William Dart: Auckland Philharmonica Orchestra - Diva

By William Dart

American soprano Christine Brewer.
American soprano Christine Brewer.

A cautious "Hello" radiates into a cheery "Hi there" when I introduce myself to Christine Brewer, in town next week to sing Richard Strauss and Wagner with Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra. The American soprano is relaxing at home in suburban Chicago while her husband is at a ball game.

She is not too concerned about travelling from a sweltering Windy City to chilly Auckland. "As long as I can get out into the sunshine when I get there so my body figures out it's daytime."

Brewer admits she has "a kind of big personality - my husband often tells me to tone it down a notch or two"; and she found a kindred spirit in the ebullient Simon O'Neill, most recently working with him on a recording of Weber's Der Freischutz.

"I'm assuming everyone in New Zealand's going to be like him," she laughs.

Communication is a high priority for this woman, extolled by the BBC Music Magazine as one of the 20 best sopranos of the 20th century.

In recital, she likes the house lights up where possible. "So it's like singing to someone in my living room. It can be scary," she admits. "Certain audiences - German and Austrian in particular - can be very still. I don't get that feedback of an occasional smile or nod. But they're very demonstrative at the end of the concert."

Brewer is looking forward to giving us four Strauss songs on Thursday.

"If I were told that I could have only one composer for the rest of my life, it would probably be Strauss. I love those long soaring notes. Floating them above the orchestra is just thrilling."

Brewer is convinced that Strauss wrote so beautifully for the soprano voice because his wife Pauline was a soprano. The popular Morgen!, which Brewer sings next week, was written for their wedding day.

"It became an encore at a Budapest concert with Ivan Fischer," she remembers. "I had the score of Morgen! but there were no orchestral parts. So we did it with just violin, harp and harmonium. I can still hear those harmonium pedals squeaking. It was charming and so touching."

Here is a diva undaunted by Strauss' mighty orchestral forces.

"In fact, I think there are moments where I'm not the most important thing," she muses. "I'm just part of the fabric. I was a violinist back in my school years and it makes me feel like I'm singing in a chamber group."

Brewer closes Thursday's concert with the Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan and Isolde.

A self-described late-bloomer, the American did not tackle her first Isolde until she was 40. She quotes advice that she received in her early 30s from the great Swedish soprano Brigit Nilsson. Wagner was worth waiting for, but "as long as you sing Mozart the way you do, stay with it. It keeps your voice youthful and healthy - Nilsson's favourite words".

"Isolde is so complex," she explains. "She's a strong character, and I'm always drawn to those kinds of roles like Beethoven's Leonore and Gluck's Alceste - women who have this inner strength."

The coming together of love and death in the Liebestod makes for the ultimate operatic farewell.

"Just listen to the orchestra and you get a sense of Isolde's overwhelming love for Tristan. The Liebestod then moves to a whole other realm.

"She's not on earth any more, and there's a real other-worldliness that comes out in the music."

- NZ Herald

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