Making It in Munich:

Though she will “always be an Arizona girl,” American mezzo-soprano Angela Brower has established a new life and flourishing singing career in Munich, Germany.

She’s also performed in countless other locales. “Some of the coolest places I’ve been are Tokyo, Hong Kong, and now Bogotá,” she says. “But I also love the more familiar places like Munich, London, Paris, and Vienna.”

Ten years after relocating to Germany, she is making her Lyric Opera of Chicago debut (in October) as Idamante in Mozart’s Idomeneo. Her career has brought her back to the U.S. on occasion, but she says she is excited to make this house debut.

“The last time I did a full opera production in the States was a couple of years ago as Cherubino at San Francisco Opera,” Brower says. “The time before that was Nicklausse, also at San Francisco Opera, so debuting at Lyric is a wonderful and exciting time for me—not only to return to the States, but to sing in a house that I visited once as a student at Indiana University many years ago. To sing in such a prestigious house and with such an incredible role is truly a dream come true.”

 

Formative Years

Having made her stage debut in eighth grade as a “nail file” in Beauty and the Beast, Brower was instantly hooked on performing and “did as many community theater musicals as I could during junior high and high school.” In fact, just a year after her debut, she was cast as Cinderella in her school’s version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.

She took piano lessons but says she realized she was “more inclined to practice” for her voice lessons with Cheryl Doan. “Angela’s love and exuberance for learning to sing was evident early in her vocal studies,” Doan says. “Angela had a natural ease in her facial expressions and an honest approach to her character development. Early in her studies there was a strength in the core of her voice that made her tone quality more durable and extremely pleasant. Her willingness to work and practice made her strengths stronger and stronger.”

During Brower’s senior year in high school, she performed Irene Molloy in Hello, Dolly! Her audition for Arizona State University fell on the same day as the final show, so Doan persuaded her to do her audition in “full stage makeup and costume.”

“It worked,” Brower says. “Not only was I accepted, but I got in on a full scholarship.”

Brower had also sung in both church choir and school choir, but even with several years of experience onstage, she was “completely new to classical music” when she started her undergraduate studies at ASU. She chose Doan’s husband, Jerry Doan, as her teacher at ASU.

“Grooming a world-class singer is much like grooming a star athlete or a Triple Crown winner,” Jerry Doan says. “The basic elements of ‘stardom’ have to be present: a superior mind, a world-class physicality (in the case of a singer, an outstanding vocal instrument and superior physical looks), a willingness to work harder than other equally talented singers, a sense of self-value and confidence based in reality and, perhaps most importantly, a driving spirit to win. Angela had all these elements of ‘stardom’ early on.”

As she studied voice performance with Jerry Doan, she discovered her voice was better suited to singing classically.

“It didn’t take me long to fall in love with Mozart and Cherubino [during] my first year as an undergrad when I learned ‘Voi che sapete’ for my first aria,” she remembers.

Brower says her studies in the United States undoubtedly prepared her for what has become an international career. During her undergraduate studies, she learned about classical music, having not been knowledgeable of it before. “I am so grateful for all of the foundational classes like music theory, music history, and song literature [at ASU],” she says, “because I had no idea about any of it. I’m grateful for Dr. Doan, who laid the foundational technique I needed, and for Dale Dreyfoos, who always believed in me and encouraged me as I learned how to act in his class.”

Brower began taking courses from Dreyfoos during her junior year. In his aria preparation class, which was co-taught by opera department coach Robert Mills, she received vocal coaching as well as training on musicality, drama, and language. They worked on a variety of characters’ arias—“some of which became her signature roles,” Dreyfoos says—like Cherubino and Dorabella.

He could tell within a short time that Brower would be a natural onstage.

“I always knew from hearing Angela sing—as she was an exceptionally gifted student in the studio of Dr. Jerry Doan, with whom, even at my age, I was continuing to take private vocal study—that she had a beautiful voice distinguished by an excellent technique and evenness of quality throughout her range,” Dreyfoos says. “But I also discovered that she was a naturally gifted actress.”

During Brower’s senior year, she took the aria prep course again as well as Dreyfoos’ opera scenes course.

“Perhaps my happiest performance memory of all in working with Angela was in a special performance of scenes from Hansel and Gretel. Angela was truly the perfect Hansel—gloriously sung and most charmingly acted,” Dreyfoos says. “For this performance, I narrated the performance as the Witch . . . and also got to join in the fun, interacting with Angela onstage. Naturally, I was absolutely thrilled when Angela got to perform this role at the Bavarian State Opera.”

Brower also performed in two productions Dreyfoos directed at ASU: Oklahoma! and Die Zauberflöte. Her first opera role was the Second Lady which, Dreyfoos says, “showcased her beautiful singing and natural comedic abilities. The Second Lady was one of the first roles that she sang in Germany outside of her contract as a Fest singer with the Bavarian State Opera, and so it was fun to know that she had her first experience with that part in our production.”

After undergrad, Brower moved to Bloomington, Indiana, to study for her master’s at Indiana University

“My time with Professor Andreas Poulimenos was the perfect next step,” Brower says. “I needed his encouragement to truly believe I could have a career as a singer—something I still wasn’t sure about when I arrived at IU. He pushed me in the right direction and gave me the confidence to trust my voice and what I had learned and go out and let my light shine.”

While at IU, she spent a summer working with the Glimmerglass Festival. It was there that she was heard by the right people and offered a position in the Opera Studio at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich.

“Funny enough, I had just taken an intense semester of German at IU, since it was required,” she says. “I had no intention of ever really using what I had learned, and it was a shock when I arrived in Munich. I was overwhelmed with learning the language as well as all the repertoire required of me to know for concerts and stage performances.”

Now, though, Brower speaks conversational German. “I am looking forward to continuing to improve my German and Italian and French, as those are the languages I most commonly sing in,” she says.

 

The Work

Brower has become known for a few signature roles, like Octavian and Dorabella. She often returns to these signature roles, so it may seem like a thing of the past, but of course once upon a time these roles were brand new to her.

“Role prep has been a learning process for me,” she says. “I never really understood the most efficient way to approach learning a new role. I think that’s OK, though, because we are all different.”

She now has a system in place. She begins by getting an idea of the demands of the role, as well as its overall arc in relation to acting and singing, by watching or listening to the opera. She does this as she works on translations, later playing through the pitches and doing other detail work.

“I immerse myself in as much information about the opera and the character as I can,” she says. “Then I allow myself to be moved by the music and the text—and through this process, I discover what my Octavian or Dorabella or Cherubino feels and sounds like.”

Brower studies performance practice and how other singers have sung the role, “but I then develop my own interpretation of the piece and allow my uniqueness to shine,” she shares, “because at the end of the day, we want uniqueness. That’s what I love about opera. You are bringing the music to life through your unique voice and interpretation in hopes that you can inspire and move someone who has come to escape reality for an evening—who has come to feel something, to sympathize with characters onstage that they themselves may secretly be but can never allow themselves to be.”

She recalls the process of learning Octavian for the first time.

“One of the most challenging is also one of my favorite, and most rewarding, roles to sing: Octavian. It was so difficult to learn,” she admits. “He has over two hours of singing, and it’s not easy music. Strauss really stretches a mezzo vocally and dramatically.”

Brower has found that she sometimes connects to the character so fully that she needs to keep her emotions in check.

“If I’m not careful, I can allow myself to get caught up in the drama of the text and the emotional drive of the music,” she says, “which can inspire an excess of emotion within me that manifests immediately in the voice. As singers, we all have to take care of our precious instrument even if inside we feel we want to scream or cry. We have to maintain composure for the health and longevity of the voice.”

Starting in her undergraduate years, Brower developed an admiration for certain artists—an admiration which inspired her own aspirations.

“When I was an undergrad and discovering opera for the first time,” she says, “I immediately fell in love with Frederica von Stade, Susan Graham, Renée Fleming and, later, Joyce DiDonato. My admiration grew for these artists and others when I moved to Munich and started sharing the stage with legends such as Anja Harteros and Elīna Garanča. The two artists who I have always admired most for not only their acting ability, but also exceptional artistry, are Anne Sofie von Otter and Brigitte Fassbaender. I have been fortunate enough to have recorded Cherubino with Ms. von Otter two years ago and I work often with Ms. Fassbaender as well. It’s a real dream come true to work with your idols.”

Of working for several years with the same company, the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, “It was like being part of a family,” Brower says. Through the good times and the challenging times, she grew and discovered her artistry.

“I am so grateful for those vital and instructive years,” she says. “I was given such amazing opportunities to perform mainstage roles and to learn most of my repertoire in Munich. I learned my craft by doing, and singing in Munich was the best house for me to grow up in. I will always consider it my musical home.”

 

Homecoming

Brower says she is thrilled to be making her Lyric Opera of Chicago debut. Not only does she get to perform the role of Idamante for the first time, but she gets a taste of being back in her home country.

“Since I live in Munich, and most of my work is Europe based, it is such a gift to be able to come back to the States and to debut in one of the coolest cities in America,” she says. “Whole Foods and Target, here I come!”

Dreyfoos has invited Brower to perform at ASU twice since her graduation. “The most recent of these [performances] can be seen on Angela’s website as well as the ASU School of Music website,” he says. “These were both wonderful ‘homecomings’ as many of Angela’s friends and family members had not had the opportunity to hear her live in several years given that most of her career has taken place in Munich.”

Brower’s large family is based in Utah and Arizona.

“I love visiting home when I can,” she says. “When I was Fest in Munich, I sometimes would go 18 months without seeing my family. So now that I am a freelance artist, I try to go home once a year or more. I have a large family, five brothers and one sister, and 17 nieces and nephews, so it’s always a big treat when I go home.”

The Doans have been proud to see where Brower’s career has taken her.

“Much like that world-class race horse, she just needed someone to point to the finish line and then get out of the way, giving her the freedom to run her race the way she chose,” Jerry Doan says. “Even as she continues to grow and run her race, Angela now enjoys the benefits of her God-given talent and her own hard work.”

And Brower’s race is far from over.

“I’m excited to continue growing and exploring in concert, opera, and recital repertoire,” she says. “I want to sing Handel and Bach and early music. That’s what I was doing in grad school and haven’t had the chance since so, fingers crossed, I hope more of that rep comes my way. I have to admit, I love many composers because they each have their own style.

“I love the long, lyric, passion-filled lines that Strauss composed for Octavian and Komponist. I also love the purity and drama that Mozart put into his characters such as Dorabella, Sesto, and Idamante. I love the French repertoire: Charlotte in Massenet’s Werther is one of my favorite roles to sing. I love the happiness and love that Rossini writes for Cenerentola/Angelina and Rosina while giving them equal moments of sadness and despair. Each composer has something special to offer, and I am so honored to be able to bring their music to life.”

Kathleen Buccleugh

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