Marie Sokolova is described as having a free and natural voice, as a captivating actress, and as a versatile and multi-faceted artist. She is a member of the Lyric Opera in Chicago since 2008, has performed in various small roles and understudies, and is the recipient of many distinguished awards as a soloist. She has an immense passion for teaching and performing, and teaches privately as well as in various summer workshops. For more information, please visit Ms. Sokolova's website at www.mariesokolova.com.
Marie, thank you so much for being our inaugural interviewee, and we are thrilled to interview you! Before we get to the questions at hand, tell us a little more about yourself! What are your hobbies and interests? I love to read, and my family and I are big fans of board games and tabletop role-playing games. Risk is fun. Settlers of Catan is a another big one for us. I also really like Seven Wonders. Carcassonne, a map-building game, is definitely a family favorite because our kids can play, they understand the concept of the game, and it’s fun for adults, too. We even have a podcast reviewing Star Trek RPGs! (role playing games).
Oh, how fun! Tell us a little about it.
This all started back in California when my husband, Philip, and I were in grad school. Our group of friends would get together and play Dungeons and Dragons pretty much every Friday night, it was so much more fun than going out somewhere and drinking, and we did this for years! When the pandemic started, we reached out to two of our best friends who still live in California with our ideas. We’ve started with Star Trek- we’ve recorded twenty-some episodes, and ten or eleven have been produced so far. I’m part of the playing process. We have guest players, and we even interviewed Michael Scott, one of the creators of the RPGs. We have over 500 listeners from all over the world! It’s really cool, definitely a niche of a niche, and we get a few donations. It’s called RPG Pop Club- check it out!
Everyone who knows you realizes very quickly how much you love your family and how dedicated you are as a mom to them. You definitely broadcast it very well! How do you balance commitments to the church with your duties to the Lyric Opera and as a church musician? What’s your secret of combining those commitments?
For me it’s about patience and organization. Because Philip is a church choir director and has to be at every service, and my job at the Lyric Opera means many of my evenings are taken, I have to make sure that I keep close tabs on my schedule and not overbook myself. My schedule with the Lyric Opera has always been bizarre, so I try to attend at least one service a week other than Sundays, and also make sure I spend as much time with my kids as possible. Because we have five kids, we try and make time for individual “special days”- even if it’s just a trip to the grocery store with one kid or a real outing to somewhere fun, we make it a priority for each kid to know that we always have time for them. At this moment, I’m not working, so all of my time is dedicated to my kids. It’s about to become a lot tricker, but I’m already planning to be with my kids in the mornings and do everything possible to be there when I can when they come from school. I struggle in church when my children need me, especially my youngest daughter. The choir director will ask me to sing more, the priest will ask me to sing more. Of course, I want to sing more and I hate that I can’t, but when I do sing, I’m still so focused on my children. One on one time is really the most important and meaningful.
How did you “discover” the Orthodox Church?
I met my husband! Seriously, I didn’t really know what the Orthodox Church was until I met him. I can definitely say the beauty of the music played a very large part!
Was there a epiphany moment, or moments?
I didn’t realize it then, but I had actually experienced an Orthodox funeral service when I was a teenager. It was for another teenager, so it was very emotional, and I remember being very moved by the four-part a cappella quartet that sang the service. I made the decision that I was going to school for music, and I was already on my way to that career even then. I took particular note because I remember thinking that I wanted a job like that, singing that kind of music.
The first time I attended a service was Christmas Vigil with my husband, and I was invited to sing along with the choir. I was sight-reading this service without any rehearsal and it was very different. I immediately remembered the funeral service, as this music had the same beauty of simplicity and reverence that I experienced then. There was such a family presence there, and it was again that beautiful music. I had attended another service at an Orthodox church in Phoenix, and again had that same feeling. That all made me want to go to Orthodox church more.
You reinforce a personal belief that there’s very much in Orthodoxy that is very straightforward and comforting, that the feeling is very much inviting, and you are passionate about how it’s being presented to our modern selves.
There’s a lot I could expand upon in my decision to become Orthodox, and definitely that vigil was an epiphany moment. I grew up Lutheran, very protestant in many ways, and I was at the time being paid to be a ringer in an Episcopal choir. I figured I’d be going to whatever church was going to pay me. Also a huge decision maker was definitely hearing more of the teachings from the heritage of the Orthodox Church that made much more sense than what I had heard elsewhere. The preaching and theology is inviting and not wishy-washy. The best sermons to me aren’t reinterpretation, but saying what’s in the bible or literally repeating what the Fathers have said in a context you can understand. I struggle with the concept of interpretation because that’s what I grew up with. I remember having many questions about faith growing up and never receiving concrete answers- I want to know what the Church thinks and says. What I love about the Orthodox church is that it offers the opportunity to go there as often as we do and become more and more a part of a community- which is the whole point of church in the first place, community and Communion.
What made you decide to become a classically trained singer? Was there a moment that you knew this was serious for you? How did your training and your mentors help you?
That was the first competition I ever did was NATS (National Association of Teachers of Singing). My voice teacher had entered me, so I had no expectations. When the second-place winner was called, my teacher said: “I knew that if you weren’t called, you were winning!” It was so great because it was the first time that I felt recognized, and my teacher handled it so well- congratulating me, but also saying that I now had the steps to keep getting better. It instilled a confidence in me that this could be the direction I wanted my life to go, like I could keep working at this and make something really, really good.
I had two very prominent influences in my decision to become a musician: my high school choir director, who supported me as a person and singer well into adulthood (we are still in contact!), and my first voice teacher. They helped me to see outside the bounds of my then limited experience of music, see real beauty in the classical arts, and how I could contribute to them. These two women were mentors who cared about me as a person, instilled a different kind of confidence in me, and showed me who I am as a person and how music could help me find confidence in my identity. People who know me today have a hard time believing that I was once extraordinarily shy, very introverted, and had very little confidence.
That makes perfect sense.
I find that, as a voice teacher, what makes a singer or a student a good singer is instilling in them that same confidence, just like my teachers did. If they do their training, they’ll be fine. If you don’t have confidence in yourself, you’ll never be a good musician. You will sabotage yourself and let loose your insecurities. It is what it is.
So there’s not only a belief in yourself, but a belief in what you’re singing. Not having that creates something that is flat or plastic. You emphasize that approach within a performance and also with an artistic and creative element with any opportunity that you have, and it’s formative for you.
Absolutely. I’ve worked with thousands of musicians, and the best ones know how to interact with who they’re working with, even if it’s not individually. Especially in the church, it’s more about what you’re bringing to God, not just about making the music sound good. There will always be mistakes in the service. It’s so hard to live in humility in the arts, and not a day goes by that I don’t think “Oh, that was really good and I want to always sound like that.” Those thoughts take away from what I’m doing. So, I have to remind myself that my voice is not mine, but that I must do something with it. It’s my job to use this talent God gave me and not keep it to myself. It’s for Him and it’s always been for Him!
Did you ever have instilled alongside those principles a thought process or approach where, say, last week’s great performance was this week’s bare minimum?
Oh yeah, absolutely. But it was also really something I put on myself. If I made a mistake I would say: “Ok, I’ll never do that again.” I always must be better than last time.
A huge part of that is singing with those who are more advanced than you are. Do you find that mindset and approach among Orthodox church musicians, and do you recommend it?
Part of me says that is important, but a huge part of me says no. I think one of the most beautiful aspects of Orthodox music is the intention behind it. If you get rid of the self in all of that and just desire for the service to go seamlessly so the people can just pray and not think of anything else- that’s the ideal. Do we ever fully attain that? No, because we’re human. But we should always want to strive for that. I see very often in Orthodox singers that desire for a good service- wanting to sing and pray without focusing on little details, or mistakes, or how we’ve distracted ourselves or the congregation. I worry about those things.
To your point, professional singers and singers who only sing in their church choirs share that desire for a seamless service. It is very real, heartfelt, and is ripe for cultivation in the hymns.
If you’re going to sing in a church choir, you must be willing to give yourself to God. It can’t be about yourself and how much you love to sing. It’s a dance between what is being prayed for and the choir’s responses, priest and choir. The choir says the prayers of the faithful. At the same time, we’re very much a living icon and a precursor to joining the heavenly choir. Our prayers in a service are all sung or chanted. Music is so important in the Orthodox church. I feel very strongly about this.
As a professional musician for 17 years, what do you enjoy most about your work, and what do you enjoy most about music?
I love most, as cheesy as it sounds, the music. I love how the way it moves and influences me makes me a conduit for the way it will influence others.
Have you ever looked back on your entire career and claim your favorite performance or an ensemble you’re just overjoyed to participate in, or something that still has you thinking: “Wow, I really just did that?”
There are a lot of these. I think the most influential one was my very first performance at the Lyric- “Manon” by Massenet. The two leads were played by Natalie Dessay and Jonas Kauffman, the director was Sir David McVicker, and the conductor was Emmanuelle Villaume. The sets, costumes, direction and professionalism of the entire production was unlike anything I had been a part of, and 12 years later I still consider it one of the best productions in my time at the Lyric.
Did you notice a theme or characteristic emerge as you were deciding these performances?
Real music and real art was made. I’m going to tie this back to the Church. It was mind-blowing when I realized that communion and community have the same root of “coming together” as people through Christ- that’s what Church is and what it’s supposed to be. Opera is much the same in that people are coming together to make a story through music. It’s the epitome of art form in many ways. It has every sense of art and is an amazing artistic experience when done well and inspired.
How long have you been involved with Orthodox sacred music, and how did you get involved with this music? What attracts you to this genre of music?
Since that first Nativity Vigil Philip brought me to! And I still love the simplicity and reverence that I have rarely been able to find in other genres.
What do you think is the role of the Orthodox church musician and the church choir?
I find it interesting when people don’t realize that in order for there to be an Orthodox service, you need a minimum of two people—the Priest and a cantor or choir director. The service can’t happen without the music, or at least the chanted liturgical texts. The most prayerful services I have been in attendance for have certainly felt like a dance between the music and the Priest. The music is often the prayers and responses of the faithful themselves, and as the Priest is the representation of Christ in the service, the choir is the representation of the faithful and the choir of angels singing praise and glory to God.
The individual church musician must eliminate themselves. I feel very seriously about this. It’s the time for you to become a living part of the service as a shedding of yourself. It’s your job as a member of the choir and let yourself go and let God work within you. In my opinion, it makes so much sense within the context of Orthodoxy. It’s about humility, and I guess you could look at it as martyring yourself. I don’t think you can give anything from your heart unless you give of yourself and shed yourself. Giving 10% of your earnings to the church is also difficult, for example. That is a lot of money and it can make a huge difference in your life, but it’s at the same time the sense of nothing else matters. The lady in the Gospel who gave the last two cents she had comes to mind.
What, for you, is different about performing Orthodox church music vs. classical (Western European) music?
I am always struck by how much the music of the church brings me humility as a musician. Secular music is so often used for the glorification of one’s self, and when I listen to the hymns of the church, the difference of the music made to the glory of God is palpable. I’m sorry to say there was a time when I would get frustrated with church choirs or singers who weren’t “up to my standards”. But when you hear a singer, with a harsh tone or even off-pitch, sing with true humility and grace with the real intention of glorifying Christ, one can’t help but know that God is hearing their praise and hearing the beauty within it more than the perfect singer who glorifies their own sound. It becomes very difficult to remember that in secular music, when one is constantly being judged and analyzed. Secular music often brings me anxiety and stress with an unattainable need for perfection, where sacred music, when I’m able to let go and give myself to Christ, brings peace and a knowledge that it’s not the perfection of my voice that God is hearing, but what is truly in my soul.
Some of this music has been written by incredible composers- Archangelsky is definitely a favorite. And then you have the occasional by Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov that written in a way that is so simple. You can even pick out the melodies of the tones in the music- it’s their influence and theology.
It is no doubt demanding to balance operatic technique with that as a church musician to reproduce said simplicity. How do you combine and balance these respective techniques?
For me, church music is much more difficult. Depending on the church director/choir I am singing with, having a large, operatic voice can be a hindrance. I certainly do NOT have a boy soprano sound! Most orthodox choirs are made up of volunteers, which is wonderful, but when one is used to singing with professionals on a daily basis, it can sometimes be difficult to rein it in and blend well. Although I am a mezzo-soprano and sing alto professionally, I often sing soprano at church- or tenor, if we are short- depending on the other choir members. While I’m happy to have a background of knowledge and technique and sight-reading ability that I can bring to the choir, it’s often quite difficult to switch between three different voice parts, even in the same service. But it’s important to blend with the choir around me, and sometimes it takes a lot of focus on technique to keep a healthy sound while trying to blend. Of course, this usually happens best when I focus on prayer during as service.
It’s just the fact of the matter. Would you say there’s a different vocal training to church music? Is it fair to say that you find yourself going into a different mindset when you sing operatic music versus church music?
Absolutely. Yes. With the Lyric Chorus, I sing many styles and many composers, everything from Purcell to Wagner, in many senses it has prepared me to modify my voice and how I sing. Take the example of “Tosca”, or the ‘Humming Chorus’ in “Butterfly”, or a Verdi chorus and a Handel chorus- those instances where we have to seriously modify vocal sound. You have to be able to feel Orthodox music- you have to be able to function without a time signature and just a downbeat, and that is difficult. You must have that internal pulse even if you can’t put a “beat” in there. Otherwise it becomes awkward. You must be mindful of dynamics also because that level of sound can mean different things to different people. My full technique really comes into play when I sing church music because there is just some music that doesn’t blend so easily. I sometimes struggle because of it because I have to adjust everything. We can use the Western box all we want, but it falls apart if you don’t feel the music and stay in line with the choir. Church music is a mindset you must cultivate. And I still struggle with that when I am coming from a rehearsal to a church service. It’s an immediate change.
I can imagine that change of scenery where you’re in a large hall and you must project your voice to fit that hall and using your physical technique to do so. It’s a constant struggle, and I always refine that technique when I switch between the two. My voice is always changing and my technique is always changing. I have to accommodate to where I am.
How have you coped with the impact of the coronavirus? What encouragement would you offer? It has been a difficult time as a musician. I have been furloughed since it started, and will not be returning to work in person until the Fall of 2021. (Hopefully!) And the fate of the performing classical arts is currently hanging in midair, unsure of what the future will hold. But being able to be a part of my church quartet when I’m able, or just singing with my kids at home has gone a long way with giving me an outlet for music. I also have the RPG Podcast! And I would encourage anyone who is looking for outlets to perform to consider giving online live recitals to nursing homes. Many of the members of the Lyric Opera Chorus and Orchestra have been coming together on about a weekly basis to perform for those who are quarantined in nursing homes, and it has been a wonderful blessing for everyone involved!
What’s the best piece of advice your mentors imparted and what advice would you give to the aspiring singer/choir conductor? Trust in yourself, and be confident that the music that comes from you is not for you, but for the Glory of God This isn’t the end of the world. Music evolves and change.
This interview was conducted by Theodore Zajler, Society Board Member-at-Large. Mr. Zajler has assumed the role of Lead Editor of the newly-conceived Society Review. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Music Degree in Music History and Theory from the University of Evansville and is a tonsured Reader of the Orthodox Church in America.
UPCOMING EVENTS A Virtual Choir Retreat featuring Dr. Ann Marie Koukios: Sunday, February 14, 3:00 - 4:30 pm EST: "Coming Back Strong in Voice and Spirit"–Virtual Church Music Institute led by Christopher Kypros: Tuesdays, February 16 - March 23, 7:30 - 8:30 pm EST: OCA Department of Liturgical Music announces Webinars for Church Musicians presented by Dr. Vladimir Morosan, Saturdays, February 20 and 27, 1:00 - 2:30 pm EST: Virtual Choir presentation of newly-composed "Christ Is Risen"; rehearsals begin Saturday, February 27, 2:00 pm MST: 2021 Spring Virtual Series sponsored by the Department of Music of the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America: January 12 - May 11, every Tuesday 8:00 - 10:00 PM (EST); 3 parts–Preparation for Great Lent, Preparation for Holy Week and Pascha, General Sessions, and a special event on March 6: music.mailchimpsites.com/2021-spring-virtual-schedule Ninth International Conference on Orthodox Church Music: “Church Music and Topography: City, Village, and Monastery": June 7 - 13; held at the University of Eastern Finland, in Joensuu, Finland; sponsored by the International Society for Orthodox Church Music: 2021 Concert Tour in Serbia and the Republic of Srpska: May 27 - June 14; 2021 CD Record of Rachmaninoff's "All-Night Vigil": June 15 - 18; sponsored by PaTRAM Institute: Orthodox Music Masterclass for Composers and Conductors: June 23 - 27; virtual and in-person sessions; expanded program includes a new track for children choir directing; distinguished international faculty; registration details forthcoming by January 17; sponsored by the Society of Saint Romanos the Melodist: The Synodal School of Liturgical Music: July 2021 Summer Session; Registration is now open: