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A Chat With Soprano Meagan Miller

By Albert Imperato
27 May 2011

Meagan Miller
photo by Karen Farber

From July 29-August 7, Bard SummerScape presents the first fully-staged New York production of Strauss' Die Liebe der Danae. Soprano Meagan Miller stars in the opera. In this conversation, Miller discusses her career and upcoming projects.


**

Reviving an important but rarely performed opera is one of the ways the Bard SummerScape festival paints a nuanced portrait of the past, and this year’s exploration of “Sibelius and His World” continues that tradition. This year, Bard presents the first fully-staged New York production of Die Liebe der Danae (The Love of Danae, 1940), by Sibelius’s contemporary Richard Strauss.

The production, starring soprano Meagan Miller, a grand finals winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, will be directed by dynamic young opera and theater director Kevin Newbury, and both are making their SummerScape debuts; world-renowned architect Rafael Viñoly has designed the sets, returning to Bard for the first time since his acclaimed creations for SummerScape’s 2004 production of Shostakovich’s The Nose.

The opera’s five performances (July 29 & 31; August 3, 5, & 7) feature the festival’s resident American Symphony Orchestra and music director Leon Botstein, whose 2001 Telarc recording of the work won high praise. Born in Delaware and now living in New Jersey, Meagan Miller recently scored another triumph in Vienna (a town she now fondly thinks of as a second home), this time with her role debut as Nyssia, in Zemlinsky’s Der König Kandaules at the Volksoper. Der Standard observed, “Meagan Miller offered vocal luxury in golden profusion," while the Neue Merker noted, “[She was] fantastic as the so-beautiful-coveted-by-two-men Nyssia… [Miller] can add to her Ariadne success another ‘crown jewel’. The jugendlich-dramatik role also requires the golden cantilena of the high-Strauss sopranos and Meagan Miller can really show this off." This fall, Miller achieves another important milestone in her burgeoning international career when she makes her house debut at the Vienna State Opera as Richard Strauss’s Daphne (Dec 10 – 19).

In a recent Skype conversation, Miller talked about her passion for late Romantic music and the still under-appreciated beauties of Die Liebe der Danae.

A conversation with Meagan Miller

Q: Before we talk about Die Liebe der Danae, and Strauss’s music in general, can you tell us a few basic biographical facts about yourself and how you got started on your career?

MM: Well, I was born in Wilmington, Delaware, and started studying to be a singer at age 15. I attended Washington and Lee University for two years before heading to Juilliard for my bachelor’s, followed by the Juilliard Opera Center. I did residencies with the Marilyn Horne Foundation, Wolf Trap Opera, the Merola Program, Ravinia’s Steans Institute and Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. Repertoire-wise, I started singing dramatic coloratura and Mozart heroines, and sang a lot of recitals plus world premieres of art-song cycles. I won the Met competition singing one of Constanze’s arias as well as an aria from Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah.

Q: Did you think at that time that Strauss’s music would come to loom large in your career?

MM: I’ve always known my voice would grow into it, and I have always sung Lieder by Strauss, but when you start singing professionally in your early twenties you’re still too young for Strauss title roles. But things started to change in the late 2000s, and winning the Wagner prize and Vienna Prize from the George London Foundation led to my Ariadne in Vienna. Those performances marked my European opera debut and very much ushered me into my current “fach.” So while I’ve been singing at a high level for a while, this late-Romantic German fach is relatively new for me, and has brought me to Munich, Palermo, Amsterdam, Leipzig, and Hamburg in the past season alone!

Q: Singing major Richard Strauss roles in Vienna must surely present some pressure for a young singer!

MM: In fact, there’s more Strauss on the horizon for me there: I’m making my debut at the Vienna State Opera in the fall as Daphne. But I try not to let the pressure get to me. A lot of things have happened quickly and I have just decided not to be afraid. I love Strauss and have studied his music for a long time. I think it brings out the best parts of my voice and musicality. If other people agree, I’m not arguing! The Vienna Philharmonic is tuned almost a half step higher, and Daphne sits high already, so with my dramatic coloratura background, maybe I’m the perfect one to do it! Danae is not dissimilar: there are lots of high notes to sing! But Danae must have a very personal and warm middle register for the incredible last scene with Jupiter, so it really combines all the stuff I like to do.

Q: Tell us a bit more about your current repertoire focus.

MM: Since 2009 I have had a lot of Wagner in my schedule too. I’m doing Zemlinsky now – his music is fantastic – and Mahler concert repertoire, and of course a lot of Strauss, including the gorgeous Four Last Songs. All this music is based on rich harmony! I love Mozart and Verdi too, but I have a special affinity for late-Romantic German music. It helps that I have been a fluent German speaker for a number of years!

Q: Scholars and critics seem to be a bit divided about Danae, which Strauss finished writing during the Second World War but didn’t get performed until 1952. It’s his second-to-last opera, and while some argue about its weaknesses, others, including Leon Botstein, consider it a neglected masterpiece.

MM: I think it’s a really strong piece. The third act in particular truly blows me away. In the big, great scene with the chorus when Midas arrives, and elsewhere throughout the opera, I think he did different things that we don’t always hear in his other pieces.

Q: So why do you think it’s still so rarely performed?

MM: Well it’s not because of the music! Perhaps the opera’s neglect has more to do with the difficulty in casting the three leading roles: Danae, Jupiter and Midas. Danae is a long and tricky part in that it starts very high and ends low – it requires a soprano voice with size, subtlety, flexibility and range. Jupiter is a tough baritone role, written for Hans Hotter – it’s more dramatic than a role like Mandryka (in Arabella which sits high, too), but it’s longer and has more big climactic moments. And then there’s the tenor Midas – another long, high, dramatic role to cast. We also cannot forget that the opera’s debut was so delayed: by that time, new music was headed in another direction.

Q: Do you have any particular inspirations that inform your approach to singing Strauss’s music?

MM: I really love to be aware of the tradition of a piece, and I listen to every recording (especially historical recordings) out there to find out what people already have in their ears. I don’t listen to imitate, but instead to get a sense of where people went with the piece already. After that I spend a lot of hours at my own piano, playing chords slowly and sinking my character’s melodies into those sounds; then I free associate emotions, ideas, words – anything that comes up in my imagination. Once I get strong enough associations and feel moved or awakened by the music and words in combination, then it all comes together: memorization, phrasing, all of it. Strauss’s melodies and text setting can seem quirky at first, but then it all becomes self-evident the longer I study a score.

Q: It seems like Vienna is a place that is figuring very prominently in your career right now.

MM: I feel really comfortable in Vienna and have lots of friends here now. It feels like my second home. The public is ready to embrace singers here, treating them almost like a family member, which is very touching. Art is so important here. You have a sense that even the average person on the street has heard many of today’s most famous singers live, and that they know the basic opera repertoire even if they don’t attend regularly. And of course it’s a gorgeous city!

Q: Will you be doing much opera in the States in 2011-12?

MM: I am singing a recital with Marcello Giordani presented by the George London Foundation at New York City’s Morgan Library. Operatically speaking, next season I’m mostly in Europe, but in the fall of 2012 I’ll make my debut at Washington National Opera. Next season is pretty exciting though: it includes not just the debut in Vienna, but also debuts at the Edinburgh Festival, Academy of St. Cecilia in Rome, and Deutsche Oper Berlin – and several role debuts!

Q: Have you been to Bard before?

MM: I have never been, but I have visited the Hudson Valley a number of times and it’s very beautiful. I’m really looking forward to doing my first Danae there!

Hear Meagan Miller sing “Es gibt ein Reich” from Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos here:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5cf6IUOci7c

For additional information about Meagan Miller visit:
http://meaganmillersoprano.com/index.htm

For tickets and further information on all SummerScape events, call the Fisher Center box office at 845-758-7900 or visit www.fishercenter.bard.edu.





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