DIVA 5+1: Karen Mason


I am thrilled to inaugurate a new feature: “Diva 5+1” – interviews with notable cabaret performers.  All the performers will be asked 5 of the same questions and then a personalized one.We start the series with one of the top names in cabaret today, Karen Mason

Karen Mason started her singing career in Chicago, where she first worked with music director/songwriter Brian Lasser.  After moving to New York, she started singing extensively in clubs.  She was also a member of the originally company of the Kander and Ebb revue And the World Goes Round, was the first Broadway Tanya in Mamma Mia! and stood by for a plethora of Norma Desmonds in Sunset Blvd.In addition to maintaining an extensive performing and touring schedule with long-time musical director Chris Denny, she also teaches in the cabaret program at Perry-Mansfield.She has also recorded extensively.  Frankly her CDs are all so amazing, it is hard to recommend any one in particular.  They all belong in a basic cabaret recording collection.  Part of the reason for the high quality of her recordings could be her marriage to Paul Rolnick, one of the top recording engineers in New York, who is also a great songwriter (“Cold Enough to Cross.”)

1.  Please describe a “perfect” cabaret experience that you’ve had. 

Perfect is such a large word!  The relationship of all the elements is such a delicate one. I really don’t think I could pick just one.  And part of that experience involves all the rehearsals and singing and laughing with Chris and Barry Kleinbort, my director, …that happens before I even get to the day of the show!

I can tell you that the perfect cabaret experience would have a few specific things:  great sound, beautiful grand piano (perfectly tuned, of course), Chris Denny at that piano,  a great audience, and of course a fun show to sing!   

2.   What is a recent song you’ve been struggling with?  Have you won yet?

A song that has been giving me some tough moments is one that I have been singing for a while……it is an arrangement of “Maybe This Time” that Chris did for me a few years ago.   And it takes a very particular vocal technique at one point in the song that is a constant challenge for me.  It is a descrecendo on the word “win” at the climax of the song.  Whew!!! I have worked on all kinds of ways of making it work…and Chris and I discuss it all the time. The hard part is that my emotion gets the better of me at that moment in the song……..so,  I don’t think I will ever think I have won this battle.  It keeps me on my toes!!!

3.  The relationship between a singer and the musical director really is a “cabaret marriage.”  What are the keys to making the marriage work?  And for the times you need to work with a surrogate, what are the steps you take to get quickly on the same page?

I have been very blessed in my life to work with musicians who are artists.  Brian Lasser for the first part of my career…and now Christopher Denny, who is a gift in my life.  Both men are both virtuosos and accompanists.  And arrangers and singers and hysterically funny and loving.  I am a very lucky singer!  It is like any other marriage.   You have to consider it a partnership and a friendship.  Trust is a HUGE part of the equation.  And there is love and respect and for us, lots and lots of laughter.    When I work with someone else, I always make sure I have a tape of the music to play for the new MD.  It just helps clarify how you want the music performed.  It is also important to give a little lattitude to the new pianist.   You want them to be happily participating, too, while still being able to accomplish your musical goals.  

4.  What is a particular image that you can rely on to be an effective sense memory when you’re performing?

That is a secret!    

5. What is the most pressing need the world of cabaret has today?

Good sound systems!!!!!

 +1  You go regularly between theater and cabaret.  As a matter of fact, the video I have of you doing “As If We Never Said Goodbye” is the clip I use when I want to demonstrate how to adapt a stage performance to cabaret.  What advice would you give for performers more used to the musical theater or opera to re-focus their work to cabaret?  

Don’t be afraid of the audience!   They will be a lot closer than you are used to seeing them……AND they are there to have a great time, to love you and share in a great evening of music.   

Your acting choices should be as clear to you; perhaps your physicality won’t be as large.  This is a small adjustment.   Just enjoy it…..think of it as a conversations with good friends….of course, “friends” who have paid a cover!!! 


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