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 apartment.

The lyric soprano is referring not to her pulse-raising workout but to Die Lustige WitweThe 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, Chicago’s Lyric Opera and the Royal Opera House in London’s Covent Garden.

At the Vienna State Opera, Gustafson has tackled a range of challenging roles, from Irene in Wagner’s Rienzi to Ellen Orford in Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes. But it is Franz Lehar’s lighthearted and thoroughly Viennese Merry Widow that has her slightly undone on this particular Friday night. "I’ve 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 world’s greatest throat doctor. ... It’s 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 Wagner’s 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 fan’s 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 partner’s 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 Krenek’s jazz-influenced opera, Jonny spielt auf, at the Vienna State Opera with Seiji Ozawa conducting. In February, under the baton of Zubin Mehta, she’ll be featured in Wagner’s Goetterdammerung at the Munich State Opera.

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 don’t know why. It’s 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 city’s 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 soprano’s performance in The Merry Widow and adding that she grew up in Germany but now lives in Philadelphia. Gustafson blurts out, in English, "I’m 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. Stephen’s 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. Matthew’s 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 L’il 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 Puccini’s 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 three years.

While a student at Mount Holyoke College, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in music and education in 1978, Gustafson starred in a Harvard University production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience that whetted her appetite for more serious music.

But it was her voice teacher while she was a master’s degree candidate in music performance at Northwestern — Norman Gulbrandsen — who jump-started her opera career. "Without him, I wouldn’t 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. It’s an inner feeling of warmth for other people."

Gulbrandsen encouraged Gustafson to audition for the role of Musetta in a Northwestern production of Puccini’s La Boheme. "He said, ’You’re going to learn ’Quando m’en vo’ [the famous ’Musetta’s 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 Dvorak’s 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. It’s a physical adrenaline thing that kicks in." The professor’s 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 Janacek’s Katya Kabanova, conducted by Andrew Davis, at England’s 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.

"I’ll 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 don’t know how softly I can sing and still be heard.’ We hadn’t practiced in the house.

"I started singing, and the first violins were looking up at me as if to say, ‘We’re listening to you, and whatever you do, we’ll 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. "I’ll never forget looking down and thinking, ‘I’ve 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 surgeon’s-style face mask on long flights to avoid catching colds.

On New Year’s Eve 1999 she performed Merry Widow in Vienna with a 103-degree temperature. With congested head, she says, "I couldn’t hear anything, I couldn’t breathe. I was told it didn’t matter because the audience would be drinking champagne."

As an opera singer, she must do much more than just sing — or even dance. She’s 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 Gounod’s Faust and in Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah. He praises the soprano’s "wide range of vocal abilities" from dramatic to lyrical but also says he likes working with her because she rolls with the punches. "She’s 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 don’t 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 to sing."

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 Northwestern’s 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 year’s concert and sang Dolly Parton and John Denver tunes. According to Donald Gustafson (Mu49), Nancy’s 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 I’ve never done this before.’"

Since 1990 the concerts have brought in more than $2 million. Says the soprano, who masterminded Celebration: "It’s the most important thing I do all year."

Anne Taubeneck is a freelance writer based in Wilmette, Ill.


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