World-renowned opera soprano Christine Brewer was swimming at the YMCA when an important package arrived. Her husband, Ross, noticed Joe Edwards had sent it, and assumed good news was inside — that she had made the cut for induction into the St. Louis Walk of Fame.
He acted quickly, knowing Christine would be home in an hour. He called some of their best friends in Lebanon to come over.
“He asked them to stop by the house so that I could be surrounded by good friends when I read the news. I did ask when I walked in if there was some sort of intervention going on!” Christine said. “It was very exciting. I had been nominated a few times, but this year I was chosen.”
The ceremony will take place at 11:30 a.m Wednesday, April 29, at her star address, 6134 Delmar in University City’s Loop district. The public is invited to the ceremony, which will last about 15 minutes. A 4-piece ragtime band will play beforehand.
Christine is a Grammy-winning soprano who has performed with the top symphony orchestras and opera companies around the globe, but she is not a prima donna. This down-to-earth artist and her gregarious husband, a retired social studies teacher, have never met a stranger.
After a master class this winter at McKendree University, they chatted warmly with students, faculty and old friends — showing grandbaby photos, too.
Celebrated for her interpretations of Wagner and Strauss, Christine was named one of the 20 greatest sopranos of the 20th century by BBC Music Magazine in 2007. Experts cite her warm timbre and vibrant personality, and she has distinguished herself because of her range, golden tone, boundless power, control and emotional honesty.
“I have always loved making music. As a singer, I get to be a storyteller. That’s maybe the most fun part of singing,” she said. “Of course, there is usually some of me in all the roles I sing, but I do love acting. I get to tell a story with my singing.”
Christine is limited in the amount of solo work she can do in the St. Louis area because of exclusivity clauses in contracts. She sings with the St. Louis Symphony every season. Sometimes, she performs with Opera Theatre of St. Louis, and last summer she appeared in “Dialogue of the Carmelites.” She has sung with the Bach Society and the Gateway Men’s Chorus as well.
“If I can help with a charity by donating some of my time, I try to do what I can,” she said. “I love what I do and I try not to complain about delayed or cancelled flights, or problems with getting visas or work permits. These are headaches, for sure, but there are so many other problems that plague folks in their everyday lives. My problems seem miniscule by comparison.”
Christine will be the keynote speaker for the 2015 Young Women of Achievement Dinner, which will honor young women at Belleville high schools who have excelled in community service, academics and the arts, on April 13.
Home is only a few blocks from her alma mater, McKendree University, which means a great deal to her. Christine and Ross met as students and were married in Bothwell Chapel. They settled in Lebanon when Ross was teaching in Freeburg.
“And I just really need to live near an airport. ... I love being able to come home to a community where I know my neighbors, and I can relax with friends and family,” she said.
The pair are empty nesters, as daughter Elisabeth is on her own and works in St. Louis. Christine beams when discussing her only child, but respects her daughter’s privacy by not divulging too much information.
Teaching young singers
When the McKendree music department asks her to teach a vocal master class, Christine obliges.
Earlier this semester, she met with three students — senior twin sisters Dawn Schmid, a music theatre major, and Megan Schmid, a music education major, of Columbia, and freshman vocal performance major Haleigh Stevenson, of Troy, on the Hettenhausen Center for the Arts stage. They sang, then she gave them feedback.
She advised students on breathing, phrasing, and stamina. Sprinkling tips with anecdotes, she also made it personable, talking about her thick Southern Illinois accent when she arrived here for college. She encouraged them to take risks.
“It’s like being an athlete. You have to know how to play the game,” she said.
Christine told them to be patient, too. She matured into a more dramatic soprano in her late 20s, early 30s.
As for interpretation: “You want the words to be very clear to the audience, and the emotion Know your story, or you won’t be able to tell it.”
And take good care of your vocal cords. “They are the only cords you are going to get.”
And perhaps most important of all: “Just be prepared to have fun.” She stressed preparation was key to taming nerves.
The experience was “wonderful,” said Dawn. “I learned so much. I was nervous, of course, but she was so friendly and down to earth that it was impossible to feel nervous once the class began. ... It was great to hear that she tries weird things and goes back and forth on deciding how to sing and characterize certain lines and phrases, just like I do. I am so happy that I had this opportunity before I graduated. Listening to her speak was so helpful on its own and the one-on-one part was even more helpful.”
Megan concurred. “I liked how she said that if we have not had certain life experiences related to our songs that we could just pretend. I had never thought of it that way.”
Christine also conducts master classes for Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and Lindenwood University. At Webster University, she has been a visiting professor for several years, usually giving a lecture in the fall, or a panel discussion, and then a master class in the spring. However, this semester, she is in residency, which means she gives four private lessons a day, a lecture, and several master classes.
Music from the heart
Music was a big part of Christine’s life growing up. She not only sang but played the violin.
“It brought me so much joy. I used to rehearse duets by playing one part and singing the other part.”
Her high school chorus teacher, Meta Cozby, was influential, as was her violin teacher, Judy Stack, during elementary and junior high school.
“Both women saw and heard something in my singing and my violin-playing that made them challenge me.”
She had good role models at home, too.
“My mom, Deloris Craig Burchyett, had a strong soprano voice, and anyone who ever heard her sing, remembered it. My mom’s family all sang beautifully. Her sisters and brothers all sang, played guitars, harmonicas,” she said.
Her mother died nearly 20 years ago, but her parents were able to attend Christine’s debut at both the New York City Opera and the Royal Opera at Covent Garden in London.
“My brothers and I used to sing together at church when we were kids, and we all sang in choir in high school. They’ve all been very supportive of me through the years,” she said.
Her brothers were also present at her Met debut, and have traveled to Santa Fe, Chicago, St. Louis and Denver to hear her sing. Youngest brother Jeff Burchyett was in Scotland last year when she sang at the St. Magnus Festival in the Orkney Islands.
Christine saw her first opera, Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” when she was a freshman at McKendree. Professor Glenn Freiner took some music students to Southern Illinois University at Carbondale to see it.
“I was 17 years old. I had never seen anything like it, and I was hooked!” Brewer said.
Glenn was her first voice teacher, and he started helping shape her technique. “I had such a solid idea about singing from my mom, and he just took that and ran with it, encouraging and challenging me,” she said.
The world stage
A singing career became a reality when she began in the chorus of the Opera Theatre of St. Louis and was being paid as a section leader in the St. Louis Symphony Chorus. She was also hired as the soprano soloist for the choir of St. Michael and St. George Episcopal Church in St. Louis.
At age 33, she won the Metropolitan Opera Auditions and the Richard Tucker Foundation Award in 1989. Managers approached her.
“Once I got management, I knew it was going to be a career,” she said.
As a first-time nominee, she won a Grammy Award for Best Classical Album and Best Choral Album, in 2006, for “Songs of Innocence and Experience,” based on the William Blake poems and scored by Bill Bolcom, a Michigan University professor.
Christine has sung at premier concert halls around the world. Her Metropolitan Opera debut was the title role in Richard Strauss’ opera “Ariadne auf Naxos” in 2003. To celebrate this august achievement, members of the St. Louis Symphony Chorus and Opera Theatre of St. Louis were on hand, as were friends, family, McKendree alumni and folks from the First United Methodist Church of Lebanon.
“Ross and I rented a restaurant near Lincoln Center and had a party for about 100 or so of our friends who were at the second performance, and my dear friend Tom Watson, wig master and head of makeup at the Met and Opera Theatre of St. Louis, threw a party at his apartment the night of the actual debut. I think there must have been another 100 folks there that night. I am so blessed with friends and family who have been there along the way encouraging me,” she said.
Christine plans to attend the 40th anniversary gala of the Opera Theatre of St. Louis May 5. In June, she will be in Sydney, Australia, singing Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde.” Then, she will mark her 99th performance singing Strauss’ “Four Last Songs” in Adelaide.
She returns to the Edinburgh International Festival this summer, performing a recital with British pianist Roger Vignoles. In October and November, she will tour with concert organist Paul Jacobs. “We have a recording coming out and the recital tour will promote it. We will make a stop in St. Louis at the Cathedral on Lindell on Oct.14.
“I truly believe music is the universal language,” she said “I love to tell children that no matter what country I’m in, we can all open our scores, and even if we don’t speak the same language, we can play and sing the music that’s on the page. That connects us as humans in a very deep way.”