Is veteran mezzo-soprano Janis Hardy really retiring from performing? Not if her "Sopranorama" cohorts have anything to say about it. But Hardy, 61, insists that this year's installment of the annual performance by her, Maria Jette and Molly Sue McDonald at the Southern Theater (their seventh) will be her last. "It's time," she said.

"Sopranorama," a combination cabaret, musical revue and art-song recital, was a longtime dream for Jette. In McDonald and Hardy, she found kindred spirits, serious musicians who didn't take themselves too seriously, and they embarked on an extended survey of the breadth and depth of the vocal repertoire.

McDonald insists that she and Jette won't let Hardy retire. They have already persuaded her to perform as part of the Music in the Park 30th anniversary season. "[Artistic director] Julie Himmelstrup made a personal plea," Hardy said.

"We're hoping we can keep finding close personal friends to guilt her into coming back!" McDonald said.

Hardy has been a beloved performer in the Twin Cities for more than 40 years. She was a mainstay of the Minnesota Opera ensemble in its early years and also well-known as a concert soloist, with the likes of VocalEssence (then Plymouth Music Series) and the Minnesota Orchestra. Her comic presence enlivened many of Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" shows.

"One of the wonderful things about having a career in this area is that there are so many options," Hardy said. "It's such a unique place."

A diverse talent

Unique is a word aptly applied to her talent. "When audiences think about vocal treasures, the name of Janis Hardy comes immediately to mind," said VocalEssence artistic director Philip Brunelle. "Her rich mezzo has a flexibility that allows her to feel at home singing Vivaldi, Argento, Kern, Bernstein -- anything you can name."

The program for her "Sopranorama" swan song will embrace her diverse talents and be as eclectic as fans of the trio expect. There will be the world premiere of songs by Dominick Argento along with a tribute to Bozo the Clown, who died this year. And, of course, there are the wacky medleys, like blending a Grieg song with the Everly Brothers.

In recent years, Hardy has branched out, working with Theater Latte Da, Frank Theatre and Theatre de la Jeune Lune.

"What's terrific about her is her commitment to the marriage of music and drama," said Latte Da artistic director Peter Rothstein. "She was a pioneer, as a musician, in understanding the tools of the actor."

Hardy acknowledged that it will be hard to give this up, but she is a grandmother now and more involved than ever at St. Olaf College, where she's been a full-time professor since 1987.

"I no longer find the time to practice two hours a day," she said. "I don't want to sing if I can't practice. I don't want to hear, 'Isn't it sad about Janis, trying to put out those notes she can no longer sing. ... ' But I will miss working with my friends. I will miss making music and engaging in the creative process."

And she will be missed, said Brunelle. "What audiences have adored in her performances is that quality of sharing herself with the listener. Janis is the most giving of singers. We are blessed to have had her presence with us for so many years."