A staunch believer in
regular exercise, she has just returned from an early morning swim when I
phoned her. We chatted about country living, her history, and the state of the
art of singing.
MN: Where did you grow up?
CB: I grew up along the Mississippi River in southern Illinois. My brothers
and I worked on local farms in summer when we were out of school. I finished
high school early and was admitted to advanced placement at McKendree College,
the oldest college in Illinois, which gave me a full scholarship. I graduated
with a teaching degree when I was twenty. Ross Brewer and I married the
following year and we both taught public school. During those years I never
expected to earn my livelihood as a singer, but I did take voice lessons. I had
a job singing in church and I was a section leader in the St. Louis Symphony
Orchestra Chorus. My voice was very small and light when I was young, but after
I gave birth to my daughter at age twenty-eight, I noticed a big change in it.
I was thirty-three when I won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions
so I definitely was a late bloomer!
MN: Do you have some tips for parents and teachers?
CB: These days music teachers are few and far between, but many classroom
teachers are trying to include art and music in the curriculum as best they
can. I suggest that those who want to help can do that by raising funds for a
trip to a concert or by contacting people who can enable the kids to come for
free. If you call your local symphony or opera company, you may find that they
have an outreach program that will help. The St. Louis Symphony people tell me
that some schools fail to take advantage of all the services available to
MN: How did “Echoes of Nightingales” come into being?
CB: Glenn Freiner, my voice teacher at McKendree, got me interested in doing
songs once sung by artists like Kirsten Flagstad, Helen Traubel, Eileen Farrell
and Eleanor Steber. Whenever he went to a recital he would note down the titles
of the American songs he heard so he could buy the music. When he passed away,
he left me this treasure trove of recital pieces. Roger Vignoles and I recorded
more than twenty of them for Hyperion. The disc should come out in a few
months. I’m already using some of the songs on my recital program.
MN: When did you start singing full time?
CB: I was the soprano soloist at The Church of St. Michael and St. George in
St. Louis where several opera board members were in the congregation. Actually,
General Director Richard Gaddes also attended when he was in town. I entered a
young artist competition sponsored by the St. Louis Symphony and Gaddes was a
judge. I did not win, but a few days after it was over I got a letter from him
with a few hundred dollars in it. He wanted to make sure I would not give up
because he thought I had potential, so he sent me what I would have gotten if I
had won. He asked me to audition for the Opera Theatre of St. Louis Chorus and
since they performed when school was not in session, I did. Eventually, I was
asked to cover solo roles and conductors like Stephen Lord and John Nelson
started giving me small parts. Then, Colin Graham asked me to do Ellen Orford
in Peter Grimes. That was a true break-through for me
MN: Did you participate in any young artist programs?
CB: Yes, Colin Graham invited me to study for a summer in Banff, Canada. I
sang the role of the Female Chorus in Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of
Lucretia and I understudied Lady Billows in his Albert Herring.
It was one of my best early experiences because the study was so intense.
MN: Did you work with Birgit Nilsson?
CB: Yes, in 1988 I participated in a lieder master class with her in
Washington, DC, and she invited me to a six-week program in Buekeburg, Germany.
There were only six singers in the class and we had daily lessons. When the BBC
recorded some of my concerts, I sent her the discs and she wrote back a
I also sent her a disc of my first Isolde, which I did in London. Warner
classics actually bought the recording and released it with no retakes, no
patching at all. I did not hear from Birgit for a long time on that and I
thought maybe she did not like it. Eventually, I got a letter that began:
“Frau Isolde!!!” and went on to say how much she loved the
recording. She said, “This is your role. You must sing it.” It
really does fit me like a glove. I’ve already sung quite a few Isoldes
and have a lot more coming up.
This summer I will spend two months in Santa Fe singing Lady Billows in
Albert Herring. It’s one of my favorite roles. I love singing
Britten’s music because of the way he captures true, honest humanity.
That‘s why I love singing Ellen Orford so much. I think Peter
Grimes is one of the best operas ever written by any composer. Albert
Herring I love because it gives me a chance to show my comic side. I think
I’m a very funny person because I always find the humor in things that
happen to me. Comedy is difficult, however, because there is a very fine line
between what is funny and what isn’t. In Santa Fe we have a fabulous
director, Paul Curran. He directed the Peter Grimes there and the
Die Frau ohne Schatten in Chicago. He’s a Scot and he
understands Britten. Andrew Davis is conducting, so we really have the best in
Santa Fe this summer. I know it’s going to be a fun production.
I love singing in my own language, English! Young singers need to learn to
sing well in their native languages. So often I hear a young American singer
singing in English and I can’t understand the words. To my mind, if you
can’t sing in your own language there’s something wrong. I often
sing entire recitals made up entirely of American and British songs because I
think it’s important to sing well in our own language. People need to
know that we have great music in English. There’s a lot of good music out
there, actually, so it’s important to keep looking at new pieces, too.