Singing Mozart’s Susannah, back in the city where it all started for Christine Brandes
“It’s a decision everyone has to make them for themselves,” Brandes, 39, recently acknowledged in the Oakland home she shares with her partner, the orchestral conductor Karla Lemon. The two were united in a civil union ceremony in Vermont more than three years ago.
“I go back and forth about it,” Brandes added. “People don’t really need to know if I’m a vegetarian or a lesbian or want to be a dancing boy. That should have no bearing on me as an artist.”
Life, however, is not always as accepting. Speaking before Massachusetts and San Francisco catapulted marriage for lesbians and gays into the national spotlight, Brandes acknowledged that the nation’s gay and lesbian community lives in “a strange time culturally and politically. I feel it’s my obligation to be out and offer an example. If someone comes to a concert, is moved by my singing, and has some sort of avenue to their own soul opened, I hope that learning of my relationship will cause them to step back and re-evaluate any preconceived notions about gay relationships and our right to fair and equal treatment under the law.”
Brandes and Lemon have been together for eight years. They met after one of Lemon’s dearest friends recommended Brandes as the soprano for a performance of Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” Lemon was conducting at Stanford University.
It was after performing in the same “Passion” in Ohio as a ninth grader that Brandes vowed to become a professional singer.
“Karla realized that I was one in the same person that her friend, mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, had been speaking to her about for years as a potential partner,” Brandes revealed with a smile. “As it turned out, I got the girlfriend and I got the gig.”
After completing graduate studies at Case Western Reserve, Brandes moved to New York City in the fall of 1989. Discovering herself free to create “a whole different life,” she began to freelance in the city’s music scene.
She soon had the good fortune to sing with such stellar conductors as Nicholas McGegan, William Christie, and Philip Herreweghe. After performing in Gluck’s “Orfeo” with Christopher Hogwood and the Handel & Haydn Society of Boston, Michael Chance, whom Brandes describes as a “very elegant, remarkable English countertenor,” introduced her to IMG Management where executives signed her on.
Since then, Brandes’ venues and repertoire have broadened considerably. Operatic highlights include Handel’s “Ariodante” with Houston Grand Opera last fall, and his “Orlando” at Glimmerglass this summer. Spring 2005 promises Houston appearances in Verdi’s “Falstaff” with fellow lesbian soprano Patricia Racette and baritone Bryn Terfel. She has also had long relationships with the “fantastic people” at Opera Company of Philadelphia and New York City Opera.
Brandes said she loved singing Ravel’s “L’Enfant” with the L.A. Philharmonic led by Simon Rattle, a conductor she called “a complete and utter god on the podium.” She also praises her many performances with gay conductor Nic McGegan and Philharmonia Baroque, including recent collaborations with gay choreographer Mark Morris in Handel’s “L’Allegro.”
Embracing new music, Brandes recently worked on “El Nino” with John Adams for the Tokyo Symphony and Maestro Akiyama. She also sang the world premiere of Augusta Reed Thomas’ “In My Sky at Twilight” with Pierre Boulez and the Chicago Symphony. This past spring she sang Esa Pekka Salonen’s “Five Views of Sappho” with Esa Pekka Salonen conducting.
“That was heaven,” she enthused. “It’s a magnificent piece. It was an enormously rewarding experience.”
While she is slowly venturing into the bel canto world of Bellini and Donizetti, Brandes feels vocally and temperamentally unsuited for core 19th century Romantic opera.
“Clearly I’m not someone who is going to sing ‘Butterfly’’s ‘Un bel di,’ even when I’m 50,” she said with certainty.
Addressing the evolution of her instrument, Brandes feels that her light, but hardly lightweight, remarkably flexible sound has become “warmer, broader, a little deeper and more connected. It’s approaching the old Italian ideal of singing, where there is one consistent kind of sound and shimmer throughout the entire voice. Having that total resonance and connectedness allows you to have even more possibilities in terms of phrasing, color, tempo, and breath.”
Readers wishing to relish Brandes’ voice at its best need look no farther than two stellar recordings: Handel’s “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato” (Virgin Classics), a joyous performance conducted by John Nelson that also features gay countertenor David Daniels; and Telemann’s “Chamber Cantatas and Trio Sonatas” (Dorian), a disc with Musica Pacifica that won a 2003 Chamber Music America/WQXR Award.
This week, Brandes returns to the New York City Opera to sing Susannah in Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.” The production also features the NYCO debut of gay baritone Brett Polegato.
Brandes last sang Susannah over three years ago. Given the changes to her voice, she has spent the last few months reintegrating it into her body.
“I remember when I first sang the role I was thrilled to get through it,” she confessed. “It went extremely well, but there were moments when I felt frustrated that I couldn’t do certain phrases in one breath, or that I had musical ideas that I was still not capable of accomplishing. This progression has allowed me to explore more musical options and challenged me to come up with new interpretive ideas.”
Brandes considers Susannah the pivotal character who motivates most of the opera’s action.
“It’s often hard to tell how one’s performance comes off, but I think when I perform her, she comes off as incredibly smart, very clever, very fun loving, and easily loved,” she said. “I endeavor to color how I speak to each character so that there is a clear mode of relating between myself and the Countess, the Count, Cherubino, and Marcelina, which is a challenge.”
As with all her endeavors, Brandes acknowledges that the key to a successful Susannah is to keep her heart open throughout.
“I feel incredibly fortunate to do what I do,” she said. “It gives me such profound happiness and contentment. It also puts me around the bend sometimes because I take it very, very seriously. I don’t want to seem too messianic, but I see singing as a way of being of service to my fellow human beings.”
Such thoughts led to Brandes’ observations on the function of art in society:
“Art serves to humanize. It expands one’s heart and mind and notion of what beauty is in the world,” she said. “Even in your daily life, those experiences can change the way you go through the world and the kind of human being you are. They help you see what you can contribute and change for the betterment of the world. My part in that is very tiny indeed. But I feel very strongly about it.”