I could have been Janai Brugger.
In an interview she gave for Opera Box Score, I learned that she listened to recordings of Kathleen Battle, Jessye Norman, Kiri Te Kanawa, and the Three Tenors — the same singers who were also the most accessible to me growing up. They provided an entry into the world of opera, and had the artistic integrity to keep my attention once I got past the front door.
Janai Brugger did her undergrad at DePaul and studied with Elsa Charlston. This could have easily been my journey too. Charleston insisted on developing Brugger’s technique and tone quality through art song rather than arias. She remembers singing lieder like Gretchen am Spinnerade laying on the floor of Charlston’s studio to better understand her breath. I think many of us have laid on the floor in our voice lessons. Brugger went on to University of Michigan to study with the Shirley Verrett. This is where our paths diverge, though I share her fascination and admiration for the great mezzo who had “a way of grabbing you before she even opened her mouth.”
What followed is clearly a different trajectory — the elite Merola Program at SFO, the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program in LA, winning the Zarzuela, Audience, and !st Prizes at Operalia, and…oh yeah…winning the Met competition — but I still feel that I understand how she got to where she is. That she is one of the most celebrated young American artists is completely logical, and should come as no surprise to anyone. Her burgeoning career is a testament that an artist who comes from Chicago with a solid technique, gorgeous tone quality, and musical intelligence has a chance at success.
While I’m working on my technique and tone quality, I recommend Janai Brugger and Martin Katz’s recital presented by Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago — the standard bearer for art song recitals by marquee talents in Chicago. We have been lucky to experience Brugger recently in concert with Grant Park Music Festival as well as in two signature roles at Lyric Opera (Liù and Ilia). The last time I heard Brugger in a more intimate setting, singing Schumann lieder as a fellow of the Steans Music Institute, was in 2011. Brugger and Katz will perform songs by Strauss, Rachmaninov, Hoiby, Poulenc, and Previn. I expect them to sound ravishing in the favorable acoustic of DePaul School of Music’s sparkly new Gannon Concert Hall.