New Jersey native Sandra Mannis-Carson earned her bachelor of music degree from the Juilliard School. While still a student there, she sang the dual roles of the Witch and Princess in Dvorak’s Rusalka with the American Opera Center at Lincoln Center.
After winning first place in the Liederkranz Competition, Ms. Mannis-Carson made her professional operatic debut as Ulrica in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera at the Regensburg Stadttheater in Germany. Performances of leading mezzo and contralto roles followed in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and in the United States.
As a baby I loved the sound of the violin. My father was a gifted amateur violinist and I knew that “when I grew up” I wanted to be a famous concert violinist. I studied the violin and after a brief flirtation with the idea of becoming a veterinarian, I became more and more fascinated with the sounds and sensations of my singing voice. While I played the violin I sang the vocal lines and the opera themes. I got a copy of “The Fake Book” of 1000 Standard Songs” and learned most of it. During this time, I listened to Mario Lanza, Al Jolson, Renata Tebaldi, and Enrico Caruso and Rosa Ponselle. (Certainly not in this order of importance!) In high school the singing “bug” grew stronger. In addition to being in every choral, a capella group, and school musicals, I became a featured soloist. On weekends I started to do club dates using that large repertoire of standard songs I’d learned from my “Fake Book.”
As I look back at that time, I must have sung quite naturally albeit within a limited range. I began taking voice lessons, which, at the beginning, seemed to enhance my natural gifts. Upon graduation from high school, one of the pieces I sang to successfully audition for the Julliard School was “Mon Coeur S’ouvre a ta voix” from “Samson et Dalilia.” The teacher who chose me to work with her was, by her own admission, a voice “coach.” She informed me, near the completion of my first year, that when she heard my audition, she thought my technique was “set” and that I only needed some “polishing.”
At Juilliard I studied with two other teachers before graduation. With the three Julliard teachers, those during high school and those afterward, I had seven different voice teachers. The pattern working with them was the same. Usually, at the beginning, the lessons seemed to enhance my natural gifts, then go too far in one direction that threw my vocal mechanism out of whack. A change of teacher would help for a while until I was sent too far in the opposite direction. After years of this I was totally confused, going from being a woofy, tonguey sounding mezzo to being overly bright and forward sounding.
When I met Jim Carson, whom I later married, he said it seemed that I had a tremendous amount of tension in my tongue root. That resulted in a “tonguey” artificially dark sound. Also, he heard in me the potential of a much larger instrument, a dramatic class mezzo-contralto. I thought he was totally nuts.
Having gone through Julliard and seven different voice teachers, my “opera singer” ego was pretty fragile and tattered. I needed to protect what was left of it, but it didn’t take very long, as Jim Carson played recordings of great singers from the early part of the 20th century, for me to see the “light.” The freedom and clarity I heard from the mezzos and contraltos: Louise Homer, Ernestine Schumann-Heink, Sigrid Onegin, Clara Butt, and Ebe Stignani, to name just a few, was like nothing I had ever heard in my life. Not to mention all the incredible sopranos, tenors, basses, and baritones! Of course, I had heard a few recordings each of Caruso and Ponselle before and had just assumed they were blessed by a “higher power” and their skills were not attainable by ordinary human beings.
Shortly after Jim and I met, he discovered an out of print book by E. Herbert Caesari who had gone to Italy in 1902 in search of a vocal master. Jim began teaching me this great natural method of singing. After a few years we discovered other books by the same author and realized that he had taught this school of singing to his daughter Alma Caesari, who was and is living in London. That’s where we went to work with her to complete our understanding and knowledge of this great school of singing.
Our mission and privilege is to pass on this Old Italian School of singing, which traces back to the 18th century, to the singers of today and tomorrow.