Center Stage With: Marie Sokolova

In the midst of a pandemic that has kept our company dark for the season thus far, Marie Sokolova is able to see the silver lining and keeps her thoughts positive, in that she gets to spend lots of time at home with her 5 children. Sokolova has been a full-time chorister since 2008 and made the difficult decision of closing a business she and her husband owned so that they could move to Chicago in order to accept the position at Lyric Opera. I believe all of us that know Marie, admire her boundless energy, intellect, talent and positive attitude. In addition, we are also all amazed at how natural being a nurturing Mother comes to her. I met Marie in 2008, as that was also my first season at Lyric and we became instant friends. The many friends that I have found at Lyric are now family that I hold near and dear to me. We help each other through difficult times. I can say for certain that Marie is the kind of friend you want by your side as she has been there for me and helped me through some tough times. We have watched each other grow both onstage and in our personal lives. I’m proud to know her and blessed to call her a friend, a colleague and family.

Q: Where did you grow up?

Sokolova: I lived in the country in Wisconsin until I was twelve and then moved to Arizona.

Q:  What is your favorite opera and why?

Sokolova:  It’s a difficult choice, but I’d have to say Carmen. It’s beautiful and sexy and tragic and real, has music that you can feel in your soul, making you want to weep or cheer or clap along, and is quite relatable to a modern audience.

Q:  What is your favorite opera production/cast/performance at Lyric?

Sokolova:  My very first performance at Lyric. We performed Manon by Massenet, directed by David McVicker, starring Natalie Dessay and Jonas Kauffman. The production was phenomenal from sets and costumes to the singers and the staging, and it was so crazy and fun to do!

Q:  What do you do on your days off from Lyric?

Sokolova:  Spend time with my kids!

Lyric Opera of Chicago Chorister Marie Sokolova, with her family on a recent Palm Sunday.

Q: In what ways has the pandemic effected your life?

Sokolova: Mostly, it’s that I get to spend more time with my kids. It’s exhausting at times, but I love it!

Q:  Do you speak any other languages? Does this help you as a chorister?

Sokolova: I have studied French, German and Italian, and there was a time when I was close to being fluent in German. Knowledge of language is essential to a chorister, and even when I don’t know a language fluently or even well, it’s essential to understand what we’re saying and how to say it like a native. So, I am very happy I have the basics of language study to help me when learning and memorizing my music!

Q:  Where and what did you study? Do you have any degrees in music or any outside of music?

Sokolova:  I have a Bachelor of Music degree from DePauw University and a Master of Music degree from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

Marie Sokolova, along with many other members of the Lyric Opera of Chicago Chorus, during Lyric’s 2009 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Ernani.

Q: Prior to moving to Illinois you and your husband had your own bookshop. Tell me a little about how you all got started in that business.

Sokolova: That was a crazy time. We were living in the San Francisco Bay area, had just finished our degrees at the San Francisco Conservatory, gotten married and found non-musical jobs. It was comfy and boring, and not what we wanted with our lives. I was trying hard to break into the opera world, and my husband was trying to figure out what he wanted to do. We were afraid of getting stuck in mediocre jobs we didn’t love and thought, we’re in our mid-twenties with no kids, now is the time to just up and do something we’ve always wanted. So we moved to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, which was both relatively close to where my parents lived and within driving distance to both Milwaukee and Chicago where I could still look for performing opportunities and used our savings to open  a little used book store called Mr. Baggins’ Bookshop. It was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had in my life, as well as one of the most difficult. But it brought a lot of clarity to what we wanted in our lives and led us both in the directions we feel we were meant to go. During that time we helped start a mission for our church in the area by holding services in our bookshop on Sunday mornings, and it helped my husband realize that the church and church music was where his true passion lay. And I auditioned for the Lyric chorus on a whim, having auditioned multiple times for the San Francisco Opera chorus without there ever being an opening, thinking Chicago would be the same. But instead I was hired for the full-time chorus and we had to make the decision to close the bookstore and move to Chicago or keep on with the bookstore. While I miss the bookshop and often wonder if we could have made it work, I love my job and am so happy the bookstore brought me to Chicago in the end.

Q:  If you could sing any role, what would it be and why?

Sokolova:  Carmen. The music. The drama. Her strength and sexuality and the way she owns the stage. It’s an incredible role.

Q: Last season you sang the role of Mrs. Charlton in Dead Man Walking. That opera evoked such an emotional reaction from its audience members and had profound reactions to those performing in the opera. Tell me about the experience and impact that opera had on you personally.

Sokolova: I first read the book when I was a freshman in college, and I remember feeling overwhelmed and struck by the many messages in the various stories. It’s been one of those books that after reading it once has stuck with me and I’ve thought about it many times throughout my lifetime and reread it. Being a part of such a visceral experience as the performance of it combined with being able to meet Sister Helen Prejean in person was like a hard smack of reality. This isn’t just a story, even if many of the parts of the opera are fictionalized versions of the truth. These are things that really happen and happen every day to ordinary people. It’s a lot to read about, but being in the position of feeling it through music and watching people get raped and murdered on stage and then later someone ten feet away from you strapped to a gurney acting out a death by lethal injection night after night is numbing. It’s visceral and heart-wrenching and it’s something I will never, ever forget.

Marie backstage during Lyric’s recent production of Eugene Onegin.

Q:  Tell me some of your most memorable moments from your time at Lyric?

Sokolova:  Definitely Dead Man Walking (for the aforementioned reasons),

Q:  Do you have any interesting stories or events you were involved in from before you started at Lyric or not pertaining to Lyric (related to opera or otherwise)?

Sokolova:  Most people find the most interesting thing about me to be that I have five kids, three of whom are triplets. So now, instead of being referred to as that opera singer, I’m referred to as the one with triplets!

Q:  What composer would you want to write the opera of your life and why?

Sokolova:  Either Rossini or Massenet. Rossini because I’d like to think of my life as more of a fun comedy than overly dramatic. But if one were to take a more dramatic approach, I’d hope it would have the beauty of Massenet’s music!

Q:  Tell me a little about your family (partner, children, close relatives) and their significance in your life and career.

Sokolova: My husband Philip is the most supportive and wonderful man. Although he’s a musician and singer himself, there has never been any of the competitive or resentful feelings between us that often result from musicians marrying. We have always been a team together, whether it comes to supporting each other in our careers or raising our five children, and I feel incredibly lucky to have such a solid relationship with him and to just have him in my life!

Q: So, tell me what it is like to be a Mother not only of 5 children but what is it like to have triplets? During our busy opera seasons when our schedule is very irregular and requires long hours at the opera house, how do you balance your work/home life and make things work?

Sokolova: Ha! I love having triplets, but I have to say I wouldn’t recommend it! I feel very blessed to have pretty well-behaved and naturally good kids. But there’s a lot of personality going on in my home! Having triplets is like a science experiment in the nature vs. nurture debate. The only way we treat them differently, is in regards’ to their reactions to us, and all five of my kids are VERY different. Makes for a lot of interesting interactions! As for work/home life, so far it hasn’t been too bad. Since the younger four still aren’t in school, it’s always nice to have most mornings with them. And I love having the summers off to get to spend so much time with them. The most difficult part is not getting to be there in the evenings most nights- having family dinners and tucking them in has been my husband’s time with them since the oldest was born. I’m dreading when they are all in school and I’ll miss out on a lot. But for now, it’s not too bad!

Q:  If you were not a singer, what would you be doing and why?

Sokolova:  I think I’d be a set designer. I seriously considered being an architect instead of a singer when deciding what to go to college for, and one set design class in college almost had me changing majors. I love putting ideas in detail onto paper and seeing them come to life. I have actually been able to see a few of my designs come to life for productions, and it was incredible!

Q:  What kind of music do you listen to outside of the opera house?

Sokolova:  At the moment, it’s mostly kids music. The Wiggles are big in my house. 🙂

Q:  What do you do in your down time backstage in the dressing room?

Sokolova:  Chat with my colleagues, read or play video games. If I can find people willing, I also love to play board games!

Q:  Do you have a sore throat remedy?

Sokolova:  not really! I just try to get rest if I can, stay hydrated and stay away from sugar! (Sugar often irritates my throat if I have a cold!)