BELLE OF BEL CANTO: American soprano Brenda Harris [Photo by Lisa Kohler, © Brenda Harris]
In 1842, at the age of twenty-six, Italian soprano Giuseppina Strepponi achieved immortality by triumphantly performing the voice-wrecking rôle of Abigaille in the première of Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco. She was already an acclaimed singer, having made her début at La Scala—and first encountered Verdi—in the 1839 première of her future husband’s Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio, and by the time of her success as Abigaille she had already sung the heroines of Bellini’s Beatrice di Tenda, Norma, I puritani, and La sonnambula, as well as Rossini’s La Cenerentola. Less than a decade after the first performance of Nabucco, Strepponi’s voice was in crisis, and thus was born the stigma that still serves as a dire warning to any soprano whose curiosity leads her to Abigaille’s music. Interestingly, contemporary accounts suggest that Strepponi’s natural vocal talent was supplemented by a formidable technique that enabled her to meet the demands of dramatic bel canto with every appearance of ease, but the spectacular difficulty of Abigaille’s music makes the connection of the relative brevity of Strepponi’s career with her appearances in Nabucco an easy assumption for later generations of observers. What Twenty-First Century appreciations of an artist like Strepponi often fail to consider is that singers in the first half of the Nineteenth Century rarely had the opportunities—or the expectations—for versatility that shape the careers of modern singers. Strepponi might well have sung Mozart’s Elvira, Anna, and even Fiordiligi, but she would not have been called upon to sing Händel’s dramatic coloratura rôles, Mozart’s Elettra and Vitellia, or the later lyric parts that might now figure prominently in her career. Whether or not healthy doses of different repertoire might have calmed the musical tempest that uprooted Strepponi’s vocal security, singing an array of rôles spanning more than two centuries of operatic innovation has certainly contributed to the uncommonly individual artistic development and exhilarating vocal consistency of American soprano Brenda Harris. When she visits Charlotte in October 2014 to sing Abigaille in Opera Carolina’s production of Nabucco, Ms. Harris will climb the vocal Everest that has cost many sopranos their operatic lives. The musical Himalayas are her natural habitat, however, and where other sopranos—even the legendary Strepponi—have stumbled, she soars.
The versatility that might be the undoing of many singers is one of the hallmarks of Ms. Harris’s brilliant career to date, and she is keenly aware of the technical challenges of maintaining a repertoire that has extended from Mozart’s Elettra to Richard Strauss’s Elektra. ‘I started out as a Mozart singer,’ she shares, ‘and I believe I could still sing a couple of his rôles—Elettra, Vitella—quite well. That said, I think there are many voices for which Mozart just might not be the best idea.’ Few sopranos in recent memory have sung both Mozart’s and Strauss’s incarnations of the fiery Electra, but there is the unforgettable example of Birgit Nilsson, who maintained that singing Mozart preserved the flexibility and freedom in the upper register that served her well in her more typical Hochdramatische repertoire. It is a notion that intrigues Ms. Harris. ‘Ten years ago, I probably would have gone the Nilsson route,’ she says, ‘but now I believe that singing Mozart is a wonderful thing for Mozart singers. Mozart requires not only a very specific technique but a certain temperament, and if one or both of those things aren’t part of a singer’s make-up, Mozart can be very challenging. However, if it’s right for you, and for as long as it’s right for you, I say stay with it. I sang mostly Mozart rôles for years, and I think it kept my voice fresh, in line, and healthy.’
BELLE NUIT, Ô NUIT D’AMOUR: Brenda Harris as Giulietta in Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann at Minnesota Opera, 1996 [Photo by Gary Mortensen, © Minnesota Opera]
Vocal health is only one of the qualities that make Ms. Harris’s performances unforgettable experiences. Interestingly, the path that led her to a career in opera was not paved with youthful exposure to Classical Music. ‘I never heard opera as a kid,’ she recalls. ‘I grew up listening to Country and Pop—Barbra Streisand, Patsy Cline, Kate Smith. I didn’t hear my first opera until I was in college.’ Still, as might be expected of a singer so closely associated with dramatic bel canto repertory, she identifies Maria Callas as a powerful inspiration. ‘I have to cite Callas, who I didn’t understand when I started singing seriously. My ears were only conditioned to hear beauty,’ she says, ‘and I didn’t yet understand artistry. I didn’t appreciate her. Once I started to revere expression along with vocal technique, she become my idol—and remains so!’ Ms. Harris is also mindful of Callas’s brief but legendary history with Abigaille, a rôle that she sang only three times but in which her influence is still strongly felt. ‘I listened to many recordings when learning [Abigaille],’ Ms. Harris intimates, ‘but I pretty much stuck with the 1949 Callas recording [taken from a live performance in the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples]. I always come back to that one. She’s just always so true to the score.’ Callas is the gold standard, but every Abigaille deserves respect, Ms. Harris suggests. ‘The rôle is just too darned challenging to criticize anyone!’
SALGO GIÀ DEL TRONO AURATO: Brenda Harris as Abigaille in Verdi’s Nabucco at Minnesota Opera, 2012 [Photo by Michael Daniel, © Minnesota Opera]
Consideration of the lasting influence of Callas, not just in Nabucco, on all subsequent generations of opera singers in general, leads Ms. Harris to contemplation of her own development as an artist. ‘As I said earlier, my young singer self didn’t appreciate Callas. What!? I’m almost ashamed to admit it,’ she laughs. The legacy of Callas is impossible to overlook in an appraisal of Ms. Harris’s repertoire. Her triumphs in rôles like Bellini’s Norma, Verdi’s Lady Macbeth and Violetta, and Puccini’s Tosca echo the brilliance of Callas’s core repertoire, but Ms. Harris also offers glimpses of how la Divina might have excelled in apt parts that she never sang: Elisabetta I in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux and the heroines in Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann, for instance. Asked to assess her own artistry, Ms. Harris cites as the hallmarks for which she strives in her performances sincerity and ardor. In her view, both the greatest challenge and the greatest reward of singing opera is ‘facing yourself,’ an insight with which Callas would surely have concurred.
As is virtually inevitable for any singer active on the international circuit in the past decade, Ms. Harris has encountered her share of productions that stretch the boundaries of traditional modes of operatic interpretation. Ms. Harris views efforts to make standard-repertory works more accessible to Twenty-First-Century audiences with a combination of appreciation and skepticism. ‘I have no problem with “concept” productions as long as they are well thought-out and consistent,’ she says. ‘Inconsistency is the problem I find with most modern/updated productions. That said, I’ve done many concept productions that have been provocative and brilliant! A new take on an old chestnut can be one of the most wonderful evenings in the theatre.’ She is quick to add that directorial efforts at increasing the ‘relevance’ of opera are not a crucial weapon in opera’s battle for endurance. ‘I don’t think it’s necessary for the survival of opera,’ she suggests. ‘No, not at all. What is? Better singing and music-making! When I first started studying and going to opera,’ she remembers, ‘I heard the greatest singers live—Sutherland, [Leontyne] Price, Caballé, Pavarotti, Kraus, and many, many more. We’re not hearing those kinds of voices now. I think that’s what’s hampering opera. You can surround mediocre singing with the most lavish of productions, ‘concept’ or not, and it won’t matter, but put great singing and acting in front of an audience, and they’ll buy a standard Traviata in droves. That’s what I believe, anyway.’
CASTA DIVA: Brenda Harris in the title rôle of Bellini’s Norma at Opéra de Québec, 2000 [Photo by Louise Leblanc, © Opéra de Québec]
This notion raises the issue of how one defines great singing. The training of voices and the standards by which young voices are judged are essential components of the development of important singers. One of the quintessential debates among connoisseurs of voices concerns whether ‘safe’ singers with meticulously-refined techniques or those inclined to sacrifice reliability to vocal adventurousness are more to be encouraged. ‘That’s a tough question,’ Ms. Harris says. ‘These things are never cut and dried. I have fear for the flawed [but] exciting choice. When these voices are rewarded before they’re ready, they usually flame out, and I’ve seen way too much of that in my career. It saddens me immensely when voices and people don’t reach their potential.’ Above all, Ms. Harris opines, young singers must be nurtured not just as vocalists but also as protectors of the art of opera. ‘Singing for me is a life, not a vocation, and I preach that in all my master classes. We must not forget that we love this art form; that we love music and that we got into this world because of that and that alone. Believe me,’ she continues, ‘it’s easy to forget when one is in the “business” of singing for a little while. So many “business” things seem so important, but the only thing that’s really important is why we do this. It wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say that singing has given me my life. I am so very often being lifted up—carried, even—to places that are so otherworldly, it would be criminal not to be passionate and give everything I can to this beautiful thing we do.’ Thinking back on her own time as an ‘apprentice’ singer, Ms. Harris concedes that experience has taught her much that cannot be conveyed in the secure environment of conservatory classrooms. ‘I very much doubt that my young singer self would recognize me [now],’ she divulges, ‘but I think—I hope—she’d really like me!’
Possessing a voice as remarkable for its spectrum of timbral colorations as for the visceral heat that it can radiate throughout her extensive range, Ms. Harris is the rare singer whose performances disclose an innate faculty for finding the emotional significance of even the most fiendishly difficult music, a skill enhanced by her natural gifts as an actress. ‘I’m not a “personalization” person like a method actor,’ she states. ‘I’m an “imagination” person, sort of like the Uta Hagen School. I very much enjoy being a character, but I almost never relate the theatrical [aspects of a rôle] to me or my own life. I find [that] it interferes with my thinking and takes me right out of the story.’ For Ms. Harris, opera under the best conditions becomes a sort of parallel universe. ‘When surrounded by all the trappings and perhaps a good director and/or conductor, music and imagination take over, and though I don’t think of it as an “escape” it’s most certainly a different place than normal life, and I enjoy it immensely!’
Enjoyment is the essence of Brenda Harris’s artistry—enjoyment for herself and for her audiences. ‘I definitely try to imagine what characteristics I can relate to, but I never see the character as me,’ she says. ‘While I can always find ways to relate to the feelings, experiences, and situations of a character, I never feel that the line is blurred.’ Anticipating her Charlotte performances as Abigaille, she glows with the sheer exuberance that makes her singing so special. The character is a magnificent challenge, but it is the music that makes the arduous exertion worthwhile. ‘Let’s not forget,’ she observes, ‘we have Verdi! Sometimes just singing what he wrote gives one a soul and a character! Ah, but singing what he wrote! That’s a tall order!’ A tall order, indeed; but one that this exceptional singer is sure to serve with the succulent spiciness of an arrabbiata and the decadent richness of a tiramisù.
UNA MACCHIA È QUI TUTTORA: Brenda Harris as Lady Macbeth in Verdi’s Macbeth at Edmonton Opera, 2007 [Photo uncredited; used with Ms. Harris’s permission]
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Sincerest thanks are extended to Ms. Harris for her kindness, openness, and sincerity, as well as for taking time from her schedule to respond to questions for this article. All photographs are used with Ms. Harris’s permission.
For more information or to book tickets for Opera Carolina’s production of Verdi’s Nabucco featuring Gordon Hawkins in the title rôle, Brenda Harris as Abigaille, and Andrew Gangestad as Zaccaria, please visit OC’s Website or phone 704.332.7177. Performances are scheduled for Saturday, 18 October (20hr EDT), Thursday, 23 October (19hr30 EDT), and Sunday, 26 October (14hr EDT).