Mamie Parris Joins MSO for Holiday Pops

David Lewellen

Tagged Under: 2023.24 Season, Guest Artist

Broadway star Mamie Parris will be joining the Milwaukee Symphony and guest conductor Byron Stripling for the much-anticipated annual Holiday Pops concert Dec 14-19. Parris, who has appeared in leading roles in Cats, School of Rock, and Ragtime, recently spoke with MSO Backstage writer David Lewellen about vocal technique, the holiday spirit, and theater ghosts. An edited version follows.

Q. You started your training as an operatic soprano, but you’ve made your career in musicals. How did that transition happen?

A. I love using that part of my voice, but when I went to New York for college I also discovered that I love acting and storytelling. Singing is one way to tell a story, but musicals were an opportunity to sing songs that were maybe more accessible. I get to use all parts of my voice, sometimes in one show.

Q. How do singers keep their voices healthy?

A. The voice is a muscle. It’s part of your body, and you need to treat your whole body well. Stay hydrated, get plenty of sleep. Warm up properly, don’t sing full out for hours, and cool down after the show.

Q. How do you cool down?

A. Belting uses the upper limits of your lower register, and I visualize it as the larynx is lifted. So at the end of a show, I do vocal exercises going downward in pitch. It’s a reminder to the voice, “You can relax now.”

Q. You’ve done a lot of Broadway musicals. In terms of getting the story across, is there a difference between acting and singing?

A. The core values are the same. But there’s a reason we sing. It’s when the drama is heightened. Music and words together elevate the story.

Q. Compared to that, what’s it like to be in front of an orchestra in a ball gown, not playing a character?

A. It’s an entire evening of being myself, telling my own story, singing the songs I love to sing. It’s my party and Byron’s party, for thousands of guests.

Q. Especially at holiday time?

A. I love these holiday concerts. Maybe it’s the only symphony concert a family will see in a year. There’s lots of young people and whole families, and everyone is happy and ready to enjoy the music.

Q. What do you have planned for Milwaukee in December?

A. I’ve worked with Byron before, and he’s such a marvelous conductor and musician, and he’ll be bringing his jazz guys. I’ll be singing “O Holy Night” and “This Christmas” by Stevie Wonder. It’s not your typical “Hallelujah Chorus” and everyone heads home.

Q. At some point in your career, do you envision going back to a Broadway run?

A. I’ll definitely be back someday. But the pandemic opened up a realm of possibilities. I built a home studio and I started doing voiceovers and audiobooks. And orchestras reopened before Broadway, and I really love singing with orchestras all over the country. I haven’t been in a big hurry to get back to the eight shows a week. When the right show comes along, I’ll head back, but I’m still pretending that I’m on vacation for a little while.

Q. With your opera background, do you ever get a chance to sing without a microphone?

A. Any time the hall allows. For a big concert, it’s not feasible. I’m all for amplification when it’s done well, and a good sound engineer can make me sound more like myself. It’s remarkable how sound experts can balance that.

Q. The MSO’s new hall has excellent acoustics, but it also has an excellent sound crew. It started life as one of the elaborate downtown movie palaces in 1930.

A. Wonderful. Do you leave the light on for the ghost?

Q. Um … what?

A. The ghost light is a tradition in every old theater. The last stagehand to leave puts a plain metal light stand in the middle of the stage, and the light stays on all night for the ghost. Theaters, musicians, performers – there’s a long history there. Whether you believe in it or not, it’s part of the tradition.