“When you walk away from something you love, it doesn’t really go away. It simmers. It hides. It never lets you engage fully in what you’ve chosen to do. And then comes the lightning bolt.”
Francesca MacAaron. Photo Credit: Chris Macke
“In my family, you wouldn’t become a doctor or a lawyer; that would be kind of horrifying,” says Francesca MacAaron, a statuesque blonde mezzo-soprano whose specialty is cabaret. “In our house, there was always the encouragement of the artistic, the creative, and the free.” (Francesca’s sister, Alexandra MacAaron, is Women’s Voices’ correspondent on the arts; her brother, Dave, is a musician and filmmaker.)
Francesca’s father, “the handsomest man on Broadway,” was an actor and teacher. (See the tribute that Alexandra MacAaron paid him on our site last Father’s Day.) Her mother was an opera singer. Their life beguiled her. “From the time I was a child, I can’t remember wanting to be anything else than what my mother had been—an opera singer,” Francesca says.
She got that life—not singing opera, but as an actress and cabaret singer, doing commercials and taking restaurant jobs to pay the rent. In her early thirties, she gave that life up. But—happily, if impractically—the call of the theater recently brought her back to doing the work she loves. In middle age.
“When you walk away from something you love, it doesn’t really go away,” she says. “It simmers. It hides. For years it never lets you fully engage in whatever you’ve chosen to do. And then one day you wake up—whether it’s some big thing that happened, or a human angel who comes into your life, or it’s instantaneous—and it’s a lightning bolt that gives you another chance, that lets you be what you were always meant to be.”
Talent and her theater-loving family set Francesca on the road to cabaret. “I was a wild child—headstrong, stubborn. I think a lot of actors, artists, and singers come from the lonely place of imagination . . . when I was a child, the world of imagination was so much more real. I really came into my own when I got the lead in My Fair Lady in elementary school. Prior to that I had been an odd child with some good friends, but lost in the world of my imagination and my singing. Then I was recognized at 10 or 11 and put into this show and I got to perform for the entire school. Suddenly, people wanted to be my friend, which is bit of a hard lesson at that age: ‘Wow, now that I have clout and am a little bit famous, I have friends.’”
She began studying with an opera coach at 14. She “rebelled” at 16 and formed her first rock band, Avatar, which played at such legendary New York venues as CBGB’s and the China Club. She chose not to go to college, but rather to graduate from high school early and get work Off Broadway. “To bridge the worlds of rock and opera, musical theater was kind of the compromise,” she says. “It used all the training I had, but was for me a lot more creative, and a lot less disciplined. (She’s a belter with a rock edge to her voice, but she can be sweetly lyrical; compare “My Simple Christmas Wish,” at Lincoln Center, with “Human Angel,” from the new musical Naked Arcade.)
Francesca’s first professional role, in AMAS Rep’s production of Offenbach’s La Belle Hélène, made her euphoric. Then the show ended. “I was devastated. I thought, ‘I will never live again.’ I called my mother from a pay phone, and I was very dramatic. I said, “Mom, I don’t know what to do.’ She told me to get the Village Voice. And there it was, the review, and they had mentioned me in a positive light, and of course the sun shone again. I think I danced home! And this is the life of an actor.
“It ends and you’re in mourning, and then someone writes about you, and you get an audition and the whole thing begins again and you’re like a pinball in a pinball machine. But eventually you grow out of the idea that you’re working for the attention and get to the place where you’re just working for the work’s sake. You’re doing what you do because you love it, value it, want to share it with others.”
Francesca lost that world when her beloved father died. “When my father passed away after a long illness, the heart went out of me. I went up to Boston to audition for a part and I opened my mouth and nothing came out . . . and this was a song I had sung for years. Silence. I started over again. Nothing. I was terrified. I tried a third time, and broke down crying. As I walked through Boston, crying, I realized that I couldn’t perform; that the death of my dad had taken the heart out of it. He would have hated to know that—but there it was. And then avoidance becomes the norm—and you create this mythology around the crisis. And we all deny this—but it’s fear that makes you shelve your own dream.”
And so the actress reinvented herself. Like all New York performers, she had already worked survival jobs in restaurants. She became the manager for Candle 79, a well-known vegan restaurant on the Upper East Side. She discovered that she had talents she hadn’t called on in her theater work, like managing a large and diverse staff, customer relations, and promotion and publicity. She even became an organic-wine “expert.” On the surface, she was happy and successful.
But though her position was rewarding, she was working long hours and burning the candle at both ends. Until one day when her body said, “No more!” She passed out on the floor of Filene’s. (“Couldn’t it have been Bergdorf’s?” she asks, rolling her eyes.)
This was Francesca’s lightning bolt. “I’d had an adrenal collapse. That’s the modern woman’s version of a nervous breakdown. I had no more ability to deal with the stress in my life—stress that had arisen from years of physical hard work and emotional upset, but really from denying what I was meant to be doing. That’s what I believe, anyway.”
Her bosses were sympathetic; they gave her a much lighter work schedule, and in a short time offered her, along with other key staff, the possibility of partnership. But she said no. She was going back to the theater, despite the fact that she was no longer an ingénue; she was not only in her forties, she had lost all her contacts.
“It took a lot of courage and faith, but in some ways it’s been a magical experience,” she says. “When you’re young, you want to live up to other people’s vision of you. But being the age I am makes it a lot easier to walk into a room and “just be”—and accept that I am what they’re looking for, or not.”
Francesca last year as Prudence in Charles Ludlam’s “Camille” at Casa Mezcal on the Lower East Side.
Original, unusual musical theater is Francesca’s element. She’s currently working on the role of Ellis the imaginary mermaid in Marc McBarron Kessler’s new work Naked Arcade, which will be done as an “immersive” cabaret musical. She does a lot of television work, both background and featured roles, but casting is a conundrum. Does the casting director think she’s too old for the part of the sexy wife or too young for the liberal judge? She has, she admits, been asked to audition for products like Botox, vaginal dryness and urinary incontinence (“Oh, the glamorous life!”).
Botox, especially, was a bad fit, and Francesca said no to the possibility of a great contract: “I’m not going to freeze my face. Nobody wants to develop expression lines, but this is what life has given us. Sometimes I look at over-retouched head shots, and there’s something missing: the vitality, the sense of humor, and the wisdom that’s in older women, and that is such a valuable thing. When I got new head shots, I wanted the photographer, Chris Macke, to capture the 40-some-odd years of my inner life: incredible sadness and incredible joy, the learned lessons that women accumulate and can offer the world. If I were casting someone, that’s what I’d want to see.” (Our photo of Francesca is her current head shot, unretouched.)
After our interview, Francesca sent me an email marked “CODA.” Here’s what it said: “Something occurred to me after speaking with you. I realize that many women don’t have the luxury of taking the leap back into their dreams. And I don’t place a higher ‘value’ on myself because I have done so. I am very, very lucky to have a supportive partner and a supportive family. I don’t have other mouths to feed, a mortgage, etc. Sometimes the greatest personal achievements happen on the inside, in a quiet way. I may not ‘succeed’ in this by society’s standards. I may have to work at other things in order to keep body and soul together. What has changed is that I know myself now. I will continue to express my creativity, and make positive changes in my life when I can, regardless of the form it takes. And I think that’s what counts.”