Interview: Mezzo Angela Brower Scales New Heights
American Mezzo on Strauss, Mozart, & Singing At 2,600 Meters Above Sea LevelBy David Salazar
On Sept. 1, 2018, the Teatro Julio Mario Santo Domingo will make history as it gives Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier” its Colombian premiere.
No that was not a joke. Or fake news. One of the seminal masterpieces in opera history, composed and premiered in the early 1900s, is making its way to the South American country for the first time in 2018. Moreover, save for a few productions in Argentina and Brazil, the famed opera has not really gotten much love in South America at all.
That history is not lost on mezzo-soprano Angela Brower, who will also be making her South American debut with the production in the role of the protagonist Octavian.
“I feel honored for this responsibility to bring this music to the people,” the Arizona native told OperaWire in a recent interview in Bogotá, Colombia. “People here don’t know this opera unless they’ve been elsewhere. I hope that we do it in a way that it doesn’t go over people’s heads. I know that this is a historic moment, even for my career.”
Brower is no rookie to the role of Octavian. She’s done the opera a few times in productions in Austria and, most recently, at the Bayerische Staatsoper where she has made her career over the past few years.
She noted that she sees Octavian as a signature role for herself and that she is set to perform it at a bigger company in coming seasons (though she would not reveal where).
“The character is so genuine and so young and still learning. We can all relate to him,” she explained. “He is in his mature relationship and he thinks he knows everything. And then suddenly the Marschallin basically cuts him off and breaks up with him.
“We’ve all been in relationships where we think it’s going to work, but it doesn’t and we don’t really understand.”
For Brower, the appeal of the role is also the result of the overall opera, which she believes is one of the greatest in the repertoire.
“It is never boring. The text is always so exciting. What Hofmannsthal and Strauss do with words and how they play with them, it is so exciting,” she noted before remarking on some of her favorite musical moments in the opera. “The trio at the end is a tearjerker. But the duet between Octavian and Sophie is also magical. I get excited at the end of the first act when the Marschallin is breaking up with Octavian. It’s so emotional and he’s so confused and it is hard not to cry sometimes during that part.”
Of course, taking on the music of Strauss is a titanic challenge, regardless of how well-versed one might be in a particular opera.
“Counting is so hard,” Brower noted. It can be really hard to get so comfortable with the music that you can continue acting. Otherwise, you get out of character and start counting.”
But this time around, there is another added challenge for the mezzo. At over 2,600 meters above sea level, approximately 8,600 feet, Bogotá is one of the great challenges for any opera singer. Breathing becomes a major issue for any singer. For Brower, the altitude of Bogotá forced her out of her usual preparation routine and into full adaptation mode. Her first week in the Colombian city featured her marking her way through the score, not singing fully until a week later. She also had to alter her diet slightly to help her body adjust to a lifestyle that would not be as active as if she was in Germany or the US.
“I don’t know how people come and sing the next day. It’s difficult on the body,” she noted. She remarked that her other European colleagues experienced similar challenges, which has added to the difficulty of putting together the production. Many of the other cast members have arrived at different times in the rehearsal process due to previous engagements, creating somewhat of a time crunch in terms of preparing the production.
Fortunately, for Brower, none of the lead artists are strangers to one another or the opera.
“The person in charge of casting made sure that the main roles were veterans,” she explained. “There isn’t enough time for a role debut. There is so much to put together in such a short space of time.”
While Brower has not worked with Franz Hawlata, who will play Baron Ochs, she has had time to share the stage with sopranos Anna Virovlasnky (Sophie) and Michaela Kaune (the Marschallin). In terms of Kaune, Brower actually worked on the opera previously, though the two met onstage when Kaune replaced the previously scheduled performer.
“I met her in bed onstage for the first time,” she revealed. “So I am excited to get more time to meet her and work together on building the central relationship between Octavian and the Marschallin.”
Another Major Debut
After this big debut, the mezzo heads back to the United States (where she surprisingly doesn’t perform all that often) to make her house and role debut as Idamante in “Idomeneo” at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
“I’m kind of known for Mozart, but this role will be brand new and I couldn’t be more excited for it. Especially with the amazing cast that I will get to work with,” she explained.
Straddling the worlds of Mozart and Strauss seems rather natural for Brower at this point in her career, though she does note that their styles are both complex and challenging in their own rights.
“Strauss is complicated rhythmically and dramatically, but Mozart can be just as difficult in the tessitura. He didn’t write for mezzo. He wrote for soprano and so we are constantly looking how to navigate the passagio and other technical challenges he throws at us,” she explained.
One musical world that she will be exploring in the future is that of Handel, a composer that she explored years ago when she was a young artist at Glimmerglass. In fact, her work in “Giulio Cesare” landed her the opportunity to head to Munich to bring her career to the next level. And yet, in her time there, she hasn’t gotten a chance to work on the baroque composer’s music.
“I want to do Handel again. There is so much for a lyric mezzo,” she noted before adding that there are already some projects in works in this very repertoire. “It makes you a better artist. It gives you an opportunity to test and develop your voice in different ways. It is so healthy.”