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.
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.”
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.”
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.”