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Five Things: Opera Singer Christine Brewer On Being Prepared — Or Not

Christian Steiner

This week’s guest is world-renowned opera singer Christine Brewer, a Wagnerian soprano who’s performed on just about every stage and with every company you can imagine — the Metropolitan Opera, The London Symphony Orchestra, English National Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and more.

She’s collaborating with composer John Williams on a new album, focusing on the songs of Harold Arlen. And she's here in Louisville to sing the title role in Kentucky Opera's production of "Ariadne auf Naxos" by Richard Strauss. She’s the real deal, yet she’s very down to earth: Midwestern to the core, a former schoolteacher, and delightful to talk with. Listen to our conversation in the player above.

On a letter of praise from her college voice teacher:
"I keep this framed by my piano, and I had my husband take a picture of it last night and send it to me, so I could read this little letter he wrote me after my junior recital. Now I've got to say, this is a man who did not just dole out compliments. I mean, I could go weeks taking lessons and never hear 'That was beautiful.' The biggest compliment you would ever get from Glenn Freiner was, 'Well, now, today you're making music.'"

On her method for really learning an opera role, inside and out:
"When I work on a new role or on a new piece for a recital, I always type up the score, my text, in whatever the language is. Then I type up a literal translation, right under each line, and leave a space underneath. Then I print this out and I keep it in a file, and that space is what I call 'Christine-speak.' And with a pencil, as I'm studying it, I start writing in, 'How would I say that if I were Isolde?' I have the literal translation, I have the German, but how would I say that? And I just write it, in pencil because it changes as I read the score, read the text the next few weeks, before I ever put it with music."

On her relationship with great Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson:
"She would listen to radio broadcasts. She heard my first Immolation Scene [from Wagner's Götterdämmerung] that I did with the Swedish Radio Orchestra, and she happened to be home. She called me at the theater! And they said, 'You have a phone call at the stage door' and I thought, who knows I'm in Stockholm? And then I'm thinking, somebody died, my husband must be calling, something happened. And I pick up the phone and it's Birgit, and she goes, 'Okay, I just wanted to hear your voice, you sounded healthy and youthful, it was beautiful. Now, don't sing the low stuff in that scene any louder than you sang it tonight because you'll start to get a wobble in your voice.' I mean, she gave me a little critique over the phone!"

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