After receiving a Master’s in Opera Performance at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Kristen Hertzenberg landed a role in a play based on opera star Maria Callas’ classes at Juilliard in the early ’70s. The Actors Equity union card that came with it opened the door to a world the classically trained singer hadn’t considered, namely a European tour in Hair, followed by a role as Christine in Phantom—The Las Vegas Spectacular at the Venetian.
And just as musical theater (and Las Vegas) was a far cry from the Austrian American Mozart Academy in Salzburg where Hertzenberg studied as an undergrad, her impeccable renditions of rapper Young MC’s “Bust A Move” and “Fastest Rhyme” at a recent Cabaret Jazz show underscore her versatility.
These mighty plunges into multiple genres are what audiences have come to expect from Hertzenberg—a singer with extraordinary vocal depth—who moved to Las Vegas in 2006 with husband Dana Satterwhite. Recently, she has performed a series of sold-out cabaret exploits with her six-piece band, the last of which began with The Jeffersons’ theme song, “Movin’ On Up,” and included works recorded by Bonnie Raitt, Audra McDonald, Ray Charles and Lizz Wright, as well as original pieces by her band members and a slow, jazzy rendition of Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel.”
We talked with Hertzenberg, who recently joined the cast of Million Dollar Quartet at Harrah’s as an understudy and is performing the role of Dyanne through March 10.
What were you expecting of the Las Vegas music scene when you moved here? I had heard about this Broadway West phenomenon that was happening out here. Just the fact that they were going to make the investment that they did in Phantom, build a whole new theater, I was impressed. They were pulling together the entire original creative team of the production. We had Andrew Lloyd Webber here and Hal Prince and Gillian Lynne.
Before that, did you ever think you’d live here? Never. What Vegas offered us was a chance to live and work in the same city, and we hadn’t had that in so long that it didn’t really matter where it was. We were just excited to not be apart.
Did you plan on staying here after Phantom? In the beginning, I never thought I would stay. We were always talking about where we were going to go next. About three years in we had to stop denying that the town was being really good to us and that we were meeting all these really great people. It was a very conscious decision. One day we both said, “Let’s stop talking about where we’re going to go next. Let’s just accept that this is just a great place for us to be right now.” That was a great day. Then, of course, [our daughter] Shea was born, and that certainly changes how you view a town.
How has the Smith Center changed things for people in the industry? It’s a major game changer for me for a lot of different reasons. They just announced the 2014-’15 Broadway Series season and a ton of the productions that are coming through are things that I would have had to go to New York to see—and I was planning to go to New York to see—because in this industry, we always need to be aware of what’s happening and what the possibilities are for us as actors. I can see Kinky Boots and Ghost. There’s also Patti LuPone coming and Renée Fleming coming.
Would you ever return to opera? I would definitely do something like that. I don’t have a real strong desire to pursue it full-time and stop everything else. But I’ve always loved art songs and singing in a recital setting more than opera.
Do you remember your first time onstage? I was in band. But all my friends were in choir so they convinced me to switch over in seventh or eighth grade. Every year at the end of the year they did the pops show, and my choir director gave me a Celine Dion song to sing at the pops show, which was just cruel. I didn’t know that she was this otherworldly diva that I was going to have to try to emulate.
How did it go? I did the best I could. My knees were knocking, but it was empowering. Shortly after I discovered I had much more of a classical voice and I was really comfortable with that, so I started doing competitions.
What music were you into growing up? My parents took us to the symphony. I listened to typical stuff—Michael Jackson, Cyndi Lauper. There was a really solid Amy Grant period because it was Texas, after all. And I’d choreograph dances to different songs.
So performance was already forming in you? I always had a performing spirit, it just wasn’t necessarily like “I have to be a singer.” I was a gymnast, so I was always doing my floor routines all over the house.
Million Dollar Quartet 7 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Sunday, 5:30 & 8 p.m. Monday and Thursday, $63-$87, Harrah’s, 777-2782.