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For Christine Brewer, the diva act stays onstage

July 10, 2011

She is one of opera's great dramatic sopranos. But other artists praise her lack of pretense and her homespun personality.

It's hard to imagine one of the world's greatest dramatic sopranos singing out of tune.

But when Christine Brewer was a child growing up in the tiny Illinois town of Grand Tower her musically inclined mother was so appalled by her daughter's apparent inability to sing properly that she made her learn to play the violin, an instrument that demands a particularly rigorous ear.

The vocalist's education in string playing clearly paid off. It is the instrumental quality that Brewer, one of today's leading interpreters of the music of Strauss and Wagner with title roles in "Ariadne auf Naxos" at the Metropolitan Opera and "Tristan and Isolde" at the San Francisco Opera to her name, brings to her singing that makes her stand out.

Conductors frequently refer in rapturous tones to Brewer's unusual ability to both soar above — and blend flawlessly with — a symphony. "Her voice is like an instrument. It interacts seamlessly with the orchestra," said conductor Donald Runnicles, general music director of the Deutsche Oper Berlin since August 2009, chief conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and one of Brewer's frequent collaborators. "The tremendous focus of her voice is able to cut through an orchestra," said Richard Gaddes, the founder of Opera Theatre of St. Louis, where Brewer got her professional start in the 1980s as a chorus member before going on to perform solo roles in such works as "Peter Grimes."

Brewer's affinity for singing as if she were an integral member of an ensemble rather than its temporary glittering ornament extends to her personality. There isn't a trace of the haughty diva about the singer, despite garnering such accolades as a Grammy Award and a place on the BBC's "Top 20 Sopranos" list alongside Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland.

Though she was by far the most well-known soloist involved in a series of performances of Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis" with the San Francisco Symphony last month, Brewer was a team player. The vocalist has performed the work around 30 times, but she paid close attention to conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and smiled encouragingly at her fellow singers, two of whom were new to the piece. "She's a wonderful human being without the pretensions of a prima donna," said the pianist Craig Rutenberg, who has accompanied Brewer in recitals since 2002.

Brewer exuded the air of a Midwest soccer mom as she kicked off her shoes and settled onto a hotel room sofa during a break from rehearsing the "Missa Solemnis." The 55-year-old singer talked at greater length about her 27-year-old daughter Elisabeth's nursing career, her conversations with the sixth-graders at a school that she regularly visits and her family's upcoming annual Labor Day cookout at home in Lebanon, Ill., ("My husband, Ross, will get the whole yard looking beautiful with hay bales and colored lights") than she did about her musical activities.

Yet Brewer's gregariously homespun persona and raucous sense of humor (she's known among her colleagues as a notorious teller of naughty jokes) is matched by a fearsomely meticulous attitude toward her work. The singer's musical scores, some of which she has been carrying around for decades, are thickly covered in penciled notes. When traveling, she never checks these prize possessions with her luggage. When a score starts to fall apart, she makes a copy and leaves the original at home.

The vocalist has been equally punctilious about her choice of operatic roles. Brewer's appearance with Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic on July 17 at the Hollywood Bowl in the title role of a concert performance of "Turandot" — a part she has never played before — is the result of careful consideration.

Brewer prefers to premiere a role in a concert hall where she can focus solely on the music or in a new stage production where rehearsal time is typically longer than for a remount. So when the Met offered her the chance to sing Princess Turandot a few years ago in an existing production, she turned it down. "Singing a Strauss or Wagner score is second nature for me, but something like 'Turandot' challenges me in so many ways," she said. "It's not just that it's in a different language. It's in a different musical language."

After working with Dudamel on Strauss' "Four Last Songs" at Disney Hall in 2008, the conductor and singer tossed around ideas for their next collaboration. Dudamel suggested "Tosca." But Brewer wasn't keen. The artists reached a consensus with "Turandot." "After that," said Brewer, "it was a matter of waiting until I had time to get it into my bones."

Brewer's career serves as a study in the art of waiting. When her daughter was in her teens, Brewer took time out so she could focus on parenting. And like most sopranos destined to play heavy Germanic roles, she had to wait for many years before her voice reached maturity.

The great dramatic soprano Birgit Nilsson, with whom Brewer studied in her early 30s, offered the then-budding vocalist important advice: "Birgit said, 'Even if it means you have to wait until you're 40 to do Strauss and Wagner, keep singing Mozart because it will keep your voice healthy and youthful.'"

Brewer took Nilsson's words to heart, patiently dividing her time between singing lighter operatic fare and working as a substitute teacher until her husband (also an educator) forced her to concentrate on her vocal career by deliberately not renewing her teaching credential when he renewed his own, an action that angered her. "I saw teaching as an insurance policy, but Ross thought it was a crutch, and he was right," Brewer said.

Brewer's path since then has not always been easy. Like many emerging artists, her early career was marked by tough financial decisions ("Sometimes it was a case of 'Do we buy groceries this week? Or do we buy a score?'") And more recently, a knee injury forced her to withdraw from playing the career-defining role of Brünnhilde at the Met in what would have been her first complete "Ring" cycle. "I don't know if a complete 'Ring' is in the future for me," said the singer, who frequently performs extracts in concert from Wagner's seminal operatic cycle.

Still, Brewer's full schedule, which includes appearances at London's Wigmore Hall, a collaboration with the jazz pianist Peter Martin and a recording of "Der Freischütz" with Colin Davis, testifies to the singer's enduring appeal.

Dudamel, for one, can't wait for his date with Brewer at the Hollywood Bowl. "The role of Princess Turandot is notoriously difficult to cast. You need power, but also great flexibility. You have to project strength, but also vulnerability," he said in an email. "Christine is one of the very few sopranos who has all of these qualities, and to hear this work at the Bowl should be something unforgettable."



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