Grace and Grit : Amanda Majeski

This article was originally published in Classical Singer magazine. To subscribe to the print magazine, go to www.csmusic.info/subscribe.

With a strong desire to say something inventive and interesting through her work, Amanda Majeski has brought her career as a leading soprano to a point where she can be more choosy with her engagements. 

“That sometimes means holding out for the right opportunity,” she says, “and it might mean that the right thing might not come up exactly when I want it to. Learning to be OK with that uncertainty takes guts and confidence, for sure.” 

Her commitment to being musical and expressive fuels her as she holds out for those opportunities. “I love figuring out how to color a phrase to bring out the emotion of the text and sometimes changing those colors depending on what I’m feeling that day,” she says. And thinking less technically allows her to be more expressive. “I’m still working on quieting the inner judgments and trusting in the moment, in the character—but when I can let go and do it, I enjoy the stage so much and I think the audience can sense that joy.” 

She remembers Marta (The Passenger) with Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2015 as a particularly special moment in her recent performance history. “[It] changed my perspective about the power of an artistic experience,” she says. “[On opening night], after the last few notes of the piece faded away and Sir Andrew Davis slowly put his arms down, the audience fell completely silent for a solid 10 to 20 seconds before erupting into applause. It was like we were all cradling that moment together, sharing in understanding the intense, emotional message of the piece. 

“I was reminded in that moment that it’s our job to invite the audience into our world, into our storytelling, so that they can be moved most deeply—that it’s not enough simply to entertain. The Passenger accomplishes this because of its subject matter; its message is part of our shared human experience. But all opera can be that powerful, when performers and audience members allow it.” 

Majeski felt that for the first time as an audience member when she was a teenager: she saw Floyd’s Susannah at Lyric Opera of Chicago and said she was blown away. “I had no idea that opera could be so expressive,” she remembers, “and so instantly I knew I had to explore it further.” 

By that point, she was already interested in singing. “I had a mother who exposed me to everything she could think of,” she says, “so when I was young, I tried just about everything—piano, dance, basketball, volleyball, softball, cello, figure skating. I really gravitated toward dance, so when I got to high school, I thought that maybe singing would go along with the dancing.” 

Majeski wanted to sing musical theatre, but her voice teacher suggested she try out an Italian art song. “It was so confusing to me,” she says. “I didn’t like it. I wanted to sing in English. I didn’t know how to pronounce the words. But the more I studied it, the more I fell in love with it.” 

“I was probably 18 or 19 when I was bitten by the operatic bug, which I think is a little late compared to some,” she says. “I had a lot to catch up on, and it was all so fresh and new and very exciting.” 

Several teachers and schools helped her in her journey to becoming the artist she is today. “I can’t say I ever had a teacher who didn’t push me in the right direction, in some way,” she says. “My days at Northwestern taught me the fundamentals of musicianship. Learning in a classroom setting and working consistently on my voice through my undergrad pushed me just the right amount. 

“At Curtis I learned what it meant to be an opera singer. There were no classrooms, just coaching rooms and stages. I learned by doing and was able to increase my stamina and prep roles and stage shows just as I would be expected to do in normal life. So when I graduated and moved into the Ryan Center at Lyric Opera, the shift was not huge. I was ready to meet the expectations that assignment held for me. And I’ve found wonderful mentors along the way who I know I can call up at anytime even today and ask for guidance.” 

Majeski has done nine different productions as Countess (Le nozze di Figaro) in the U.S. and Europe. “Though I enjoyed playing the Countess, I was ready to get a little space from her to grow in my artistry through other roles,” she says. That choosiness has recently led to more role debuts, such as the title role in Janáček’s Katya Kabanova with Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. 

Majeski also does not constrain herself to a narrowly defined Fach. She certainly comfortably resides in the lyric soprano realm but in 2018, at Santa Fe Opera, she performed Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos often cast as a mezzo-soprano. It was her second pants role, the first being Ottone (Vivaldi’s La Griselda) with Santa Fe Opera in 2011. “I love the freedom and abandon that came from playing a young male, both physically and vocally,” she says. “The outbursts and extremes of emotions really taught me how to let go and trust and find deeper release in my sound.” 

Majeski points out though mezzo-sopranos most often perform Composer from Ariadne auf Naxos these days, soprano Lotte Lehmann debuted the role. “I don’t think that singers should shy away from roles that feel comfortable and natural, even when ‘out of their Fach,’” she says. “If you sing it well, you sing it well. Let go of the label. I think certain sopranos can sing things like Composer or Cherubino or Octavian, just as certain mezzos can sing things like Donna Elvira and Blanche de la Force.” 

Opera singers are often quite attuned to the changes their voices undergo as they learn and grow, and Majeski says she has found life experience to contribute to those changes. She says though it can be challenging to embrace each moment, that is what she must do in order to be an effective performer. She says she likes to think, “I’ve never experienced this day before, so it’s essential to bring my full energy and effort to this moment. Yes, some things might feel vocally different than the previous performance or another performance, say, a year ago—but that difference is often healthy and, with the right perspective, welcome. What do I have to bring now that I didn’t bring the last time?” 

Majeski and her husband of six years, bass-baritone Sam Handley, met while they were both young artists at Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Ryan Opera Center. They call Wisconsin home and have a small apartment in Chicago. “For me, it’s extremely important to have a place that is grounded in family and life outside music, to remember that music is something I do and love, but it’s only a small part of who I am,” she says. Even so, her time at home can be limited. In 2018–19, her work took her to Santa Fe, Stuttgart, London, Colorado, and Australia, among other places. 

Handley says they try to attend each other’s performances as much as possible. “Typically that will work out to three or four performances a year, though it can be more or less depending on the locations and other conflicts,” he says, adding that they have often found being there for each other at the beginning of a contract’s rehearsal period can be even more beneficial than attending performances. “It helps allay the homesickness and the other stresses of traveling to have your person there. I do adore her singing and her artistry—hers is my favorite voice, so I’ll always be there when I can.” 

The couple performed Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg together in 2018 in Beijing, China. “It was a great time, especially since we had last performed that piece together just before we married,” Handley says. 

Handley and Majeski sometimes do recitals together but do not have any plans for future performances together at the moment. “Of course, we always enjoy performing with one another,” he says, “but we’re together in spirit whether performing together or not—or even in different time zones—and the role of supporter is just as important as the role onstage.” 

Also, while at the Ryan Opera Center, Majeski met friend and colleague mezzo-soprano Emily Fons. It’s been a lasting, rewarding friendship for Fons. “I think it’s so important in this business to have friends who understand the unique challenges of this profession and who can be there for you when you need to bounce some ideas off someone, share a frustration, or ask some advice—often while being on the other side of the world in another time zone,” she says. 

Fons also regards Majeski’s stagecraft and professionalism highly. “As a performer,” Fons shares, “Amanda has tackled so many different musical styles and has sung so many big roles that I know take hours and hours of preparation. I am so impressed with her ability to succeed at everything she does and not shy away from a challenge whether it be a new role or an important house debut. She stands her ground and is an advocate for herself and her process in and out of the rehearsal room.” 

As Ryan Opera Center artists, Majeski and Fons overlapped by only one year (2010 was Majeski’s first and Fons’ last), but they were either performing or covering in several shows together and they formed a solid friendship. 

Fons describes Majeski as honest, generous, and persistent, endowed with the “fire needed to go out and conquer the difficult aspects of what we do.” To sum it up, Fons says, Majeski exudes both “grace and grit. She lives a full life outside of the world of opera, and I know how difficult it can be to balance the challenges of home and work.” 

They have had one opportunity to perform together since their time at the Ryan Opera Center, with Fons as Dorabella and Majeski as Fiordiligi in Opera Omaha’s 2017 production of Così fan tutte. “It’s very special to not only work as colleagues but as friends,” Fons says, “and what could be more fun than playing sisters?” 

Fons says that Majeski emanates that perfect balance of confidence and humility that is required of great performers. “Amanda cares deeply that her performance is always the best she can present, and that is so evident in her musicality, character development, and teamwork onstage,” she says. “Her incredible work ethic and attention to detail elevate her innate talent to new levels time after time.” 

While Majeski is on the road, she keeps up not only her performing career but a side skill: tap dancing. She danced throughout high school and college. “I performed with a phenomenal, professional female tap company called Rhythm ISS,” Majeski says. “Though singing eventually took over my time, I never lost the passion for dance—I try to keep up my skills when I am on the road by taking classes where I can find them. One day someone will write an opera for a tap-dancing soprano, I know it.” 

Fons says that though she knew Majeski performs tap, she has not seen those skills firsthand. They have, however, gotten to do some choreography onstage. “I’m sure Amanda can tell you about the time we performed the ‘Sisters’ duet from White Christmas with all the original choreography for an event at Lyric Opera of Chicago,” Fons says. 

Through all the travel, various gigs, and varied interests, it all comes back to family for Majeski. “My family means the world to me and are my reason for singing,” she says. And when she’s home she says her free time is “slow and steady—taking walks with my family along Lake Michigan, eating good food, and watching a little trashy reality TV.” 

Handley says that their rigorous rehearsal and performance schedules mean they try to make the most of any time they are together—or any time they’re at least in the same time zone. “Sometimes we have last-minute trips across the country if a rehearsal is suddenly cancelled and there’s a long weekend, but we mostly work to always get to the other right after the show is over,” he says. “Amanda deeply values her time with family, and we make every effort possible to attend important events.” 

Majeski is proud that her 11-year-old stepdaughter has her own interests but also enjoys opera and travels to attend shows sometimes. “I am happy that she has the best of both worlds—a normal childhood in Wisconsin as well as [traveling] to all sorts of different locations when she’s not in school,” Majeski says. In fact, last summer, her stepdaughter had a special chance meeting. “I was so excited that she was able to meet Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Santa Fe last year when they happened to attend the same show.” 

Kathleen Buccleugh

Kathleen Farrar Buccleugh is a journalist and soprano living in Tuscaloosa, Ala.