Senta’s Journey – Amber Wagner On Singing Her First Major Metropolitan Opera RoleBy Francisco Salazar
Every opera singer has a dream of performing at the Metropolitan Opera in a leading role.
The dream takes a lot of work and hours of rehearsing, practicing, auditioning and, in many ways, luck. But it also takes years of building an international career.
For Amber Wagner 2017 marks her first big contract with the theater after making her debut more than six years ago.
“I take the contract pretty serious and I consider it a big privilege that it is my first big contract that the Met gave me by myself. I’m not sharing the role or covering as I did in the past. This is a big deal and it’s exciting. I want to live up to the expectations of what the Met believes I am capable of,” Wagner told OperaWire in a recent interview.
The National Council Auditions
The journey first began in 2007 when Wagner made her first appearance at the Met as a young artist at the famed National Council auditions and won one of the top prizes.
“That was the start of my timeline. That was the start of our careers. So for 10 years to go by it was bittersweet,” she said.
Her career didn’t immediately skyrocket as she was part of the Young Artist program at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and took on smaller roles. She covered numerous shows and made her Met debut in 2011 in the comprimario role of Anna in Verdi’s “Nabucco” before returning in 2012 as the cover for Sondra Radvanovsky in Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera.” She only performed once as the leading lady.
Wagner would later take on two summer concerts in 2014 and this year the soprano was invited as a special guest at the National Council Auditions as she was beginning rehearsals for her upcoming role as Senta in Richard Wagner’s “Der Fliegende Holländer.”
The event reunited her with Jamie Barton and Michael Fabiano, who also won the National Council Auditions the same year as Wagner.
“Jamie and I have done a handful of [Verdi] Requiems together and Michael and I have done a Requiem together. And Jamie and I are very good friends and I have stayed in touch with Michael. I am a huge admirer of his career and how he handles it and his insatiable appetite for this singing career. I’ll write to him here and then. And it was just a lot of fun.”
Wagner admits to having been touched returning to the house for this occasion. It brought back memories as she saw the younger singers competing in the same showcase that was a turnaround for her career.
“It was odd that we were backstage watching these unbelievable, talented, polished singers compete. By the time it was our turn, I was telling Jamie, ‘I can’t believe I am nervous.’ I think we were walking through the same exact thing when it was 10 years ago. And you start to remember how big of a deal it was. And I remember feeling what these kids were feeling.”
And the experience was even more emotional when the younger singers asked her for advice. “That made me chuckle because I barely know what I am doing. But everyone was just so kind.”
Thinking back to the experience, Wagner gets emotional especially when it comes to “The Audition,” the documentary that was filmed during that year’s class.
“I am not able to watch that documentary without crying and I blame my hormones as a mother. But that documentary is the greatest gift that this career has given me. It’s a memory.”
And while watching it is painful, she does aspire to sharing it with one special person in her life.
“I can’t wait until my son is old enough that I get to share it with him and tell him what it was like. We had a really stellar class and I will go on record as saying we were one of the best.”
Senta and her vocal line
After major accomplishments, Wagner will bring her acclaimed Senta in Richard Wagner’s “Der Fliegende Holländer” to the Met. The role has been part of her repertoire since 2012 and it is one that she has had to find in her voice. ” I did Senta for the first time in 2012 and it is a complete departure from previous roles. It’s completely Italianate and it sits incredibly high.”
The soprano has dedicated her career to the work of Richard Wagner, particularly in the roles of Sieglinde in “Die Walküre,” Elizabeth in “Tannhäuser” and Elsa in “Lohengrin.” She has also done Brangäne in “Tristan und Isolde.” These roles are known for sitting in the middle range of the voice without having to go high up often.
“I don’t ever think about that when I do Sieglinde. It’s not a soprano role until the very end. With Elsa, she is also quite low until Act three when she has a couple of Bs. But she doesn’t sit there all night. And the same with Elizabeth. She comes in in Act 2 and sings her aria and she’s got that big ensemble.”
So Senta presents some unique challenges.
“Everything seems to be incredibly exposed. So I have to be very careful. The challenge is that she comes on stage in Act two and she starts with this ballad and it’s rather low in comparison to the rest of the role. So it’s a challenge to almost under-sing that aria to save your resources for this very taxing and very long duet that’s coming up with the Dutchman.
“And so that has been an exercise based on different times I have sung this role and how to budget my resources correctly so that when I get to the Dutchman duet, I am not completely maxed out,” she continued.
The key to singing the role is to pace herself. Having done it a number of times, Wagner has learned some tricks to preserving her vocal resources.
“It’s pretty standard to do it with no intermission so we get to come off after Act two. I get a chance to take a breath. And Act three is the least of my concerns. It’s really the Dutchman duet that I have to be so intentional and methodical and think about every single section and what I am going to do and how am I going to phrase it. I have to think about where am I going to take a breath and work so closely with Yannick [Nézet-Séguin] to see where I can slow down.”
Another trick is to understand the musical score as best as possible. In many instances Wagner’s music allows the soprano to be more like a “backup” singer.
“Carol Isaacs is one of the coaches at the Met and she puts it so perfectly that you have to look for those moments when you’re the Dutchman’s backup singer. And just look to see where you can back him up and not give a lot. That type of methodical planning seems to be required at a whole different level than his other roles.”
The evolution of Senta
When it comes to her character, Senta is never an easy one to crack.
As Wagner notes, “She is incredibly complicated.”
That is in part due to the fact that she falls in love to the Dutchman, who is also a ghost captain and she promises to be loyal to him until death. Wagner also notes that she thinks the famed composer was not quite as detailed in this opera as he would be in later works, creating more issues.
“She is no Sieglinde. You’re given everything with Sieglinde and an unbelievable story with these unbelievable musical motifs that you get to act off of. You’re not given that in ‘Dutchman.’
As a result, Wagner and her director for the Met’s new revival are working on a new approach to her character.
“We have kind of steered it as if she is kind of a lovesick 16-year-old. There is just this obsession with this picture and this idea. And we have decided in this one that she is a really strong woman who believes that her fate in life is to redeem this man. And so she is just waiting because she has this overwhelming feeling that he’s going to show up. And she is going to let him know what the plan is and she is going to sacrifice herself. And she feels it’s her calling and it comes from her.”
This new approach is helping Wagner also discover new phases of her acting. As she notes “Der Fliegende Holländer” is not the most active of stories.
“The Dutchman comes in and it’s so beautiful but sometimes you scratch your head and everyone is just standing. I’ve done a very active Dutchman production and I’ll tell you vocally it did not pan out. We can’t be running around singing some of these phrases. But I understand why sometimes people want to fill this space. I was telling our director that after a run through that I was so exhausted. It’s a lot to keep up that intense feeling. It almost seems like it’s easier if we were running around because at least you have something to do. But when you keep up that intensity, that’s a lot of work.”
And part of the evolution in her approach is also due to her experience on stage and in her personal maturity.
“I have more patience now because I am a mom. So I have been able to temper down some of my more impulsive characteristics of my personality to want to dive into the character and music and listen to what the directors are saying. Now I am always thinking ‘Oh I love that Idea. How can I make that better.'”
Part of her experience in this production at the Met has been working with her colleagues Michael Volle and Franz-Josef Selig and she is not taking any of it for granted.
“Getting to work with people like Michael [Volle] who has sung this a ton. He is just incredible. And Franz-Josef Selig, he and Michael are very old friends and they used to be part of this quartet that would sing a lot of lieder together. And when you watch them create this duet in Act one with the text and the vocal tone, it’s a masterclass for me.”
In fact, during rehearsals, Wagner has been so impacted by the work, that it has led her to sometimes forget to come in.
“To watch them is amazing. The other day I was watching and I totally forgot where we were. We had to stop because I wasn’t supposed to be there. And I said ‘I’m so sorry.’ I totally got caught up in what he was singing.'”
But the most important thing she takes away from working with these veterans is, “I will take all this wealth of knowledge with me and strive to be even better.”
And the masterclass goes beyond the singers. She is enthusiastic about what maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin has brought to the process and she even puts him at the top of her experiences with conductors.
“He never takes his eyes off someone who is singing. His very obvious study of the score and the text comes out in how he wants to shape everything and he shows you how to shape a phrase. You literally want to sing your best every time he’s up in the room with you.”
Dramatic Vocal Maintenance
Singing Richard Wagner and the heavy dramatic repertoire is a dream for any soprano but it is also a voice killer. Wagner is extremely aware of this fact, particularly as she has gone through many experiences that have left her voiceless.
“I have blown out my instrument and I have had to take four or five days off from singing. I just don’t sing this stuff every day anymore. After our run through, I took the day off.”
What is her secret to keeping the voice fresh despite taking on arguably the most vocally abusive repertoire there is?
“It’s about pacing and being very judicious in how many rehearsals you sing. How many times you coach the music because your chords can only handle so much before they get swollen. Obviously, longevity is the goal here. But this role in particular, because it sits so high, is one I have to be very methodical with. I can’t sing it every day and I have to cancel coachings.”
However, there are roles that Wagner feels more comfortable with and thinks she could do on a daily basis.
“But like with Sieglinde, I’m able to sing her quite more frequently. With Ariadne, she’s lower. But I wouldn’t be able to sing Elizabeth in Tannhäuser every day. She sits a bit higher at times.”
Wagner is also judicious with her diet and environment she navigates on a daily basis.
“I try to be very careful with sodium and spicy foods. That has the tendency to dry out my chords or create acid reflux. So I am very careful when I’m on the road with how much sodium I’m taking in.”
As Wagner looks to her blossoming career and finally accomplished a leading role at the Met, she has many new roles coming up including Puccini’s “Turandot” and Verdi’s “Aida.” Both roles require higher tessitura, something Wagner is still figuring out in her voice.
“My strength is in the middle. I feel like a D natural up to an A flat is where my voice wants to stay. But I’ve worked really hard with my coaches and voice teachers not to mentally get myself in a pigeon hole where I say I don’t have those top notes. I work really hard to stretch to those and to learn where they are supposed to live and learn how I am supposed to approach them.”
Wagner, while still figuring out these notes, does mention one key thing she learned.
“Don’t ever make a decision on whether it has too many high notes because half step by half step you’ll lose the top of your voice. And then all of a sudden, you’ll have a hard time getting to a B flat. I don’t want that to happen so despite the fact that it’s tough, I am forcing myself to go above and beyond and learn how to approach the top in a healthy way.”
In addition to learning new roles, Wagner is pumped for another project that will see her return to Scotland for the first time since her college days. Over the summer she will sing the role of Sieglinde at the Edinburgh Festival in a concert performance of Wagner’s “Die Walküre” under Andrew Davis, a conductor she admires.
“I love Andrew Davis. I’ve done a lot with him and I will always appreciate what he has done to help me with my career. I am so thankful for the opportunities he’s given me and the belief that I have something special to offer the opera community.”
She is also particularly happy to be singing what she considers her favorite Richard Wagner role.
“Her character. You are just diving into a very vast landscape for this character and have fun with her and explore all the different nooks and crannies of her journey and her personality and her heartbreak. Her transitions from act to act are so incredible. You just acutely feel what she’s feeling and experiencing. And if you have a really good Siegmund you are just great all night long. She is my favorite and I hope that I get to sing her for a very long time.”