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."