Rachel Michelberg may have sung Jewish religious music all her life, but she’s ready to play a singing nun onstage any time.
A cantorial soloist for many years as well as a musical theater actress and voice teacher, Michelberg has played the Mother Abbess in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The Sound of Music” twice before, and is now rehearsing for her third reprisal.
The first time was in her senior year in high school, four decades ago. After studying voice in college, she played the role again at the Lyric Theatre of San Jose. She will don a nun’s habit for the third time at a Foothill College production opening July 19.
“This role is still in my voice and in my body,” she said.
“The Sound of Music” is set in 1938 Austria, on the eve of its annexation by Germany. Based on the true story of Maria von Trapp, a novice at the convent who became a governess to a widowed Austrian naval officer and his seven young children, it is a heartfelt affirmation of the power of love — and of music. When Captain Von Trapp determines to avoid conscription into the Nazi military, the Mother Abbess helps to engineer the family’s escape over the Alps.
Playing a nun is no problem for her. “In my junior year of high school I played Golda in ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’” she said. “We’re just used to it in theater — we jump around, and that’s the job. It’s about taking on these different roles and trying to be as true to them as possible, even if it’s usually someone very different from yourself.”
While Mother Abbess may be very different from Michelberg, she said they share a similar point of view.
“This character is so wise and so understanding, and her advice to Maria is advice I try to tell myself and my children,” she said. “You have to find your own path — that’s the song ‘Climb Every Mountain.’ ”
This role is still in my voice and in my body.
Mother Abbess sings “Climb Every Mountain” at the end of the first act, encouraging people to follow their dreams. Michelberg said she relates to the message because she pursued her dream of theater after serving as a cantorial soloist for most of her career. She began at the Hillel at San Jose State, her alma mater, and went on to serve as cantorial soloist for 25 years at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills and 14 years at Temple Emanu-El in San Jose. But she always remained engaged in performing and musical theater, something she felt was her true calling.
Throughout the years, she’s taught voice and piano, done vocal direction for local theater companies and performed in professional and amateur productions, including with Opera San Jose, American Musical Theater of San Jose, San Francisco Pocket Opera and West Bay Opera, with more than 25 leading roles, according to her website.
The role of Mother Abbess excites Michelberg because she is trained in opera, and the role does not require her to alter her mezzo-soprano voice.
“It’s a natural part for me because it’s one of the few music theater parts left where you can sing in an operatic style,” Michelberg said. “This role was really written for a very operatic and long vocal style voice. It’s very demanding.”
Playing the role first as a high school student and now as an adult at age 56 also has given her the opportunity to reflect on its deeper meaning.
“I think I understand the message more now,” she said. “I understand the relationships on stage more. Certainly I relate to Maria calling me ‘mother’ now. I have two kids, so in a lot of ways it’s no different than how I would speak to my own kids, although certainly I’m more patient with Maria.”