Jacquelyn Wagner certainly looks the part — tall, broad-shouldered, ash-blond hair and high cheekbones. Her handshake makes a weak man wince in pain.
She is a classic German soprano, gifted with a voice and personality that lends itself to that straightforward and direct repertoire. She speaks the language and for seven years has lived in Berlin. Sehr schön.
Wagner is in the Twin Cities to sing the title role in Richard Strauss’ “Arabella,” which opens Saturday in a Minnesota Opera production at the Ordway Center. It is her return to Minnesota after a much-lauded turn as Fiordiligi in 2011’s “Cosi Fan Tutte.”
So lovely was that performance that Minnesota Opera bosses asked if Wagner would ever be interested in Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier.” She said she would need more time and experience to tackle the role of the Marschallin, but wondered if she could entice artistic director Dale Johnson with “Arabella.” She sang an aria for Johnson, and that was that.
“Arabella” was the sixth and final collaboration between Strauss and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal. It was first performed in Dresden in 1933, and did not have its New York premiere at the Met until 1955. It’s a classic romantic comedy: A beautiful Viennese woman must secure a rich husband to help her family avoid ruin. A misunderstanding here, a gender charade there and everything ends happily. Her character is built on pretensions and sharp wits, pragmatic about the needs of her family.
“She is very suave, appeasing,” Wagner said. “Strauss gives you the colors and emotions in the music. The music tells you how to sing it.”
“Arabella” is performed more often in Europe, where Wagner is based (“here, you have more Puccini and Verdi,” she said). Coincidentally, the Metropolitan Opera in New York is building a new production for next spring with Swedish soprano Malin Byström.
“Strauss captures Vienna very well,” Wagner said.
Born in Michigan
For all her affinity for things German, Wagner grew up north of Detroit. Her father was a longtime French horn player with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. He now teaches at Michigan State University. After undergraduate work at Oakland University near Auburn Hills, Mich., she studied at Manhattan School of Music. It was at Oakland that a key mentor steered her toward the German repertoire.
“She encouraged me to get a Fulbright scholarship and study in German because she told me, ‘Your voice has the Germanic sound,’ ” Wagner said. That is, strong, direct and without a lot of ornamentation.
Wagner might have had the sound, but she needed to find the language. She had studied German in college and then did a six-week intensive course when she won the Fulbright. The real learning came when she spent three months in Cologne with a woman who spoke only German in her home.
“I can speak very well, but I still make so many grammatical errors,” she said. “It’s no ‘hochdeutsche [High German].’ We’ll see if I can ever get to that point.”
Since 2006, she has lived in Berlin, where she met her husband, a trumpet player from Spain (“I also speak Spanish because of him”). He recently gave up his position in Berlin to become a conductor, which means he can travel with her to engagements such as a two-month stint last year doing “The Marriage of Figaro” in Vienna.
“Have you ever been to Vienna?” she asks. “Oh, I love it. Beautiful buildings, history, atmosphere. It’s really magical. They play waltzes in the public bathrooms on the way to the subways.”
Living where the work is
Wagner likes living in Berlin, which she says has an expansive, international feel, but greater seriousness than Vienna. History sits heavily on Berlin’s shoulders. There are constant reminders of the darkness than once enveloped the nation, and only in the past decade or so has a truly patriotic pride re-emerged from the shadows. Wagner credits Germany’s success in World Cup soccer and the sense that the nation’s economic and financial muscle is largely “saving Europe.” Her reasons for living there are pragmatic.
“That’s where the work is for me,” she said. “And I married someone from Berlin.”
This trip to Minnesota, however, has allowed her a chance to reconnect with her American roots. She’ll be home for Thanksgiving for the first time since 2006 and in December, she makes her Carnegie Hall debut in a concert version of Strauss’ “Feuersnot.” Being in New York will allow her to do some auditions (“I’m not here that often”).
And if “Arabella” goes well at the Ordway, you might anticipate seeing Wagner back again.
“This is a place I could live in very easily,” she said, suggesting the Twin Cities has almost a European feel compared with her hometown Detroit. “I’m very happy to be in Minneapolis.”