Mastodon Amber Wagner: Wagner then Strauss and perhaps back to Wagner again? - The Wagnerian

Amber Wagner: Wagner then Strauss and perhaps back to Wagner again?

Written By The Wagnerian on Tuesday 22 November 2011 | 8:55:00 pm

John von Rhein Classical music critic Chicago Tribune

9:13 a.m. CST, November 22, 2011

The first time I heard Amber Wagner sing was on a warm summer night in 2008 atMillennium Park. The young soprano, then beginning her second year in Lyric Opera's young artist development program, the Ryan Opera Center, was performing in the annual "Stars of Lyric Opera" concert. I remember being blown away by the creamy beauty and rich amplitude of her voice as she sustained the arching cantilena of Leonora's aria, "Tacea la notte," from Verdi's "Il Trovatore."

I turned to my companion and exclaimed, "She's got the goods!"

And her singing still carries an astonishing impact, allied to an artistry that has grown considerably in the intervening years. At 31, Wagner is one of Lyric's proudest success stories, and she's standing on the brink of what surely will be an extraordinary international career.

Having triumphed in her first Elsa in Richard Wagner's "Lohengrin" at Lyric in March, the soprano is back in Chicago where she is enjoying another triumph in another big role – or, rather, two of them -- the Prima Donna and Ariadne in Richard Strauss' "Ariadne auf Naxos." The music is a perfect fit for her voice, which can turn on a dime from full-throttle dramatic singing to melting lyricism that soars into the Straussian stratosphere.

"I'm having great fun with this part and this production," Wagner told me during a recent rehearsal break. "I don't feel tired when I come out of singing Ariadne. It's a nice relief to sing that role, compared to singing Elsa, when you're programmed to be on stage for five hours!"

The singer comes across in conversation as direct and open, an artist whose feet are firmly planted on level ground and who's refreshingly realistic about herself and what she hopes to achieve professionally..

Although Lyric keeps the identity of its understudies ("covers," as they're known in the business) a secret, Wagner is known to be the cover Aida in the Verdi work here, beginning in January. From Chicago she will fly to Frankfurt for her role debut as Sieglinde in Richard Wagner's "Die Walkure."

But the big revelation is she's also set to make her Chicago role debut as another Verdi heroine, Leonora, in "Trovatore," for the opening of Lyric's 2014-15 season. And there's talk of her taking on another Wagnerian heroine, Elisabeth in "Tannhauser," in early 2013, theater to be announced.

Hugely demanding roles, all. But Lyric music director Andrew Davis, who conducted her in "Lohengrin" here in March and is also pacing the current run of "Ariadne auf Naxos," says each of these formidable roles lies comfortably within the singer's capabilities.

"I'm always astonished by Amber," he says. "She has tremendous stamina and she's very hard-working. She has a great appetite to learn and to grow. And she's sort of fearless! Hers is one of those voices you hear a very few of in your lifetime. Seldom can you say, 'Wow, this is a great Wagner and Strauss singer who's also a great Verdi singer.' With Amber you can. I predict the biggest possible future for her."

Determined to take things at her own slow and careful pace, Wagner already is having to turn down extravagant offers from European opera houses. "I have chosen longevity over a career over making money," she declares. She credits her manager, Matthew Horner of IMG Artists, with mapping out a realistic trajectory of roles for her through the end of the decade.

Wagner knew little enough about the art of singing, let alone the business of singing, in 2007 when, fresh out of college in Arizona, she began her three seasons as a member of the Ryan Center young artists ensemble.

"They benched me my first year so I could work on my technique and explore repertory," Wagner recalls. "(Ryan Center director) Gianna Rolandi said she didn't want anyone on the outside to hear me because they would just get crazy ideas about me. It was super-wise advice."

Wagner first came to attention of New York opera audiences that same year when she emerged as one of six winners of the prestigious Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions Grand Finals. The concert and the preparations leading up to it were documented in Susan Froemke's film, "The Audition," now available on home video.

Born in California and raised in Oregon, Wagner switched from sociology to music as an undergrad at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix (where she currently lives with her husband, Gabriel Salazar, a voice teacher) after a music teacher, Sheila Corley, said she heard something special in her voice. Corley later became her voice teacher.

But Renee Fleming was what really inspired her to pursue a career in opera. "I became obsessed with Renee after I heard her in recital," Wagner confesses. "That voice, and the way she communicates when she's singing – no one encapsulates the art with such grace and kindness."

In fact, Wagner's first assignment at the center, in 2008, was covering the small role of the maid Annina in Verdi's "La Traviata" -- starring Fleming as Violetta. When Marjorie Owens, the singer who was scheduled to perform Annina, fell ill, Wagner got to be Fleming's maid for the night.

"I had never sung on a professional stage before, and this was my Lyric stage debut. Renee couldn't have been nicer. I was in heaven! Days later I would get gag e-mails from the Lyric administration – 'You need to bring back Renee's gown – she needs it for her performance!' ''

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