Brenda Harris: Queen for a day

Entertainment,Music,Emily Cary

Soprano Brenda Harris has sung all three Donizetti queens: the title roles in "Maria Stuarda" and "Anna Bolena" and Elizabeth in "Roberto Devereux," a recounting of her love affair with Essex. The tragic outcomes these women in power experienced or precipitated were choreographed by those around them. On Sunday she becomes the source of that power when, as Elisabetta, she orders the execution of her cousin. Washington Concert Opera's production of "Maria Stuarda" also features Georgia Jarman in the title role, Patrick Carfizzi as Talbot, Troy Cook as Cecil and Michael Spyres as Leicester.

"Donizetti's roles come with a pretty big tool box of requirements that suit my voice," Harris said. "He is a great composer who imbues his compositions with strong characterizations of the nobility, and yet he makes them accessible and allows me to use my own musical language.

"This is my second appearance with WCO in as many seasons [after playing Odabella in Verdi's 'Attila' in 2012], and I especially adore working with Antony Walker. He's a brilliant conductor and singer who empathizes with the cast and has that rare combination of 'push me -- pull you' that makes for wonderful collaboration. I especially enjoy the concert opera format because it only involves wearing a beautiful gown, not having to deal with rigged steps and other potential traps onstage."

Harris comes to Washington a bit indirectly from singing the title role in "Turandot" with the Sarasota Opera. By the time she was ready to return home to Connecticut, a case of bronchitis evolved into an ear infection. Unable to fly, she endured a 28-hour train ride from Florida. Knowing she had to get back into shape quickly, she trained under the guidance and encouragement of her husband and vocal coach, Braeden Harris, with the zeal of a gym regular.

Washington Concert Opera presents 'Maria Stuarda'
» Where: George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium, 21st and H streets NW
» When: 6 p.m. Sunday
» Info: $40 to $110; 202-364-5826;

Their collaboration began in the chorus program at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis where they were immediately attracted to each other. Both were still in school and intent on singing careers. This was a new ambition for Harris, who grew up on a pig farm in Illinois. She had intended to teach music until an assignment to sing in an opera chorus introduced her to a new world.

In time, her husband realized that his calling was as a coach, not a performer. His success in teaching his star pupil is exemplified by her triumphs with such companies as the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera, the Canadian Opera Company, Minnesota Opera and Washington National Opera, where she has sung both the title role in Handel's "Agrippina" and Donna Anna in "Don Giovanni."

Her repertoire is both large and eclectic, moving easily between Baroque, standard and contemporary opera. In the title role of "Norma," she has wowed audiences at the Minnesota Opera, Portland Opera, Tulsa Opera and Michigan Opera Theatre. Earlier this season, she sang the role of Abigaille in Verdi's "Nabucco." Other favorites include Leonora in "Fidelio," Madame Lidoine in "Dialogue of the Carmelites," Lady Macbeth in "Macbeth," Violetta in "La Traviata" and the title role in Barber's "Vanessa." On the concert stage, she has appeared often with the Oratorio Society of New York at Carnegie Hall, as soloist for Vaughan Williams' "A Sea Symphony" with the Utah Symphony conducted by Keith Lockhart, and as guest artist performing Wagner and Verdi selections for the Austin Lyric Opera gala and Strauss' "Four Last Songs" with the Austin Symphony.

"A steady diet of anything is bad, so I work on all muscle groups by singing both Italian and German music," she said. "Donizetti does a good job of describing Elisabetta through his bel canto music. She is very mean and ends up giving the order to behead Maria, but if you know history, you understand that much is involved and she put it off as long as possible. Because the composer is Italian, he goes with the Catholic point of view that she has martyred Maria."

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