"I was happy to have a career in Europe," says Arleen Auger, stretching on a chaise longue poolside at her Santa Monica hotel and luxuriating in the miraculous winter sun she has missed so. "But there's nothing like getting a second chance in the country of your birthright."
The soprano from Long Beach is back now and based in New Hampshire, having uprooted herself from Germany where she lived for nearly two decades while becoming established as one of the best-known concert singers on the continent. When she divorced her business-manager husband three years ago and left Frankfurt, a new life was just beckoning on these shores.
Suddenly, the right people in New York heard Auger. Her large catalogue of European recordings was gaining recognition here. A new artist management firm offered its services and special attention--nothing like the company that had all but ignored her some years ago.
Tonight, she sings Pergolesi's "Stabat Mater" and Stravinsky's "Pulcinella" with the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Christopher Hogwood. This week, she completes an album of songs for Delos. In November, she returns for the Music Center Opera production of "Alcina," a role she calls "thrilling and hugely dramatic."
As the former first-grade teacher tells it, however, there's still "an uphill fight" for recognition.
"I like to think of myself as a serious artist. I'm not interested in the things that go along with a glamour career--appearing on talk shows, promoting myself as a personality. Aiming for the glitz is not in my repertoire. What I do have to offer is a musical personality. And maybe there's a new awareness growing in this country for the kind of musician I am. Maybe that public is no longer just a handful of connoisseurs."
Auger is referring to herself as a recitalist--not the celebrity type whose appearance takes on the look of a love-in, but the kind dedicated to the intimate literature of art songs of which she is a master. The lyric soprano does not love Lieder, however, to the exclusion of opera. It's just that she thinks of herself as "a hard fit," vocally and theatrically. While her voice category automatically suggests soubrette roles--young, pert, flirtatious characters--her physique and temperament are stately and mature.
Beyond those considerations, though, Auger refuses to make the artistic compromises that are par for today's operatic course. She says she is "dissatisfied with the prevailing standards--one-night stands where someone shows you a sketch of the set and points out your entrances and exits."
During her early association with the Vienna Staatsoper--where she made an unscheduled debut on short notice as the Queen of the Night in "Die Zauberfloete"--she found herself typecast as a high coloratura soprano. This got her many engagements, in a limited German repertory. "I used to take special care of my top voice." she says. "I protected it so that I could continue to sing all those Queens of the Night." When it became clear that by forfeiting the F's required in "Die Zauberfloete" she could develop a slightly lower register for greater dramatic satisfaction, she did so.
There were always high-placed maestros in Auger's life who recognized her exceptional gifts--Josef Krips and Karl Boehm were her champions at the Staatsoper, followed by Rafael Kubelik, Seiji Ozawa, Riccardo Muti, Helmuth Rilling and Claudio Abbado. In 1978 she made her isolated Met debut in "Fidelio" as Marzelline with Boehm on the podium. "Subsequent offers by the Met," she explains, "did not meet my conditions."
Those conditions have an inherently better chance of being met in the realm of concert singing. But, at 46, she still hopes to make a mark on the opera stage.
"I think Mimi in 'La Boheme' would be terrific for me," she admits. "And lots of other Italian heroines--I dream of doing Lucia, even Nedda in 'Pagliacci.' Every language has its idiomatic musical expressions and now that I've assimilated German I would love to do the same with Italian. But artistic directors and managers aren't astute enough when it comes to casting."
Auger can't stop exclaiming over Frank Corsaro's production of Handel's "Alcina," which had its premiere last summer in London (where it was recorded) and which plays here in the fall. She says the "whole enterprise is special," that it was molded as an ensemble piece with each nuance evolving from an ideal collaborative atmosphere.
"When I do something like this I know my values are right. I have colleagues who've gone farther and faster than me, but because my whole life I've wanted to be a singer, I'm willing to treasure the gift enough to take care of it. You are your instrument. Ego should play no part in its management.
"Who knows? Maybe if I last long enough it will all happen."