On a deeply raked stage, Jeannine Altmeyer slowly rises from a slumped position. The morning-long rehearsal for "Tristan und Isolde" is rolling to its climax, and the dramatic soprano is merely marking the music. Her throat is slightly raw and she does not want to aggravate it.
But every few measures she throws her head back passionately and sings a phrase of the "Liebestod" full out--in bright, luscious, opulent tones. Coddling is not her style. Even with a major debut in her hometown ahead.
When the Music Center Opera gives its premiere performance of "Tristan" Sunday, Altmeyer "will be realizing a dream come true," she said, "one that all of us (local singers) shared 20 years ago."
At that time, opera was imported. Indigenous talent, like seeds in a Santa Ana wind, dispersed to more hospitable climes. Now there is a reason to return, and Altmeyer, whose name regularly adorns the roster at various Wagnerian strongholds around the world, enters the scene like a victorious warrior maiden, a born-to-be-Brunnhilde.
She looks the part, too. At 5-foot-10, with golden locks and piercing china-blue eyes, she is the unmistakable Nordic ideal.
"My fach is the German repertory," said the Music Center's Isolde, who has already sung the role eight times elsewhere. "I don't bother with Italian opera anymore because there are plenty of pretty voices for that territory."
Indeed, the big-time director/conductor teams try to nab her every time they think "Ring des Nibelungen." Meanwhile, local and national TV audiences got a glimpse of Altmeyer's Sieglinde in the unprecedented video of the Patrice Chereau-Pierre Boulez "Ring" taped at Bayreuth (1979-80).
In fact, the 39-year-old Californian doesn't do any pre-staged "guest" performances, the kind that operate on a fly-in-fly-out basis. ("I prefer the creative stimulation of working in the original cast.") She even had the courage to walk away from a new production when things turned out badly; Altmeyer exited after the first performance of "Tristan" last summer at Bayreuth, leaving Jean-Pierre Ponnelle and Daniel Barenboim in the lurch.
"I had lots of personal problems," she said in a dressing room, her crossed leg bobbing with nervous energy. "My husband (Sverre Soiland, a retired Norwegian banker 25 years older than Altmeyer) had sold the farm property we owned outside of Florence without telling me . . . very upsetting. And I misjudged the (Bayreuth) acoustic for this role. My voice was overpowering, too loud (the critics suggested). It wasn't good. I needed to leave."
Being sought after doesn't ease the pressure to succeed, Altmeyer said.
"I live with constant self-criticism. If I don't do well, I get really down. I begin to think of giving up the career. On the positive side, it's better to save my voice than use it up in a few years. So I refuse more offers than I accept. Each of those 25 (annual) performances I do sing, then, becomes a biggie.
"But just in case I'm not hard enough on myself, my husband often comes backstage to announce: 'You're not arching your palette.' That means my high notes are bad."
Little wonder, then, that the outspoken Wagnerian likes rehearsals better than performances.
While Isolde is a role "that says everything in the music," Altmeyer said she thoroughly enjoys working with director Jonathan Miller, who "blends image with motivation. He is much freer to use fantasy than someone like Ponnelle, whose stagings are so fussy.
"And Zubin Mehta couldn't be more caring. He comes to the piano rehearsals every day--(James) Levine doesn't do that--and coaches me privately, pointing out nuances in phrasing and tone color. Even more important, he agrees with me on faster tempos--unlike Barenboim and Levine who want to linger over every phrase--and is more in line with the old Met tapes of (Birgit) Nilsson and (Kirsten) Flagstad."
Altmeyer's ideal Isolde is Flagstad. But she studied the role with Nilsson, who gave some serious advice--not just the old joke about how to endure the 4 1/2-hour singathon: Wear sensible shoes.
" 'Use less voice,' she told me. 'Speak it whenever you can. Space your performances.' "
This Altmeyer won't be able to do, with six of them taking place between Sunday and Dec. 20, the last two separated by a single day.
"The whole schedule terrifies me," she said.
That consternation aside, Altmeyer said she loves being back in California, especially for the weekends at her lakeside house in Arrowhead, "where I swim all the time."
Culture shock on re-entering the San Bernardino Mountains after a long absence has worn off.
"But at first it was very funny, " she said, laughing with energetic abandon. "The big entertainment in Arrowhead is a trip to 7-Eleven or the post office. It's a whole different world."
Most of the people in Arrowhead "are not coming to see me at the Music Center," she said, "but I'm thrilled to know that so many old school chums, who have written me, will be there. Most of them have never seen an opera. I hope I live up to everyone's expectations."