Sara Hershkowitz combines her love for bluegrass with a career in opera

Here’s an entertaining tale for anyone who likes bluegrass, opera, world travel, or just a great love story. It’s all about a girl growing up in North Carolina, who ended up working in Germany after college, but met her true love – a German banjo player – back home in Los Angeles.

Sara Hershkowitz is a rising soprano in the operatic world, who studied at the prestigious Manhattan School of Music, and had been working with Theater Basel in Berlin until her solo career starting taking off in the past few years. She has sung many major roles for a coloratura in operas by Mozart, Strauss, and Ligeti, as well as contemporary works by Britten and Cage. She had even been nominated for singer of the year in a German opera magazine.

But we found her online singing bluegrass in a socially-distanced video created with the new man in her life, Max Hoetzel. They posted this video of White Freightliner with Alex Hargreaves on fiddle, Dominick Leslie on mandolin, Mike Robinson on guitar, and Myles Sloniker on bass. Each created their own videos which Max pieced together with the audio.

So how did an internationally recognized opera singer find her way to bluegrass? When we spoke last week, we discovered that it was bluegrass and old time music that captured her attention first.

“Before I ever heard opera, I feel in love with traditional folk music. I took guitar lessons at McCabes, learning Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, and the like, but was very inspired by Alison Krauss. She was my hero.

It’s my comfort music – sort of like my comfort food in the arts.

I feel like classical music really chose me, and studying that was all-consuming, and I put on horse blinders and dedicated my life to that art form. But even traveling around the world, the first thing I do when I get in to my hotel is put on Alison Krauss. It makes me feel a sense of home. It’s the music I sing to myself.”

Here’s a look at Sara at work, singing the role of Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss with the Arctic Philharmonic. It was recorded in March 2017 at the Stormen Concert House in Bodø, Norway.

How Hershkowitz found her way back to singing bluegrass takes a little longer to tell, but it is a lovely story of how you can find love a world apart, even during a pandemic. We’ll let her tell the tale.

“I went to Germany after college to follow a career in opera. The German-speaking opera world has the most opera houses in the whole world. My teacher told me, ‘If you want a career in opera, you have to move to Germany.’

When I got there I had only one friend, and one contact. It took some time, but I sort of got lucky, and once I learned the language, opportunities started coming in. For four years I was with the Bremen Opera, but since 2012 I been a freelance soloist, singing all over the world.

2020 was scheduled to be the year it would all come together for me in a big way. I was set to debut with London Philarmonia, in Japan. Career wise, 2020 would have been the best ever for me. When things shut down, I got stuck in France, where I had been singing in an opera. I was scared to fly home since they were cancelling flights, so I decided to stay in Europe.

The Air B&Bs were closing, the hotels were closing, but I had a friend with a place in rural France, and she took me in. I rented that house, thinking it would be a month and then I’d go home, and that turned into six months. I couldn’t perform, so I started making music with this German guy who plays banjo. We had met in January back in LA, and we went on a couple of dates, but with me flying all over the world, I wondered how we might get to see each other.

I had kept seeing his banjo videos popping up on line, and I thought, ‘I need to know who this guy is.’ I introduced myself and we met for coffee, and after that one date he flew to Vienna to hear me sing. We soon realized that we both have a deep love for bluegrass and Americana music.

So… I finally meet my banjo player, and I’m stuck in rural France. He suggested that we make some music together, from across the globe. Max and I really got to know each other through making music across the ocean. I would send him my files, and he included some fantastic musicians. It started as us finding a way to keep our spirits up and keep seeing each other, but now we want to keep doing it.”

At this point Sara lives in both Los Angeles and Berlin, and is back in California now where she and Max have continued recording together. She says that they have several other bluegrass videos in production, and hope to release two more this month.

Could there be a side project with Hershkowitz singing bluegrass on stage, once COVID-9 fears are quelled?

“We just want to keep going since it’s giving us such joy, and giving others joy. We’d love to record, we’d love to perform at the festivals, or wherever they would have us.”

Before ending our conversation, I was curious what she thinks about mixing a career in opera with grass.

“This opera world is inherently conservative. It’s an art form set on preserving music of the past, and you could say that bluegrass is as well. My own special musical interest is in more modern, 20th century music, which is more adventurous. I’m hoping that post-COVID, some of these divisions will fall away. If you create music with your heart, people will follow you with it. We can include all of that in our artistic color palette.”

Let’s hope for much more from Sara, in whatever musical form that may take.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.