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PERFORMING ARTS: CLASSICAL MUSIC, DANCE, OPERA

Soprano Returning Home on a High Note

European sensation Michele Crider will make her U.S. professional opera debut in San Diego

April 21, 1996|Kenneth Herman | Kenneth Herman is an occasional contributor to Calendar

SAN DIEGO — In some musical circles, Michele Crider is touted as the next world-class Verdi soprano, the singer ready to assume the throne Leontyne Price left when she retired from the opera stage. The 36-year-old singer from Quincy, Ill., makes her American professional debut Saturday in the title role of San Diego Opera's new $1.2-million production of Verdi's "Aida." American audiences will at last be able to hear for themselves what Europe's cognoscenti are crowing about.

The saga of Crider's budding opera career, however, sounds like the plot outline for a creaky melodrama. In the first act, the promising singer fresh from a master's program at the University of Iowa is accepted into Zurich Opera's prestigious opera training program. She studies hard and graduates, only to find that no one will give her a contract. After two years of fruitless auditioning for German and Swiss opera companies, she comes home defeated, ready to throw in the towel.

At the opening of the second act, a friend convinces Crider to give opera one last chance by entering the 1989 Geneva International Music Competition. Stage left, her fairy godmother smiles, and Crider wins the grand prize. All of a sudden, the German opera companies that wouldn't return Crider's phone calls are sending her contracts. When a lead soprano at the Vienna State Opera falls ill, our heroine flies in on a moment's notice and saves the day.

And Act 3 gets even better. In Vienna, conductor Zubin Mehta hears her and is entranced with her voice. The maestro calls Riccardo Muti and a few other conductor friends, and soon Crider is the buzz of the European opera scene: singing the Verdi Requiem with Luciano Pavarotti under Mehta's baton, making her La Scala debut in a new production of Boito's "Mefistofele" and impressing the jaded London critics with her Covent Garden debut in Verdi's "Un Ballo in Maschera." With a sheaf of European successes, this time Crider returns home in triumph.

Oddly enough, Crider had started singing Verdi almost against her will.

"I did not choose Verdi; Verdi chose me," Crider explained in her San Diego Civic Theatre dressing room after a long day of rehearsals. "I sang a lot of Mozart and Puccini, and although I had studied Verdi in school, I never thought my voice was right for the Verdi repertoire."

It was the judges at the Geneva competition who pushed Crider headfirst into the deep end of the Verdi pool.

"The competition asked me for roles I could possibly sing, so I put 'Il Trovatore' on the list. They chose it, and in three weeks I had to learn the role and put it on stage for the opera in Dortmund [Germany]. I think it was [in] that very first performance in Dortmund that I knew Verdi was for me. I was completely relaxed and knew that no harm would come to my voice singing this music--that was my revelation that I could sing Verdi."

European impresarios soon invited her to sing more Verdi roles: Leonora in "La Forza del Destino," Lucrezia in "I Due Foscari" and Amelia in "Un Ballo in Maschera." In December 1992, Ian Campbell, San Diego Opera general director, auditioned Crider.

"I first heard rumors in 1992 about this young American soprano who was singing the big Verdi roles, so I went to Zurich to hear her," Campbell said.

From his meticulously organized file in his office across from Civic Theatre, Campbell pulled Crider's card and read his observations from that audition: exciting vocal color, smooth production and elegant musical line. But the three words in bold letters at the bottom of the card tell the whole story: "Excellent--sign her!"

"We had not done an 'Aida' production in about 10 years," Campbell said, "because I was waiting until I found the right soprano. When I heard Crider sing, I knew that in a few years she would make a superb Aida. She demonstrated the best vocal technique of any spinto soprano I have heard in the last 20 years."

Campbell persuaded Crider to sing Verdi's Ethiopian princess for San Diego's 1996 season, a decision that contained a certain irony. Aida had been the one role Crider was regularly offered when she was furiously auditioning after completing her Zurich studies. But it was a role she steadfastly refused to accept.

"If I had started singing 'Aida' at 27 or 28, where would I be today?" she asked rhetorically. "Not singing is where I would be."

Although she reveals not a trace of bitterness, Crider acknowledges that in her opinion it was racism that prompted German opera directors to offer her the part of Aida.

"As a black woman, it was not easy for me in European society. Unless you have a name--like Jessye Norman--the small opera houses believed in the strictest form of typecasting."

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