Nancy Gustafson outside the Vienna State Opera
Photos by Terry Linke
Nancy Gustafson with Boje Skovhus in The Merry Widow
"It shortens my life every time I do it," says Nancy
Gustafson (GMu80) after stepping off the treadmill in her Vienna penthouse
The lyric soprano is referring not to her pulse-raising workout but to
Die Lustige Witwe The Merry Widow in which
she will star the next evening at the venerable Vienna State Opera, singing
and speaking auf Deutsch, of course.
"The problem is speaking the dialogue like a Viennese," says the Evanston
native, who, in her 40s, still has the fresh, high-spirited look of a
Midwestern cheerleader whose team has just won. She has performed with
Placido, recorded with Luciano and sung leading roles at La Scala, the
Bastille Opera in Paris, the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, Chicagos
Lyric Opera and the Royal Opera House in Londons Covent Garden.
At the Vienna State Opera, Gustafson has tackled a range of challenging
roles, from Irene in Wagners Rienzi to Ellen Orford in Benjamin
Brittens Peter Grimes. But it is Franz Lehars lighthearted
and thoroughly Viennese Merry Widow that has her slightly undone
on this particular Friday night. "Ive been working so hard on the
colloquialisms," she says.
The next evening, in an updated version of the operetta set in 1920s
era Paris, with the renowned Vienna Philharmonic in the pit, the 5-foot-11-inch
soprano sings sensuously in figure-clinging costumes while flirting audaciously
with buff, blond Danish baritone Boje Skovhus and with the audience.
Her rendition of "Vilja," the famous bittersweet ballad about a forest
nymph in love with a mortal, has torchy appeal.
The 2,000 or so patrons obviously like what they have seen and
heard. When Gustafson, in backless black glittery dress, takes her solo
curtain call, the audience roars. She bows, crossing hands over heart,
then sends a kiss floating out over the crowd. They whistle and cheer.
"I lived. I survived," says the singer, who is allowing Northwestern
on this opening weekend in March to catch a glimpse of her life in Vienna
both on- and offstage. She is in her spartan backstage dressing room after
the performance, her streaky honey-blonde hair tumbling over one shoulder.
"When I woke up this morning, my voice sounded like this," she says, imitating
a gravelly voiced Mafia don. She had paid a visit two hours before curtain
to Reinhard Kuersten, whom she calls "the worlds greatest throat
doctor. ... Its hormones," she says. "My voice was thick. You just
have to sing it out."
After chatting in French on her cellphone with her boyfriend, the Parisian
conductor Frederic Chaslin, Gustafson, who spends a good part of the year
in Vienna, slips into her ankle-length mink coat and hurries downstairs
to the stage door where a small group of fans is waiting. She signs cast
posters and programs, poses for pictures, dispenses hugs.
Then she strides a few blocks down pedestrian-only Kaerntnerstrasse to
Trattoria Sole, a tiny Italian restaurant frequented by State Opera singers
and conductors, for a post-performance meal with Skovhus and members of
his family. Wearing three-inch heels and a short black skirt, with mink
coat swinging open as she walks, the statuesque, leggy soprano turns heads.
The Swedish tenor Goesta Winbergh, who starred with her in Wagners
Die Meistersinger in Chicago, Munich and London, raved about her "great,
great voice" just weeks before his untimely death last March, adding admiringly,
"She could be a fashion model for Vogue magazine."
At the restaurant, where owner Aki Nuredini whisks away a fans flowers
and guides Gustafson to a room upstairs, she has dinner at 11 p.m.: two
cups of decaf cappuccino, a plate of steamed vegetables, a piece of pizza
(swiped from a dining partners plate) and several grissini
Italian breadsticks mounded with chopped garlic, a chunk of which manages
to wind up in her hair. This is a down-to-earth diva, who plunges into
both dinner and roles with equal gusto.
More and more, Gustafson has focused on European venues. Later this year
she will open in a new production of Ernst Kreneks jazz-influenced
opera, Jonny spielt auf, at the Vienna State Opera with Seiji Ozawa
conducting. In February, under the baton of Zubin Mehta, shell be
featured in Wagners Goetterdammerung at the Munich State
How has this girl from Illinois captured hearts in the land of waltzes
and Wiener Schnitzel? "The Vienna audience is very strange," says Skovhus.
"They can hate you or love you, and you dont know why. Its
a very sophisticated audience, very knowledgeable. I think what the Viennese
like very much about Nancy is that she has this very positive way of coming
across to the audience. You can see she likes what she is doing."
According to Vienna-based opera diction coach Rochsane Taghikhani, who
gives Gustafson high marks for her Merry Widow performance, there
is a singular reason that the citys demanding audiences are keen
on her: "She is top of the line."
For Gustafson, however, the most rewarding critique comes unexpectedly,
after midnight, as she is walking to her apartment following the post-performance
meal at Trattoria Sole. A woman approaches her, gushing in rapid-fire
German about the sopranos performance in The Merry Widow
and adding that she grew up in Germany but now lives in Philadelphia.
Gustafson blurts out, in English, "Im from Chicago!" and the woman
says, "I thought you were German!"
The singer hugs the woman and her three companions. "That is the
highest compliment anyone could have paid me," says Gustafson afterward,
thrilled to have fooled this German-American fan.
The afternoon after the opening, while sipping Earl Grey tea and nibbling
on Sachertorte in her sunny apartment with its dazzling view of St. Stephens
Cathedral, Gustafson traces the roots of her career.
"I have always liked to sing," she says. From age 7, Gustafson sang in
the choir at St. Matthews Episcopal Church in Evanston and was hooked
on musical comedy by junior high. "A friend and I used to go down to my
basement and sing and dance all the roles in Lil Abner,"
she recalls. At Evanston Township High School she snagged the lead role
of Marian the librarian in The Music Man.
The first opera she saw was Puccinis Tosca on a high school
trip to Lyric Opera of Chicago. "I hated it," she says. "I slept through
the whole thing." As a teen Gustafson listened to "the Beatles, Carole
King, James Taylor, Barbra Streisand" and studied voice privately for
While a student at Mount Holyoke College, where she earned a bachelors
degree in music and education in 1978, Gustafson starred in a Harvard
University production of Gilbert and Sullivans Patience that
whetted her appetite for more serious music.
But it was her voice teacher while she was a masters degree candidate
in music performance at Northwestern Norman Gulbrandsen
who jump-started her opera career. "Without him, I wouldnt be doing
any of this," she says.
Gulbrandsen, now a professor emeritus of music, remembers Gustafson "as
a radiant, charismatic student with a magnetic personality and a million-dollar
smile. The other thing that was so important was that she used to bring
her brother Bob [who has cerebral palsy] in a wheelchair to lessons. She
has such love for him.
"She always had a beautiful voice, but she also had a passion in her singing,
the same deep feeling she has for her brother, and that is a passion that
is not developed but is in the inner self something that comes
from inside. Its an inner feeling of warmth for other people."
Gulbrandsen encouraged Gustafson to audition for the role of Musetta in
a Northwestern production of Puccinis La Boheme. "He said,
Youre going to learn Quando men vo [the
famous Musettas Waltz], which I had never heard," Gustafson
recalls. "He taught me that aria in one lesson. I remember writing the
words on my hand for the audition," says the singer, who has an uncanny
ear for languages. (In addition to French and German, she speaks fluent
Italian and sings in Russian and Czech. She once learned 88 pages of Czech
in four days for a production of Dvoraks Rusalka.)
At Northwestern Gustafson won the role of Musetta, which "showed me that
the things in musical comedy were also in opera. I liked to sing, to dance,
to act. I have never liked to just stand and sing."
Gulbrandsen also offered words of wisdom for dealing with stage fright,
says Gustafson, who still gets nervous "right as the overture is about
to start. Its a physical adrenaline thing that kicks in." The professors
advice, she recalls, was this: "Just stand up and sing the damn
thing! And it works all the time."
In 1982 she won Metropolitan Opera and San Francisco Opera national competitions
and signed on for a 10-week summertime apprenticeship program in San Francisco
that led to a mainstage contract.
Good reviews fueled her career. A London Sunday Telegraph critic
called her performance "Callas-like" in Janaceks Katya Kabanova,
conducted by Andrew Davis, at Englands Glyndebourne Festival Opera
in 1990. When she made her Met debut the same year as Musetta,
a New York Times reviewer described her as "bright" and "attractive"
with an "appealing, flexible" voice.
More than a decade later, Gustafson says Vienna "is where my heart is."
She admits her location puts her in proximity to Chaslin, who also works
primarily in Europe, but she also describes the love affair she has had
with the Vienna Philharmonic.
"I made my debut here in La Traviata [as Violetta] in 1991," she
recalls, explaining that there were no onstage rehearsals with the orchestra
for that production (in fact, such is usually the case with the Vienna
State Opera). "I had rehearsals upstairs on the fourth floor with my colleagues.
"Ill never forget in the second act when I sang Dite alla
giovine, this very quiet part of a duet. I like to start it very
soft, with this white tone, so it is just coming out from the depths of
her soul. And I thought, I dont know how softly I can sing
and still be heard. We hadnt practiced in the house.
"I started singing, and the first violins were looking up at me as if
to say, Were listening to you, and whatever you do, well
be right with you. I get goose bumps to this day just thinking of
it," she says, showing the hair standing up on her arm. "Ill never
forget looking down and thinking, Ive died and gone to heaven,
because it was the Vienna Philharmonic, and we were making music together.
"Opera is very much appreciated in Vienna," she adds. At Café Mozart,
a soothing oasis of coffees and strudels a few steps from the opera house
(and a location in the Orson Welles film classic The Third Man),
Gustafson likes to chat with waiter and opera fanatic Yueksel ("I love
Elektra!") Kilic. "She sings not only with a beautiful voice," he says
of Gustafson, "but she also opens her heart."
"I have been blessed," Gustafson says more than once while reviewing her
life, but she is also candid about hard times as a world-class opera singer.
There is the wearying travel between engagements and the constant concern
about her "cords." She wears a surgeons-style face mask on long
flights to avoid catching colds.
On New Years Eve 1999 she performed Merry Widow in Vienna
with a 103-degree temperature. With congested head, she says, "I couldnt
hear anything, I couldnt breathe. I was told it didnt matter
because the audience would be drinking champagne."
As an opera singer, she must do much more than just sing or even
dance. Shes had motion sickness in Rienzi while poised 15
feet above the stage on a swing (which caught fire during one performance).
In The Merry Widow last March she sang while being hoisted onto
the shoulders of several male singers. At the end of another scene, she
was carried offstage by Skovhus, piggyback. That athletic performance
style is light years away from the old vision of gargantuan singers nailed
to the stage.
In a November New Yorker profile of opera soprano Renee Fleming, Charles
Michener wrote that in Europe, "American singers are often valued above
their European counterparts for their versatility with languages and their
readiness to submit to outlandish staging demands."
"We have to be very flexible these days in order to keep our careers going,"
says bass Samuel Ramey, who has starred with Gustafson in Gounods
Faust and in Carlisle Floyds Susannah. He praises
the sopranos "wide range of vocal abilities" from dramatic to lyrical
but also says he likes working with her because she rolls with the punches.
"Shes a very fun-loving girl. There are no hysterics."
To keep stamina up and weight down, Gustafson spends 45 minutes daily
on the treadmill while listening to Al Jarreau or Gloria Estefan or Streisand.
She relaxes by reading. Among her favorite books: the Harry Potter series.
"I never thought my career would go this long, this far," says Gustafson.
"There are times when I dont want to pack my suitcase, when I would
be happy to cut back."
But, she adds, there is one simple notion that keeps her going: "I love
Though Gustafson sings mainly in Europe, she returns to the States every
year in late fall for what she calls "my best concert."
It is Celebration, a benefit performance at Northwesterns Pick-Staiger
Concert Hall for the Over the Rainbow Association, a Chicago-area organization
close to her heart that provides housing and employment opportunities
for physically disabled adults, including her brother Bob.
Since 1990 Gustafson has been luring major operatic talents each year,
including Ramey, Jennifer Larmore, Ben Heppner, Susanne Mentzer, Denyce
Graves, Richard Leech and many more to sing in a concert that mixes opera,
show tunes and pop music. (The 2002 concert is scheduled for Oct. 24.)
Leech brought a guitar to last years concert and sang Dolly Parton
and John Denver tunes. According to Donald Gustafson (Mu49), Nancys
dad and Over the Rainbow board chair emeritus, "He walked out like he
was from the hills of Tennessee and said, I hope you guys like this
because Ive never done this before."
Since 1990 the concerts have brought in more than $2 million. Says the
soprano, who masterminded Celebration: "Its the most important thing
I do all year."
Anne Taubeneck is a freelance writer based in Wilmette, Ill.
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