CLOSE-UP: ARLEEN AUGER

American songbird

DAVID LASKER December 8 1986
CLOSE-UP: ARLEEN AUGER

American songbird

DAVID LASKER December 8 1986

American songbird

CLOSE-UP: ARLEEN AUGER

The audience consisted of royalty, heads of state, government ministers—and about 300 million television viewers around the world. While Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson signed the register at London’s Westminster Abbey during their wedding last July, the clear voice of American soprano Arleen Auger filled the vaulted cathedral. Although popular in Europe, where more than 140 records have made her one of the most recorded classical singers, the 46-year-old soprano was until recently relatively unknown in North America, where her appearances have been infrequent. For Auger, the performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Exsultate, Jubilate, beamed to millions of North American viewers, represented a television-age homecoming. “I felt very much in touch with those around the world watching the wedding,” said Auger,

“particularly those in North America.”

Auger had never intended to become categorized as a European singer when she began her career 20 years ago. The daughter of a Protestant minister from Moose Jaw, Sask., she was born in Los Angeles and grew up in Long Beach, Calif., where her parents settled. But, she said, there were no opportunities for her in the United States. “I auditioned for anyone who would listen, but there were no offers,” she said. After studying voice, violin and piano, Auger won a California vocal contest in 1967. That victory entitled her to a trip to Austria to audition for the Vienna Volksoper, one of the country’s two main opera companies. There, her performance was so impressive that she was invited to audition for the more renowned Vienna State Opera the next day. The distinguished maestro Josef Krips immediately signed her to a two-year contract—in spite of the fact that she had almost

no stage experience and spoke no German. She went on to establish a recording and stage career that has earned her acclaim every step of the way, most recently for her performance at the royal wedding.

At her Vienna audition, Auger chose to sing arias from the Queen of the

Night role in Mozart’s Magic Flute. That was the part that the Vienna State Opera had to fill for a 1967 fall season production. Auger performed the role and continued to sing lead roles for both companies for the next four years. At the same time, her European connections were strengthened by her 1970 marriage to a German music historian. Then, in 1971 a fortunate invitation enhanced her rapidly growing reputation. German conductor Helmuth Rilling, famous for his interpretations of the works of Johann Sebastian Bach, needed a last-minute soprano substitute for the St. Matthew Passion ensemble he was taking to Japan. He asked Auger if she was interested. She said yes—and learned her part on the plane to Tokyo. Auger went on to record about 60 Bach

cantatas with Rilling over 10 years.

In 1974, when the Vienna State Opera offered her a full-time contract, Auger decided instead to embark on a solo career. Recalled Auger: “My colleagues thought I was crazy, because I would have had tenure.” But she says that one factor behind her decision was the backstage intrigue for which the Vienna State Opera is famous—during Auger’s tenure the house had four directors in seven years.

Another concern was the rigid German-language opera house system of vocal typecasting known as fach—or pigeonhole. Under that system, female performers are arbitrarily assigned to—and expected to sing in—one of 10 categories, including young dramatic soprano and high dramatic soprano.

Said Auger: “I enjoy singing a range of vocal roles. I wanted nothing to do with fach.” She added that the fach system repressed musical careers.

“Because American and Canadian singers are more flexible, they tend to be more ambitious and better trained than Europeans,” she told Maclean’s. “Americans are going over in droves and getting jobs, while German singers are unemployed.”

In addition to recording the Bach cantatas, Auger also went on to specialize in the music of Mozart and Joseph Haydn and sang the female lead in recordings of many early Mozart operas. One early recording—Mozart’s well-known The Abduction from the Seraglio in 1973—first brought her to the attention of Paul Robinson, music director of Toronto radio station CJRT FM and conductor of the CJRT orchestra. Said Robinson: “Her purity of sound is sensational. She is one of the extraordinary Mozart sopranos.”

In the United States, Auger’s infrequent performances garnered glowing reviews. But widespread acceptance eluded her. One problem, she said, was the lack of interest in her career exhibited by her former North American agent. In 1978, when Auger made her Metropolitan Opera debut in New York in Ludwig van Beethoven’s Fidelio with legendary conductor Karl Böhm, the agency representative did not even bother to call her—and did not recognize her during a chance encounter on

the street. In 1981—a year before her marriage ended in divorce—she switched to the International Management Group, whose roster boasts, among others, violinist Itzhak Perlman. Said Auger: “They are young, hungry and hardworking.”

As a result, Auger’s North American appearances increased by 1984. One performance last May at New York’s Merkin Hall moved Andrew Porter, The New Yorker magazine’s music critic, to “an ecstasy of delight.” During intermission, he wrote, “I telephoned to friends within reach urging them to drop whatever they were doing to hasten to Merkin Hall.” In Canada, Robinson arranged her debut performance last March with the CJRT orchestra in Toronto. Now, in the wake of her appearance at the royal wedding, Auger said that her name has become better-known in North America. £ And, she added, “I £ am receiving more 5 and more engageI ments of the kind I look for.” Among them: her debut last month in Georg Frideric Handel’s opera Alcina in Los Angeles and her first recital at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York next February.

Auger has excelled as a freelance soloist—partly because she is willing to take on almost any role. In fact, she says that her favorite role is “whatever I am singing at the moment.” Robinson, for one, says that he was impressed with her versatility. “She does not put on prima donna airs,” he said. “Whenever I asked her to try something different, she was always happy to co-operate.” In fact, he added that he would like to invite her back.

But Robinson may have to take his place in line. Auger is already scheduled to make appearances with the Toronto Symphony and the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa next February. She said that she especially enjoyed her Toronto appearance last March because of her Canadian connections and added that she is looking forward to her future Canadian appearances. Added Auger: “My father always speaks fondly of his Canadian heritage, and I would like to get to know Canada better.”

— DAVID LASKER in Toronto