A few years ago, Sylvia McNair felt she had reached "the bottom of the bottom." Not long after discovering that her husband of two decades wanted out of their marriage, she learned that she had breast cancer and might have only six months to live.
Today, the Ohio-born soprano could not look healthier or happier as she rehearses a new work fashioned out of Kurt Weill songs and created expressly for her by the American Opera Theater; it premieres this week at Baltimore's Theatre Project.
"My grandma used to say, 'If it doesn't kill you it will make you stronger,' and she was right," McNair says. "She was always right. But there was a lot of loss."
Including, unavoidably, her hair. The singer underwent chemotherapy for an aggressive cancer diagnosed in 2006, and she ended up facing a radical mastectomy and four other major surgeries as well.
"Once past the first shock of losing your hair, wigs and scarves and baseball caps are the easiest part of cancer," the soprano says. "I decided to have fun and make hay by buying seven or eight wigs, three of them peroxide blond, and a pink one that's 2 feet long. They're way better than hats for keeping your head warm in winter."
Once her hair grew back, McNair, 53, swtiched from a natural brown to a bold blond, bright enough to light up a drizzly day. During the better part of the 1980s and '90s, the soprano's career couldn't have been much brighter.
She appeared at the world's leading concert halls and opera houses, where her performances of Handel and Mozart were especially prized. Her silvery tone and exceptionally refined musicality are documented on dozens of recordings from those years.
But McNair walked away from opera in 2002. "I was just burned out after 20 years," she says. "I decided I didn't have the mojo to keep doing it. It was a very difficult, stressful decision that took a lot of soul-searching and created a huge loss of income."
The soprano decided to shift her attention to music she had always had a flair for - great American popular songs. During the mid-'90s, in between singing opera, she made stylish recordings of Jerome Kern and Harold Arlen songs.
When she isn't teaching voice at the University of Indiana in Bloomington (she encourages her students to learn how to sing musicals as well as opera), McNair performs symphonic pops and cabaret shows at such chic places as the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel in New York. Last summer, she appeared in the musicals "Camelot" and "A Little Night Music."
"This is purely pleasure-driven, for better or worse," McNair says of her career move. "I'm singing what I love."
That now includes Kurt Weill.
Last year, Tim Nelson, artistic director of American Opera Theater, set out to create a staging of Weill's "The Seven Deadly Sins," a cantata/ballet piece from 1933. "I asked myself who my dream singer would be," he says. "It had to be Sylvia McNair."
Nelson didn't know her, but took a chance and e-mailed her at Indiana University.
McNair, it turns out, had long wanted to learn that work and agreed to Nelson's proposal. So far so good. But the Kurt Weill Foundation would only permit a performance with full orchestra, which was beyond the means of Nelson's small company.
Instead, Nelson devised his own work, using 17 songs from a variety of Weill scores, including "The Happy End" and "Mahagonny," to tell a contemporary narrative about a woman in an area devastated by Hurricane Katrina.
Visual images will be used to provide context for the show, which is titled "Songspiel" (a term Weill used for some his works, punning on singspiel, a German term for a piece with music and dialogue).
"I got the songs the last week of August," McNair says. "I was overwhelmed by all the music that was new to me. I wanted to bail a few times. The reason I stayed on board was because I'm impressed with Tim Nelson. He's deeply creative and innovative."
The character revealed in "Songspiel" goes through a downward spiral into addiction and onto the streets.
"Hopefully, it will make people feel more compassion for the homeless, particularly people made that way by a natural disaster," McNair says.
"One of my goals as an artist is to find ways to be relevant. All artists have to find ways to reinvent ourselves and be relevant, or be extinct."
Nelson is not just pleased that McNair decided to stick with "Songspiel," but also impressed with how she has tackled it.
"From the first rehearsal, she's just been an animal onstage," he says. "Sylvia put so much effort into learning this piece. And she is so intuitive. Hopefully, we can create a touring production for this."
Speaking of hope, a portion of the ticket revenue from "Songspiel" will be donated to Hopewell Cancer Support in Baltimore.
McNair, who is on the cover of the current Coping With Cancer magazine, says she's "in the best shape of my life with my health - physically and mentally and spiritually - and in the best shape, artistically, as a singer. I mean it. The first 50 years were just preparation and rehearsal for right now. Maybe it's the lens you choose to view your life through, but I feel I'm in a better place than I've ever been."
Although that place no longer includes a husband to share it with, the soprano doesn't mind.
"I'm finished with men," she says with a laugh, pointing to a photo on her mobile phone of her dog, Maybel.
"I discovered that a cocker spaniel is way better - that's 'way' with 17 'y's' - than a husband!" she says. "And be sure to put in that exclamation point."
If you go
"Songspiel" will be performed at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. Nov. 8, 8 p.m. Nov. 13 and 14 at the Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St. Tickets are $30 to $60. Call 410-752-8558 or go to brownpapertickets.com.