Soprano approaches life with Wagnerian intensity

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Consider this: the first classical vocalist to inaugurate the Knight Concert Hall is also a tireless musicologist, a singer equally at home performing opera and Weimar cabaret songs, a marketer of her own jewelry line (“The Measha Collection”), and a committed follower of Bikram yoga—the type practiced in a 104-degree room. 

Measha Brueggergosman is clearly an artist as unique as her name—a non-hyphenated composite of the singer’s maiden “Gosman” and her Swiss husband’s “Bruegger,” which they share.

“When we married we took each others’ names,” says the Canadian soprano from Norway, where it is late night though one wouldn’t know it from her high-energy conversation. There was never a concern about getting all fourteen letters on a marquee? “Hey, I figure I should be appearing at halls where the marquee is big enough!” she laughs.

Brueggergosman possesses an outsize personality as big as her instrument, a rich and expansive soprano that also displays remarkable clarity and flexibility.

The singer will return to the Knight Concert Hall this weekend to perform Wagner’s Wesendonck Songs, opening the Cleveland Orchestra’s 2009 residency at the Adrienne Arsht Center.  She will be collaborating once again with music director Franz Welser-Most, who counts himself among her many admirers.

“Measha has an extraordinary voice,” says the Austrian conductor. “She made her debut with the Cleveland Orchestra in 2006 in a concert for eighty thousand people in downtown Cleveland and we have asked her to return every year since.”  More simply, as can be gleaned from her live performances and her debut recording on Deutsche Grammophon, she is, Welser-Most says, “a real stage animal!”

The soprano made two appearances at the Adrienne Arsht Center in its first season: performing Villa-Lobos with Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony and as a member of the vocal quartet for the Cleveland’s Beethoven performances.

The striking thing is that whatever she seems to be singing at any given time seems to suit her best. The Wesendonck cycle would appear to fit Brueggergosman’s voice like a perfectly tailored glove.

Wagner composed the cycle, as a respite from working on Die Walkure, the second opera of his Ring cycle. The five songs are set to poems by Mathilde Wesendonck, the wife of one of Wagner’s major patrons.

Great guy that he was, Wagner likely had an affair with the wife of his benefactor, an intense attraction, substantiated by the passion and Romantic sumptuousness of the settings, with embryonic versions of motifs later developed in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.

For Brueggergosman, performing the cycle is a labor of love, but music that she has a strange history with, since something bizarre happens whenever she performs it: from a shrill, unanswered ringing cell phone at Wigmore Hall in London to a complete power failure in Montreal. “I always await with bated breath what Wagner has in store for me.”

More practically for Brueggergosman, the Wesendonck Songs offer a chance of dipping a toe in the Rhine, so to speak. “It was a kind of a way of introducing myself to Wagner without having to learn an entire role. I mean I’m still too young to tackle a full Isolde or Elisabeth.

“So, it’s’ a wonderful way to take part in a Wagnernerian experience while keeping myself rooted in my first love, which is really orchestral song and chamber music.”

Yet, while much briefer than Isolde, Wagner’s cycle has its challenges. The five poems are cast in chromatic, harmonically complex settings that make substantial technical and interpretive demands on the soloist.

“The orchestration and the composition are so grand that everything is kind of under a microscope,” she says.  “He demands more of a singer and I think rightfully so.

“With Wagner, there’s such endurance required that singers make the mistake that getting through it is enough. It isn’t. You can still hear the words and take us somewhere we’ve never been before.”

While she’s “not against” tackling the challenge of someday singing a full Isolde—the Mount Everest of roles for a dramatic soprano—Brueggergosman is not in any hurry.  “A lot of other roles would have to happen first. But I won’t fight it when it naturally presents itself.”

The singer grew up in New Brunswick, in a very musical family, though she is the only professional musician.  “My dad and my brother are pastors so there was never a shortage of music in our house.” Her father worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Company, which was the only station listened to at home.

At that time, programming was primarily classical, so she was inundated with opera and great music as a child, somewhat involuntarily.  “I always said that it’s more a question of nurture than nature. I was exposed to Glenn Gould and Saturday afternoon at the opera and that kind of programming.”


 On her debut CD, Surprise, Brueggergosman showed her bona fides very well in sassy, personality-plus performances of cabaret songs by Satie, William Bolcom and Schoenberg. “I definitely like the sassy side of music!” she says, though the conversation returns to Wagner, like one of the composer’s reiterated leitmotives.

“There’s sassiness in the Wesendonck Songs too, believe it or not. For instance in Schmerzen [Sorrows], she’s effectively saying, ‘Oh, how can I be so upset about the world? Maybe because the world is so great and maybe because the pain is so great—but maybe it’s really joy? How thankful then am I that nature has given me such pain.’

 “It’s a bit cheeky while at the same time, Wagner flicks a switch and is suddenly philosophical. There’s’ a lot of meandering and humor and depth before you can get to these ultimately, very philosophical questions. And without that color and that variety and that less-than-arrow-straight line, it would all be so monochromatic and uninteresting.”

Clearly Brueggergosman is not one who just shows up and sings, but takes her research seriously, as was clear in her preparation for a performance of Janacek’s Glagolitic Mass with Tilson Thomas in London last year.

 “I went to the most remote part of the Czech Republic to find a retired priest who actually spoke Glagolitic Czech and, I can tell you, he was not that easy to find. I flew to Prague and then had to drive three hours southeast., He spoke no English and I just brought the score and asked him to pronounce the Czech and I repeated it after him.”

 “Michael describes it as ‘a mass for people who have recently been converted but haven’t changed the music,” she says, laughing. “The piece is done so rarely, it’s always nice to know that what you’re doing is the right thing.”

Recitals and concert appearances such as this weekend’s Wagner performances with the Cleveland Orchestra arranged are the “bread and butter” of her career, which is “sprinkled” with occasional opera appearances. “I like to split it evenly so I can have the thrill of the orchestra, the intimacy of chamber music and the partnership of recitals.”

The opera stage is taking up an increasing amount of her time including such works as Elektra, Idomeneo, Sister Rose in Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking and Elisabetta in Verdi’s Don Carlo, both of which she will sing for the first time in Houston. “We’re trying to pick the roles strategically as they fit the voice and where it’s growing.”

Whether it is her proud patriotism—she wears only Canadian jewelers–charity work in Africa or dedication to the intensely demanding Bikram school of yoga, Measha Brueggergosman is a woman who approaches her life with the same enthusiasm and holistic commitment she brings to her art.

 “Part of the thing that makes performing such fun is doing the research and uncovering these things,” says the singer. “Whether it informs how you ultimately sing the piece is irrelevant.”

 “Life is so short, and I’m for gathering as much knowledge as you possibly can.  Even if it’s just for the fun of it!”

Measha Brueggergosman performs Wagner’s Wesendonck Songs with Franz Welser-Most and the Cleveland Orchestra 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Adrienne Arsht Center’s Knight Concert Hall. The program also includes Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 Leningrad. 305-949-6722;

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Wed Jan 28, 2009
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