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Cruise Control

What’s it like to be the star attraction on an opera-themed cruise? SCOTT BARNES gets the lowdown from soprano Christine Brewer.

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Brewer and Rutenberg on board
Courtesy Christine Brewer
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Stockholm Harbor, one of Brewer’s ports of call on her Holland America Baltic cruise
Courtesy Holland America Line

For many cruise passengers with an interest in Broadway or opera, one major inducement to pull out their credit card is the promise of big celebrity names on board. Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Crystal Cruises, Aria Tours and Act I Tours are among the many organizations that have offered the company of major opera stars to lure fans on a vacation on the river or high seas. Headliners have included Stephanie Blythe, Lauren Flanigan, Deborah Voigt and Martina Arroyo. 

For music headliners, there is no “getting away” from their seafaring public. Unless you spend every nonperformance moment in your cabin, it’s impossible to avoid being in the public eye. Performers choose varying ways of dealing with this. Some are real mensches, joining in shipboard activities, hosting dinner tables and still finding a way to set strong enough boundaries to allow themselves some alone time, as well. 

Soprano Christine Brewer, who has distinguished herself as one of the world’s leading interpreters of Wagner and Strauss roles, is just such a performer. “The first two cruises I did, with the English Chamber Orchestra, were on a big yacht,” she recalls during a recent interview via Skype from her home in Illinois. “I think it held only about 150 people. And everybody on it was there for the music. There was a lecturer, maybe a reviewer from one of the London papers. We gave one concert on shore and then a recital onboard at night. You could do three musical things a day. That was very cool. Everybody wanted a part of you — I was on a cruise with Josh Bell, Manny Ax and Maxim Vengerov.  I’d have to put on makeup in the morning, because I didn’t want to be the one that passengers were saying, ‘Oh my gosh, did you see Christine Brewer?!’” 

Since this was Brewer’s first cruise, she had no idea of some of the pitfalls involved — seasickness being number one. She wound up wearing acupressure bands on her wrists. “I didn’t want to do the patch or take Dramamine,” she remembers, “because God knows I needed to keep my wits about me! The bands worked — I wore them nonstop. I did give them to Manny Ax on the night of his recital on board. It was storming, and the ship was rocking so much! He was out on the deck, just green. So I begrudgingly lent him my precious little bands and sat in the back, huddled over.”

Her bout of seasickness wasn’t enough to prevent Brewer from signing on for a Baltic cruise, on which she was joined by opera news editor-in-chief F. Paul Driscoll and Craig Rutenberg, the Met’s director of music administration. On that trip, she programmed a Joseph Marx song, “Selige nacht.” “Coincidentally,” she recalls, “it was the same song we were doing in San Francisco when there was an earthquake — while I was singing. ‘Selige nacht’ talks about our love-bed, and we have the windows open so that we can smell the roses. As we were turning out of port, the piano started r-o-l-l-i-n-g downstage. Well, I just started laughing. Once we got the piano back in place, we started over. Needless to say, I decided to stop programming that song for a while.”

The Baltic cruise lasted for ten days — which Brewer feels bordered on too much of a good thing. “By the eleventh day,” she says, “I probably would have killed my husband, Ross. There was one night that Craig didn’t have dinner with us, and I called his room, because I was worried about him. He said, ‘You know, I just needed to eat by myself tonight. I can’t keep hearing the same old stories every night.’ And I said, ‘Wait a minute. Have I told the same stories every night?’ And he said, ‘No — but they’re similar….’”

That particular cruise was on a large ship, and the passengers included 100 or so friends and patrons of the Metropolitan Opera Guild, among them a woman traveling by herself, who took offense when Brewer and Rutenberg performed a setting of spirituals by American composer John Carter. “She wanted her money back, because she didn’t want to hear anything but opera,” says Brewer. “Thankfully, she brought her own opera CDs with her. When I do recitals, I rarely even do an aria.”

For a celebrity such as Brewer, her at-sea job description depends on the cruise director and the group she’s traveling with. In many cases, entertainers are expected to schmooze with the guests. Many of the cruise lines expect guest artists to be goodwill ambassadors. In exchange for deluxe accommodations and dining, they may be asked to wear an embossed name tag when they are not in their cabins. 

Occasionally, there’s conflict among the talent. Once, I was directing and hosting a “Sail with the Stars” cruise for the Theater Guild that headed up the Amazon. Among the guest stars were opera’s Patrice Munsel, the London stage’s Claire Bloom and Broadway’s Alix Korey. One day, during a tour of the rainforest, the rather icy Bloom took exception to Korey’s tongue-in-cheek comment, “I don’t care for nature — things fall from it” and dubbed Korey’s sense of humor “not appropriate for the rainforest.”

“Most of the people are very respectful, and some of them I know before the cruise,” says Brewer. “So I look forward to seeing them. Sometimes, though, dinner does seem like an interview. I am perfectly happy to do more formal Q&As onstage, but it was also nice for my husband and me to have some private time. 

“Two springs ago, I was in Berlin singing with the Philharmonic, and I had a couple of weeks free. I was offered a Hapag-Lloyd cruise, so my husband joined me in Berlin, and we flew — to Sri Lanka! If anyone ever offers you the chance to meet a boat in Sri Lanka, just say no.

“We were supposed to be met and driven to the boat, which was allegedly very close to the airport. They picked us up in a paneled van, and I was sitting on the floor. It was about ninety-nine degrees. Berlin had had a chilly spring, so we had winter clothes.  We had no water. The driver kept telling us, ‘Not far. Not far.’ Well, it felt like about two hours!” 

Things improved somewhat when Brewer and her husband boarded the ship. “Hapag Lloyd Cruises is top-of-the-line. The first stop was Kochi, India. Ross and I had never been in India, so that was cool. The first night, after dinner, they were having India Night up on deck. The entertainment director suggested that we come, even though I hadn’t rented a sari. We got there, and the crew members were in blackface! And one of them had torn and tattered clothes like a beggar. And right beside them, some local musicians from Kochi were performing. It made me very uncomfortable, so we went to our cabin. On the way there, I asked the concierge if it was too late for us to book our own private car rather than the tour.

“Kochi was so interesting, because there were so many religions living side by side. It was nice to be with real people. We even saw a guy with a cobra on the street! In Mumbai, the people on the bus drove past Gandhi’s home, but we got to go inside. They probably saw more stuff, but we saw things we were more interested in. After we left Mumbai, we were off to Dubai. The captain called a meeting to tell us that we’d be entering some dangerous waters. They wrapped the boat in bayonet wire and helicoptered in what Ross called ‘Rent-a-SEALs,’ about four or five of them with guns. We were told to close our curtains and turn our balcony lights off every night from dusk till dawn. This boat had a gift shop with the most expensive jewelry I ever saw in one place, and I’m thinking, ‘Let’s just paint a target on us!’ He said if he came on the intercom at any time and said, ‘Tango Tango,’ we were to go to the Europa Lounge, to keep everyone together, so we wouldn’t get kidnapped! I didn’t know any of this until I got on the boat. We were having breakfast two mornings later, and we hear ‘Samba Samba’ on the intercom, and Ross started to go. Wrong dance! It was a drill for the crew. It was scary!”

The boat had several kinds of entertainment, and Brewer assumed it would be like the other cruises, brimming with music-lovers. Instead, it catered to the wealthiest German and Swiss travelers. She found herself the “classical choice,” sandwiched between a woman who was the “cabaret choice” and an art lecturer.  

The cruise happened to coincide with the centennial of Benjamin Britten, so while she usually performed Strauss and Wagner, Brewer programmed a lot of Britten music. “The passengers told the entertainment director that the next concert had to be all German,” says Brewer. “They really weren’t interested in hearing a British composer! The pianist was chastised for wearing the wrong kind of shoes, and for wearing an ascot instead of a tie. One day I was at the pool, and a very nice man who had been at my recital told me, ‘You know, I’ve been on your American cruises, but they are so large! You get all classes of people on them. I like this one, because you only get the upper class.’ 

“I said, ‘Not for the entertainment!’” spacer 

SCOTT BARNES is an audition and performance coach for professional singers. He often gives master classes in opera acting in the age of HD. 

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