Stats: Christine Brewer, Soprano, American, Down to earth Diva!
Next Recitals: Eugene Oregon, Washington D.C.
I first met Christine Brewer when I was an apprentice at the Santa Fe Opera and she was singing Ellen in Peter Grimes. My now husband can attest to the fact that I watched her scenes from the wings every single night when we weren't on stage as chorus. She is a force to be reckoned with as a performer, but off stage, she is a gracious, humble woman who can tell a great story over a beer at the local dive ...
- Martha Guth
Can you speak about how you began your career and how you worked towards your first early important gigs?
CB: I started out as a music education major at McKendree College in Lebanon, IL, and got my teaching certificate and taught K-12 music for a year in Marissa, IL. After that year in Marissa, I was a substitute teacher in our county for about eight years. All this time, I was studying voice with Edmund LeRoy at Washington University in St. Louis, and then with Stephen Smith when he was in St. Louis. I was singing in the St. Louis Symphony Chorus as a paid section leader and also was the paid soprano soloist at the Church of St. Michael and St. George in St. Louis. I later did an audition for the Opera Theatre of St. Louis and sang in the chorus for a few seasons, all of this in the summer so that I could continue teaching during the school year. I also made phone calls to the conductors of the local choral groups in the St. Louis area, and did auditions for them and sang much of the concert repertoire that I’ve sung for years ... Messiah, Creation, Beethoven 9, Brahms Requiem, etc. This was an excellent way to get my feet wet, learn important repertoire, get to sing with an orchestra, and earn a little money! The Opera Theatre of St. Louis (OTSL) was especially helpful to me in my early years. I got to understudy roles like Elettra in Mozart’s Idomeno, Rezia in Oberon, and I started singing small roles until my big break came with them and I sang Ellen Orford in Britten’s Peter Grimes. And the folks at the Church of St. Michael and St. George were especially helpful to me in my early years, as well. There were people in the congregation who were also big supporters at the Opera Theatre. They made sure I had money for new concert gowns, trips to New York for auditions, extra coaching sessions, etc. I always tell young singers to look for opportunities to sing wherever they can. My work in the St. Louis Symphony Chorus, at the church and the OTSL all helped me in numerous ways. When it came time for me to start doing bigger jobs, I felt I was prepared by the work I had done in St. Louis. One of my first big engagements came in a Messiah. Thankfully I’d had a chance to try this out in St. Louis first!
How did your love of song repertoire take root and who were some of your early collaborators, mentors and teachers?
CB: I was first introduced to song repertoire in my years at McKendree College. Glenn Freiner was the head of the little music department and he was also the organ professor, voice professor and conductor of the choir. I had a very small, light voice when I started college at age 17. I’d never had a voice lesson before. I had been a violinist all through elementary school and high school. I sang in chorus in high school, could sight-read anything, and sang solos at contests in high school, but had never had proper voice lessons. So I had this small voice, and thankfully, Glenn was a very wise man and had me start singing American songs, old Italian songs, and some German lieder. I started college as a second semester sophomore because I had taken several college courses while I was in high school, so I graduated when I was 20 years old. My voice was still quite small, so all through my three years at McKendree I sang Handel, Mozart, Haydn, Purcell, Wolf, Schubert, Strauss and lots of American and British songs. Glenn introduced me to songs that he’d heard singers like Eleanor Steber, Kirsten Flagstad, and Helen Traubel sing in their recitals. I fell in love with those old songs written in the 1940s and 1950s. None of the piano majors at McKendree really wanted to accompany me, because my voice was so small. It was a requirement for them to accompany the voice students, and it was so embarrassing to always be the last one chosen! I did work with an older organ major for a couple of years, and he was an excellent accompanist. Glenn always stressed the importance of the texts, so from an early age, I studied poems and looked for repertoire whose words spoke to my heart.
Song has always been beloved by a smaller number of people among the classical music audience, yet many world class pianists and singers, like you, make sure that they take the time to continue performing it. Why? What makes this music so special? Does it matter in the grand scheme of things, and how? (Does Erlkoenig matter in a world of Lady Gaga?)
CB: I love singing song recitals. I love seeing the faces in the audience and love telling the audience stories. I grew up in a family of great story-tellers. My mom was a gospel and jazz singer and sang semi-professionally with two other women in a trio. She was the talker in the group, and I grew up going to their rehearsals and performances and watching her ‘work a crowd’. I loved the way her eyes sparkled and lit up when she started in on a story, which was probably about half true and the rest embellished. And then when she lit into a song, her heart just took over and there was such joy in her face and body. Sometimes I would sing with the trio or with her, and early in my career I would have her sing a couple spirituals with me at the ends of my recitals. She instilled in me a great desire to communicate – all the time – not just when performing for audiences. She never knew a stranger, really. We could be in London or New York and I would turn around looking for her and she was chatting to someone. Her light went out too soon and she died of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) about 15 years ago at the age of 62. She was still singing right up until the disease paralyzed her facial muscles. So I grew up with this kind of communication in my family which was full of musicians and then Glenn Freiner continued giving me song repertoire to sing and I sang everywhere. The Opera Theatre of St. Louis would send me out to do community outreach gigs in senior living homes, nursing homes, schools, etc. I would sing a mix of opera arias and my song repertoire. What good training that was for me! And I do think Erlkoenig has a place in the Lady Gaga world. This music still excites and intrigues audiences.
You began your career in music education, and continue to inspire students from grade school through to young professionals who are creating careers for themselves. As an educator, a mother, and a professional performer, what do you feel is the ultimate place in North America of music education, Opera and Song to the general population?
CB: I wish that music was still as important in all the schools in North America as it was when I was a child. We had orchestra, band and chorus in school when I was a kid in the late 60s/70s. And music appreciation was taught, too! My husband still talks about his sixth grade music appreciation. It really stuck with him and made him search out some music classes in college. He isn’t a musician or a performer, but has a great love of classical music and he attributes this to the early training in elementary school. This is why I feel very strongly about getting involved in the schools wherever possible. I would love to see more musicians doing volunteer programs in their local schools. The program I do, ‘Opera-tunities’, started out just as a geography lesson for Nancy Wagner’s sixth grade class. She put a map on her bulletin board with ‘Where in the World is Mrs. Brewer?’ and I would send e-mails about the places I was visiting. I asked Nancy if I could do more and start coming to visit the students. It just grew and blossomed into a wonderful program with participants from the St. Louis Symphony and the Opera Theatre of St. Louis. The kids love it and it is fun to hear them discussing Fidelio or Britten’s War Requiemor Die Walkuere. And this class is in a classroom teacher’s class, not a music teacher’s class. When I have a little more time, I plan to get other singers involved in their home towns and see if we can put this ‘Opera-tunities’ program in other schools around North America.
I remember a conversation with you in Santa Fe, where you said that you paused your performance career because you wanted to stay home to be a mother to your daughter. I think most musicians (especially sopranos!) would worry that they wouldn’t be able to get back into the business after the break for family. How did you do it? Did it worry you? Can you talk about that time off a bit and how things changed (or didn’t) once you got back into the field?
CB: Yes, I did take some time off from opera when my daughter Elisabeth was in high school. This was right after my mother died, and it was something that really hit Elisabeth and me very hard. I continued to do concerts and recitals during the school year and worked out my schedule so I was only gone maybe two weeks a month. And I did opera in the summer in places like St. Louis or Santa Fe. I did take on a project in Lyon and Paris during the school year in this four year period, but for the most part, I was home quite a bit during the school year while she was in high school. During this time, I started looking at some of the Wagner repertoire that I had been anticipating and it was a good time to work on things with my voice teacher, Christine Armistead at Washington University in St. Louis. So when Elisabeth started college, I got back into the opera world more actively and sang my first Isolde in London, then San Francisco. I think for the kind of voice I have and the repertoire that I sing, this was a good time for me to work on this bigger repertoire during my ‘break’. So I never really stopped singing, just worked out my schedule so that I wasn’t gone big two and three month chunks of time during the school year when she couldn’t travel with me. Those high school years were tough, and believe me, there were times she would ask when I was going out of town again, and I was praying to go out of town! Mothers and high school daughters .... ahhh! But that’s another article!
We have spoken a lot on this site and in the podcast about the equal roles of pianist and singer. Can you speak frankly about the balance of trust, leadership, friendship, and respect within this very intimate partnership?
CB: I do think this special relationship between pianist and singer is equal. It is very intimate and sacred. I have a few pianists with whom I work most often: Roger Vignoles, Craig Rutenberg and Craig Terry. We all have very special friendships and respect for each other. It is very much like a marriage and there has to be a strong amount of trust and respect from both sides. I’ve learned so much from these three men, and sometimes it is just a word or a gesture that sparks my imagination. I think for these relationships to work there has to be this mutual respect and trust. There are times that I think I can’t do something and I have to feel comfortable enough to take risks when we are rehearsing. It’s all about being vulnerable, and there are times I try things and I have to trust that their ears and instincts will not let me go down the wrong path! I always say to let me know if it starts getting tasteless!
You balance out your performances with a very large array of traditional Opera, Contemporary Music, Orchestral Concerts and Recitals. Your palate is versatile, your technique, musicianship and musical soul are admired by fellow musicians and audiences alike. It seems like you always just do what you know to be best for you, even outside of your performance career. Can you expand on this a bit and tell us how you were able to make these bold choices?
CB: I never really think of my choices as being bold, but I do think I’ve sort of done things in my own time, at my own pace and not always in the traditional way of having a career. But that’s just what has worked for me. I think because I married so young (age 21) and had my daughter early and taught school first, I just learned to be patient. I think sometimes that I’m going to be ‘found out’ and told that I’m an impostor, because I didn’t go to conservatory, I didn’t do the apprentice programs at Santa Fe or Merola or the Met. I have to say that I have always wanted to be inspired by music and so I’ve taken on contemporary pieces that speak to my heart. I’ve taken on roles that spark my imagination. I’ve had SO much joy in my life, and I continue to sing things and do things that bring me joy. I want to work with people who have that same sort of joy in making music or working with children or singing for senior citizens. Does this sound hokey? I guess I’m a little hokey. A music critic once wrote that I seemed to have a ‘penchant for middle brow music’ after I had sung a program with some old-fashioned American art songs in the second half of the recital. He thought I sang it well, but I guess he preferred something a bit more high-brow. Well, I find joy in making ALL kinds of music! Just ask the folks who come to the annual Brewer Hootenanny which my husband Ross and I are preparing for right now. We will have over 100 people in our back yard on Saturday night with guitars, fiddles, mandolins, gut buckets, wash boards, harmonicas and we’ll be jamming all night on bluegrass and gospel music. Ross and I started doing this over 25 years ago. We both play guitars and I play violin and harmonica. We have friends who come from all over the US to join us and make music. In fact, there are some Iraqi violinists who started coming a few years ago with a friend of ours who does an outreach program in the Middle East. They come and play Kurdish music for us. There’s so much joy to go around and so much music to be sung and played. I just feel lucky to be doing what I love so much!
What is the one thing (or few things) you would say to young singers and pianists starting out in this business?
CB: I would say to never take anything for granted. Always be prepared. There are so many times that I might have missed opportunities had I not been prepared. The first time I met and sang for Birgit Nilsson came after a series of phone calls to the school where she was going to be teaching a couple master classes. I finally got into her lieder class (at the end of the list) and I knew that she was going to be giving a few private lessons, but had been told that I wouldn’t be on the list for that. But I took along some of my opera repertoire, and you know what? She asked to give me a private lesson after hearing me in the Lieder class! I was prepared with three copies of everything that I brought to sing – one for her, one for the pianist and one for me. This is also something that I’ve continued to do for my voice lessons – copies (all on the same page) for my teacher and coach/accompanist and me. It seems like a simple thing, but it sure does save precious time when I’m home and can get a couple lessons in with my teacher, if I can have everything in notebooks so there is no fiddling around trying to find the page or the score. (I’m sure this comes from my teaching days when I was super organized!) I would also say how important it is to write notes. Hand-written notes are becoming a thing of the past, and they are so special and personal. After an audition, it’s nice to write a nice note to the folks who listened to the audition. After a concert with a conductor, again it’s nice to drop a note about something positive from the experience. I keep note cards with me all the time and drop notes to someone at the hotel who was especially helpful, or someone backstage who made my life easier in an opera performance or a teacher from high school who really made a difference in my life. I would also say to find opportunities to sing whenever you can – schools, churches, nursing homes, friends’ houses. Often when I’m working on a recital, I’ll do this. Any chance to perform is great! And ask questions. Talk to people who you admire and ask them questions ... drop them a note! And I guess, lastly, I would say that no matter what you are doing, find joy in it. All of the things you are doing on your way to having a career in music will inform you as an artist and as a human being. I do believe we are all here to make the world a better place.
For more information on Ms. Brewer, please visit her website.