Marty Swaden’s Encore

The singer-turned-lawyer moonlights as a theater performer

Published in 2018 Minnesota Super Lawyers Magazine

It was 1970, Marty Swaden had just graduated from the University of Michigan, and he had a crucial decision to make. “I was considering going to law school, but, instead, I took two years off to see if my performing might pay off,” he says.

A classically trained singer, Swaden took his talents to the Twin Cities—bouncing between restaurant singing gigs and musical productions. “I said to myself, ‘I’m doing well here, but can I survive in New York?’” Swaden recalls. 

Once he moved there, it didn’t take him long to realize the answer: “Let’s just say, I did not become famous,” he says with a laugh. 

Swaden returned to Minneapolis when Chanhassen called—for such shows as Fiddler on the Roof, in which he appeared alongside Loni Anderson—but soon his resolve to pursue the law had solidified. 

“New York was necessary,” he says. “If I hadn’t done it, I would have gone through law school wondering if I could do it. It wasn’t fun—and, honestly, on-and-off depressing—but I wouldn’t give that up in a million years. It was a good life lesson.”

Twenty-eight years later, in 1998, Swaden had a well-established family law practice when he saw an ad that Minnesota Opera Company was looking for singers. He hadn’t sung professionally for two decades and never sang in the operatic style, but he still had the itch to try. 

“So I go down and audition,” he says. “I was supposed to go in with an aria, and I thought, ‘I don’t know any,’ so I sang ‘Caro Mio Ben,’ an art song. I could see in their faces shock and surprise. They must’ve thought it was funny and interesting, because they gave this 50-year-old guy a try.” They cast Swaden in two operas that year—then up to three productions every year for the next 11 seasons.

Swaden had bit parts here and there, but mostly appeared as a tenor two in the chorus. During this time, he practiced exhaustively—because he didn’t know any of the languages—and took regular voice lessons. “The vocal range is significant,” he says. 

He did it for 12 years, then he joined Mill City Summer Opera for three shows before segueing into musical theater. “I went to Bloomington Civic Theater, which is now Artistry, for a production of My Fair Lady,” he says. The transition from opera to theater was an easy one—what with no language barriers or strenuous vocal ranges—and he’s been there ever since. 

Swaden does one show a year and, not surprisingly, his favorites had the meatiest roles—Herr Schultz in Cabaret, in particular. His latest turn, a supporting role in Follies last April, was the first time he was younger than his character. “As I get older, there’s no lead parts. Unless there’s a grandfather in the cast, there’s not many big roles for me to get,” he says. The part he’s still hoping to play someday: Ben Franklin in 1776.

When he’s in a show, much of his free time is devoted to theater—often five to six days a week just to rehearse. “A lot of it has to do with the people,” Swaden says. “If it weren’t for that, I probably wouldn’t do it. It’s such a nice contrast to what I do in my work—ADR and family law; it’s a nice change to go from one world to the other.” In either role, he’s creative and collaborative, but only one tends to come with applause.

That said, he can’t see himself giving up the law: “I’m just having too much fun. I’m not the kind of guy you’re going to see retire to Boca Raton.”

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