On Sunday, August 2, the lucky attendants at this year's Interlochen Summer Arts Festival will hear soprano Christine Brewer perform Samuel Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915. Cristian Macelaru will conduct the World Youth Symphony Orchestra in this enduring American art song composed in 1947 and set to text by James Agee. The song lasts about fifteen minutes, taking the listener through a series of images and perceptions of a particular summer night - now a hundred years ago. It is Agee - reflecting on an "A-ha!" moment from childhood. He is lolling on a quilt in the back yard, wondering at the stars and observing the picture of home. He has a place there. He is loved there. But, he insists, no one will ever tell him who he is. Samuel Barber wants a soprano to convey his story. He gives her a rhapsody sweetened with impulsive shifts, edgy musings, and polished charm. Barber captures Agee's free-wheeling, very descriptive text and moves it onto lines of melody which sopranos like Christine Brewer then spin into sonic gold. The song/the aria was an American Classic at first hearing. "Every child grows up with a feeling of being part of a small community," said Christine, "no matter where they live."
"I did live in a small community and we did have summer evenings lying on quilts in the yard. We could hear our parents chatting on the porch, but couldn't really hear what they were saying. All those images I sing about in 'Knoxville' I experienced as a child and I think my daughter experienced as a child. That sort of comfort you have in being part of a family, but the family not being able to tell you who you are. You have to grow into it. That is what's so beautiful and sad in this piece. He says - 'my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father ... will not ever tell me who I am.' He figures out who he is when his father gets killed in a car accident. The story is autobiographical for Agee. I don't think it's just about the south or being from the early 1900s. I try to bring it to today. It's my experience when I sing it. Of course I don't see horses and buggies going down the street, but I do have all those other images. I know what it's like to lie out on the grass and look up at the sky and wonder - why in the world am I here?"
I first saw Christine Brewer in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde in the 2006 opening night performance at San Francisco Opera. Directed by Donald Runnicles, her entire performance was gorgeous and her silvery voice sailing out on the familiar strains of the 'Liebestod' pure bliss. About two weeks later, I attended a very small recital where Christine was the honored guest performer among a list of artists that included young Elza van den Heever. The event took place in the front parlor of one of the City's oldest surviving Victorians - an eye-popping step back into the late 19th century. With its 14-foot high ceiling, the acoustics were fantastic. Christine lit up the room with a simple song, "Mira", from the Broadway musical, Carnival. The opening lyrics reveal that her character, Lili, has taken two buses and a train to reach this destination and it's the first time she's ever traveled. "Can you imagine that?" Lili says she's from the kind of town where you live in a house until the house falls down. But if it stands up (like this Victorian did through the earthquake and fire of '06) - you stay there. Because? That's their way there.
So, being a native San Franciscan, I threw myself at her afterwards, exclaiming my wonderment at the intimate and tender sweetness of her rendition and its blazing contrast to the gargantuan vocal chops she pulled-out as Isolde just days before. How does a girl like her get to be a girl like her?
"I've been singing 'Mira' since I was in my twenties. It has always spoken to me in a really special way. It's a great song and it's simple. Some of my favorite songs are those that are just very straightforward and simple. And 'Mira' goes right to my heart. Opera wasn't something I planned on at all. I have a Bachelor's Degree in Music Education. I played the violin for twenty years - all through school - and thought that was what I was going to do. And then in my late twenties my voice started to grow. I took a job as section leader with the Saint Louis Symphony Chorus. Then some friends there said we should audition for the chorus of the Opera Theatre. I didn't know what to sing! So, I chose 'All that gold' from Amahl and the Night Visitors. That's a real show-stopper if you're going to audition for an opera company. The gentleman listening to the auditions was the Chorus Master. He said, 'I can't tell if you are a mezzo-soprano or a soprano.' And I said, 'Whatever you need.' [Much laughter.] How ignorant was that?!"
"Well, I didn't get the job. But Richard Gaddes [General Director of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis] heard me sing in a little competition at the Symphony - which I didn't win. I still have his critique sheet. He said, 'This is a voice that is going to go somewhere.' A few days later, I got a check in the mail from him - the amount I would have won in the competition. He said, 'You need to sing for my opera company' and got me in the Chorus. Opera Theatre lists my first role as Mrs. Slammekin in The Beggars Opera. They needed someone who could play this sort-of autoharp. I could play violin, guitar, mandolin - again, 'Whatever you need!' Then I had a small part in Bill Mayer's opera, A Death in the Family with text by James Agee. The first real major role I had at Opera Theatre was Ellen Orford in Peter Grimes. Colin Graham directed it. Opera Theatre nurtured me. They started giving me small parts and I understudied Elettra in Idomeneo and Reiza in Oberon. I got really good coaching from people like Stephen Lord and Steuart Bedford and worked on acting with Colin Graham. That's where it all started. Really, if it hadn't have been for these girlfriends of mine in the Symphony Chorus I never would have done it."
Christine and I talked about her recent CD, Echoes of Nightingales - a collection of twenty-one early 20th century songs that were the encore favorites of great operatic sopranos who were also on the recital circuit. The album is irresistible, many of its titles - such as, The Sleep that Flits on Baby's Eyes - seeing the light of day for the first time in decades. Loyal fans of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy will appreciate her rendition of 'Will You Remember' from Sigmund Romberg's operetta Maytime as a particular stand-out. Christine's long-term accompanist, Roger Vignoles, captures the liveliness and spunk of material that once stood out on the sheet music charts, has been recorded on everything from Edison cylinders to CDs, and will soon be accessible on your wrist watch.
"Flashback to my college days. Glenn Freiner was my voice teacher [McKendree University]. He would bring these pieces to me along with the programs from where he had hear them - like, Kirsten Flagstad coming through St. Louis or Kansas City and doing a recital. He said that she always ended her programs with maybe four American songs, such as Night or Sea Moods. So, I started singing them, calling them Flagstad Favorites and putting them at the end of my recitals. Roger loved them! So, we were recording the Strauss disc for Hyperion and mentioned this to the producer. He says we need to do a recording of these chestnuts. Oh, sure. In my spare time. I'll just pull together some programs! My voice teacher was still living, but was in a nursing home. I talked to him about this project and he said he had all this music and would leave it to me when he died. When he did, I pulled these songs out of his file, choosing the songs that I knew four divas had sung - Eileen Farrell, Helen Traubel, Kirsten Flagstad, and Eleanor Steber. That's how we chose them - from these files, from recordings and programs by these women."
Coming up on Christine's schedule is a recital with Roger Vignoles on August 22 at the Edinburgh International Festival. The program will begin with lieder by Strauss, Clara Schumann, and Schubert and conclude with songs from Echoes of Nightingales. On September 20 she returns to Opera Theatre of St. Louis for the 5th Annual Interfaith Concert and in October she begins a tour with organist Paul Jacobs. And, breaking news - next summer she will repeat her role as "Sister Aloysius" in composer Douglas J. Cuomo's adaptation of Doubt at Union Avenue Opera in St. Louis.
"I say this all the time - that all of these things have informed me as an artist. I don't ever think we waste our time when we are traveling our life's journey. I think you draw on it and go - OK, I get what that's about. That's what makes good storytellers and how you can sell a song. Whatever it is, you've lived or seen it somewhere along in your life. I'm always taking notes in my head. That is what's so great about making music, don't you think?"
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