the way I imagined an opera singer would sing, imitated the sounds. And the spectacle of it really, really made a great impression on me. From then on, I always loved the theater.” 

The theater is now her home—in fact, she has no fixed address. “We make our life wherever the work leads us,” she says about her husband, tenor Alek Shrader, and their daughter, Eva, who recently turned two. “For the moment, we are still on the road and accepting opportunities as they come. It’s a crazy life, to say it out loud. It is doable—it’s just like putting together a big puzzle.”

They plan to live this way at least until Eva is old enough for school, by which time maybe Mack will be ready for a few of her bucket-list roles, such as Charlotte, in Werther, a show she assistant-directed in college, and those in the Handel repertoire she has yet to explore, such as Ariodante. Meanwhile, she’ll continue to sing Rossini and reprise the role of Carmen (which she sang in Santa Fe in 2014 and will take on again, in Philadelphia, in April 2018), while experimenting more with new music. “To be honest, I’ve sung a lot of my dream roles,” she says, laughing. “I’m just happy to keep performing the pieces that I love in fresh ways, with different concepts, different takes on characters. You never stop learning—you never stop studying.” spacer 

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