All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Her voice is one of the best and most versatile, and her song stylings range from great intellect and depth to plain old fun. Television has abandoned the variety show that would have catapulted Mason and singers like her to fame, and time has made the Great American Songbook and pop tunes she sings secondary on concert stages that favor more bombastic forms of music and presentation, but none of that stops Mason from being at the top of her game.
Two bouts with vocal trouble almost did. One, in 1984, involved a paralyzed vocal cord. Another, more recent, was a breath control problem that kept Karen’s voice from having the power and precision she expected from it. Both situations were corrected, the second via therapy by Peggy Baroody, a leading expert in the field of singing voice rehabilitation, who works with the Philadelphia-based Voice Foundation.
To say thank you to Baroody, Mason will perform a 20-minute set at a Voice Foundation award ceremony at 6 p.m. Friday, May 30 at the Westin Hotel, 17th and Market Streets, in Philadelphia. Among artists to be honored are the ceremony are opera diva Denyce Graves, pop artists Roberta Flack, and funkadelic legend Bootsie Collins. Barry Levitt accompanies Mason on the piano.
“Peggy told me to keep my show upbeat,” Mason says by telephone from New York. “I’ll do popular tunes, great arrangements I have of ‘Just in Time’ from ‘Bells are Ringing’ and “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’ from ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.’ I’ll mix in ‘All That Jazz’ from “Chicago’ and a ‘Judy’ tune, “Zing Went the Strings of My Heart.’ The closest I’ll come to a ballad is ‘People’ from ‘Funny Girl. It isn’t quite up-tempo, but it about something important, and audiences like it.”
In addition to her cabaret career that has taken her to clubs all over the globe, Mason has starred on Broadway in “Sunset Boulevard” and was in the original American cast of “Mamma Mia” as Donna’s sexy friend who seduces a much younger man.
All of her singing was put in jeopardy when Karen noticed her voice didn’t have the production to which she was accustomed. Although she says she sang through this stressful period, she worried that she would not be able to sustain the quality and variety audiences, and casting directors, came to expect from her.
“Peggy Baroody from the Voice Foundation gave me back my voice,” Karen says.
“I was in ‘Sunset Boulevard’ in New York when I realized I wasn’t managing to hit or sustain notes they way I always could. Something was wrong. My vibrato was totally gone. I had trouble with vocal production in a way that was never an issue. The paralyzed vocal cord was a medical problem. What was going wrong this time had some other cause. I determined the problem had to do with vocal lessons I had been taking, but that damage was done. The important thing was to deal with the difficulty and restore my voice to what it was and what I demanded from it. I needed some kind of vocal rehabilitation.
“Someone recommended Peggy Baroody. I began coming to Philadelphia a few times a week to work with her. She noticed the problem was with my breathing. I had to relearn how to breathe and reverse the damage that had been caused by approaching vocal production the wrong way. Peggy also told me to relax my tongue. I looked forward to our sessions and enjoyed learning more about the way the voice works. It took three years of training, but my voice was restored. It’s back to where I can trust it. I can sing freely again. You can imagine what that means. I have my instrument, and I have my career. It’s like putting back the pieces after an earthquake and having everything bad be a memory while all else returns to normal.
“Since working with Peggy, I was hoping for an opportunity to do something for her, something to show my gratitude for the gift she returned to me.
“She asked me to perform at the Voice Foundation gala, and I couldn’t be more pleased.”
Philadelphia has few venues that feature singers like Karen. She said she looks forward to working at Morgan’s Café now that the Prince Music Theater is producing again and keeping its cabaret running. Recently, Karen was in Los Angeles and San Francisco doing a revue of music by Stephen Schwartz.
“I love singing,” Karen says. “It’s how I express myself. It is my means of showing a range of emotions and moods. For anyone, it would be a terrible thing if I was not able to do what I enjoy doing and means so much to me. I was able to perform while Peggy and I were working to correct my breathing and other techniques, but I missed the control I had to make each song what I wanted and to use each song to say something that is important to me.
“Now I have safer, surer approach to what I do.”
Karen says she rarely does shows that revolve around a specific theme or a particular composer.
“I sing what appeals to me,” she said. “Some singers do extensive research and know everything about a composer and his songs. Others are always listening to find new material. I am also on the lookout for new songs to do, but I find them incidentally. Research has never been part of my approach.
“I sing the songs I like, the ones that express something I think the audience will enjoy or that will entertain. You can tell I like a lot of different styles from listening to my CD’s.
“I am also married to a songwriter, Paul Rolnicki, and I enjoy singing his music. One of his songs, ‘It’s About Time,’ about marriage equality, is especially pertinent and is a strong selection for me.
“In San Francisco, I started to put together a show about the songs and the singers that influenced me. ‘Goldfinger’ is one of them. I adore Shirley Bassey.”