Friday, August 29, 2008

Opera great Christine Brewer gets all experiential

Grammy-winning and world-traveling soprano Christine Brewer confirms to me this morning that she is donating an experience to the 2008 Experiential Auction, which benefits Poetry Scores, a St. Louis-based arts org that translates poetry into other media. The auction will be held 5-8 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 21 at Atomic Cowboy, 414o Manchester Ave. in St. Louis.

MsBrewDog (her screen name) is performing Verdi's Requiem with The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra Feb. 13-14, 2009, at Powell Symphony Hall. The winning bidder will get to meet her at Powell Hall for a rehearsal that the SLSO would approve. "I will be happy to meet the person who wins the auction bid in the green room before or after the rehearsal to say 'hello,'" she writes this morning.

I met Christine when I reported on the Symphony's super cool A to Z community lecture series for its Playbill magazine, which kicks off its next season Sept. 29. Highly recommended.

Given the extremely high likelihood that no one would demand a refund of their symphony ticket because they showed up for a concert and saw in the Playbill an essay by me they had already read for free in my blog, and at the risk of scooping the Symphony house organ, which paid me good money for this piece, I will publish here my essay on Christine's A to Z program. It was a divine experience!

Advance bids for the Christine Brewer experience are welcome. Leave a comment here, with contact info, or email me at: brodog [@]


Opera: A to Z
By Chris King

Last season’s schedule for the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra’s “A to Z” lecture series was not over until the opera lady sang.

The opera lady who sang – unexpectedly – in the auditorium at Maryville University was St. Louis’ own Christine Brewer, a Grammy-winning and world-traveling soprano. In fact, she had flown in from San Francisco to do this program, which had been scheduled as merely a speaking gig for her. She apologized for her flight-dehydrated throat before surprising a sizable audience of local opera diehards by stepping away from the podium, summoning the Symphony’s own Peter Henderson to the piano, and launching into song.

This is precisely the sort of intimate access to industry professionals and their expertise that defines the Symphony’s “A to Z” adult-education series, which starts up again Monday, Sept. 29 with an introduction and reception featuring three SLSO musicians. It continues monthly (except for a break in December) and concludes April 13 with a lecture by the Symphony’s new president Fred Bronstein that bears the intriguing title, “The Saint Louis Symphony & Campbell’s Soup: What’s the Connection?”

The “Opera: A to Z” program that Brewer headlined last season was a co-production with Opera Theatre St. Louis (and Maryville University, a partner in and host of the annual series). Brewer shared the bill with Allison Felter, who directs community outreach and education for Opera Theatre. Felter’s talk in itself would have been worth the modest price of admission, as she deftly narrated the history of opera in St. Louis, seamlessly interweaving the interesting history of her own organization with plenty of knowing asides to an adoring, insider audience.

“Given St. Louis’ penchant for fermented beverages and the breweries that make them,” Felter said, wittily, at the outset of her presentation, “it is perhaps not surprising that opera was first performed here in the 1880s and 1890s at a Beer Garden called Uhrig’s Cave, located at the corner of Washington and Jefferson above a deep cave which served as a natural refrigerator for patrons’ beverages.” She said the first “real opera” performed here was La Sonnambula by Vincenzo Bellini, featuring a chorus so strapped for talent that even the manager and stage hands took part.

Without making a fuss about it, Felter’s thumbnail history of operatic talent from St. Louis emphasized the surprisingly large presence of African-American luminaries. She name-checked baritone Robert McFerrin (the first African-American leading man to sing at the Metropolitan Opera in 1955, just weeks after Marian Anderson broke the color barrier), mezzo-soprano Grace Bumbry (the first African-American to sing at Germany’s Bayreuth Festival), and ragtime composer Scott Joplin, who wrote his opera Treemonisha while living on Delmar Boulevard, just east of Powell Symphony Hall.

Felter included Christine Brewer in this august company of operatic greats, noting that she got her start in the Opera Theatre chorus (in 1980, Brewer later added). Opera Theatre St. Louis rightly prides itself as a teaching institution and springboard to glory. “At any given time there are more than 50 singers on the Met’s roster who have come through our young artist program,” Felter said.

As Brewer passed Felter at the podium, she acknowledged the technical sophistication of the presentation she now had to follow. “I wish I had a PowerPoint,” Brewer said. Felter responded, “You are a PowerPoint.”

Brewer is indeed a powerhouse, and every single thing she said was on point, but surely Felter would agree (her witticism aside) that Christine Brewer is far too warm and folksy to merit comparison to a piece of software. She brought alive a vast range of personalities who had helped her find her voice, including then-Opera Theatre director Richard Gaddis, who first coaxed her to audition, and her husband Ross Brewer, who insisted that she not renew her teacher’s certficate one year, so she would have no day job to fall back upon and would be determined to make a career of opera.

Brewer maintains a relationship with the classroom, however, at the most elementary level. She continues to visit the school in Marissa, Ill. where she once taught music. She teaches an occasional program called “Opera-tunities” in the sixth-grade classroom of her friend, Nancy Wagner; she will start with her fifth group this fall. “They don’t know the symphony is supposed to be for nerds,” Brewer said of her sixth-graders, “so they are open.” They have clocks on the classroom wall that tell the time in distant cities – Los Angeles, London, Paris and Tokyo – to help them envision the far-flung travels of Ms. Brewer. Everywhere she goes, she takes along a stuffed teddy bear (named “Marissa Melody” by her first group of students) that has now appeared in photographs with the opera world’s most important figures. SLSO musical director David Robertson graciously has allowed her to bring her students into closed rehearsals when she has performed with the Symphony.

Brewer teared up remembering how her young students struggled to connect with Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem when she performed it with SLSO under Robertson’s direction. One student had a brother in the U.S. armed forces, fighting in Iraq. “He said, ‘Old men start wars, young men fight wars,’” Brewer remembered their discussion of Britten’s piece, suddenly weeping. “What can you say? They get it.”

Brewer’s summary of her intention with her young students could provide a mission statement for all community-outreach efforts, including the Symphony’s “A to Z” series. She said, “It’s not that I want them all to be opera singers. It’s that I want them to be able to dream about what the rest of the world has to offer.”

Then – an act of extremely unusual generosity, for someone who is paid quite well to travel the world to sing – she sang: Bob Merrill’s “Mira,” from Carnival, and an a capella leprechaun song. And, then, a downhome treat no one sitting in that auditorium that night is likely ever to forget: the audience had the opportunity to sing along with the great soprano. We joined her in singing “Happy Birthday” to K.C. Ahlstrom, the mother of SLSO violinist Kristin Ahlstrom and mother-in-law of her accompanist, who was in attendance.

Christine Brewer will perform Verdi’s Requiem with the Symphony Feb. 13-14, 2009, conducted by David Robertson.

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