Angela Meade was originally approached to sing the title role of Vincenzo Bellini’s tragic opera Norma for the 2010 Caramoor Festival in New York’s Westchester County. The Northwest native knew it would pose an immense challenge. The role “requires so much of a singer vocally, technically, emotionally,” Meade said. “Norma is consumed with so many different emotions. She’s betrayed by her best friend who is sleeping with the father of her children. She has so much anger that she wants to kill her children. She has a crazy amount of emotional demands.”
Moreover, Norma’s vocal range and dynamics are immense. Meade would have to sing loudly and quietly. She would have to focus on her legato and coloratura runs. And, of course, she sets herself on fire.
“I thought it was slightly insane, but then again, I prefer a challenge,” Meade told Oregon ArtsWatch. “I tried it on to see how it fit.”
It fit fine.
After her debut performance, reviews were over the top. “A brilliant new interpreter of Norma” the New York Post review gushed, adding “as a first attempt at this Mount Everest of a role, it’s simply a miracle.” Opera News was as effusive: It called her “Casta Diva” aria “nothing less than a revelation.”
And for the 34-year-old winner of the 2012 Metropolitan Opera’s Beverly Sills Artist Award, a plum prize that came with $50,000, Norma shines the brightest in her growing opera repertoire, says the rising star.
This weekend, Meade, whose soprano voice has been wildly praised as astounding, electrifying, powerful and plush by such New York heavyweight critics as Alex Ross and Anthony Tommasini, returns to her Northwest home as the darling and diva of this month’s Astoria Music Festival, where she’ll sing her favorite role at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 16, at Astoria’s Liberty Theater.
Meade can move her voice with aplomb and precision. After studying at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, at University of Southern California and at Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts, she has taken her voice across many stages and played diverse roles since her high-school-age karaoke days.
Best described as a light dramatic coloratura soprano, Meade’s agile, versatile voice is suited to bel canto, Mozart, and higher register Verdi roles. She has sung Donizetti’s Anna Bolena and Lucia di Lammermoor, and Elvira in Verdi’s Ernani. She covered Renee Fleming in Rossini’s Armida. She performed the countess in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. And she’s thrilled audiences and critics with each of these roles in the past four years at the star-studded Metropolitan Opera, though we’ve yet to see the New York City resident on the Portland and Seattle opera stages.
Still, Norma, the driven and dramatic Druid queen betrayed by love, is Meade’s most beloved role, she said recently from her parents’ home in Centralia, Washington, after returning from singing in Kiel, Germany.
Norma is “an immense role,” Meade said. “It takes a lot out of you. It’s emotionally draining. You want to do it again, [because] it’s such a high, but then you want to fall on the bed after singing it.”
Meade’s Norma has role models. When learning a part, she listens to several sopranos and multiple recordings. She studies Joan Sutherland’s top notes and coloratura technique. Listening to Montserrat Caballe, the Spanish soprano, helps her to refine her pianissimo. What does she get from Maria Callas, the Greek diva?
“I always turn to Callas when first singing a role,” Meade explained. “She expresses such emotion through her words. I like the way she colors phrases. I get a better understanding of the emotional impact.”
And Meade has been compared to the late Welsh singer Margaret Price, whose voice was described as “voluptuous,” “pears and cream” and “an extraordinary instrument.” Meade says she is “totally flattered “by the comparison to Price, who is perceived as more of a second-tier opera singer than are Callas, Caballe and Sutherland.
Bel canto operas have been in and out of vogue. At the moment they are in. “It’s strange,” Meade said. “There seems to a resurgence, and I hope I’m at the center of that.”
Right now, she is finding herself at the center of the opera world, although she has endured discrimination about her body type. “We are a 100 percent visual society,” Meade said. “Often the stage director decides who gets a role. And the better singer is pushed aside for the less ideal singer who has the character’s `look.’ I’ve lost roles based on appearance. I deal with this every day. But I’d never trade my vocal gift to be a size 2.”
Meade is booked through 2017, though not every date is taken, and none is booked in Portland. At the moment, she is working consistently performing bel canto roles. Meade’s bel canto concentration is just a beginning, she says. She plans to add more Verdi, Strauss, Mozart, Rossini — and possibly lighter Wagner, down the line. Her versatility serves her well, as it does opera fans scanning the stage for the next great voice.
“I hope to have 80 roles under my belt in the future,” she said. “I have a friend who sings Carmen non-stop. That’s a blessing and a curse.”