Photo by Fay Fox

Photo by Fay Fox

When Edo de Waart conducts Beethoven’s Symphony No 9 for Sydney Symphony Orchestra for three performances from tomorrow, American lyric soprano Amanda Majeski will be making her Australian debut.

“I’m so excited. It’s always been a bucket list dream of mine to see the Opera House and to experience Australia so to get a chance to do it is pretty crazy, I’m so excited,” she says.

It will be the third time that she has sung the Beethoven Nine – the first when she was training at the Ryan Opera Center at Lyric Opera of Chicago, and then at the Hollywood Bowl with the Los Angeles Philharmonic conducted by Gustavo Dudamel.

“So I have not a lot of experience but the experience that I did have was pretty great,” she says. “[Working with Dudamel] was so exciting. He’s as charismatic in person as he is in every interview, TV show, anything you see or read about him. We didn’t have a whole lot of rehearsal time. From what I remember, I think we arrived the day before the concert and we met the morning of the concert for one rehearsal and then that evening we went for it. So it was pretty intense and focused. But the great thing about him is that that amount of rehearsal was enough because he runs through everything that you need to know. And the way he feels the music and is able to express it, he’s very clear about what’s needed. It was a really, really special experience to do it with him. And the adrenaline that runs through is very cool.”

When she appears in Sydney, it will be her first time working with Edo de Waart, a former Chief Conductor of the SSO, though she has worked with the orchestra’s current Chief David Robertson before. As for the Beethoven, with its famous ‘Ode to Joy’ – well, who wouldn’t love it?

“I think everybody is completely lifted off their feet at the end of that piece – just the energy and the positivity and everybody making sounds together in joy, not in terror or anything like that. It’s a joyful noise,” she says.

The Sydney Symphony Orchestra will present a free, global livestream of its Beethoven Nine concert, direct from the iconic Sydney Opera House this Saturday, October 27 at 2.45pm. In collaboration with ABC Classic FM, Sydney Olympic Park and the State Library of New South Wales, and with the support of Optus, the livestream will be available via the Sydney Symphony Orchestra website. People around the globe and within Australia will also be able to experience the concert livestream in a number of other ways, including at selected regional libraries across the state and at Sydney Olympic Park where the delayed broadcast will be shown on a giant screen at 4.30pm, ahead of the 2018 Invictus Games closing ceremony. ABC Classic FM will simultaneously broadcast the full concert audio to audiences in Australia and around the world, with Margaret Throsby presenting the Classic Live broadcast direct.

Amanda Majeski as Gutrune in  Gotterdämmerüng  with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra. Photograph © Ka Lam

Amanda Majeski as Gutrune in Gotterdämmerüng with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra. Photograph © Ka Lam

Born in Chicago, Majeski is quickly establishing herself as a rising star, with a growing number of roles for companies including The Metropolitan Opera and various leading American and European houses. Recently she played Eva in Kasper Holten’s production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in Beijing and Gutrune in Götterdammerüng for the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Jaap van Zweden.

In February, she makes her house and role debut at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden when stars in Janáček’s Katya Kabanova, directed by Richard Jones. In April, she makes another house and role debut as Iphigénie in Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride for Oper Stuttgart, and in July she returns to Santa Fe Opera for her house role debut as Fiordiligi in a new production of Così fan tutte directed by R.R. Schlather.

Growing up in Chicago, she says her mother threw her “into every activity possible [including] dance and piano. I really gravitated toward dance, especially tap dancing, and I still do it from time to time. So when I got to high school I thought that maybe choir would go along with the dancing, and our school had this very popular variety show that’s prestigious to get into by high school standards. I auditioned and didn’t get in so that’s when I decided to take voice lessons,” she says.

“But I thought I wanted to sing all the musical theatre stuff, like Rent and Les Mis, all the stuff that teenagers find totally cool. My teacher said ‘why don’t you try this Italian art song?’ and it was so confusing to me. I didn’t like it. I wanted to sing in English, I didn’t know how to pronounce these words. But the more I studied it, the more I fell in love with it. When I decided to pursue a music degree, I thought I would teach so I wanted to do music ed, and my high school voice teacher said, ‘find a place where you can do both music ed and voice performance. Just to do it’. And I said ‘okay, whatever, that’s fine’,” she says.

“And then I went to the Lyric Opera of Chicago and I saw Susannah by Carlisle Floyd and was blown away by that piece. I had no idea that opera could be like that and so instantly I knew I had to explore this further. So I was probably 18 or 19 when I was bitten by the operatic bug, which I think is a little late compared to some. I didn’t know the difference between an art song and an aria when I started out. I had a lot to catch up on and it was very exciting.”

Amanda Majeski. Photograph © Fay Fox

Amanda Majeski. Photograph © Fay Fox

With a Bachelor of Music in Voice Performance from Northwestern University, and a Master of Music in Opera from the Curtis Institute, Majeski was training at the Ryan Opera Center when she made her debut at Lyric Opera of Chicago as a last-minute replacement as the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro conducted by Sir Andrew Davis.

“The soprano was ill and so I had 24 hours’ notice, and at that point, you kind of don’t even think about it. Suddenly you’re meeting with the conductor and then you’re in costume and making sure that the wig fits and there’s not a whole lot of time to process what’s going on. Not to mention it wasn’t opening night, it was show three. So it was just kind of a snowball and then it happened, and it was like ‘what was that? I did that? I sang that? Wow!’ And it was just this overflowing excitement,” says Majeski.

In 2014, she made her debut in the same role at The Metropolitan Opera, conducted by James Levine – and again it was at fairly late notice. “I was covering and I was scheduled to make my debut in that part, just later on in the second cast. And I got the notice that the soprano in the first cast had withdrawn on day three of the rehearsal process. She did give me a half hour’s notice that she would be cancelling the rehearsal which was a musical rehearsal with James Levine and the entire Met administration and the whole cast,” recalls Majeski.

“I’ll never forget when they called me into the rehearsal office [they said] ‘there’s a chance that she’ll be there but 95 percent chance that she won’t’. So I sat in my cover seat waiting for her to potentially show up and when she didn’t, James Levine started the music and when it was my turn to sing, I sang from my seat. And he looked me straight in the eye and put his finger up, with the ‘come here’, so I moved up and then had to sing Dove sono in front of everybody cold, which is probably the most terrifying thing I will ever do in my career. And it was after that then I found out that I’d been moved up to the opening night so I had most of the rehearsal period to get used to it. And to also have that anticipation and that building of nerves, it’s a different feeling to have that expectation. There was no expectation in Chicago because it was happening last minute. But both were pretty amazing experiences.”

She has since played the role at houses including the Glyndebourne Festival and Washington National Opera, and has returned to The Met for revivals of The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni, conducted by Fabio Luisi, and a new production of Così fan tutte conducted by David Robertson.

The Kasper Holten production of Meistersinger comes to Melbourne for Opera Australia next month, though Majeski won’t be in it there. Asked about her experience of the production when she played Eva in it in Beijing, she says: “It was an interesting experience. I’ve done it before in England and Chicago, both of the same production, directed by David McVicar, so this production itself was really, really different. It is set more modernly and I like the idea of making Eva a little bit more progressive,” she says.

“In Kasper Holten’s production she takes her fate into her own hands at the end which is not typically done. I found that very interesting for this character. At first it was understanding that character, because she is so passive, it seems, and kind of having to rely on men to decide her fate. So it was really cool to think of her having the power to decide her own fate as opposed to just being the trophy the whole time. And we were in Beijing and that is an interesting place. Luckily I was there with my husband who is a singer [bass-baritone Sam Handley] as well, he was performing one of the Meisters, so we were together the whole time which was awesome and we got some really good sightseeing in and saw The Great Wall and The Forbidden City and tried different foods so that part was really great. The Opera House is run a little bit differently than most opera houses I’ve encountered. But it was very eye-opening to have a little bit of a different perspective on all accounts.”

Amanda Majeski and Sereni Malfi in  Così fan tutte  at The Metropolitan Opera in 2018. Photograph © Marty Sohl

Amanda Majeski and Sereni Malfi in Così fan tutte at The Metropolitan Opera in 2018. Photograph © Marty Sohl

As for the Katya Kabanova coming up for The Royal Opera House, she has started doing what she calls “basic work” on the opera. “I have a lot to do with the Czech language because it’s not a language I frequent very often. I’ve sung Rusalka before but this is something different. It’s going to take some time to just work on the language aspect, not to mention the character and the colour of the voice. There’s so much to it.

“I’m also doing a Britten War Requiem for the first time in November [with the Colorado Symphony in Denver] so I’m working hard on that, which is not an easy piece so I’ve kind of got that going in the voice right now and with the Katya I’m just starting to explore the language and then I’ll switch over and start working on that.”

Majeski has spoken openly in the past about dealing with anxiety as a performer. Asked if it’s something she still has to deal with, she says, “It never leaves. That’s the unfortunate thing. And I think a lot of singers struggle with similar stuff but it comes in waves but it’s never really gone. So the first step is just accepting that this is normal, and this is how I will feel, and then over time I have learned to know what works to manage it. I can use it to my advantage as opposed to letting it completely consume me into fear and panic and then all of a sudden, I miss the moment. So for me, I have learned that exercise helps a lot, I’ve learned that meditation is important for me, and having a routine in the morning is very helpful. Unfortunately it never goes away but recognising it and accepting it, and even going towards it, not being afraid of the fear, is comforting in a weird sense.”

She agrees that her love of opera help, but adds: “Sometimes it’s not so helpful because for me when I love something so much, I put expectation on myself to be perfect, so to be able to separate and say ‘I love this but it’s okay to be fearless, that that love doesn’t come with expectations’. But that has taken a little while to learn.”

At the end of the day, however, she has a love and passion for opera that drives her. “It’s a tough career and it will give you a run for your money,” she says. “And it’s constantly uncertain and unstable, and there are all sorts of different obstacles in your way. But if the love of what you do continues to drive you then it stays very special.”

AuthorUnison Media
Photo by Dario Acosta

Photo by Dario Acosta

Amanda Majeski has established herself as an artist of singular finesse and aristocratic energy. Majeski’s supple, glittering voice is able to soar through the long, arching vocal lines of Richard Strauss, and her shrewd command of text allows Majeski to savor the richness of a Mozart–da Ponte recitative.

This month, the Illinois native sings her first performances of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, with the Colorado SymphonyIn February, Majeski will make her Covent Garden debut, in the title role of Janáček’s Kát’a Kabanová, in a new production by Richard Jones. April and May find her in Stuttgart, singing her first Gluck heroine, the title character in Iphigénie en Tauride, opposite the Oreste of rising American baritone Jarrett Ott. Ott and Majeski will be reunited in the summer, as Guglielmo and Fiordiligi in Santa Fe Opera’s new production of Così Fan Tutte. 

A willowy 5’ 10”, Majeski is a chameleon who moves with a dancer’s élan if the role requires it but can also impersonate the awkward stride of a gawky teenage girl—as witness her bespectacled Fiordiligi in Phelim McDermott’s 1950s-era Così at the Met—or the coltish pace of an impassioned young man, as she did in her scene-stealing turn as the Composer in Santa Fe’s 2018 Ariadne auf Naxos.  

AuthorUnison Media
Photo by Fay Fox

Photo by Fay Fox

A few years ago, Amanda Majeski got the opportunity of a lifetime.

Most singers wait a ton of time before getting a shot at opening the Metropolitan Opera season. Many singers never get that opportunity at all.

But there was Majeski on Sept. 22, 2014. Richard Eyre’s massive set for “Le Nozze di Figaro” was rotating to reveal the Countess’ bedroom and everyone was listening to the glorious introduction to the sublime “Porgi amor.” She wasn’t originally announced as the singer set to take on that opening day performance but stepped in rather close to the first show.

It was Majeski’s Met debut, one she had dreamed of since she realized she wanted to be an opera star. It had been a goal since the day that Sondra Radvanovsky’s “Susannah” at the Lyric Opera of Chicago had changed her life and drove her to be even better than she had been to that point as a music education and voice major at Northwestern University.

The realization of that dream has led to the soprano maintaining a strong relationship with the house, performing 16 times since in “Figaro” and “Don Giovanni.”

In a recent interview with OperaWire, Majeski noted that she’s grown quite a bit since then as an artist and as a person.

“I remember finishing the show knowing that I would never do anything scarier in my career. It’s been a couple years since then, and I feel I’ve grown in my own personal life, which of course extends to career. I have tried to switch my focus since then from trying to prove myself to just producing art that moves people and means something. At the end of the day, that’s the greatest privilege of being an artist.”

Completing the Trilogy

These days she is getting ready to do something she hasn’t done at the Met since that fateful day in 2014 – headline a new production. The only difference is that this time, she was supposed to be the one to do it.

Moreover, “Così fan tutte” might just be the most hotly anticipated production of the current season with the famed Mozart work set on Coney Island in the mid-20th century, a locale undoubtedly familiar to many of the Met audience members.

But what Majeski is most excited about is the cast she gets to sing with. Kelli O’Hara has gotten a ton of spotlight ahead of the premiere, but the remaining members are quite the package, including Ben Bliss, Adam Plachetka, Serena Malfi, and Christopher Maltman.

“’Così’ is an ensemble piece, and it feels so good to be part of the whole—and what a talented group we have!” the soprano enthused. “It helps a lot that the lovers in the production—Ben, Adam, Serena, and myself—are all friends and have worked together before this production. The chemistry is there from real life. We would hang out with each other even if we weren’t working on a show together.

“And, getting to know Kelli and Chris has been icing on the cake. We learn and grow with each other every day.”

But when she talks about the cast, she isn’t only referring to the singers.

“The fun of this production is that we have this wonderful group of performers right there with us who don’t sing a note—sword swallowers, strong men, snake charmers, fire breathers—who are all at the top of their own field. We all get to come together and bring Mozart’s music to life on the same stage, and that is so beautiful to be a part of.”

Empathizing with the Other

The soprano will be inhabiting the role of Fiordiligi, who she feels is a perfect fit for her demeanor, mainly because she empathizes deeply with her.

“I am an only child in real life, so I love playing what I would imagine life with a sister would be like,” she noted. “Both ladies are so different, yet they really complete each other. While Dorabella is more impulsive and more passionate, Fiordiligi is more measured, more scrupulous, and doesn’t throw her emotions around. When Fiordiligi says something, she believes it and means it. This is very much like me.

“Consequently, when she develops feelings for another man, she puts herself through the wringer for it—she blames herself, she worries if it’s the ‘right thing,’ she feels guilty. She processes her emotions very similarly to how I process emotions,” she continued. “Then she finally gives in to her emotions and allows herself to fall, it’s not just for fun for her—it’s real and it’s love.

“I must add here, though, that I am happily married. Fiordiligi’s outcome is very different from my own.”

Vegetables For the Voice

Not only is the character appealing to Majeski, but she feels that Mozart’s music suits her voice to perfection. As noted, she has already completed her hattrick of Da Ponte-Mozart operas and performing these three works has only solidified her feelings about the composer.

“Mozart’s music is like vegetables for my voice—in the best possible way. You can’t get away with anything in a Mozart line. Everything needs to be in line technically—breath, placement, legato—in order to best express the elegance and emotion in his writing,” she noted. “So, the more I work on Mozart, the more I’m encouraged to be on top of my vocal game.”

And while Mozart has been the only composer she has performed on the Met stage, Majeski has enjoyed the experience tremendously, noting that the characters she has interpreted have all given her new perspectives.

“Mozart also creates strong female characters, and I love playing each one. They are active women. They take their fate into their own hands and make their own decisions. They don’t wait for a man to do it for them, or to carry out their actions,” she noted. “I actually find a lot more similarities than differences in the characters I’ve played. Countess and Donna Elvira are noble women, Fiordiligi is a 15-year-old girl, but all three could be called victims, in a sense.

“Fiordiligi doesn’t know it until the end of the night, while Countess and Donna Elvira are knowingly wronged at the beginning, but all three make their own choices and take action. I love that around the same time of the night, each character gets what I call the ‘I go, I go to him!’ aria. “Dove Sono,” “Mi Tradi,” and “Per Pieta”. [This] leads to each woman taking her fate into her own hands and going for what she wants. At the end of each opera, we’re not entirely sure if any of the ladies have actually achieved their desired outcome. Mozart brilliantly leaves that for the audience to decide.”

The Greatest Battle

Majeski notes that this is her own fate, with a lot still to learn and new challenges to overcome, including the biggest one she still does battle with.

“The greatest challenge for me has been dealing with my anxiety, and I can’t say I’ve completely overcome it. Some days, some performances are easier than others. I have tools to deal with it and keep it in check, but it often feels like a battle to get out of my own way,” she noted. “It is an honor to have the life I have and to have had the opportunities that I have been given—I never want to feel like I have wasted that opportunity.

“It’s terrifying to think that after so much work, so much dedication, so much time away from my family, anyone can get on a computer and write that you have failed, and others will read it and possibly believe it without seeing for themselves. But, the longer I stay in the game, the more I trust that I’m the one who defines my own success and it’s okay to be satisfied with where I am in this moment and that I can trust my ability to give to the audience, even if it’s not always perfect. Sometimes it’s the imperfect that speaks the most to people.”

One interesting fact that came from our conversation with Majeski is that she would likely be a psychologist or therapist if she weren’t a singer.

“I love listening to people, and helping others work through things, supporting and cheering all the way,” she noted.

In a way, through her career as an artist, she’s already accomplishing that for herself and for others.

AuthorUnison Media
Photo by Fay Fox

Photo by Fay Fox

Amanda Majeski has one of those commanding yet intimate soprano voices that makes you forget everything else going on around you. When you first hear her, you know immediately that she is the real thing. Playing Donna Elvira at the Met this year in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Majeski sat down with Opera Sense to share her thoughts on the role and offer advice for new operagoers.

We want to get to know you! Can you name one character from any opera that you identify with?

I don’t know if I can pick just one!  I identify with elements of so many characters!  The hope of Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro, the faith of Marguerite in Faust, hopefully the grace of the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier, but probably also the stubbornness of Vitellia in Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito.  And Rusalka because I was born as a mermaid…haha!  Just kidding.

This season you’re performing in all three of the Mozart – Da Ponte collaborations (Le Nozze di FigaroDon Giovanni, and Così fan tutte). All three of these works explore different aspects of the human condition. Does one of these works resonate with you on a personal level more so than the others?

These three operas are amazing, because they’re so relatable!  These characters are so REAL and go through experiences and emotions we all feel today.  I actually think Don Giovanni and specifically playing Elvira resonates with me more than the other three, because what woman hasn’t gone through that phase of falling for the bad boy, thinking that she will be the one to make him want to change his ways, chasing the one who is essentially unobtainable.  You could take that story line, put it into a romantic comedy set today, and I think so many women would “get it.”

You made your Met debut as the Countess in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro in 2014. How does that role compare to Elvira? Be honest: which one is more fun to play?

I have to say I love both women, because both are strong, smart, active women, who go after what they want and never lose hope that they themselves can change their fate.  For me, Elvira is more fun to play, because Mozart lets more of her fire out through her music.  Her vocal lines are more jagged, jumping from low to high, so you can let loose a bit more vocally because that enhances the character and what Mozart wanted to express.  The Countess is more elegant and subtle with her emotions.  She gets angry, but it’s not the same rage that Elvira has, it’s more refined.  And Mozart expresses this in vocal lines that display more heartbreak than rage, requiring you to float and maintain smooth creamy legato phrases …oooh that is hard to do!

I have always found Donna Elvira to be one of the more difficult roles in Don Giovanni because it’s easy to overdo both the opera buffa elements and the vicious, revenge-seeking, tragic elements. How do you find a balance between these two different sides of Elvira?

It is very tricky to find the balance in Elvira.  When we first meet her, she is MAD.  She has travelled long distances, searching for this man who wronged her, and is so angry and frustrated that she sings about literally ripping out Giovanni’s heart when she finds him.  This is almost comically strong language, let alone for a woman of this time period!  However, her anger is real, and justified.  For me playing this character, it’s important to remember this.  She is not a crazy woman, she’s a wronged woman taking her situation into her own hands.  If we feel her rage in the first act, I think it makes the second act more powerful, when we see more of her vulnerability and love and the conflict between this love and her anger.  The comedic elements of her story will naturally come, as long as I’m committed to the truth of the character at every moment.

Much has been written about how Elvira is the middle ground between the high-stakes tragedy of Donna Anna and the light flirtatiousness of Zerlina. Do you agree with that assessment?

Definitely! She is the middle ground, but we also see more of how Giovanni continues to deceive her again and again throughout the show, and how she continues to love him throughout the show.  The other two women firmly abandon him once they’ve been wronged… I’m not sure Elvira ever does.

Do you have a favorite interpreter of Donna Elvira?

I’m a huge fan of Lisa della Casa in this role… so much character in that creamy tone!!

What’s one thing new operagoers could listen for in one of Elvira’s arias that you believe reveals something important about her character?

I think “Mi tradi” reveals everything about Donna Elvira.  It is here that we learn that all that rage, all the revenge seeking is out of love for Giovanni.  She repeats the same text and the same melody three times, and for me as an artist, it’s important to define what all three of these mean to Elvira, and bring that out in the way I sing each repeat.  The first time, I think she’s confused: Giovanni has treated her horribly, yet she still feels pity for him?  How could someone still care about someone so awful?  The second time around, I think she’s angry… at him for what he has done, and at herself for still caring about him.  The third time around, I think she succumbs to her emotions.  She loves him, unconditionally.  She can’t help how she feels.  By the end of the aria, she realizes that this love she has for him transcends romantic love… that it is up to her to go to him and save him from himself.

Don Giovanni is one of the most frequently performed works in the repertory. How do you bring something new to a role that has been done thousands upon thousands of times before you?

I think it’s so important to listen to what others have done before you, discover what you admire and respect from great interpreters, and what you would change or do differently.  But one of the biggest joys and thrills of opera comes from each artist bringing what is uniquely theirs to the part.  It is not our job to merely copy and imitate, rather, we must bring what we do well, what we express, and how we feel the character.  This is part of what keeps the stories fresh and exciting and interesting!

What advice would you give to people who want to get into opera but don’t know where or how to begin?

I think YouTube is a fantastic tool for both opera lovers and newcomers to opera.  Even if you just type “opera” into the search, some amazing stuff comes up to start familiarizing yourself with some classic arias and choruses.  We all know how easy it is to get sucked down the rabbit hole from a single click!  Just promise me you’ll click on Pavarotti first, not whoever comes up with America’s Got Talent. ;-)

AuthorBeth Stewart
Photo by Fay Fox

Photo by Fay Fox

There’s a friendly tornado aspect to speaking with the talented, ever-rising American lyric soprano and opera star Amanda Majeski, as if something momentous once again was just around the corner.

The talk is about a lot of things: her super-showbiz elevation to the spotlight, Mozart and Strauss (Richard), tap dancing — yes, she tap dances — and, of course, the role of Countess Almaviva in Mozart’s comic-romantic opera “The Marriage of Figaro” (“La nozze di Figaro”), in which she will make her Washington National Opera debut Sept. 22.

“I have been so looking forward to being able to perform here at the Kennedy Center, with this company and with this opera,” said the 31-year-old native of Gurnee, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago.

“This opera” and its composer have been pivotal in the rise of Majeski (the name, as you might suspect, indicates her “100-percent Polish ancestry”). This season is almost an American homage to Mozart for her. There’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” which runs through Oct. 2, a return to the fabled Metropolitan Opera in the role of Donna Elvira in “Don Giovanni” and a role-debut as Fiordiligi in “Così fan tutte” at Opera Omaha.

“Let’s see, I have done the Countess Almaviva, this is the seventh time,” she said. “It’s always fresh to me, always challenging, always moving, although, since I don’t appear until the second act, I have a little bit of rest and preparation.”

The role has been auspicious for her, to say the least. Majeski received her Bachelor of Music in voice performance from Northwestern University, has a Master of Music in opera from the Curtis Institute of Music and is an alumna of the Ryan Opera Center at Lyric Opera of Chicago.
In 2010, as an understudy at Lyric Opera of Chicago, she made her main stage debut as the Countess when the star fell ill. With only a few hours’ notice, it was something of a “42nd Street” experience.

“It was totally out of the blue,” she said, telling a story she’s told many times. “At first, it felt like a completely out-of-body experience. It’s just like a bright light. It’s so exhilarating. It was, basically, the old saying, fight or flight. You put on the costume and you become totally calm and you know you can do this.”

Something similar happened last year, when she made her Metropolitan Opera debut in the role, a little ahead of schedule, when another illness landed her in the big spotlight of opening the Met season in the role.

“It’s a wonderful role. She’s such a complicated woman. She’s torn, she’s angry, but through it all this is a woman who loves her husband,” she said. “And with the music you can articulate the feelings with the voice. It’s such demanding singing, but beautiful music, and it frees you to be the Countess. I think as you grow with the role, you learn more and know more.”

A lot of people associate her with the role, think she owns it. “I don’t know about that,” she said. “Certainly, it’s been a big part of my professional life.”

The Countess has to personify glamour, physical and emotional dexterity, banked anger, a capacity for deep love. What we see in “Figaro” is a range of action and emotions both slapdash and sophisticated. It’s comedy bordering on farce, with costumes playing a big part. And it’s Mozart, that monumentally expressive music, with a big assist from his librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, who also did the same duties for “Don Giovanni” and “Così fan tutte.”
The composer Richard Strauss travels similar territory with his work, in particular “Der Rosenkavalier,” which is also loaded with gender and identity tropes.

“The difference — with Mozart, it’s a little like eating your vegetables. It’s good for you, your voice, your body. It’s challenging, it’s nourishing. With Strauss, it’s dessert, it’s chocolate.”
Majeski, who’s married to bass-baritone Sam Handley, another alumnus of the Ryan Opera Center, seems like an explorer as a professional singer: thoughtful and articulate about the work she does, how she does it, her role beyond her specific roles. Listening to her talk, you realize what’s always been known, that doing what she does is difficult; it’s not about divas or frivolity as much as about achieving a kind of permanent, even extravagant — and certainly beautiful — excellence.
In 2015, she took on the role of Auschwitz survivor Marta in “The Passenger,” an opera by Mieczysław Weinberg based on a novel by 93-year-old Holocaust survivor Zofia Posmysz. “It was difficult and very different from anything I’ve done before, and it was powerful. When you do this, you leave whatever vanity you might have at the door.”

“I want to do more contemporary works,” she says. “And I’d like to do [Benjamin] Britten’s ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and ‘Turn of the Screw.’”

And, believe it, she likes to tap dance, one of those wonderful talents that can make you delirious.

“When we were rehearsing at the space in Takoma Park, I discovered there was a dance school with tap dance,” she said. “I didn’t get a chance to take classes, but it’s something I really love to do. “

Not every Countess can say that.

AuthorBeth Stewart

American lyric soprano Amanda Majeski was named "Best Breakout Star" by Chicago magazine, and she's living up to the title. Roles like Vitellia in La clemenza di Tito, Eva in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and Countess Madeleine in Capriccio have kept her busy in recent years; last season she sang Countess Almaviva in Le nozze di Figaro, a signature role of hers, at the Metropolitan Opera under the baton of James Levine, which was broadcast worldwide in HD.

Majeski is set to sing the Marschallin in Lyric Opera of Chicago's production of Der Rosenkavalier, opening February 8th. She managed to find some time to give us a beautiful interview about singing, the importance of being multi-lingual, and her enormous dedication to her work.


I sing because it’s simply a part of who I am. Singing is life, in a sense. It’s wonderful but often heart-wrenching, it’s frustrating and satisfying, it’s hard work and beautifully simple, it’s success and rejection. I sing because despite the challenges I couldn't imagine myself wanting to do anything else.

I think early on I fell in love with the process of making music. I love woodshedding a piece in a practice room, refining with teachers and coaches, collaborating with my colleagues. There is truly something special that happens when all that work comes together for moments on a stage in front of an openhearted audience. For that evening, everyone in the room is held together by and shares that same music; there is something so beautifully uplifting about that. It’s truly infectious!

I think I’m singing professionally because of a combination of hard work, luck, and timing. I have spent hours upon hours translating scores, working through phrases, digging into a character, etc. I owe so much of my success, however, to the amazing teachers, coaches and mentors who have stuck by me at crucial times in my training. I have been so lucky to find these people when I needed them, and they have not only helped me grow artistically, but have also been wonderful enough to vouch for me in front of others, so that new doors could open for me. I have somehow been lucky enough to sing decently for the right people at the right times, which started the "snowball" rolling.


"Good singing" to me means I’m not thinking about "good singing." Everything flows together seamlessly. My breath is low, my jaw is loose, my body is relaxed, so that instead of thinking about my technique or saying to myself "Oh gosh, how am I going to get through that phrase?" I’m in the character, expressing the text in an honest, direct way, and living in the artistic moment. It doesn't happen often, but it is the BEST when it does. It feels like flying, and coming off stage after making music that freely is addictive.


Young singers absolutely need to do more language study! Trust me, guys, and learn from my mistake! Take your language courses SERIOUSLY, hire a private tutor, spend a year abroad studying, get Rosetta Stone, do anything you can do that’s available to you. Become fluent in as many languages as you can. It’s important for your singing, not only because it will save you oodles of time translating, but it makes a world of difference in your vocal color and expression when you can immediately understand the text you are singing.

Not only that, but as a professional singer, you will be travelling, a lot. All over the world. It can be so lonely to be in a country and not understand what’s happening around you. Having the ability to speak allows you to make friends, better collaborate with your colleagues, and do simple stuff like read your contracts, order food, or obtain your visa from a government building. I cannot encourage you on your languages as much as your singing!

Young singers should spend less time criticizing others. In the professional world, your fellow singers often become like family away from home, they’re the people who "get it," who are there for you when you need someone to talk with. It’s much less about "who’s singing the best" and much more about "how can we work together to put out the best art we can?" Singing is not easy, and takes so much courage, vulnerability, and inner strength. It’s not worth the effort to be mean or catty as someone is growing or working through a technical issue. Listen to others with encouraging and open ears, and discover how you can grow by what they’re doing. We’re all in this together, for the love of music!


Susannah in Susannah (Floyd). This was the first opera I saw that made me fall in love with opera, and the arias for Susannah are the most beautiful things ever.

Tatyana in Eugene Onegin. I first sang this role (in English) my senior year of college, and while it was waaaay too big for me at the time, I’d love to get a shot at it now that I’m older (and in Russian!).

Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The quartet of lovers seems like it would be a blast to play!

Scarpia in Tosca. But only in the Zeffirelli production...because I’ve been in love with that role since watching the video of Tito Gobbi play it with Maria Callas as Tosca. Singing/acting at its finest!


When a non-musician asks what I do, I usually just say "I’m a musician" and I leave it at that. If they press me further, I explain that I’m an opera singer, and it can be pretty fun to talk about what my job entails! Usually the words "freelance", "self-employed", and "travel" come up quite a bit.

The most difficult thing to explain is what I do on my "off time." So often, non-musician friends and family understand my time off as "vacation" or "party time!!" It’s been a battle for them to see that my off time is when I need to be the most structured. So much of that time is either used for resting my voice and getting ready for the next show, or it’s used for learning the next role, or heading to lessons or coachings. True, I can structure the time as I wish, but it’s not as much of a party as they think it is!

I’m always working on the next thing!

AuthorBeth Stewart
Photographed at Spiaggia by Lucy Hewett

Photographed at Spiaggia by Lucy Hewett

It seems lyric soprano Amanda Majeski was just meant to sing Countess Almaviva in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. In 2010, the Gurnee native took to the Lyric Opera of Chicago stage on short notice, when bronchitis sidelined the scheduled star. And last season, she did the same at the Metropolitan Opera when the slated Russian diva dropped out of Richard Eyre's new production. But she did more than step up to the plate; she made the role her own. And she returns to Lyric Opera's Civic Opera House this month to show us just how it's done.

Although fate may have jump-started Majeski's career, pure talent propels it. This year alone, she hit it out of the park with her appearance in Der Rosenkavalier at the Frankfurt Opera, and delivered a nakedly powerful performance as an Auschwitz survivor in Lyric's rendition of Mieczyslaw Weinberg's The Passenger. And while returning to Figaro so soon might seem a less-than-thrilling prospect, it's clear Majeski isn't finished with the countess quite yet. 

"The role is always challenging because the arias are so darn hard," she laughs. "And because it's so popular, and everybody has a favorite voice in their ear, there's the pressure to put your own stamp on it. The thing I find so interesting about the countess is that she's so different from other Mozart characters, who are often over-the-top. You could imagine going out and having a coffee with her. She's the most human character I play."

AuthorBeth Stewart
Photographed at Molyvos by Dario Acosta  © Dario Acosta 2015

Photographed at Molyvos by Dario Acosta 
© Dario Acosta 2015

It’s the first Friday in December, and Amanda Majeski is seated on the aisle in Carnegie Hall, listening to the Philadelphia Orchestra in Brahms’s Third Symphony, paced by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. A soprano of notable daring, Majeski made a headline-grabbing Met debut on opening night of the current season, when she sang Countess Almaviva in Richard Eyre’s new production of Le Nozze di Figaro — after stepping in for an indisposed colleague during rehearsals and moving up what had been her scheduled company debut by ten weeks. Despite the pressure, Majeski scored a hit by keeping her cool — a word that might be used to describe her appearance tonight. Slim and poised, smartly dressed and coiffed, Majeski has the classy good looks of a Hitchcock film heroine, but without the chill; her natural friendliness and warmth, to say nothing of her hearty laugh, are irresistible.

The only child of what she calls a “nonmusical” Polish–American family, Majeski was raised in Gurnee, Illinois, in the Chicago metropolitan area. After completing vocal studies at Northwestern University and the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, Majeski was invited to join Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Ryan Center, where she finished her term in 2011. Since then, Majeski has done impressive work in opera houses in Europe and the U.S. and has returned to Lyric for several leading roles. She spends tonight’s intermission talking animatedly about going home for the holidays with her husband, bass-baritone Sam Handley, and about her next Lyric engagement — Marta, the mysterious title character in Weinberg’s Passenger, in February and March 2015. “My family is really looking forward to it — they are going to love hearing me singing in Polish!” 

The program continues after intermission with French cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras in a dazzlingly fleet performance of Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C Major — “My hands are cramping up just looking athim go that fast,” Majeski says as she applauds — before finishing with the Rosenkavalier Suite. The Strauss piece is the reason I’ve invited Majeski to the concert; she will be singing her first Marschallin at Oper Frankfurt next spring, and she’s begun to immerse herself in the score.

There’s a light, cold rain falling as we make our way down Seventh Avenue to Molyvos, the Greek restaurant less than a block from the Carnegie Hall stage door. After we order a selection of spreads and mezedes, Majeski offers a toast — “Here’s to Friday night!” — and talks about Der Rosenkavalier. “Ithas some of the best music ever — I can’t even process the fact that I’m going to get to sing it. As I was hearing it, I was mentally singing along to some parts — it’s such powerful music. I love it, and I want to do it justice. And that’s a big responsibility. I want my performance to be worthy of the music. Der Rosenkavalier is such a special piece. Those were some of the feelings I had running around inside me as I was listening.

“When Frankfurt offered the role to me, my agent said, ‘Just take a listen, and just see if it’s something you want to do.’ And my first thought was, ‘No,’ because I think I’m on the young side for the Marschallin. I just turned thirty. The Marschallin requires a lot of life experience, and I don’t know if I have enough of it yet. I know I’ll never sing Sophie — I don’t have that high, floaty stuff she needs. In a lot of ways, I’m in the Octavian phase of my life, because I’m a newlywed — I’m excited every minute about my relationship and my marriage, and it’s very new, and it’s very fresh, and my husband I are both ‘I love you so much’ all the time!”

Like many performers, Majeski finds herself “wired” after a show. “When I’m done, I take a breath — I absorb that high that happens. Sometimes I’ll go out. I usually crave chocolate, so I need to have some sort of sweet dessert item — a chocolate brownie with ice cream, or some wine if I have a few days until the next show. I can’t get to sleep after a show until at least three or four in the morning. That energy — it doesn’t know where to go. You’ve got to let it release itself!

“I have a little problem sleeping before opening nights, so when I woke up on the morning of my Met debut, I was happy to realize that I’d had seven hours of sleep. And then I hit my routine — I made myself eggs and bacon and toast, then zoned out a bit, watched Keeping Up With The Karda­shians, some mindless television. Then I went to the gym. I tried to run about a mile, just to get the adrenaline out. Then a shower, warmed up, ate my Subway sandwich — turkey, double meat, no cheese, which is great, because you can get it anywhere in the world — and then warmed up some more. Then I was on. 

“You know, I was supposed to make my Met debut last night — I was originally scheduled for the last five shows in the run. But that changed. And my job was to stay focused on the task at hand — working with my colleagues and Maestro Levine and being true to the music and what we all wanted to accomplish. It’s funny — the more you do this, the more practiced you become, but it doesn’t necessarily become easier to do this. Sometimes all this other stufftries to get in your way. You have to learn to not give those distractions any space or time. 

“The whole experience was crazy, and it was wonderful, and it was invaluable. I grew as an artist, and as a person. I feel that if I could do that opening and not run off the stage, when I had every emotion in the world coming out of my eyeballs, I was doing more than O.K. When it was over, I felt superhuman!”


AuthorBeth Stewart
Auschwitz survivor and author Zofia Posmysz meets with Gurnee native Amanda Majeski, seated, during her wig fitting to portray the concentration camp prisoner Marta in the Lyric Opera of Chicago premiere of "The Passenger." Photo credit: Magda Krance

Auschwitz survivor and author Zofia Posmysz meets with Gurnee native Amanda Majeski, seated, during her wig fitting to portray the concentration camp prisoner Marta in the Lyric Opera of Chicago premiere of "The Passenger." Photo credit: Magda Krance

An opera singer debuting a new role can be a nerve-wracking experience under normal circumstances. But everything is heightened for soprano and Gurnee native Amanda Majeski as she portrays Auschwitz prisoner Marta for the Lyric Opera of Chicago premiere of "The Passenger."

"It's such an intense emotional roller coaster -- more than anything else I've done before," said Majeski, who has been immersing herself in books, articles and documentaries about the Holocaust. "The responsibility is more than any I've every felt before just to tell the story with integrity and sensitivity and to honor all these people."

Also making Majeski nervous and excited is the fact that 92-year-old Zofia Posmysz will attend Tuesday's opening night. Posmysz, a survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp, wrote the novel and radio play "Passenger From Cabin Number 45," which was the source material for the Russian opera by Polish-Jewish-born composer Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996) and librettist Alexander Medvedev (1927-2010).

"The Passenger" begins on a trans-Atlantic journey with Liese (Daveda Karanas), the wife of German diplomat Walter (Brandon Jovanovich), as they head to his new posting in Brazil. But Liese's dark past as a concentration camp overseer gets revealed when she recognizes a Polish passenger aboard the ship who bears a striking resemblance to an Auschwitz inmate named Marta. "The Passenger" then flashes back and forth in time as Liese tells her husband of her role at Auschwitz and how it affected Marta, Marta's lover Tadeusz (Joshua Hopkins) and her fellow inmates Katya (Kelly Kaduce) and Bronka (Liuba Sokolova).

Though "The Passenger" was completed in 1968, Soviet suppression largely kept it under wraps -- so much so that the first fully staged production didn't appear until 2010 at the Bregenz Festival in Austria.

British-born Lyric Opera of Chicago general director Anthony Freud, then heading up Houston Grand Opera, saw that production by director David Pountney. "The Passenger" deeply moved Freud, whose Hungarian mother is a survivor of Auschwitz.

"If you can imagine that with my background, I question a lot of works of art inspired by the Holocaust. Many of them seem to be melodramatic or sentimental or simplistic in different ways," Freud said. "'The Passenger' seems to be one of the rare exceptions in that it deals with the subject of victim and perpetrator in a very mature, very sophisticated way."

Freud was able to schedule and import Pountney's production for its U.S. premiere in Houston in early 2014, as well as its Windy City debut after he assumed the general directorship of the Lyric in 2011. While "The Passenger" was sung in an English translation in Houston, the Lyric production features a new translation of the different languages -- Polish, Russian, German and Yiddish -- with English translations projected above the stage.

Freud also scheduled a series of "Memory and Reckoning" symposiums and events tied to the Chicago debut of "The Passenger." Most prominent is the Lyric's commission of a world premiere klezmer chamber opera called "The Property," which will debut this week at the University of Chicago and later play in Skokie at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts. Written by composer Wlad Marhulets and librettist Stephanie Fleischmann, "The Property" focuses on a Jewish Polish woman and her granddaughter, who return to Warsaw to regain family property lost during World War II.

"When you do a piece like 'The Passenger' with its relevance to all sorts of issues today, it's very important to generate discussion and discourse," said Freud. "One of the things I like about the piece so much is that I think you come away from a performance of 'The Passenger' focusing on the triumph of humanity against impossible odds. It's a piece that has great humanity and great beauty. Yes, there's violence in it that you would expect with an opera with that story, but ultimately it's about the irrepressible humanity of the inmates, and that's a powerful, very cathartic feeling."

AuthorBeth Stewart
Bienen alumna Amanda Majeski just finished her run as Countess Almaviva in “La Nozze di Figaro” at The Metropolitan Opera House in New York. After initially trying out sports as a child, Majeski found her calling as a singer.

Bienen alumna Amanda Majeski just finished her run as Countess Almaviva in “La Nozze di Figaro” at The Metropolitan Opera House in New York. After initially trying out sports as a child, Majeski found her calling as a singer.

When Amanda Majeski (Bienen ’06) first came to Northwestern, she thought she might pursue a career in music education. Flash forward to this past December, and Majeski has wrapped up a performance run at the Metropolitan Opera.

Majeski graduated from the Henry and Leigh Bienen School of Music with a degree in vocal performance. Since then, she has performed at an impressive list of opera venues, including the Lyric Opera of Chicago and Oper Frankfurt. While at the Met this season, she performed in “Le Nozze di Figaro” as the Countess Almaviva.

Originally, Majeski was due to make her Met debut in December as part of the second cast. When the performer who was cast for the first 10 performances canceled on the second day of rehearsal, Majeski had to sing. The next day, the original cast member withdrew from the performance altogether, and Majeski made her debut on opening night in September.

“It was pretty terrifying and thrilling,” Majeski said. “It totally changed my perspective on the whole thing. I was forced to grow right away as opposed to taking my time.”

Even though it wasn’t Majeski’s first time playing the Countess, she still experienced stage fright, which she worked on by running to relieve any anxiety. Some of her other pre-performance routines include going to Subway for a turkey sandwich and going to the theater early for a long warm-up by herself.

“I always make a point when I’m doing a warm-up by myself to get out of my warm-up room and get up in the theater before everyone else gets there,” Majeski said. “I like to feel the space and make it feel like my space.”

By the last performance, Majeski felt she had grown a lot as a performer and felt more confident. She also enjoyed playing the role as the Countess, a newlywed woman whose husband has lost interest in her.

“She’s a real woman with real problems,” Majeski said. “The thing I love about her is that she goes through the whole opera with hope.”

Before NU and the Met, Majeski didn’t grow up with an opera or a music background. Her parents played sports and signed her up for basketball, volleyball and even soccer. Her mom, however, wanted to expose her to various activities. Eventually, Majeski also tried piano, cello and dance lessons.

“I just naturally gravitated more toward the artistic stuff,” Majeski said.

Once at NU, she focused on figuring out what she wanted to pursue, taking full advantage of the close proximity of Lyric Opera of Chicago. Majeski said Bienen profs. Theresa Brancaccio and Richard Boldrey had lasting impacts on her.

Brancaccio said she first met Majeski when Majeski was a high school student during a summer program. She described her former student as a singer with a great attitude, work ethic and an ability to take direction and work consistently.

“It’s reassuring to know someone like her can become so successful with all of the right tools,” Brancaccio said. “She had this joyful commitment.”

Even though Majeski has left NU, she and Brancaccio still work together occasionally. Brancaccio also said while some opera singers are known for a “diva-attitude,” Majeski isn’t one of them.

Boldrey, who first met Majeski in her freshman year of college, said he initially thought her voice was average. When he started coaching her during her junior year, something in her voice changed. Boldrey also took note of her professional drive.

“That’s the main sense I got,” he said. “She was focused like nobody else.”

Once Majeski figured out a new piece and the technique, she could sing it like a “seasoned artist,” Boldrey said.

“She had that sense inside of how a piece of music should go, what the drama was about and she just did it,” he said.

This year, Majeski returns to Chicago to perform in “The Passenger” at Lyric Opera of Chicago, and later in the year she’s heading to Germany to perform at Oper Frankfurt. Majeski said this will be her fourth season at Frankfurt.

“I love the opera company,” Majeski said. “It’s always nice when you live kind of a gypsy lifestyle like I do, bouncing from place to place, it’s always nice to come back to somewhere because it’s familiar.”


AuthorBeth Stewart
Photo credit: Dario Acosta

Photo credit: Dario Acosta

This Gurnee native’s career has moved steadily forward, almost always on Chicago steppingstones — Northwestern University undergrad, the Lyric Opera’s Ryan Opera Center, a starring role in Chicago Opera Theater’s La Clemenza de Tito.

In 2010, Majeski grabbed some early limelight in the big hall when she substituted for a bronchitis-stricken Anne Schwanewilms in the Lyric’s The Marriage of Figaro.

“A lot of hard work and a lot of being in the right place at the right time,” is how the 29-year-old soprano explains her success.

Her diligence scored her lead roles at the Lyric in last season’s Clemenza and in Die Meistersinger in the 2012–13 season.

Now, even with résumé lines for Dresden, Frankfurt, Santa Fe, Philadelphia, and, next season, the Met, Majeski will stay connected to her hometown.

At the announcement of the 2014–15 season, after touting Majeski’s star turn in The Passenger, the Lyric’s general director hinted that she’d be back several more times in seasons to come.

You should be there, too.


AuthorBeth Stewart
Amanda Majeski (left) plays Vitellia and Joyce DiDonato plays Sesto in a dress rehearsal of Mozart's "La Clemenza di Tito" at the Civic Opera House. (Photo credit: Terrence Antonio James, Chicago Tribune)

Amanda Majeski (left) plays Vitellia and Joyce DiDonato plays Sesto in a dress rehearsal of Mozart's "La Clemenza di Tito" at the Civic Opera House. (Photo credit: Terrence Antonio James, Chicago Tribune)

Talk about an operatic career coming full circle.

It was five years ago that an unknown, Illinois-born soprano named Amanda Majeski seized the stage at Chicago Opera Theater with her fearlessly sung portrayal of the conniving noblewoman Vitellia, in that company's production of Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito.

The smart money said this bright young talent was going places.

Did she ever: Majeski is bringing down the house once again, and in the same Mozart role as before. But this time around, she's doing so at Lyric Opera.

Which is just as it should be, since it was her Lyric training that helped transform the Gurnee native, an alumna of the company's Ryan Opera Center professional development program, from a promising apprentice to a full-fledged international star.

Speaking on a recent afternoon backstage at the Civic Opera House, the 29-year-old Majeski exuded a youthful ebullience and directness that stood in marked contrast to the angry, murderous guile she projects in the David McVicar production of Mozart's opera seria.

"When I took on Vitellia for the first time, I didn't know what I was getting into," the singer said. "It's nice now to come back to the role with a little more experience and understanding. The music is crazy, challenging and dramatic, and the huge vocal compass really requires two different singers.

"Actually, I've always enjoyed those Mozart roles where the vocal line jumps around a lot; this really suits a character who lives on the emotional edge. To play her, I have to flip-flop between anger and vengefulness one moment, softness and phony tenderness the next."

Majeski, who's also sung the Mozart role in Madrid and Dresden, Germany, likes the fact that McVicar "pushes you to the extremes," dramatically speaking.

"David has such brilliant ideas that are always true to the music. He knows every word, every note, and his explanation of every character in the opera makes complete sense. With David, you feel that's the way it has to be — it can't be any other way."

Mozart has in fact been something of a talisman for Majeski at the Lyric. It was here in 2010 that she sang her first Countess in the composer's "Marriage of Figaro" at the tender age of 25, on 24 hours' notice.

Originally cast as one of the peasant girls, she learned the day before one of the performances that German soprano Anne Schwanewilms, who had been scheduled to appear as the Countess, had taken ill. Majeski, who had covered the role during rehearsals, was asked to take her place.

It was a once-in-a-lifetime Cinderella opportunity. Before she knew it, she was being fitted for a wig and costume, meeting with the assistant director and going over tempos with music director Andrew Davis.

"It felt like a complete whirlwind, a kind of out-of-body experience," Majeski recalled. "The next thing I knew, I was onstage, singing 'Porgi amor.' The adrenaline just took over! By the end of the show, I was crying and didn't even realize it. But it was one of the best times I think I've ever had onstage."

Majeski grew up under the wing of a mother who wanted her daughter "to try everything," she said. This meant that young Amanda took up the cello and piano, studied ballet and played sports, all at the same time.

She joined the choir at her high school in Mundelein because, in her view, choral singing "sort of went with dance. I was crushed when I didn't get cast in my high school musical, so I went to my mom and told her I needed to take voice lessons. That's how I found my singing teacher."

Acting on her teacher's suggestion that she go to a university where she could enroll in vocal performance courses along with music education, Majeski entered the program at Northwestern University's Bienen School of Music, where she studied with Theresa Brancaccio, Richard Boldrey and Alan Darling. In her sophomore year she discovered how much she loved solo singing, and it was then that she decided to pursue a career in opera.

Majeski still winces as she recalls her ill-starred audition for the Ryan Center in 2008.

"I was sick as a dog the day I was supposed to sing for Gianna (Rolandi, the program's now-retired director) and Andrew (Davis)," she said. "I had a horrible sore throat, along with ear and sinus infections. My mom, who's a nurse, did her best to prop me up going into the audition, feeding me pills and chamomile tea.

"I had no clue how well or badly I sang — I was just trying to get through the audition. I was shocked and relieved and so happy when they told me they would accept me into the program. I remember calling my mom and just sobbing."

Majeski's two years at the Ryan Center gave her a solid grounding in the technical, musical and artistic basics on which to build a successful career, she said.

When Dresden's Semperoper offered her a one-year contract — "a dream offer I couldn't pass up" — she left Chicago for Germany, where, in a relatively short time, she was assigned leading roles in challenging repertory ranging from Handel to Mozart to Richard Strauss. Looking back on the experience, she said it was the best kind of training she could have asked for. 

"They treated me wonderfully in Dresden. I got to sing a lot of performances and I didn't have time to get scared!"

Regardless of where her burgeoning career takes her, her abiding loyalty always will be to the Lyric, the Chicago-based singer said. Earlier this month, she celebrated the first anniversary of her wedding to bass-baritone Sam Handley, a fellow graduate of the Ryan Center.

"It's the best feeling in the world to come home and sing," Majeski said. "It's just so great to have family and friends and a life here in the city, in addition to performing in this incredible theater. It's truly the best of both worlds."


AuthorBeth Stewart
Gurnee native Amanda Majeski plays a scheming would-be empress in Lyric Opera of Chicago's  La Clemenza di Tito . (Photo courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago)

Gurnee native Amanda Majeski plays a scheming would-be empress in Lyric Opera of Chicago's La Clemenza di Tito. (Photo courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago)

Amanda Majeski once auditioned for Carmel High School's prestigious musical program, the Street Scene Student Show in Mundelein.


Gurnee native Amanda Majeski describes Vitellia, her character in the Lyric Opera of Chicago's production of Mozart's "La Clemenza di Tito," like this: "She's kind of a crazy character. She's kind of evil. There's a lot of anger and crazy gestures flying around the stage in raging moments. You must portray these physical moments while still singing beautifully." 

"My mom suggested I try some voice lessons," the Gurnee native said. "Try to train my voice or something for next year. We found a teacher, and she brought out these Italian songs, and it was very confusing. The more I studied with her, I liked singing more and more, and that encouraged me to think I could actually do this."

Yes, she can do this.

Through March 23, Majeski performs in the Lyric Opera of Chicago's production of Mozart's "La Clemenza di Tito." She plays Vitellia, the vengeful daughter of a deposed emperor and a woman with a plan to become the next empress.

"It's all so bizarre," Majeski said in a voice filled with unpretentious playfulness. "There is no one musical in my family. I grew up watching the Bulls play, watching the Bears and stuff. My parents loved athletics. My mom played basketball and volleyball. I thought I would go that route, or something like it."

Majeski began her showbiz career at 4 when she took lessons in ballet and tap. Later, during her high school years, Majeski gravitated toward chorus and singing.

She earned her bachelor's degree in vocal performance at Northwestern University, then picked up a graduate degree from Philadelphia's prestigious Curtis Institute of Music, a conservatory that selects its small student body on the basis of talent.

"It was amazing," Majeski said. "Because there are so few students, they pick the operas during the year based on who they have. They tailor everything to fit that group of students. I got tons of performance opportunities and real-life training. I wasn't sitting in a classroom the whole time."

Plus, the Curtis Institute of Music charges no tuition.

"Yeah, my parents were so thrilled," Majeski said.

So, how talented can Majeski be? Let's check what the critics say:

• "Her crystalline voice offers a powerful, almost jugendlich dramatische design, but also capable of warm, lyrical tones ..." -- Friedeon Rosen of Der Neue Merker.

• " ... a rich, resonant soprano." -- Laura Battle of the Financial Times.

• "American lyric soprano Amanda Majeski is rapidly garnering acclaim from audiences and critics alike for her portrayal of some of opera's most famous heroines in both the U.S. and Europe ... a genuine tour-de-force." --

Majeski admitted her evolution from Gurnee native to international opera star didn't happen overnight.

"It wasn't like I had an 'a-ha!' moment," she said. "As I studied the music, I just fell in love with it. The more I learned, the more I loved.

"As I was working on my voice, I really enjoyed that process of working on things, spending time in the practice room, improving, then getting out there and doing it. It all came gradually and I didn't want to let it go."

Majeski has traveled all over the world, singing in many languages. But she does have a favorite.

"I actually like German a lot," she said. "I spend a good amount of time singing in Germany. I feel like I understand that language the best. It's fun to sing. It has a lot of crazy consonants. You can really dig into the text and meaning behind it."

The soprano meets lots of people from all over the globe. So we had to ask her our standard question: What makes Chicagoans different from other people she meets?

"They're the warmest," she replied. "Everyone is so friendly and open and welcoming and happy! It sets Chicago apart."

In fact, Majeski met her husband, singer Sam Handley, while at the Lyric's Ryan Opera Center here in Chicago.

"I have a great job and get to see great parts of the world I would have never otherwise have seen," she said. "I love what I do."

But surely, there must be some drawbacks to being an opera star. Anything?

"Stage fright," she said. "Yeah, yeah, for sure. Managing the nerves. Doing everything to put them aside to focus on the music."

Any solutions?

"Yeah, exercise really helps," she said. "Doing a little exercise every day helps, especially on the day of the performance. Routine helps, too. I really like routine. Like a Jimmy John's sandwich. Having a routine of stuff to do really helps with stage fright."

"They treated me wonderfully in Dresden. I got to sing a lot of performances and I didn't have time to get scared!"

Regardless of where her burgeoning career takes her, her abiding loyalty always will be to the Lyric, the Chicago-based singer said. Earlier this month, she celebrated the first anniversary of her wedding to bass-baritone Sam Handley, a fellow graduate of the Ryan Center.

"It's the best feeling in the world to come home and sing," Majeski said. "It's just so great to have family and friends and a life here in the city, in addition to performing in this incredible theater. It's truly the best of both worlds."


AuthorBeth Stewart

January 22, 2014 | Kyle MacMillan | Chicago Sun-Times

Soprano Amanda Majeski performs a recital at Northwestern’s Lutkin Hall on Jan. 26. Photo credit: Dario Acosta

Soprano Amanda Majeski performs a recital at Northwestern’s Lutkin Hall on Jan. 26.
Photo credit: Dario Acosta

Amanda Majeski is having her moment.

While the 29-year-old soprano can’t be called a bona fide opera star quite yet, the Gurnee native is certainly racing in that direction, with recent and upcoming debuts at top companies worldwide, including the Opernhaus Zurich and Metropolitan Opera in New York.

“There are all these things about the business I would never have expected, but it’s a crazy ride, and it’s fun,” said Majeski, who lives just a few blocks from Chicago’s Civic Opera House with her husband, bass-baritone Sam Handley.

The singer’s focus right now is on her next big career milestone — her solo recital debut Feb. 7 in New York’s Weill Recital Hall, the most intimate of the three venues that make up the Carnegie Hall performance complex.

As a lead-up to that event, she will present the identical program Jan. 26 in Northwestern University’s Lutkin Hall in Evanston ­— her first performance at the school since she graduated in 2006.

It was at Northwestern that Majeski discovered that she possessed the vocal skills for a potential operatic career, so she gave up her initial plans to be a high-school music teacher and put all her energies toward that goal.

“I started working with [vocal teacher] Terry [Theresa] Brancaccio, and she encouraged me,” the singer said. “I went to see operas and I fell in love with the art form, and I was like, ‘Maybe, I could actually do this for a living.’”

After proceeding to earn a master’s degree at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, she took part in the Ryan Opera Center, the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s artist development program, in 2009-11.

A major career breakthrough came during her first year there, when she was asked in March 2010 to substitute at the last minute for a singer who fell ill. She gamely handled the major role of Countess Almaviva in two performances of “The Marriage of Figaro.”

“So, I got to have that Cinderella moment of, ‘You’re on,’” she said. “It’s crazy. It’s completely terrifying and an out-of-body experience, and only later can you actually process what really happened.”

Majeski considers Lyric Opera to be her home company, where she will sing the role of Vitellia in the company’s March production of “La Clemenza di Tito.”

The centerpiece of her recital program at Northwestern and Carnegie Hall with Chicago pianist Alan Darling, will be Alban Berg’s “Seven Early Songs” (1905-08). Other selections will include Robert Schumann’s “Frauenliebe und -leben” and four cabaret songs by Benjamin Britten.

“I wanted to find pieces that fit my voice well but were also about different types of love – crazy love, real love, silly love,” Majeski said.

The soprano is happy that her hometown fans will have a chance to hear the program before she and Darling take it to New York and that her alma mater was willing to supply the venue.

“We thought, ‘Wouldn’t this be a great idea if we could go back to our home and try it out before Carnegie?’” she said. “So, I was thrilled that Northwestern still wants to support me in that way. I think it is really special.”


AuthorBeth Stewart
Singers Sam Handley and Amanda Majeski in a Lyric Opera dressing room. (Photo credit: Rich Hein, Sun-Times)

Singers Sam Handley and Amanda Majeski in a Lyric Opera dressing room. (Photo credit: Rich Hein, Sun-Times)

Love that lasts forever. Love betrayed. Love worth dying over. Love worth living for. Love that starts as friendship. Love that kills. Love that lasts beyond death.

Night after night on the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s stage, cast and crew create musical tributes to love in its many forms, including the most twisted and torturous.

Behind the scenes at Lyric Opera, though, love is also in the air.

And it’s largely the monogamous, married kind.

Lyric Opera is home to at least 14 married or engaged couples or long-term life partners — chorus members married to other chorus members, musicians married to musicians, musicians married to office workers, singers married to singers, singers married to office workers, the prop manager married to the head of wardrobe.

While it isn’t unusual for true love to blossom at a workplace, those working in the opera house say the number of married couples behind the scenes at Lyric is unusually high, particularly for a line of work where star performers travel the world, singing in opera houses throughout the United States, Europe and Asia.

“We’re there with each other sometimes 16 hours a day,” said Charlie Reilly, the property master, who will be celebrating 18 years of marriage this year to Maureen Reilly, Lyric’s wardrobe director. “Sometimes our only interaction with other human beings is when we’re at the opera house. Work and home — I don’t know the difference.”

At Lyric, when it comes to love at work, it starts at the top. Sir Andrew Davis, Lyric Opera’s music director, is married to Gianna Rolandi, now director of the Ryan Opera Center after a two-decade career as an internationally renowned soprano.

It’s that Ryan Opera Center that seems to be the epicenter of several relationships. The competitive training program for up-and-coming opera stars joins young lovers who spend all their time together and are preparing to launch a career and, in some cases, a family.

Amanda Majeski, the soprano star of “Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg,” and Sam Handley, a bass playing the role of Hans Foltz in the production, are marrying on March 9. Majeski and Handley met in the Ryan program.

“We all are aware of how difficult a relationship with a singer can be,” she said. “We warned ourselves to never date a singer.”

But the heart wants what the heart wants, which in their case includes a partner supportive of highly nontraditional work schedules and an ability to look past the thick sideburns Handley grew for “Die Meistersinger.”

“We found someone who understands our hectic schedule and idiosyncrasies,” she said. The sideburns will be shaved before the wedding, she added.

Majeski said that at the core of their relationship, she and Handley understand that, as opera singers, “most of the time you live a gypsy lifestyle.” Both performing in the same show in the same city is unusual, they said.

“The rule is not to go two weeks without seeing each other,” Majeski said. The pair send text messages, talk via Skype and estimate they connect on about five different technological platforms when they perform in different cities.

Chicago, however, is considered their home base. The two live in the Loop.

“I don’t know how couples in our situation did it back in the ’80s or ’90s,” Majeski said.

Alejandra and Evan Boyer of Wicker Park are about to learn firsthand how to manage the distance. Alejandra Boyer is the manager of Lyric Unlimited, a program to bring opera to neighborhoods throughout the city. Evan Boyer, a bass, is finishing his time at the Ryan Opera Center. Following a March 30 performance, he will start traveling full-time.

“I think it’s OK to be nervous about it,” Alejandra Boyer said. “A lot of people do it. So we’re not alone. Everybody has their own style of how they manage.”

The two met in 2006 while both were music students at Northwestern University. Alejandra Boyer, a former opera singer, attends every opening her husband is in.

“I have had to sit through how many ‘Magic Flutes’ now?” she said, laughing. “Seven?”

Evan Boyer thinks Lyric and its married couples provide a support network for each other.

“There’s a strong sense of community,” he added.

Bedrocks of that community are Maureen and Charlie Reilly, who met offstage during a 1990 Lyric Opera production of “Alceste.”

“I had a cue on stage right and she had a quick change over there,” said Charlie Reilly, now Lyric’s prop master. “We would always talk.”

Maureen Reilly, Lyric’s wardrobe director, moved to Arizona but returned to Lyric to work a job in Chicago two years later. They had a first date at the Lincoln Park Zoo, though Maureen Reilly planned to return to Arizona.

“I was getting ready to go back and he said, ‘I don’t want you to go,’ ” she said.

The pair married in 1995, live in Palos Park and carpool to work together.

They occasionally work on projects, like a bed used in the current production of “Rigoletto.” Charlie Reilly built the bed and Maureen Reilly and her department created the bedspread.

“We’re not always on the same page,” he said. “She always tells me that I’m not wrong —her ideas are just better.”

Working at the opera company, Maureen Reilly said, isn’t just employment: “It’s a lifestyle; it’s not just a job.”


AuthorBeth Stewart
Photographed in New York by Dario Acosta / Makeup and hair by Affan Malik / Dress by Calvin Klein

Photographed in New York by Dario Acosta / Makeup and hair by Affan Malik / Dress by Calvin Klein

Amanda Majeski makes her Santa Fe Opera debut this season as the villainous Ottone — a courtier who lusts after a shepherdess-turned-queen —in Peter Sellars's production of Vivaldi's Griselda. Sellars has offered a contemporary twist to Griselda by moving the setting from ancient Thessaly to twenty-first-century northern New Mexico. Majeski, who worked with Sellars on his recent Hercules at Lyric Opera of Chicago, is enthusiastic about the change. "Peter takes Baroque music that people sometimes think is un-dramatic and brings tons of emotional and dramatic levels to it. And Ottone's music, which is real soprano music, is spectacular. It's my first pants-role ever, which will be a challenge in itself — sopranos usually sing girls!"

A graduate of Northwestern University and Lyric's Ryan Center, Majeski is a natural stage animal, an increasingly rare breed. Chicago-area opera fans first sat up and took notice of the Gurnee, Illinois native in 2009, when her fearlessly sung Vitellia dominated Christopher Alden's Chicago Opera Theater production of La Clemenza di Tito. Majeski stole the show completely, her astonishingly bold performance capped by a "Non più di fiori" that was staged as a full-blown mad scene. "It was the best. I was wearing a ring that had a hook with a sort of blade on it, so I could tear at a particular panel in my costume all throughout the aria until it was shredded. Then they'd replace the panel for the next show. I had a great time with that one. Mozart definitely keeps your voice a well-oiled machine. When you sing it, you feel like you are walking a tightrope. His music requires you to be really vigilant vocally and at the top of your game."
Majeski proved her mettle as a Mozartean at Lyric Opera in 2010, when she sang her first Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro, at the age of twenty-five — on twenty-four hours' notice. Originally cast as one of the Peasant Girls, Majeski recalls being told that Lyric's scheduled Countess was indisposed "at about three o'clock in the afternoon the day before the show — which is kind of a luxury in that sort of situation, I guess. All of a sudden, I was in a cab headed to Lyric to do the costume fitting, the wig fitting, meet with the assistant director. I met with [conductor] Sir Andrew [Davis] the day of the show — and the next thing I knew, I was onstage, singing 'Porgi amor.' Aaaaaaaah! The adrenaline just takes over and you go. By the end of the show, I was crying and didn't even realize it. It was wild, but it was one of the best times I have ever had onstage."


AuthorBeth Stewart
Majeski (center) performs as a peasant girl in the Lyric’s current production of The Marriage of Figaro, before her star turn Tuesday as the understudy in the role of the Countess Almaviva. 

Majeski (center) performs as a peasant girl in the Lyric’s current production of The Marriage of Figaro, before her star turn Tuesday as the understudy in the role of the Countess Almaviva. 

This past Tuesday, during the run of the Lyric Opera’s production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, the Northwestern graduate and Gurnee native Amanda Majeski stepped into one of the leading roles as an understudy and wowed the crowd.

Bronchitis stinks. It especially blows (or rather, affects your ability to blow) if you’re an opera singer. 

On Tuesday, the German soprano Anne Schwanewilms stepped down from her role as Countess Almaviva in the Lyric’s critically acclaimed revival of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro because of this pesky infection. So the spotlight turned to the understudy, Northwestern grad and first-year Ryan Opera Center member Amanda Majeski, and the nail biting commenced. 

Will she crash and burn? Or will a star be born? 

Judging by the audience’s rapturous applause, there was no debate: Majeski is a star. 

People might remember Majeski from her dynamic performance as Vitella in Chicago Opera Theater’s fantastic modern spin on a lesser-known Mozart opera, La Clemenza di Tito, but Figaro marked her Lyric debut. 

In Figaro’s earlier performances, she played a barely-noticed peasant girl, but on Tuesday, Majeski, 25, was instantly Cinderella-fied as the Countess Almaviva. 

The Gurnee native’s silvery voice tackled some of the opera’s most difficult passages with a dignified melancholy that matched the role. 

After her first aria, my friend poked me and whispered, “She sounds better than Susanna,” referring to the show’s star character, played by the much buzzed about Danielle de Niese. De Niese (even in electric boogaloo–blue eye shadow) is an absolute delight, but on this night, Majeski owned the stage. 

She was visibly moved by the audience’s reaction, and the feeling was mutual. It feels great when an underdog’s done good, right? 

You can catch Majeski as the Countess on Friday, March 12th before the local darling Nicole Cabell steps in to cover the role.


AuthorBeth Stewart