Kristin Lewis: La Diva, American Style
Arkansas-born opera singer Kristin Lewis made a ‘luminous’ Staatsoper debut as Aida in March
American soprano Kristin Lewis made opera news in Vienna on 14 March, making her debut as Aida in the revival premiere at the Wiener Staatsoper – heralded by the Austrian daily Die Presse that praised her sonorous range in the difficult role, from the deepest tones to blossoming, "even luminous" heights.
Sitting down with Lewis over tea, the sense of calm is palpable. Here is someone at peace with herself, her language strewn with words like "blessed" and "calling".
Called to sing opera
Where is the high-strung opera diva of legend? Instead, here is a native of Little Rock, Arkansas taking Europe on like a lazy nor’easter moving in from the west. Lewis’ "calling" led her thousands of miles from home – 5,228.9 to be exact – into the capable hands of another American in Vienna, opera singer-turned-voice-instructor Carol Byers.
"The collaboration was immediate and wonderful," says Lewis, who met Byers during her studies at the University of Tennessee School of Music Graduate Voice Young Artists Knoxville Opera Studio. In a recent reception following Lewis’ Staatsoper debut, Byers praised the singer as very hardworking and a great talent – a regard clearly more that of a sister and mentor than teacher and student.
Guarded about anything remotely touching on her personal life, Lewis makes unpeeling the complex layers of the artist a challenge. Young in her professional career, those who know the lyrico-spinto soprano agree that little in her life imitates the high drama of opera.
Now in Vienna and with Byers for nearly a decade, Lewis has been, in some ways, also in pursuit of herself. Describing being an opera singer as a "calling", she talks about her constant striving to reach the audience and of her search for "new ways to express character." Strikingly beautiful and easy-to-laugh, Lewis seems humble – save of course for her penchant for designer clothes, shoes and handbags.
"Kristin was never one who believed her own press," recalls a faculty member at the music department at the University of Tennessee, where Lewis was awarded a scholarship for the two-year, master in music performance programme. "She was always saying ‘I can get better, I can learn more, I can do more.’ She was always one to say, ‘So you need me to sing in the chorus?’ She was never one for self-promotion."
Duke Ellington’s home town
Born into what she describes as a "musical family", Lewis comes from the same southern American town that bred William Grant Still, the first black conductor of a major symphony and among the most important black classical music composers in America; Albert Hibbler, lead male vocalist for the Duke Ellington Orchestra; and former New York Times music critic Robert Palmer Jr. She describes herself as religious and a lover of jazz and gospel music, all of which she credits to her parents.
"I was very fortunate to have parents who recognised my talents very early and encouraged them," she says. Her career, she says, is "a blessing" as well as a passion, for which she abandoned a career in law. Singing in the university choir, faculty and students began to notice her "unique voice", she recalls, "more suited to classical". They suggested she consider a career in music.
"I think that opera chose me," she says. At the University of Tennessee, officials immediately knew they had a star on their hands.
"I have seen an awful lot of these kids come and go," says Carolyn Anderson, who has been an administrator at the University’s music school since 1995.
"Kristin stood out from the moment she came and auditioned. She had a big voice, and it was clear that she was going places."
In fact, "a big voice" is a term many critics have used to descibe a vocal bravado that has on more than one occasion washed out her duet partner.
But she is not a diva in the competitive, pretentious sense, says Anderson, leading a chorus of people in that assessment.
"Kristin came to the church that I went to at the time [and] sang a salute to the veterans of WWII, and I have to tell you there was not a dry eye in the house. She sang the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ …with such emotion and passion, she had veterans with tears streaming down their faces. She blew it out of the ballpark."
If there is anything that surprises Anderson, it is that she has not heard more of Lewis’ accomplishments. Interviews with Lewis are rare.
Since arriving in Vienna in 2005, she has performed at renowned opera houses in Venice, Cairo, Rome, Dresden, St. Petersburg and many others.
She is best known for her portrayal of the heroines of Giuseppe Verdi, her favourite composer. And on this subject, she unfolds:
"I have always been very careful to choose roles that suit my voice type, therefore I can honestly say that I have enjoyed all of the roles in my repertoire," she says. "Each role is different […] and allows for me to present a different set of emotions. […] I must find the connection between myself and the character. Where do this character’s emotions lie within me? How do I tap into them? How do I present them in a way that is true to the character and the composer’s intentions?"
This means understanding the style and intention of each composer, as well as supreme mastery of the technical difficulties.
In the steps of Jessye Norman
"Singing opera requires so much more than natural talent," says Lewis thoughtfully. "It requires years of constant technical preparation to sing successfully."
She reports that she is eagerly looking forward to her next production: Don Carlo with Teatro Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in Florence in May 2013, conducted by Zubin Mehta.
Earlier this year, Lewis returned to America to appear with the opera orchestra of New York’s concert presentation of Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, where one critic described her voice as displaying "powerful, attractive tone" and Lewis as "showing real promise".
"This," he wrote, "is a voice to be reckoned with." Whatever the description of the budding star, it almost always includes a comparison to Maria Callas and Jessye Norman.
"Kristin’s got an amazing instrument. Just amazing," says Anderson of the University of Tennessee. "They try hard not to compare people in the department. But it was clear to everybody that Kristin was going places – big places." ÷
Kristin Lewis’ next performances in Aida at the Staasoper will be in October 2013