American dramatic soprano Christine Brewer
talks to ROBERT HUGILL
Christine Brewer's appearance as Gluck's Alceste at this year's Santa Fe Opera festival represents the tenth anniversary of the dramatic soprano's association with Santa Fe. Previously at the festival Brewer has sung Richard Strauss's Ariadne and Helen of Troy plus Ellen Orford (in Britten's Peter Grimes).
Strauss is of course familiar dramatic soprano territory and Ariadne has been something of a calling card for Brewer; she will be recording the role in English for Chandos later this year. But Britten's Ellen Orford is more surprising, though it must be remembered that Ellen Orford was written for Joan Cross who was a notable interpreter of Strauss's Marschallin.
Brewer has performed all the major roles which Britten wrote for Cross -- Female Chorus (Rape of Lucretia), Ellen Orford (Peter Grimes), Gloriana and Lady Billows (Albert Herring). In fact she will be returning to Santa Fe in 2010 to perform Lady Billows. Brewer is proud that she was able to perform all four of these roles under Colin Graham at St Louis. Her 2005 performances of Gloriana were her last work with Graham, a precious link with Britten himself.
For Brewer, Britten's music is greatly appealing and she sings not only his operatic output but his song cycles and orchestral vocal works. She appreciates the depth of his characterisation in opera, so that the role of Gloriana combines the more gritty, human side with the grander public face. Learning a role like Gloriana, Brewer finds it difficult at first, until the music suddenly clicks and it seems perfect for the language, as if there was no other way of setting it.
In person, Christine Brewer is delightful, sunny and communicative, not at all like the rather troubled personalities that dramatic sopranos are usually called upon to play. One reason that she is looking forward to reprising Lady Billows is that it is the only comic role in her repertoire.
Tom Corbeil as The Infernal God and Christine Brewer in the title role of Gluck's 'Alceste'. Photo © 2009 Ken Howard
We met two days before her final performance as Gluck's Alceste in Francisco Negrin's dramatic production at Santa Fe. It was the first time that Brewer had worked with Negrin and she found the rehearsal period challenging and exciting.
Alceste is a role that Brewer loves, though it is physically very taxing as Alceste is on stage for almost the entire opera. Musically the role lies in the upper middle of Brewer's voice, what she thinks of as the best part of her voice. Later parts of the opera are difficult to sing because of the way Gluck has written the role, but Brewer has come to realise that Gluck was reflecting in the music Alceste's physical and mental stress.
As a wife and mother, Brewer feels that she can empathise with Alceste's situation. She does not see Alceste as innately brave, but rather someone motivated by love. In fact Alceste talks a great deal about her children. After Alceste's decision to substitue herself for her husband's death, she still finds little relief. But there is much tenderness and subtlety in the opera, a tenderness that you don't see in other comparable roles such as Leonora in Fidelio.
Alceste is not the only one of Gluck's operas in Brewer's repertoire. In the mid 1990s she sang the title role in Iphigenie en Tauride in a dance production by Pina Bausch which travelled to the Edinburgh Festival. The musicians sang the roles whilst dancers embodied them physically. Brewer found this enhanced her singing as she focussed on the woman dancing her role. For Brewer the whole experience was extremely moving, rendered more so by the fact that Bausch was reviving a production of the 1970s using the original dancers.
Such roles, whilst not being totally unknown for a dramatic soprano, also reflect Brewer's own attitude to her voice. She still feels like a lyric soprano and approaches everything lyrically. This is perhaps explained by the fact that when she was training (to be a music teacher) her voice was tiny. So initially there was no thought of being a performer and certainly no inkling that her voice would grow to its current stature. Her voice developed late, so that she started her singing career late; she did not make her London début until her thirties. Her Covent Garden début was as the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro. And Mozart is still important to her. During her studies with Birgit Nilsson, Nilsson told Brewer to sing Mozart for as long as she could, Brewer sees this as important for the way she preserves her voice and keeps it in good condition. When working on more dramatic roles she also tries to work on Mozart, Haydn or Handel and she still uses The Queen of the Night and Haydn's Armida to warm up.
Christine Brewer. Photo © Christian Steiner
This balanced attitude to her voice is something that Brewer feels is lacking in many young singers who are pushed to sing too much too soon. Brewer admits that there are times when she has erred on the side of caution, refusing roles which she perhaps could have sung. But ultimately she is concerned to preserve the beauty of her voice. (In terms of repertoire, she is more attracted to German roles and is less inclined to sing Italian ones.)
Brewer feels that if you sing correctly, you should be singing until you die. But the voice should not be forced. If voices are pushed louder than they should be, they develope a wobble. After all, Isolde is supposed to be a relatively young woman and so she should sound fresh. Nilsson had stressed to Brewer that she should capitalise on the beauty of tone. Nilsson's own voice, as she demonstrated in lessons with Brewer, was still a remarkable instrument. In fact Brewer thinks of her voice instrumentally and tries not to abuse it.
Even with more conventionally heavy roles, Brewer finds more lyrical ways through, for instance using sarcasm rather than anger to articulate emotions. She tries to avoid approaching a role in a negative way, but tries to find a positive direction to take. Whilst singing the Dyer's wife in Die Frau ohne Schatten in Chicago and Paris she made the role work with her voice by viewing the character as less of a bitch and more of a sympathetic character struggling with a difficult situation. Brewer feels that this makes more sense of the transition in the role from Act 2 to Act 3 when the character relaxes more. In fact the Dyer's wife is a slightly surprising choice for Brewer as she might have been expected to play the Empress. But given the choice, Brewer felt the Dyer's wife the more interesting character.
Inevitably, a conversation with any dramatic soprano turns towards the role of Brünnhilde. Brewer had been training for two years towards her début in a complete Ring cycle, which was to have taken place at the Met in New York earlier this year. A painful knee injury forced her to cancel, leaving her devastated both physically and emotionally. Brewer has been puzzled by the strange backwash from the cancellation as reviewers and bloggers speculated as to whether the injury was real (it was) and whether there were other reasons for cancellation (there weren't). And Brewer assured me that there would be Brünnhilde performances in the future: something to look forward to. Regarding the role itself, Brewer fins Act 2 of Götterdämmerung the most difficult. Here the music is so seductive that it is easy to over sing.
Brewer is visiting London again in December when she is giving a recital at the Wigmore Hall and performing a Wagner programme at the Royal Festival Hall with Sir Charles Mackerras. She will also be recording a disc of songs with Roger Vignoles; this disc will consist of relatively unknown pieces which were written specifically for great dramatic sopranos of the past, including a group of songs for Flagstad by her accompanist. This is a project which is dear to Brewer's heart and which she initiated.
Previous recordings have included two recital records in English for Chandos. It was Brewer herself sho decided to include a significant number of items which originally set English, so that we get to hear extracts from Peter Grimes (Britten), The Consul (Menotti), Oberon (Weber) and The Golden Legend (Sullivan).
Brewer loves singing in German and feels that German texts seem to work better in translation than Italian ones. She is no stranger to singing in English as she has a long association with St Louis, and they always sing in English. Her other recording for Chandos, of Fidelio in English, came about partly because she was able to record the role in German as well, with the LSO.
Christine Brewer is a highly articulate singer who has a refreshingly clear view of her voice and the way she uses it. She is keen to ensure her voice stays at its peak for as long as possible.
Copyright © 25 August 2009 Robert Hugill,
Santa Fe, USA