Diva to director: Operatic training set a career in theater in motion

Sarah Young (photo by Alexandra Vaccino)

SFCM alumna Sarah Young '10 discusses the rhythm of Shakespeare and deciding to transition from performance

It's no secret that sometimes college students who earn degrees in music performance don't wind up onstage after school, but that doesn't mean that the degree doesn't come in handy.

"Transitioning to theater and film [directing], the work ethic from music school helps of course," said Sarah Young '10 and '13, who earned both undergraduate and graduate degrees in vocal performance at SFCM before launching a flourishing directing career in which she focuses on newer work. Most recently, her short film "In Case We Get Found" about three strangers waiting out an active shooting situation has been enjoying a strong showing at festivals, winning Best Drama at the New York Movie Awards and Best Original Story at the Hollywood Gold Awards.

"Understanding music helps approach dialogue, collaboration helps with new plays especially," Young said. "There's a similar relationship between a music director and a singer as with a playwright and director."

Young said she participated in lots of community theater growing up but was drawn to the operatic stage. As a graduate student, she enrolled in the conservatory's Directing for Singers course and fell in love with the nuts and bolts of this new side of the art form.

"It was like being struck by lightning," she said, adding that she began assistant directing school productions that she wasn't singing in working with Rick Harrell, Heather Mathews, and Michael Mohammed.

How many conservatories on the planet would have looked at me and helped me out when I had zero experience in directing? SFCM is a very special place.

"It's not unusual for a singer to be interested in directing," said Jose Maria Condemi, SFCM's Director of Opera and Musical Theatre. "What's unusual about her was the determination that she applies to her interests. When I met her, right away I noticed that she was a director, she may not have had the credits yet but she was thinking like a director." 

Not long after graduating, Young threw herself completely into directing and gave up singing professionally. She initially specialized in directing operas and helped to found the critically acclaimed company Opera Theater Unlimited, but wanted to broaden her chops to include theater and film. Young applied and was accepted to the exclusive MFA program at the New School for Drama in New York City.

"Shakespeare studies were particularly familiar to me," Young said. " The rhythm of the language and breaking that down is very similar to breaking down an opera. To this day I call scripts scores, I still have to catch myself."

"I would love to be directed by Sarah, as she knows what it's like to be on the other side," said Catherine Cook, Frederica Von Stade Distinguished Chair in Voice at SFCM and Young's graduate school teacher. "She has this amazing empathy for the performers as a director. I think it's a wonderful tribute to the education she got."

Cook said that she mentors her students to explore their passions, singing or otherwise, as you never know where an interest might lead. "If a student starts showing interest in another aspect of music I absolutely nurture that. We take the things that we do for granted. But these skills transfer to so many careers."

Since graduating Young has directed numerous projects across all three genres, though she's focusing on film and Zoom projects at the moment due to the global pause of COVID-19.

"It's important to follow that passion to wherever it might lead you, a teaching career, a performing career, a directing career, or arts administration," she said. "Some of the smartest people I know have music degrees and they're out there doing remarkable things. I wouldn't be the artist that I am today if I didn't develop the skills I possess as a musician."

Learn more about SFCM’s Opera and Musical Theatre program.