From the time he was 7, Sanford Sylvan knew he had to share his voice with the world. Singing was a part of his life growing up in Syosset, and when he heard that Usdan in Wheatley Heights was having tryouts for its summer arts camp, he urged his mother to take him.
"He said, 'I have to go to this place,'" said Lenore Sylvan of Princeton, New Jersey. "He didn’t have sheet music. He took a record with him." Needless to say, he got in.
Sylvan, who went on to become a renowned baritone who originated the role of Chou En-lai in John Adams' 1987 opera "Nixon in China" and since 2012 was a vocal teacher at The Juilliard School, died at his Manhattan home on Jan. 29 at age 65. His death was sudden and deemed to be of natural causes.
If there was a prevailing quality to Sylvan's performances, it was that he put his heart into every song, said his family. "In one sense, his voice was very soothing," said his brother, Seth Sylvan. "In another sense, he was extremely committed to what he was trying to deliver. He used to really get himself into the role."
His mother especially felt that connection when he played passenger Leon Klinghoffer, who was disabled and used a wheelchair, in Adams' "The Death of Klinghoffer" in 1991. "The words came alive even when he was Klinghoffer and being thrown over the boat. He sang with such clarity, and that was very important to him," she said.
One of Sylvan's early influences was his eighth-grade music teacher Nancy Sherman. When Sylvan told Sherman that he needed to learn two musical pieces in another language for his audition at Juilliard, she taught him two 17th century Italian art songs. "He was an eager learner," she said. "He was smart and had a great spirit even then. His voice came out of this incredible spirit that he had."
After Juilliard, Sylvan continued his studies at the Tanglewood Music Center in Lenox, Massachusetts, and graduated from the Manhattan School of Music. He relocated to Boston and performed many Bach cantatas at Emmanuel Church, where he attracted the attention of director Peter Sellars. Sylvan appeared in two of Sellars' most memorable works, his offbeat modern takes on "Cosi fan tutte" and "The Marriage of Figaro" by Mozart.
Last year Sylvan was appointed voice faculty chair at Juilliard, and had previously taught at McGill University in Montreal. He also gained five Grammy nominations, including one for appearing on the 2003 film soundtrack of "The Death of Klinghoffer."
In addition to his mother and brother, Sylvan is survived by his sister, Gwen Sylvan. Juilliard is planning a memorial celebration of his life and music in the spring.