Sylvia McNair


Honorary Degree (1998)
Doctor of Music
Location: Bloomington
Presenter: Myles Neil Brand
Grammy Award (1995)
Best Classical Vocal Performance
Performance: The Echoing Air
Grammy Award (1993)
Best Opera Recording
Performance: Handel: Semele


After 16 years as a professional singer, soprano Sylvia McNair has established herself as one of the most sought-after American artists. She has made more than 70 recordings and has won two Grammys. She is a regular guest soloist with the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Boston Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Vienna Philharmonic, the London Symphony, the Salzburg Festival, and the Metropolitan Opera.

A native of Mansfield, Ohio, Sylvia McNair grew up in a musical family. Her musical education began at age three with piano lessons from her mother. She earned a Bachelor of Music degree from Wheaton College in Illinois and a Master of Music degree, with distinction, from Indiana University in 1983. As an undergraduate, she intended to become an orchestral musician. However, when one of her violin instructors suggested that she take voice lessons to refine her technique, she discovered that she enjoyed singing more than playing the violin.

In 1980 Robert Shaw visited Indiana University to direct a performance of Bach's B MINOR MASS. Sylvia McNair was the soprano soloist. Shaw liked what he heard - so much so that he invited her to sing with the Atlanta Symphony and record on the Telarc label before she had finished her degree. In 1982 she won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, made her London concert debut, and received a Grammy nomination for her first recording, Poulenc's GLORIA. With her career under way, she was able to work full time as a singer from the moment she graduated from IU. "When she came to me as a student, it was clear that Sylvia was a major talent with great potential," writes IU Distinguished Professor of Voice Virginia Zeani. "Sylvia is today considered one of the great singers of her generation. She is heard in all the major opera houses and cities of the world. She is a great singer of both opera and oratorio. The vocal achievement combined with her extraordinary dramatic ability give her a total, unsurpassed presence."

Sylvia McNair has recorded for every major classical record label, including Sony, Deutsche Grammophon, Telarc, Teldec, and EMI. In 1991 she signed an exclusive recording contract with Philips Classics for solo recordings. Her solo releases include a disc of Handel and Mozart sacred cantatas; songs by Henry Purcell (the 1996 Grammy winner for Best Vocal Solo Recording); Mozart opera and concert arias with Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin's in the Field; and a disc of songs by Harold Arlen, with Andre Previn playing the piano.

Highlights of McNair's past year have included singing the leading role of Pamina in Mozart's THE MAGIC FLUTE at the Salzburg Festival with the
Vienna Philharmonic and conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi; appearing as Susanna with the San Francisco Opera in another Mozart favorite, THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO; guest appearances with the Israel Philharmonic as part of its 50th Anniversary Tour; and singing with the orchestras of New York, Los Angeles, St. Paul, and Washington, D.C. During her visit to Salzburg, she was invited to perform for First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. McNair commissioned Jake Heggie, composer-in-residence of the San Francisco Opera, to write a song cycle in commemoration of the event.

Sylvia McNair often collaborates in recital and concert with her husband, conductor and pianist Hal France, whom she met in 1984 during a rehearsal of the Indianapolis Symphony.

"Sylvia is one of most outstanding vocal majors ever to attend the School of Music," says Dean Emeritus of the IU School of Music Charles H. Webb. "She exemplifies the highest standards that this university espouses, and is a hallmark of excellence for all musicians everywhere to emulate."