AT HOME IN THE RANGE: CON­TRALTO AVERY AMEREAU

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“THE LOW PARTS OF MY VOICE HAVE AL­WAYS FELT THE EAS­I­EST, AND I COULD FIND THE MOST BEAUTY IN THEM. IT’S NOT OF­TEN THAT YOU HEAR SOME­BODY WITH SUCH EASE IN THE LOWER PART OF THEIR VOICE.”

Avery Amereau was in the midst of an im­por­tant day in New York City when Pasatiempo spoke with her by phone in early De­cem­ber. She was look­ing for­ward to her up­com­ing solo ap­pear­ances with the Santa Fe Pro Mu­sica Baroque En­sem­ble — but a more im­me­di­ate con­cern was her per­for­mance that evening at the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera, where she made her house de­but last month as the Solo Madri­gal­ist in Puc­cini’s Manon

Lescaut. It was her first pro­fes­sional opera pro­duc­tion. In a few hours she would walk on­stage to sing that role for the sev­enth and last time this sea­son, hav­ing added to her port­fo­lio of glow­ing re­views and gain­ing more na­tional at­ten­tion than one would ex­pect from a twenty-five-year-old singer who is still a stu­dent at the Juil­liard School.

Even that, how­ever, was not the most mo­men­tous mat­ter that Wed­nes­day. “I just talked to my man­ager today,” she said, “and we’ve de­cided to re­brand as a con­tralto. I’ve al­ways known that’s what I am. The low parts of my voice have al­ways felt the eas­i­est, and I could find the most beauty in them. It’s not of­ten that you hear some­body with such ease in the lower part of their voice. I think this color that peo­ple are hear­ing is that I’m an alto. Last night, I did a Mes­siah at 415” — i.e., Baroque pitch of A=415 Hz, a half-tone lower than mod­ern pitch of A=440 Hz — “so it meant go­ing down to a low F-sharp. It said on the pro­gram I was a mezzo-so­prano, and it just felt like a lie.”

To a clas­si­cal singer, com­mit­ting to a vo­cal cat­e­gory is an im­por­tant de­ci­sion. Whether a fe­male vo­cal­ist is a so­prano, a mezzo-so­prano, or a con­tralto is a mat­ter of where her range falls on the spec­trum of pitch and what notes within her range rep­re­sent (as Amereau put it) “where the beauty blos­soms.” But more sub­jec­tive is­sues also en­ter the equa­tion. “I was ad­vised it might put me in a box, that the term was an­ti­quated, that be­ing iden­ti­fied as a con­tralto might deny me some op­por­tu­ni­ties. You get hired to sing Erda” — the deep-voiced Earth Mother in Wag­ner’s Der Ring des Ni­belun­gen. “Even roles like Olga [in Tchaikovsky’s Eu­gene One­gin], Lu­cre­tia [in Brit­ten’s The Rape of Lu­cre­tia], and Rosina [in Rossini’s The Bar­ber of Seville] — these were all writ­ten for con­tral­tos, but they got taken over by mezzo-so­pra­nos and so­pra­nos. So peo­ple wouldn’t au­to­mat­i­cally con­sider me for those. But I’m still singing mezzo-so­prano roles. In re­brand­ing as a con­tralto, I didn’t change my voice at all.”

The vo­cal scene is never heav­ily pop­u­lated by con­tral­tos. The Mu­si­cal Amer­ica In­ter­na­tional Di­rec­tory of the Per­form­ing Arts, the go-to cat­a­log of pro­fes­sional clas­si­cal mu­si­cians avail­able for hire world­wide, may list about 10 con­tral­tos in a given year, com­pared to more than 500 mezzo-so­pra­nos and 1,000 so­pra­nos. Top con­tral­tos in re­cent years have in­cluded Ewa Po­dles´ (who is near­ing the end of her per­form­ing ca­reer), Nathalie Stutz­mann (who now di­vides her time between singing and con­duct­ing), Anna Lars­son, and Marie-Ni­cole Lemieux. Younger singers in the con­tralto ranks in­clude Mered­ith Ar­wady and Claudia Huckle. Men­tion of the con­tralto voice nonethe­less tends to sum­mon up names of ear­lier eras, leg­endary ones like Ernes­tine Schu­mann-Heink, Si­grid One­gin, Kath­leen Fer­rier, Mar­ian An­der­son, and Dame Clara Butt, of whose trom­bone-like voice Sir Thomas Beecham pur­port­edly re­marked, “On a clear day, you could have heard her across the English Chan­nel.”

“The con­tralto voice,” Amereau ob­served, “re­sponds to mu­sic where the great­est emo­tional con­tent is in the lower range. It was said of Kath­leen Fer­rier that hers was the voice Mahler dreamed about but never heard.” She has found that her voice is very much at home in sa­cred mu­sic, and es­pe­cially in Baroque reper­toire. In the course of her stud­ies at Juil­liard she has worked with a num­ber of Baroque spe­cial­ists who have vis­ited the school, in­clud­ing con­duc­tors Masaaki Suzuki and Wil­liam Christie. She de­scribes the for­mer as “so clas­sic” and the lat­ter as “wild — which is great, be­cause work­ing with dif­fer­ent ap­proaches you get the ex­tremes of what you could do.” When she ap­pears in Santa Fe, she will sing an ex­tended and am­bi­tious Psalm set­ting by Vi­valdi,

Nisi Domi­nus (RV 608) ap­par­ently dat­ing from early in that com­poser’s ca­reer. “I love singing Bach and Han­del,” she said, “but this is my first Vi­valdi. Early mu­sic is very healthy for the voice, and I es­pe­cially love singing at A=415, which casts the mu­sic lower. That re­ally suits my voice.” ◀

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