Sarah Durbin is a Junior in the Lyric Theatre program. During quarantine, Sarah continued to create even after performance venues shut down. Recently, she dropped her new EP About Time on all streaming platforms. We are so excited to have had the opportunity to sit down with Sarah and talk about this project with her. Be sure to check out her EP, About Time, on all streaming platforms.
Talk to us about your new EP, About Time.
About time is a compilation of my favorite songs, two of which are covers. Originally, I was going to do a full cover album during Covid, but I got too busy and decided to include the two covers I already had recorded with four of my originals. It kind of made sense to me to throw them together in the way that they were.
I wrote “Killing Ghosts” when I was 15 or 16 and although it had different meanings to me when I wrote it, it has lived with me through now. I wrote “Behind My Closed Eyes” in August, and “Stars” my boyfriend and I wrote together; he plays keys. I wrote “Over You.” in the middle of quarantine. It is about a person whose actions were influenced by COVID-19. A Covid version with alternate lyrics may be coming in the near future!
Technically I have been working on this album since 2013, but over all I probably spent 60 hours total not including post production.
How did you come up with the title of your album?
It was actually a point of stress for me. None of the songs were more important to me than any of the other ones, but this album was such a long time coming. All of the songs have aspects of time embedded in them, and I thought “It’s about time that this album came out.” The title was born.
Tell us about the album art for About Time.
I knew this girl from high school, Mia Knutson, who does graphic design and computer animation. I was looking at her instagram (@mia.is.sketching) where she did this inkwork sketch around Halloween and it was spooky and so cool and I knew that I needed her to do the album art.
Describe your creative process.
I begin my process when I have a certain feeling or emotion. I might not know exactly what it is yet, but I let it simmer and sit until I feel like something is going to come out. Then I sit down with my guitar or piano and start to play. Usually, like with “Killing Ghosts,” the instrumentation comes first and then I start singing until something sparks and I run with it. I trust that the right words will come out eventually, even if it’s not on the first try. For “Behind My Closed Eyes,” I started with the bridge and completed all of the vocals and lyrics before beginning the accompaniment.
Are there any easter eggs or hidden meanings in your album?
In “Killing Ghosts,” there is a line that I wrote about my AP U.S. History class. Ryan Groff, my producer, sings in “Behind My Closed Eyes,” and he also has music on Spotify for you to check out! My sister, Delaney, sings with me on “My Motto”. The story that “Over You.” is about is about 4 years long. The person in the song finally crossed a line so I put a period at the end of the song title to represent a final end. Another LTI student, Lisa Buhelos, is the other voice in the intro to this song. Finally on the album cover, the boy that is reaching for the girl represents me and my boyfriend; the line on the boy’s arm is reflective of a tattoo he has in real life.
What first interested you in writing music?
I love playing [guitar and piano] and singing, and I love doing that in front of people, so I started writing my own stuff to perform.
What makes your music different from other music we may have heard?
My music is special because I have so many influences. My dad played everything from classic rock to Shakira to the Dixie Chicks. Two of my biggest inspirations are Brandi Carlile and Taylor Swift. In the world of musical theatre, I am inspired by Sarah Berellis and Jason Robert Brown. People often tell me I write like Taylor Swift but I didn’t start doing that purposefully until recently. I played rock from 7th grade through senior year of high school. Studying at LTI and adding musical theatre and opera to all of my other influences gives me so much material to pull from.
How does the music you write compare to the material you work on at LTI?
It is a lot different from musical theatre because I take inspiration from Americana and pop. I don’t write to tell a larger story— each song is it’s own little story capsule. I think about the songs less as a way to communicate my feelings to someone else and more as a way of reconciling with myself and breaking the feelings down in a way that I can palate emotionally.
My studies at LTI have given me the technique I needed to sing this album. I actually left a lesson with Sarah Wigley and immediately recorded “Behind My Closed Eyes.” It is also really fun to get to play with new styles. We have to research and learn about so many different materials. Pulling from everything we learn in my writing and arranging is a big crossover of my own writing and the work I do at LTI.
Where is your favorite place to sing/perform on campus?
I love singing in the Tryon Festival Theater at the Krannert Center. To see all the seats in front of you and be on stage and have your moment is an incredible feeling. I also love singing at the Krannert Center amphitheater.
Since physically being in enclosed spaces with other people is a challenge during Covid, how and where did you record About Time?
My producer, Ryan Groff, lives in Champaign and has a studio (Perennial Studios) in his backyard. He is in the local band Elsinore and I generally meet with him weekly. “Over You.” I recorded in my home studio since this was the only track we recorded after Covid started. To do the final touches on the album, we all got tested, met up at Perennial Studios, and knocked it out in 5 hours.
What was the most challenging part of the process for this project?
For “Behind My Closed Eyes,” we wanted to write a string quartet. It wasn’t sounding right, so we scrapped what we had and redid it. The most challenging part of the process is the bump in the arrangement process where you feel you have done everything you can but it just isn’t right yet. In the end, my boyfriend wrote the first 8 bars of the string quartet and I finished it out.
I want to give a special shout out to our string player, Eliza Haddon, who played all the string parts.
What’s next for you?
“Killing Ghosts” was picked up by the Champaign radio station WEFT and will be played and eventually performed through this station, so be on the lookout for that. I want people to listen to “Behind My Closed Eyes,” as well, and I think a lot of people will like the, as my dad says, ‘weaponized ukulele’ on “Over You.”
I am planning a whole record with a release date TBD. I have a few singles coming out soon, and I am listening to as much music as I can absorb so that I am constantly being fed and inspired by creativity.
What have you been up to since graduating from the University of Illinois?
After I graduated, I moved back to Nashville to be with my family because my father was terminally ill, and he ended up passing not too long after I moved back. I decided that I would stay in Nashville for at least a year to be with my family and save money while doing young artist auditions. During this time, I reached out to Michelle with the idea for Opera Offstage, and we began planning and working on it back in October.
What were some of the most useful things you learned at UIUC?
I think independence was the most important skill I learned during my time in UIUC. In undergraduate programs, there are long lists of requirements, where in graduate school you have a lot more flexibility with your courses and focus. I started really exploring different ways of performing and creating music in graduate school. UIUC is very good about allowing their students to cross-train in different areas than their main degree, and the Krannert Center draws such a wide variety of artists and performances. It really opened me up to possibilities beyond just opera and musical theater.
What is one of your favorite LTI memories?
When I was understudying Elvira [in LTI's production of Don Giovanni], the two other Elviras and I got together to listen to an audiobook that Nathan Gunn had recommended to us for character study while we made Valentine's Day cookies. the book was Pimp: The Story of my Life by Iceberg Slim. Needless to say that audiobook might be one of the wildest things I've ever listened to, and the three of us had an absolute party listening to it. It definitely bonded the three of us, and we had a great time working on that show together.
How has it been transitioning out of graduate school and into the wider world?
I went straight from high school to college to graduate school, so it has been an interesting transition back out of academia and into the professional world. You inevitably lose a lot of the structure in your life when you're no longer in school. I definitely oscillate between feeling prepared and ready to take on the world and to being at a loss as to what my next steps should be. I actually credit working on Opera Offstage with helping me refocus myself on my goals and motivating me to keep improving as a musician. Ultimately, I'm happy to be out in the wider world and working again.
How did you and Michelle meet? How did you decide to create this podcast?
Michelle and I actually met as freshmen music majors at Pepperdine University, and we've been friends ever since. I came up with the idea for Opera Offstage when I realized that there is very little good representation for classical singers in online spaces like YouTube, podcasts, Twitch, etc. It's a huge untapped market, especially for young singers. I reached out to Michelle about working together on this project because she has an incredible work ethic and we really balance each other in terms of skills and focus, plus we have very similar senses of humor. I've always been interested in creating online content, but it wasn't until recently that I had an ideas as to what I actually wanted to create.
What is the goal of this podcast? How do you go about achieving that goal?
The ultimate goal of this podcast and YouTube channel is to help bring classical music into the modern world. We hope to accomplish this by being very open about what being a working musician is like, all of the funny, terrible, and wonderful parts of it. We also want to highlight the amazing work that is being created right now that is often overlooked. Our hope is that by pulling back the curtain on classical music, we will create a much stronger music community as well as invite interest from non-musicians who want to know more about classical music.
How do you decide on topics to cover?
Michelle and I both have running lists of issues that we wish had been covered in school and oddities of the classical music industry that we believe deserve attention. We also keep a look out on social media to see what other singers are talking about or interested in. Then we pitch ideas back and forth to see what we both find interesting and often ideas end up being combined into a larger episode or broken down into a more in-depth series.
What kinds of topics are you looking forward to covering? Why are these topics important to your audience?
I'm very excited for our episodes on side gigs, mental health, and opera in film. Side gigs is a great episode because it really helps break down how to choose jobs that pair well with pursuing a career in classical music. It is a topic that goes largely unexplored because everyone has different skills, but we did a solid breakdown of the pros and cons of many different fields and options to get everyone started. Mental health is going to be particularly interesting because we're reaching out to some experts in the field to really help us explore the particular challenges of working in such a competitive and occasionally isolating field. I'm glad we'll be combining personal experiences with professional expertise to create a more holistic image of mental health in classical music. Then opera in film is simply a very fun topic because there are some very good and bad representations of opera in movies and television. You would also be surprised by how many shows and movies give away their plot by putting in an aria from an opera with the same storyline. Plus it's a fun way to show that almost everyone has heard opera, even if they don't know that they've heard it
What do you think are some of the biggest issues facing young singers today? What is your advice to overcome these obstacles?
There are two large issues facing young singers today that have been at the forefront of my mind. Number one is visibility. Classical music lacks the kind of visibility that I feel comes much more naturally to other artforms. The best advice I can offer in the face of this is to make your own art and put it out into the world. Make new art, make silly, unimportant art, or just make anything that moves you. Don't keep making the same art we've always made. You have a unique voice, and you should use it. The second is the reckoning of older pieces. A large portion of the music we perform every day was written in a different time with very different values than we have today, and we are only just beginning to have a larger conversation about how we approach those pieces. For this, all I have to say is be open to the conversation, no matter how difficult it is.
Lyric Theatre major Anna Benoit has had a busy year so far! She performed and taught at the Ozark Actors Theatre over the summer, and began her senior year at the University of Illinois. She recently performed in Lyric Theatre @ Illinois' fall 2019 opera, The Adventures of Little Sharp-Ears, and will be performing the role of Sally Bowles in next semester's Lyric Theatre @ Illinois, Dance at Illinois, and Illinois Theatre's co-production of Cabaret. Anna has been lighting up the stage almost since she was born, and has continued to grow as a dynamic and versatile artist. Our interview with her gives some insight into her life as a student and performer:
How did you first get into performing?
I started taking ballet classes when I was three years old! My performing experience began in children's ballets playing such inspiring roles as: tree, brick, pond and bat. As I got more serious about dance, my mom suggested that I take voice lessons so I could audition for community theatre. In eighth grade, I was cast in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and I never looked back. In high school, I began studying classical voice as I continued performing in musicals and ballets.
What would you say is most inspiring to you as an artist?
That every time I walk on stage I am helping to tell a story or convey an emotion or message that may very well impact someone in a way that matters.
What have been some of your favorite roles?
I loved playing with the quirkiness of Rona Lisa in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Her character made for great fun in the rehearsal room and onstage. Tess, in Crazy for You was also a favorite. Dancing to Gershwin tunes with some of my favorite people in the world is hard to top. I am currently working on Sally Bowles in Cabaret. Delving into this complicated character is a joy and a challenge, as she is different from any character I have previously played.
What drew you to the Lyric Theatre @ Illinois program?
I attended the ISYM Musical Theatre camp before my senior year of high school. While at the camp, I was lucky enough to study with Professor Harris, and to work with Professors Wigley and Tilley. There was no turning back. The opportunity to cross-train as a singer, actor and dancer in a Big 10 program was all I could as for.
How has Lyric Theatre @ Illinois helped you as a performer/artist?
I have had the opportunity to explore every aspect of that which is sung theatre. No other program could have offered me the diversity of experiences on stage from La Boheme to Crazy for You.
What is one of your favorite Lyric Theatre @ Illinois memories?
Sharing a stage and collaborating with my extraordinarily talented, wonderful, spirit-building friends and roommates. I have also dearly loved watching the studio recitals and performances of my classmates. Professor Tilley's attempts to teach me a cockney accent will also live on as a favorite LTI memory.
What was it like at the Ozark Actors Theatre this past summer?
I performed in Mary Poppins, Our Town, and My Fair Lady. During my summer there, I worked with three different creative teams and an incredible company of actors. I taught at the Broadway Bound Summer Camp directed by Taylor Louderman, the original Regina George in Mean Girls on Broadway. I learned so much about the discipline and commitment it takes to sustain a career in this field, but also how joyful and impactful performing can be.
Anna has been nominated for Best Supporting Actress in a Drama by the Broadway World 2019 Regional Awards for her roles as Professor Willard and Mrs. Soames in Our Town at the Ozark Actors Theater. You can cast your vote for her through December 31st, 2019 here: www.broadwayworld.com/st-louis/voteregion.cfm
You can keep up with Anna at her website: https://annabenoit.com/
Our season may be over, but you can catch our students performing all over Illinois, the Midwest, and the world this summer!
“I’ve always felt like I have a compositional voice...something to say that isn’t there.”
That voice started before she was even in grade school, when Elizabeth Gartman remembers sitting at the piano and writing songs to entertain her family. She may not have known she was composing at the time, but her love of creating music followed her as she grew up and throughout high school when she took an independent study that allowed her to learn about compositional software and compose works for her high school choir.
When Gartman came to the School of Music at UIUC she originally started as strictly a voice major but missed having the opportunity to compose. Faculty member Erin Ghee took Gartman under her wing and helped her put together a composition portfolio that allowed her to be admitted to the composition program, in addition to her voice performance degree, starting in the spring semester of her freshman year.
In addition to it being her own primary instrument, Gartman thinks there is something really special about writing for the voice. “There is so much expression that is so specific to the voice and also incorporates the element of theatre that you can’t get out of other instruments.” When librettist Susan Bywaters approached Gartman in a coffee shop about collaborating on an opera, she jumped at the chance.
The two quickly started working together with Bywater’s libretto taken from the life of John Murray Spears. The opera, entitled The New Motive Power refers to the machine John Murray Spear aspired to build in the 1850’s that he believed would be our new messiah and could connect the world with invisible wires. The opera tells the story of John Murray’s inspiration and creation of the machine. Gartman was immediately drawn to the relevancy of the story and its connections to our relationships to technology and religion today.
Gartman says her and Bywaters are equal collaborators in the process, but the libretto always comes first. Currently, Gartman is composing the music for Act II while Bywaters continues on writing the libretto for Act III. “Composing for opera is totally different than composing for anything else,” Gartman says. “You can’t just write pretty music, you have to write music that is true to each character and what they want.”
Elizabeth credits both the composition faculty and Lyric Theatre @ Illinois faculty in helping her to find her compositional voice and giving students opportunity to explore and develop new work. Last year, Elizabeth was involved in a workshop performance with LTI in collaboration with Beth Morrison Projects of Prism, which went on this year to be performed at Prototype Festival and LA Opera. “The faculty here have so much experience with new works and I feel so fortunate to be able to develop something with the faculty guidance of professors like Dr. Davis, Dr. Gunn, and Dr. Tharp.”
In the Opera Scenes workshop performance of Act II in the spring, which will feature LTI students, Elizabeth is hoping for an informative experience that will help the duo to move forward with the goal of a fully staged and fully orchestrated performance in 2020. “This experience is all about receiving feedback and how we can make it a more effective story.”
We are so proud of the work that Elizabeth has done here at Lyric Theatre and the University of Illinois and are excited to be continuing our support and promotion of new works with one that was developed right at home! Mark your calendars to see Act II of The New Motive Power performed by the Opera Scenes class on May 1 at 7:30pm in the Tryon Festival Theatre, and visit the link below to hear a sample of The New Motive Power and Elizabeth’s other compositions:
For many music students, a week full of classes, rehearsals, and time in the practice room is enough for the great college balancing act. Now add traveling to New York City and premiering two brand new musicals in one semester. For some it’d be too much, but for 19-year old sophomore Lyric Theatre major Sophia Byrd, it’s about more than just another chance to perform. “I want to use my artistic platform for a purpose.”
Sophia found her love of music singing in the Chicago Children’s Choir. While college brought her to Urbana-Champaign, her connections with the Children’s Choir have continued to provide opportunity. One of those opportunities was this past October, when Sophia traveled to New York City to perform a brand new musical.
Place, written by USC composition professor Ted Hearne, features a six person cast and tells the story of gentrification and displacement in Chicago. While the role Sophia performed was originally written for Allison Sims (a UIUC alum herself), scheduling conflicts for the New York production found Sophia bumped up from understudy to leading lady.
Fully produced by Beth Morrison Projects and the Los Angeles Philharmonic and performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Place features just about every musical element a singer could ever run into all in one piece. “It has everything. Classical, atonal, post-tonal, contemporary. Each number was a different genre,” Byrd said, sighting her combined jazz and classical training as instrumental in helping her learn the piece.
When asked what experiences as a part of Lyric Theatre were most helpful during her process, Byrd also immediately sighted faculty members. “I could not have done this without Sarah Wigley. She helped me with vocal technique, all the way up to the day of the performance. She’s completely changed the way I think about singing.”
Sophia initially came to UIUC to major in jazz vocal performance for the opportunity to write her own music. However, her involvement with projects like Place has found her passions drifting elsewhere. “I’ve realized that performing someone else’s words gives you so much more freedom to actually focus on bringing a message to life, which is so different from actual composition.”
This month finds Sophia back in New York City premiering The Good Swimmer through the BAM New Wave Festival. While the end of the semester brings more tests, final projects, and deadlines than usual, it’s not stopping Sophia from being involved in projects she’s passionate about. From one show onto another, and we can’t wait to see what she’ll do next.