Photo: Soprano Meagan Miller in the Teatro Massimo/Palermo production of Puccini's LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST.
When I was working at Tower, some of my most frequent customers were the students from the Vocal Department at Juilliard. They were always wanting CDs of music they were working on or that someone had told them might really suit their voice. And they wanted to hear singers from the past with similar voice types to their's, thus inspiring themselves by listening to such immortals as Marian Anderson or Leonard Warren.
One striking girl who I came to know was the soprano Meagan Miller. I heard her singing at Juilliard lieder evenings and was very excited for her when she won the Met Auditions in 1999. After that things really took off for her and we lost contact. But, that's the best thing about Facebook: re-connecting with people. Now I've been following her career closely, and am very excited that on february 9th I'll have a chance to hear her again when she gives a recital at Merkin Hall here in New York (details at the end of this article).
I thought this would be the perfect time to find out about Meagan's thriving career in Europe, to learn about her future plans and ask her what she'll be singing at her Merkin recital. I sent her some questions to which she gaciously found time to reply while she was in Hamburg singing Contessa Almaviva in Mozart's NOZZE DI FIGARO:
Q: First off, I would like to ask these questions that always fascinate me about singers: how did you 'find' your voice? When did you realize that you had something special in your throat? At what point did you know "This is what I want to do!"?
A: I cannot remember a specific moment when I discovered my voice, but I remember musicians talking to me about my voice and how it was special – for example, it was brought to my attention that I had vibrato when I was about 10, and other kids did not. Generally, when I was a student, people always noticed my singing voice positively.
The biggest turning point for me took place in the summer of 1991, while I was still in high school. I had been chosen to attend the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Arts, which sadly no longer exists, because the funding was cut. There, I heard my first recordings of famous singers (Marilyn Horne made a lasting in impression on me), saw my first live opera (Don Pasquale – the Wild West production), learned how to practice and – most importantly-- got to sing and act Letitia in a scene from the Old Maid and the Thief – I did not realize that it was supposed to be hard to trill and sing staccati and high notes- I just did it, and loved how it felt – also, I was a natural ham, and people responded to me as a performer. That was when I knew I wanted to be a singer.
Q: Do you think a voice is 'a gift from God' or that it is something that must be developed? I guess what I am really asking is, how much of it comes from nature and how much from hard work?
A: Hmmm – this is a tough one. If we are talking just voice, then I do think it is basically from nature – head shape and size, body traits, cord length and thickness – these things determine so much about the sound and range of a voice. But as special as it may be naturally, any voice must be trained in order to project and last.
When I think about other qualities it takes to be a singer – such as the ability to learn singing technique, or to learn languages, as just 2 examples – I have to say they are altogether different, and are talents in themselves.
Then there is that indefinable spark that is stage presence and musicality and psychology and life experience combined – that thing that makes an audience unable to look away – and is that from nature, or is it a form of inner freedom and joy, that we can all access?
A lot of this is personality and upbringing, and it may be even cultural heritage. But no matter where it comes from, an extremely talented person must still work hard in order to be successful – to know themselves, to discover their learning process and to implement it, to protect their special point of view that makes them fascinating - even in the face of rejection or hardship, and to learn to project and use their voice healthily and expressively. In my case, it took me about 10 years to really feel like I truly knew how to sing – although I was performing all along.
Q: What do you like most about singing? What aspects of it come easily for you and which things do you need to work at? For instance, learning music and words for a new role...some singers absorb one or the other more quickly. How do you deal with that process?
A: Well, I guess what I like most about singing would be the music itself, and then the physical feeling of singing well – when my voice is free and flowing. Best of all is the feeling during those rare performances when the audience is completely there with you, and you can be aware enough to be with them, too.
In terms of the learning process, I can be a perfectionist with my technical work – that will be a never-ending pursuit -- and I always work to let go of that perfectionism, and to allow my current state to be good enough!
Also, for me the processes of learning the words and notes are very intertwined – I spend a lot of time accessing my imagination to prepare music – and that involves gathering all my responses to and ideas about the poem, character, melody, harmony, rhythm – and amplifying them, going as far as I can in my practice – and the learning and memorization happens somewhere in all that. The biggest danger of this approach is that I become so passionate about my ideas that it’s tough to yield to a conductor or director who asks me to do something else. I guess I have to work on that, too!!
Q: Your European career has really taken off lately. I've seen some stunning photos of you as Ariadne in Vienna (one example above) and I know you recently sang Eva in MEISTERSINGER in Leipzig. Tell us about venturing into the heavier repertoire and the experience of singing these great roles.
A: I am very fortunate to be as active as I am in Europe! I find that presenters there are more able to hear a singer, and immediately take the risk of hiring them, which has been a big blessing for me!
In terms of the new repertoire, I can tell a piece is right for me when I can do with my voice exactly what I hear in my imagination for each phrase, and not worry about putting out “enough voice” or “cutting” the orchestral texture. If a piece is well-composed, and your voice is right for it, your natural instincts about how to sing the role should be enough to sail over the band in each moment. Ariadne definitely feels this way. Especially the gorgeous quintet in Meistersinger fits the bill for me in this way! And, I have to say, I love allowing my voice to just open up and pour out in this music--that is unmatchable!
Q: The Palermo FANCIULLA DEL WEST seems to have been a special success (photo above of Meagan as Minnie in Act II of the Palermo production). Tell us about the experience. Palermo has a reputation for very demanding audiences. Did you find it that way?
I found the audiences in Palermo to be great! The Fanciulla was so much fun – I can barely believe how beautiful the score is, and I was lucky to be singing with such fantastic, fantastic colleagues, most especially Maestro Bruno Bartoletti. And, the role, although it is so long and demanding, was incredibly satisfying – so much to sing, so many emotions to portray, such a great score, a fun setting and costumes, a happy ending, being one of 2 women in the whole cast, and the horse and guns… who would not enjoy that!?
Q: What are your future plans? And what is your dream role?
A: Well, during the rest of this season, I will sing Nyssia in Zemlinsky’s Koenig Kandaules at the Vienna Volksoper in a beautiful Art Deco production, Braunfels’ Te Deum at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, more Evas in Leipzig, and Danae at the Bard Summerscape festival, which will be a real highlight.
As regards next season and onward, I won’t spoil the surprise by getting too specific, but I have a lot of house and role debuts coming up. The houses are the Vienna State Opera, Berlin, Tokyo, Luxembourg, Monte Carlo, Washington Opera, plus returns to Hamburg -- and concerts in Rome and Edinburgh. Some of my upcoming roles are Elisabetta in Don Carlo, Desdemona, Donna Anna, Strauss’ Daphne, Elisabeth in Tannhäuser, and more Evas, Ariadnes and Minnies.
As far as dream roles go, I have sung a number of them, but I would have to mention Arabella and the Marschallin, and Elsa in Lohengrin. I also have a special love for Beethoven’s Leonore. It is also my dream to keep Mozart and recitals woven throughout my career along with all of the bigger operatic rep. Haha – and every time I sing Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, I feel like a dream is coming true.
Meagan as Eva in DIE MEISTERSINGER at Leipzig with Wolfgang Brendel as Hans Sachs.
Q: Who were/are some of your idols or sources of inspiration in the world of opera?
A: I have always loved Steber, Tebaldi, Callas, Moffo and Te Kanawa – all for different reasons, plus Marilyn Horne (she was my first idol), Giuseppe Giacomini, and George London. And one of my current teachers, Hilde Zadek. And then there is the art song world… let’s just say I am ready to appreciate something in everyone! I love and learn from so many singers! I am inspired by anyone who is truly in touch with their uniqueness.
Q: What advice would you give to students who aspire to a career in opera?
A: First, get your instrument in shape – you are a professional athlete! – so that you can do with your voice exactly what you hear, and what you are asked to do! Second, identify exactly why you want to sing, and nurture and protect that quality above everything else!! That is the only thing that can make an artist irreplaceable (and, by the way, happy).
Q: Aside from singing, what are your interests and how do you like to spend your free time?
A: I love to cook – I am a vegetarian, and I can do about a million things with a can of beans. Also, I love to go for long walks in nature, identifying birds. I also love all animals. I meditate daily, and read a lot of biographies – I am fascinated by people’s stories. And, I love to go out dancing in clubs – but really just to dance! And my friends know, my favorite thing in the world is to have long, personal, philosophical, open conversations – haha!—I hope the other people like these talks as much as I do!!
Q: Is there a quotation or thought that you find inspiring?
A: Lots – I love quotes! But one stands out for me today: Barbara Cook, in a masterclass I saw her give at Juilliard, told us stories about auditioning in New York, and her conclusion that she had to truly be herself: “I realized that no one was as good at being me as I was!” This gets us away from any ideas of competition, and away from any feelings of scarcity in the world.
Watch Meagan singing part of Ariadne's monologue from the Vienna production 2009 here.