January 23, 2013
Christine Brandes: Singing While Rome Burns
Soprano Christine Brandes has performed with the Los Angeles Opera, the New York City Opera, and the Washington National Opera, as well as many of the best-regarded Baroque ensembles on the scene today. The Ohio native and self-professed lover of baseball, bookstores, and the Constitution has made a happy life in the Bay Area.
She’s the kind of person who looks on her career and success and says, simply, “I’ve had the sort of happy luck of opportunities presenting themselves when I was ready to take them up.” Bay Area audiences have been grateful for her much-lauded performances with Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and other ensembles, and can count themselves lucky to look forward to her upcoming interpretation of the emperor Nero in West Edge Opera’s production of Monteverdi’s Poppea, which runs at El Cerrito High School’s Performing Arts Theater Feb. 1–2 at 8 p.m. and Feb. 3 at 3 p.m. Of director Mark Streshinsky’s take on the piece, she says, “It is very interesting. It’s 1962 before the Cuban Missile crisis, and Ottavia is Jackie Kennedy, Nero is Jack Kennedy, and Poppea is Marilyn Monroe. So, what would have happened if he, mid-administration, had dumped Jackie and picked up with Marilyn Monroe?!”
SFCV sat down with her recently at a local cafe to discuss her career — past, present, and future — and the upcoming production. Our conversation began with a left-handed handshake, since she’s recovering from, of all things, a venomous spider bite that has, for the moment, affected her right hand, leaving her to negotiate her temporary affliction during the staging rehearsals as the mad emperor. “It is deeply unamusing!” she says, even though she looks a bit amused as she demonstrates an enthusiastically imperial, if left-handed, salute.
What is it, do you think, that has made the Bay Area such a nurturing place for Baroque and early classical music, if you find that to be the case?
Oh, absolutely, it’s true. I think early on, meaning the ’70s and the ’80s when the movement was really getting its feet under itself, and Philharmonia [Baroque Orchestra] was started … I think Philharmonia is a crucial aspect, and certainly the early-music program at UC Berkeley, with Phillip Brett and all of these pioneers in the early-music movement situated here. I think it’s fair to say that there was a uniting of the early-music movement and the “more granola than thou” movement. Early music and performance practice being this almost left-wing and alternative way of going through the musical world. Certainly, that general ethos held sway in the Bay Area, and I don’t think they’re unrelated. They come from the same compost, if you will.
I knew from the time I was in 9th grade that my connection to Bach … Mozart, Haydn, et cetera, was the seat of my musical soul.
And once that took root here, people gravitated here. It’s a gorgeous place, there’s no doubt about it. It’s a great place to live, and I think these social circumstances, as well as a concentration of like-minded people doing this work, drew people here. The same thing can be said of Boston; clearly, that’s the other epicenter in the states, originally at least. There are some great, great players here, and they have attracted followers and students who then branch off and start their own ensembles. And not just Baroque music, but there’s a strong medieval and Renaissance thing that gets tied to the folky thing, so it has its tendrils in many directions.
I’ve read that you would not touch the “gigantically big-girl songs.” Can you describe the process of how you came to find and develop the real core of your repertoire? Was there a particular teacher, mentor, or conductor who helped you to find the core of your voice? How did that happen for you?
When you asked about the core of my voice, my first thought was of my present teacher, whom I’ve been with for about four years, and my thought was, Hmm, I think I’m just starting to get around to what the core of my voice is. And I know a lot of singers feel this way. To a degree, I feel like I’ll be about 86 when I really understand about singing, and at that point I will have no voice but I’ll totally get it! I’ve had a lot of amazing guide stars in my life, but in a weird way, probably nothing other than my own sense, which is a dangerous thing to rely on in some cases, but luckily it wasn’t a dangerous thing in my case. I knew from the time I was in 9th grade that my connection to Bach, in particular, but Baroque music and classical, as in Mozart, Haydn, et cetera, was the seat of my musical soul.
From a singer’s point of view, good singing is good singing is good singing, period, end of story. I don’t change how I sing.
By the 9th grade?
I sang in a performance of the Saint Matthew Passion at my church, which did lots of classical music. They did three or four big works every year, and when I was a little kid they would hire people from the Cleveland Orchestra and then, as the local orchestra got better (which is now the Canton Symphony, which is fabulous), they would hire in an orchestra, and they would do the B-minor [Mass]; they would do the Lord Nelson, the Passion, the Messiah, the Magnificat. And so when I was in 9th grade, I was old enough to be in the second chorus, and we did the Saint Matthew on Good Friday and it blew me off the map. And I mean, I remember so clearly being in the middle of this performance and being third banana from the left and thinking, This is what I’m supposed to do with my life.
I once heard musicians who play both period and modern instruments referred to as “bilingual.” How is it different for you to sing with a modern symphony like the L.A. Philharmonic as opposed to, say, Philharmonia Baroque (or another Baroque orchestra)? Or, in the case of Poppea with West Edge Opera, a combination, because this orchestra is using some period instruments, is that correct?
Ultimately, at least for me, from a singer’s point of view, good singing is good singing is good singing, period, end of story. I don’t change how I sing. I would say for the most part, L.A. Opera versus West Edge Opera from a musical point of view are not so different. The only difficulty for me arises when a conductor or an ensemble is still somehow mired in 1945 in how they view tempos and articulation. Then it becomes really hard work.
You’ve done this opera before. What is something you’re seeing about the piece this time that feels new, or different to you, than the last time you did it?
Well, I’ve never sung Nero before. I’ve sung Drusilla and I’ve sung Poppea.
So, you are seeing things from a different point of view?
In the duet at the end, it is so difficult to remember what I’m supposed to sing. Fortunately, we are glued together, and I can feel her breath and remember, I have to wait a bar and a half! I would say what’s really different for me, from the perspective of singing Nero, is there’s an aspect of his tenderness. I don’t want to say he’s bipolar, but he vacillates so quickly from being a petulant 5-year-old to a vicious adult, so it’s surprising to find this place in the middle where he’s truly human and has all of those insecurities and vulnerabilities that we have when we’re in love and plagued by doubt.
It’s a tall order to find a balance between this teaching life and a continuing performing life.
What are your current teaching activities?
I do the occasional bit of coaching at [University of] Cal[ifornia]. I have an adjunct affiliation to do coaching at the Conservatory. That’s a very exciting program, the performance practice division. I think they’re gearing themselves up to be the West Coast rival to the Juilliard415 program; there’s real potential there for that. Corey Jamason and Elisabeth Reed are directors and, I’m happy to say, the voice department is massively behind this, which is a rarity. That is thrilling. The Baroque orchestra they’ve got going there is terrific, so I think that’s something that could take off in a big way for them.
I just in the last year started at California State University, which is slightly overwhelming, having never been in an academic circumstance in my life. I still feel that I’m drinking from the fire hose, as it were. It’s a tall order to find a balance between this teaching life and a continuing performing life. I’m especially enjoying directing the opera workshop and getting into directing. That’s a fascinating avenue for me. We’re doing a full production of Dido [and Aeneas] this spring. I know I won’t sing till I’m 80, but, God willing I make it, there are lots of things I can do till I’m 80. Everything that goes into putting an opera on its feet, and telling a story and having a vision for that story, is something that has interested me as a performer, from the word “go,” so we’ll see whether that translates to something I might do when the singing road comes to an end. I’m trying to keep my possibilities open. Like going to law school, which I don’t know that I’d have the tolerance for at this age.
Why was that even a possibility?
Because I have a very strong passion for the Constitution and I have a real thing for the Supreme Court. I have close friends and colleagues who are my age who are not singing, and it’s interesting to watch what they’re doing and the choices they’re making, and of course it’s thought-provoking. What will I do with the other chunk of my life? These are questions that ice skaters and baseball players think about a lot earlier than we do, but I’ve just always had a thing for the Supreme Court. I was there last winter at the Washington National Opera and met Justice Kagan at an event after a concert. So I sat in on a couple of cases. Then, after the opening of the opera, there was a dinner and they seated me next to Justice Ginsburg, because they know I’m in love with her, and so I ended up hearing some really interesting cases on her tab and ended up getting invited to her chambers and we talked opera.
She’s a huge opera fan. It’s the only thing she and [Justice] Scalia have in common.
Speaking of Scalia: finally, I screwed up my courage and said [to Justice Kagan], “You know, I have this great photo with Justice Ginsburg and I’m wondering if you’d allow me to have my picture taken with you.” So we’re in the middle of having our picture taken and she says, “Well, what about Scalia?” and I said, “What about Scalia?” And she said, “He’s such a huge opera fan!” And I said, “I’m way too much of a political animal and I don’t think I could stand that close to him!”
On a more personal/political note, what did it mean to you to have the president say yesterday in his inaugural address, “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law”?
I burst into tears. The line that was most compelling to me was “these truths may be self-evident, but they’ve never been self-executing.” That, I loved. And I also, of course, loved Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall being drawn together in one track because it’s all the same thing. It’s just so staggeringly obvious to those of us living in the Bay Area that this shouldn’t be a question. This shouldn’t be an issue.
I heard you say after a visit to Powell’s Books in Portland that you could, basically, get a yoga mat and just live in the corner, happily coming out three times a day for coffee. What are you reading these days? And, if you’d like, give a plug to your favorite East Bay independent bookstore.
I just finished Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, and I’m waiting for my friend to finish Bring Up the Bodies, the second in the trilogy. It’s all about the reign of Henry VIII as seen through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell. Brilliant, fascinating reading. I’m also in the middle of all this Virgil, and just recently read my first book by Murakami, called Kafka on the Shore, which was staggeringly fabulous. Favorite independent bookstores … hmm. I love Walden Pond, right across the street [on Grand Avenue in Oakland], Moe’s in Berkeley, and I love my own, Laurel Bookstore on MacArthur. It’s a teeny, tiny bookstore, completely neighborhood centered. The East Bay is great for independent bookstores!
Lisa Houston, is a soprano and writer who divides her time between Berlin and Berkeley. Her most recent engagements have been with the Leipzig Kammeroper in which she starred as legendary Wagnerian diva, Astrid Varnay in the comic play with music, See You in Wallhalla and in the title role of the premiere of the original production The Last Diva on Broadway. Her writings and meditations for singers can be found at her website, www.singerspirit.com.
- Organization: West Edge Opera
- Venue: El Cerrito Performing Arts Theater
- City: El Cerrito
- Date: Sun February 3, 2013 3:00pm
- Price Range: $27 to $78
- Tickets: 510-841-1903
Fri February 1, 2013 8:00pm
El Cerrito Performing Arts Theater
Sat February 2, 2013 8:00pm
El Cerrito Performing Arts Theater
Recent CD Reviews
Gardiner: Bach Cantatas
John Wilson Orchestra: Rodgers & Hammerstein at the Movies
Gordon Getty: Piano Pieces
Emanuel Ax: Variations