Wagnerian soprano Christine Brewer understands devotion of composer's fans

Written By The Wagnerian on Thursday, 14 February 2013 | 9:20:00 pm


By Rich Copley — rcopley@herald-leader.com

Christine Brewer knows the stereotypes of Richard Wagner's music: huge drama, huge voices, swelling orchestras and long, long operas.

But Brewer learned well before she started singing the 19th-century composer's music that it doesn't have to be that way, and really shouldn't be.

The soprano herself defies expectations. A celebrated star of some of North America and Europe's most prestigious opera stages, she comes from humble Midwestern roots in Illinois and began her career as a music teacher — not a professor, but a K-12 music teacher.

She also was bold and, in 1989, talked her way into a master class with vaunted Wagnerian soprano Birgit Nilsson.

"I thought you could just call anyone," Brewer says, laughing.

Hailing from neither a prestigious opera program nor a heralded company, Brewer was told Nilsson would not hear her. But she did, and Nilsson invited Brewer to study with her in Germany. That started a friendship and valuable tutelage in the music of Wagner, including something not often associated with the German master: subtlety.

"She would painstakingly go through the scores and say, 'Look, the orchestra isn't even playing here, so you don't have to sing full tilt,' and she was right," Brewer says. "People are tempted to go sing full out all the time when singing Wagner, but they shouldn't. Number one, it's not healthy for the voice. Number two, it's boring."

Wagner's music is not for the young, either.

That's a big reason Lexington opera lovers don't hear his music much. With the student-based University of Kentucky Opera Theatre as the city's primary opera presenter, the student singers for the most part are not ready to sing Wagner.

"You shouldn't hear Wagner from students," Brewer says. "You need to wait until you're older and grow into it."

Lexington will hear Wagner on Friday in a program featuring Brünnhilde's Immolation Scene from Götterdammerung, the finale of his iconic Ring Cycle. In the scene, Brünnhilde and her horse leap atop her love Siegfried's flaming funeral pyre to bring the story to a dramatic close.

In her performance with the University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra, we won't see all that staging, which is another daunting task for any company that wants to present Wagner. Instead, we will hear the dramatic music from the soprano and the orchestra.

"My God," Brewer says, "can you imagine playing Wagner with an orchestra?"

She recalls singing a performance of Wagner at the Grand Teton Music Festival in Jackson Hole, Wyo.

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