By Lynn Venhaus
BBC Music Magazine named her one of the 20 greatest sopranos of the 20th century. She has two Grammy Awards and a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame. But once you are in the presence of internationally famous opera singer Christine Brewer, you know that there isn’t an ounce of conceit, pretense or arrogance. She’s likely the most down-home diva you’ll ever meet.
While she has called the small Illinois town of Lebanon home for decades, she has spent much of her career traveling to sing at the finest opera houses in the world. So, when she sings in St. Louis, it’s special – and close to home.
But she didn’t make her debut with Union Avenue Opera until 2016, when she reprised the role of authoritarian school principal Sister Aloysius in Douglas Cuomo’s “Doubt” — which she created in the 2013 premiere at the Minnesota Opera in St. Paul, Minn. The following year, she starred in “Albert Herring.”
This year, she opened their 25th season in “Candide,” playing a character called “The Old Lady.”
“I’m thrilled to be back at UAO this season making music with Scott Schoonover and the great musicians here. And doing this new role as Old Lady in Candide has been a real hoot,” she said.
“Candide hasn’t been done in St. Louis in about 25 years, so what a great time to do this. And I love being funny onstage, something I don’t have lots of opportunities to do. So, this is a fantastic project for me,” she said.
It is the first time she is working with Annamaria Pileggi, a director who is making her UAO debut.
“It’s my first time working with our stage director, Anna Pileggi and I love her vision for the journey of this piece. She is fantastic! So, we have a great team, fabulous cast and it’s going to be a fun show!” she said.
Pileggi said she loved the sweeping and theatrical nature of “Candide.”
“The breadth and scope of the story, along with the lushness and scale of Bernstein’s music make Candide a quintessentially live event. There is something thrilling about being in the same room with Candide as he journeys through all of the trials and tribulations of his story,” Pileggi said.
Leonard Bernstein’s adaptation of Voltaire’s “Candide” focuses on when young Candide’s marriage proposal to a baron’s daughter doesn’t quite go as planned, this naïve student of optimism is thrust into an eye-opening odyssey across lands near and far. Part opera, part musical, and entirely irreverent, Voltaire’s philosophical spoof becomes a brilliant and breathless operetta. Music includes a famous overture, the soprano showpiece “Glitter and Be Gay,” and the soaring finale, “Make our Garden Grow.” Candide still finds a way to move and inspire with life-affirming lessons that ring just as true today.
Schoonover, the artistic director, founded Union Avenue Opera in 1994. He said her debut in “Doubt” marked a definite milestone in the company’s artistic growth.
UAO’s goal is to offer “vibrant and affordable opera experiences in original languages to audiences that reflect the breadth and diversity of the St. Louis region from the acoustically superb sanctuary of an historic church, located in the urban Visitation Park neighborhood of St. Louis’ Central West End.”
Brewer considers working with him a “rewarding experience.”
“I love working with Scott, so I’m thrilled that he is
conducting this piece. We’ve been coaching this role for a couple of months and
he knows just how to inspire my imagination the same way he did when we did
Doug Cuomo’s opera Doubt and Benjamin Britten’s opera Albert Herring,” she
Experts have focused on her warm timbre and vibrant personality. She has distinguished herself because of her range, golden tone, boundless power, control, and emotional honesty.
She got her start with Opera Theatre of St. Louis, and last performed there in “Dialogue of the Carmelites” in 2014.
A singing career became a reality when she began in the OTSL chorus and was being paid as a section leader in the St. Louis Symphony Chorus. She was also hired as the soprano soloist for the choirs of St. Michael and St. George Churches in St. Louis.
Then, at age 33, she won the Metropolitan Opera Auditions and the Richard Tucker Foundation Award in 1989.
In 2006, as a first-time nominee, she won a Grammy Award for Best Classical Album and Best Choral Album, for “Songs of Innocence and Experience,” based on the William Blake poems and scored by Bill Bolcom, a Michigan University professor, for all kinds of singers from country and western to dramatic soprano. Former SLSO maestro Leonard Slatkin conducted the contemporary piece.
“I have always loved making music. As a singer, I get to be a storyteller. That’s maybe the most fun part of singing. Of course, there is usually some of me in all the roles I sing, but I do love acting. I get to tell a story with my singing.”
She has gained a reputation as a pre-eminent interpreter of Richard Strauss.
“I’m not sure why exactly, but Richard Strauss’ music speaks to me in a very special way. I think my voice and my temperament are well suited for his music. Of course, he was married to a soprano, Pauline, for whom he wrote so much music. So, he really knew the soprano voice and I think he loved the soprano voice. I’ve sung several of his operas where the soprano is singing glorious music all night and the poor tenor is singing some of the most difficult and unappreciated music,” she said.
“I love the way Strauss’ music pulls at my heartstrings and the way it soars. In some ways, the phrases make me feel a bit like I did when I played the violin. So, I do have a special place in my heart for Richard Strauss,” she said. “And just for the sheer beauty of the music, I love the Strauss roles that I sing like Ariadne, the Dyer’s wife, and Egyptian Helena.”
She is a fan of Benjamin Britten’s operas, “because the
characters are so real and so honest.”
“His opera ‘Peter Grimes’ may be my favorite opera of all time and the role of the schoolmistress Ellen Orford is a role that I cherish. Also, the role of Queen Elizabeth I in his opera ‘Gloriana’ is a favorite of mine. I’ve sung that opera several times in the UK, and even sang the 50th anniversary of it in Aldeburgh, England, where Britten lived and wrote. I’ve only sung it once in the U.S. and that was at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis in 2005,” she said.
In recent years, she has performed with the BBC Scottish Symphony, her signature “Tristan and Isolde” with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in Australia, and as Mother Superior in the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s “The Sound of Music.”
She gives back to her alma mater, McKendree University, every opportunity she can, whether it’s a Master Class or benefit. She does not live too far from campus, in a restored historic home. She lives a simple life away from the spotlight.
She has been a visiting professor at Webster University,
and taught master classes at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and
Lindenwood University. She sings with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, has
sung with the Bach Society
She is often performing in churches for various events, including the Cathedral Basilica in St. Louis, her own church in Lebanon – St. Paul United Church of Christ, and the annual Interfaith Concert at the Sheldon. She likes performing in the Union Avenue Christian Church.
“I love singing in this space at UAO. It feels intimate and has such a great acoustic. I know many of the singers in the 16-member chorus and love reconnecting with them,” she said. “We are so fortunate to have UAO in St Louis. It’s hard to believe they’ve been around for 25 years! And I’ve been a fan since they started and have loved watching their growth.”
She truly believes music is the universal language.
“I love to tell children that no matter what country I’m in, we can all open our scores, and even if we don’t speak the same language, we can play and sing the music that’s on the page. That connects us as humans in a very deep way.”
Our Questions with Christine Brewer
1. Why did you choose your profession/pursue the arts?
“I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t singing. I come from a very musical family. My mom, Dee Burchyett, sang in a gospel/jazz trio called the Shawnee Trio. My mom’s family all sang and many played instruments like guitars, harmonicas, fiddles. There wasn’t a time that they weren’t making music. I remember late nights sitting around my Grandma Craig’s house singing old hymns. So even though I majored in Music Education, performing was always what I was drawn to.”
2. How would your friends describe you?
I think my friends would describe me as an outgoing person. I love talking to friends and having friends over for dinner. I love telling funny stories and love to laugh!
3. How do you like to spend your spare time?
I love spending time with my daughter Elisabeth and her 5-year-old son Oscar. I love trying out new recipes. I love singing with Oscar and making up stories with him. I also serve on a social justice committee at my church in Lebanon, Ill. – St Paul United Church of Christ. I enjoy the work we do trying to address social justice issues in our community.
4. What is your current obsession?
I don’t really know what my latest obsession is – I love to read, and just finished reading “Where the Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens. I also love the Hulu series “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
5. What would people be surprised to find out about you?
“I’m pretty much an open book, so I’m not sure that most folks would be surprised by the fact that my husband and I host an annual Hootenanny in our backyard where we ask friends to bring their guitars, banjos, harmonicas, etc. and we eat, drink and jam on folk music, bluegrass tunes, old hymns.”
6. Can you share one of your most defining moments in life?
“I’ve had several life-changing moments in my life. One of the most incredible of those moments was getting to meet and sing for Birgit Nilsson, which started years of our relationship. Ms. Nilsson was one of the greatest Wagnerian sopranos of the 20th Century and working with her early in my career made all the difference in the path that I took.”
7. Who do you admire most?
“I have many people whom I admire, probably most of all would be my mom. She had the most glorious voice and sang everything with so much passion. She was a wonderful storyteller. She was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) in her late 50’s and died at age 62. She continued singing right up until she started becoming paralyzed with the disease. She was such an amazing woman and made an incredible influence in my life.”
8. What is at the top of on your bucket list?
“My husband Ross and I have a few things on our bucket list. There’s one state that we’ve never visited and that is Alaska. So, hopefully, we’ll be headed there sometime soon!”
9. What is your favorite thing to do in St. Louis?
“Again, another tough question! I love the great restaurants on South Grand and in the Central West End. So many fun museums like the City Museum, Science Center, History Museum and the Art Museum. And we are so lucky to have such a wonderful Symphony and Opera Theatre of St Louis and Union Avenue Opera. There are lots of things in St Louis for everyone. Oh, I forgot to mention the Cardinals and the St Louis BLUES!”
10. What’s next?
“I’ve got recitals coming up with Opera Edwardsville and The Hettenhausen Center at McKendree University. I’m also doing a fun collaboration in Springfield, Ill., with an award-winning banjo player from the Chicago area, Noam Pikelny. The gist of the project is a small-town rural girl ending up singing opera and a bluegrass banjo player from the big city. We’ll talk about our journeys and do a concert of our standard rep and then crossing over and collaborating on some stuff. Should be fun! I’m also singing again this December with the Holiday Brass and Susan Slaughter.
MORE INFO ON CHRISTINE BREWER
Born in Springfield, Ill.
Grew up in Southern Illinois – Grand Tower, McClure
Living now in Lebanon, Ill.
Family- Ross Brewer, husband; Elisabeth Brewer, daughter; Oscar Brewer, grandson
Education – graduate of McKendree University – music education
Honorary doctorates from Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., UMSL and McKendree University
First job: hoeing weeds in the soy bean fields for farmers in McClure, Ill.
First role: Shawnee High School productions – Nellie Forbush in “South Pacific” and Mother Abbess in “The Sound of Music”
First professional role: Mrs. Slammekin in “Beggar’s Opera” with Opera Theatre of St. Louis
Favorite roles: Ellen Orford in Benjamin Britten ‘s “Peter Grimes,” Isolde in Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde.”
Awards: 2 Grammy Awards, winner of Metropolitan Opera auditions, Star on St. Louis Walk of Fame, Richard Tucker Award
Favorite quote: This is actually from a song that I often sing as an encore, “Hills” by Frank LaForge (poet-Arthur Guiterman) “God, give me hills, and strength to climb”
Song that makes me happy: There are SO many, but my happy song right now is one that I sing in “Candide” called “I Am Easily Assimilated.”
Union Avenue Opera presents “Candide” July 5, 6, 12 and 13 at Union Avenue Christian Church, Tickets may be purchased online at unionavenueopera.org, or by phone at 314-361-2881, and at Union Avenue Opera, 733 N. Union Blvd. Student rush tickets are available at the door for $15 (cash only) with a valid student ID. There is ample free parking available.