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.