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Soprano Measha Brueggergosman: Glamour With Feeling

November 1, 2010

Much has been made of soprano Measha Brueggergosman’s endearing idiosyncrasies: performing barefoot, sporting a nose ring, and, if you consider it such, practicing and teaching Bikram Yoga. What’s most important is that she is a major artist, blessed with a gorgeous voice, a fine command of language, and a true commitment to musical expression.

Brueggergosman, however, is not easy to pin down. A planned cover story on her for the U.K.’s Muso was aborted when she was beyond cell phone reach, engaged in a yoga retreat in the Swiss Alps. SFCV caught up with her in Chicago, between performances in Madrid as Jenny in Mahagonny and in Houston as Sister Rose opposite Frederica von Stade’s mother in Dead Man Walking.

With Brueggergosman, voice and intention are equal priorities.Her latest DG recital disc, Night and Dreams, makes it abundantly clear that she is one fine artist.

I was listening to one of your older recitals on CBC. My, the voice gotten more glamorous.

Well, I think I’ve grown more glamorous with it [laughing]. But thank you very much. I appreciate that description.

When you were young, was the sound you imagined for yourself anything like the sound you have now?

That’s a great question. It’s way better than “How would you describe your voice?” Thank you.

It’s difficult, because I hear my voice in my head. Regardless. I grew up listening to Kathleen Battle, and I went through a period when I was a little upset that I would not be singing her repertoire. However, then there was Jessye [Norman], and Marian Anderson. Somebody gave me a Leontyne Price recording after a performance that I gave of the Verdi Requiem when I was 22, and I realized there was other repertoire out there for me.

Listen to the Music

Les temps de lilas

And you hadn’t yet heard Leontyne Price?

No. I grew up in a small town. I knew who she was. But I’m talking that big red Leontyne box set. I’d heard her before, but I hadn’t had this large collection all in one place. I literally sat down and listened to all 12 CDs in a couple of days. The way the sound just poured out unobstructed was something I wanted. Definitely.

I wanted it to sound easy. I didn’t want people to worry about my technique, or look at me and wonder if I would make it. I wanted them to feel secure, when they buy their tickets and put them bums in the seats and I’m being paid to entertain them, they should be able to relax. I am trying to be there and present and really invested in the experience. But there are a million things to think about simultaneously. So what I always wanted was a technique that would make things look easy, even if I’m kind of dying on the inside.

Do you actually think about a million things, or are you able to do the yogi thing, as I’m sure you do in your classes, and just focus on one thing?

Being a yoga teacher informs my singing in that I understand more and more the power I have over a room. Not power in a selfish sense, but the fact that all eyes are on me, and I’m responsible, not only for keeping the holy grail that is classical music and promoting it and believing in it and being a spokesperson for it, but also of this intimacy that we share in the concert. It is a shared experience, and my goal is to create an atmosphere where everybody feels included, which is how I feel when I teach yoga.

You had a heart episode, didn’t you?

I did. I had a dissected aorta, which actually means your main artery from the heart to the rest of your body explodes. It just kind of broke apart. It has an 80 percent mortality rate, and mine was caught relatively early. I happened to be at home. I’m sure it was a case of having toured so long and gotten to a place where you felt comfortable and the body relaxes and falls apart. I was spared. I feel it every day, and try and live according to the possibility at any moment, which it can.

Yoga has always been a big part of my life, and I had planned to go to teacher training in spring 2010, but this happened in June 2009. So I celebrated my anniversary at Bikram Yoga Teacher Training, which was an emotional time. I’m still working through and realizing the implications of almost having died, but the yoga has been a big help.

Nothing is separate. Everything is union. If we believe that, we have to act accordingly. We can’t separate this part of our life with that part, or act this way with one person and that way with another, or only believe in truth in this situation and self-control in that one. No. It’s all one. It’s all union. It’s all your life that’s meant to be lived with self-control and consistency.

So yoga is a big deal for me. I’ve taught here in Chicago, I’ll teach in San Fran. It’s a nice thing to be able to do on my days off.

I had been wondering if any of your heart trouble was connected to doing yoga in 105-degree heat.

No, no. I went to teacher training after my operation. And my heart problems were as a result of me neglecting my blood pressure. That’s all it was. I didn’t take my medication, and I should have. But I don’t like to take anything pharmaceutical. I don’t know the effects it will have on my body. I don’t necessarily believe in that philosophy of treatment. I now use the yoga to control my blood pressure, and it works very well.

Has your singing changed as a result?

The why has changed. I think I’m way more in the present.

To take the metaphor one step further, my aorta, which is the main artery to my heart, which is the center and wellspring of life according to Proverbs. ... I think I had been spreading myself quite thin — my person, my spirit was quite diffused, in a way. Despite the strength of my yoga practice, I lacked a center, I lacked a core. I felt like my mind wasn’t quite as centered as it should be.

If we believe that our fascia contains memory, and our connective tissue communicates with itself, if there’s anything that’s out of whack, or if your priorities are wrong, or if you’re not living in the present — because the Buddha says that the root of humanity’s suffering is the inability to live in the present because you’re either worried about the future or dwelling in the past — all these things contribute to your health. I truly believe they have physiological repercussions. So the healthier I am spiritually, the healthier I am physically.

Let’s discuss your new CD Night and Dreams. I found myself relaxing into it, and saying, “Oh, this is just lovely, lovely, lovely.”

[Laughing] Well, that’s what we wanted, right? We were trying to figure out what kind of CD to make, and we wanted a strong statement, a philosophy, that would make people feel a different way than Surprise! That CD made people laugh and want to dance. There was a quirky, wacka-wacka vibe to it.

What do we want to do now? we asked. I have other things to say, and other parts of me I want to share. One of those parts is to make people feel at peace, to make them feel connected to their romanticism, their sensuality, their peace, in a way. So we thought about dreams, night, nocturnal activities, the somnambulistic things. All things that happen at night don’t necessarily concern sleep. Come on. So we wanted to explore all facets of that time of day.

On your CD, you perform “Oh, quand je dors.” I love Flicka’s version, never transferred to CD, which she recorded 24 hours before she gave birth to her first child. But your version is different.

Liszt was big on many transcriptions of the same work. This one is usually sung in German, because he used that translation, but we decided to do it in the poem’s original French. Sometimes I show up with other pianists for this piece, and I forget to tell them, so they bring a different version.

Cool. What about Strauss’ Four Last Songs!

Best songs ever.

Everyone and their mother who can sing them wants to record them.

I don’t feel that way. I love them live. I love seeing people’s faces when the French horn does that solo. I love watching people when “Im Abendrot” starts. I love being part of that atmosphere. Those songs, to me, are some of the best live classical music experiences that I’ve ever had.

Would you be willing to release a live recording?

Live recording? Oh, you’re so sneaky. Yah. But not with just, like, anyone. The circumstances would have to be so right and so unique. It’s been recorded so many times that it would have to serve a greater purpose than me just recording something.

Jason Victor Serinus is a music critic, professional whistler, and lecturer on classical vocal recordings. His credits includes Seattle Times, Listen, Opera News, Opera Now, American Record Guide, Stereophile, Classical Voice North America, Carnegie Hall Playbill, Gramophone, San Francisco Magazine, Stanford Live, Bay Area Reporter, San Francisco Examiner, AudioStream, and California Magazine.