Girls of Summer
MEASHA BRUEGGERGOSMAN, who stars in Porgy and Bess at Cincinnati Opera, speaks with disarming candor to ADAM WASSERMAN.
Portrait by Dario Acosta
Makeup by Karla Baxter / hair by Maria Bertrand / clothes styling by Lisa Williams
© Dario Acosta 2012
Measha Brueggergosman seems incapable of mincing words. She doesn't do it when alternating the tricky sung and spoken lines of Luciano Berio's frenetic, hyper-allusive multilingual operatic mashup, Recital I (for Cathy), which the soprano has made something of a calling card. Nor does she do it when chatting about the nearly 160 pounds she lost several years ago through a combination of gastric bypass surgery and an obsession with Bikram yoga. In conversation, she will jokingly refer to the aortic dissection that very nearly killed her in June 2009, at the age of just thirty-one, as nothing less than the "worst weight-loss program ever." And before an interviewer can even work up the courage or justification for asking, Brueggergosman will casually mention the yearlong separation she underwent from her husband, whom she first met in high school, as well as the painful miscarriage of their twins that has kept her off the stage of late. "If I ever write a memoir," she laughs, "it'll be called This Isn't What I Thought Would Happen." There are open books, and then there's Measha.
Brueggergosman's disarming candor is just one indication of why the Canadian soprano, who this month makes her return to the opera stage as Bess in Cincinnati Opera's Porgy and Bess, has become a certifiable mainstream celebrity on her native soil as well as perhaps the most engaging, amiable ambassador the spheres of classical voice and opera have seen since Beverly Sills. Brueggergosman's instrument — a gleaming, vernal lyric soprano with an appealing duskiness around its edges and an adaptable vibrato — is a thing of uncommon beauty, seemingly as suited to Mozart's Elettra or Vitellia as to the lyrisme of Satie, the Expressionist flair of a Schoenberg song or the chatty quirkiness of a Bolcom cabaret number. And while the primary focus of her classical career, up to this point, has been high-profile concert and recital performances with top-tier symphony orchestras and ensembles, Brueggergosman's relatively limited involvement with staged opera — which has included roles such as Jenny in Madrid performances of Mahagonny, Sister Rose in Houston Grand Opera's Dead Man Walking and Madame Lidoine in a Vancouver Opera Carmélites — has confirmed her as an engaged singing actress of vivid nobility. Yet it's a sign of just how engrossing, even obsessive a communicator she is that the soprano's professional opportunities have extended beyond the concert and opera stage to different styles and venues, including cabaret gigs in Maritimes pubs, the opening ceremonies of the Vancouver Winter Olympics in February 2010 — where she performed the Olympic Hymn to a broadcast audience of more than a billion people — and stints on Canadian reality-TV shows such as Canada's Got Talent, where she presides as a judge.
For Brueggergosman, who began taking voice lessons when she was just seven years old, the multiple facets of her dizzying career aren't so much dissimilar as they are outlets for expression along the continuum of her own interests. "I'm very respectful of what I think is the evaporating line between who we are as classical artists — and what our industry has traditionally expected of its artists — and the actual world, who, given the chance, given the opportunity or an overture, would absolutely be super on fire for classical music," she remarked last February while chatting by phone from her home in Ottawa during a break in filming for Canada's Got Talent. "We have this growing generation, and it is undeniable that we're influenced by many things, many media outlets besides the classical-music ones. It can just sometimes be very difficult to find an inroad, to approach it with the understanding that this music is for everyone. So we lead by example. People will come to this genre of music if they're given a sense of being welcome."
This month, on the day she turns thirty-five, Brueggergosman will give audiences another inroad when she performs her first Bess in Cincinnati Opera's production of Porgy and Bess. (In September, she'll reprise the role in concert performances with Simon Rattle and the Berliner Philharmoniker.) Diane Paulus's recent Broadway production of Gershwin's opera revived longstanding questions about whether the inhabitants of Catfish Row amount to living, breathing American archetypes or demeaning racial caricatures concocted by a white southerner and two Jewish brothers from New York. Brueggergosman — perhaps, as a proud Canadian, unencumbered by the weight of America's history of race relations — isn't having any of it. "Well, who cares?" she says, when asked about the work's perceived baggage. "I mean, that's like the conversation you have in the restaurant after the show. I understand why one would ask the question. It's kind of like the whole debate that arose out of The Help, for instance — 'Why isn't this story being told by a black person?' But obviously, from my perspective, I don't care. I think that the music is so strong, and the story — whether [the creators] were black or not — is absolutely essential. And that's not even speaking of the quintessential American soundscape and the innovation and orchestration. I think it's not to downplay a question that should be raised, but we don't ask the same thing with Jenu°fa. We don't ask the same thing of The Rape of Lucretia. It's like, I'm not going to apply a standard to Porgy and Bess that I don't apply to other repertoire. That just cheapens the work."
If Brueggergosman holds Porgy and Bess in particularly high esteem, she's certainly had time to consider why. Her first onstage assumption of the title role was initially slated for the 2009 Styriarte Festival in Graz, where she would have performed it under the baton of Nikolaus Harnoncourt — "had my aorta not exploded," she laughs. Following nearly a year of recuperation and the subsequent separation and reconciliation with her husband, Brueggergosman opted to clear much of her performance schedule with the intention of starting a family. It somehow seems appropriate, she says, that her first appearance back on the opera stage following her recent challenges will be as Bess. "It's a real blessing for me. This work I know has had a real significance in my life. And of course, I resisted for a long time. I resisted it because I didn't want to be that black soprano singing all the black repertoire all the black time," Brueggergosman says. "I'm often offered the role of Serena or Bess, because it's essentially the same voice type. But Bess gets to sing, 'Oh, what you want with Bess? She's getting old now.' That line — when I was reading the libretto, I was like, 'I wonder how that's set.' So I went into the score, and that solidified it for me, because that whole scene is the essence of Bess. That struggle — it is so operatic. It's so human. Just as she's getting on her feet, just as she starts to believe in happiness and just as she's reintegrated into the community…. It's heartbreaking. But that's opera. I mean, if it doesn't break your heart, I'm kind of not interested."
Another thing that doesn't interest Brueggergosman — perhaps surprisingly for a classical vocalist who has cultivated such inroads into the popular culture — is what she perceives as the frivolous indecency behind many modern opera productions mounted today. "I'm a woman of faith. I'm a Christian," says Brueggergosman, whose father and brother are both Baptist pastors. "There are probably operas out there that would make me uncomfortable. If my parents can't come see it, frankly, I can't really be a part of it. I'm not against trying something new, but there's just something about the gratuitousness of the novelty — of just trying something for trying's sake — that is boring." Mahagonny's Jenny, on the other hand, which she performed in a striking Fura dels Baus production at the Teatro Real during the fall of 2010, allowed her to "work out a lot of demons," she jokes. The staging, which literally set the city of Mahagonny on top of a garbage heap and had the soprano's Jenny wearing lingerie over a skin-tight body stocking, was "such a fantastic exploration. Jenny is just this horrible, horrible woman — I mean, absolutely manipulative and selfish and egotistical and all of the things I fight against in my own personality. And I got to do an aria on a stripper pole. What?! Totally in my bucket list! The parents did not come and see that."
Brueggergosman says that opera in the U.S. will likely become increasingly important to her career as she and her husband look to start a family and mitigate travel. But there's no indication that she intends to approach the next chapters in her art or her life with any measure of complacency or routine. "It's very much a work in progress, and with some things, there's been a bow on them, and then you move on," she says of her career. "When you start singing at seven with the intention of becoming an opera singer, once you get to twenty-six years later, you are looking for things to do that will round that out. There's no shortage of classical music, but I think it's a testament to this incredible repertoire that after twenty-six years it's still so rich and bottomless, you know? I feel older in this job than the majority of my colleagues just because I started so early. But I am still in it to win it. I quite enjoy it."