amanda_forsythe

While Amanda Forsythe has appeared in well-known operas as Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and Verdi’s Falstaff, the bulk of the internationally recognized soprano’s career has been devoted to works by composers such as Marc-Antoine Charpentier, George Frideric Handel and Agostino Steffani. It’s no coincidence that all three happen to be from the Baroque era — roughly 1600-1750. While she has performed some Classical-era and contemporary works, such as Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar, the world of the Baroque is where she feels most comfortable and has enjoyed the most success.

That said, Forsythe is not, strictly speaking, an opera singer but more of a general classical soloist, because she spends more time in concert halls than she does in opera houses, where rehearsals and performances for a single production can demand six weeks or more. “So I’ll be in and out in a week, which for me is the only kind of lifestyle I could do,” she said. “With my kids at home, I don’t want to be away that much.” Indeed, the Boston-based soprano usually appears in just one out-of-town opera each season, which in 2016-17 will be her role debut as Pamina in Seattle Opera’s production of The Magic Flute in May.

Her next engagement in the concert realm will come Dec. 1-3, when she performs two works as part of an all-Handel program with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Chorus and guest conductor Nicholas Kraemer. It will mark her subscription debut with the orchestra and her first appearance in Chicago since 2004, when she performed with Chicago Opera Theater and appeared at the Ravinia Festival’s Steans Music Institute. She is excited about coming back to the city after such a long absence, and her parents are flying in for one of the concerts. “It should be fun,” she said. “I was just upstairs trying on gowns, trying to decide what to wear.”

Forsythe has a particular affinity for the music of Handel. “The Power of Love,” the only solo album among her 20 or so recordings, was released in October 2015 and is devoted to arias from her favorite Handel operas. “I sing through Bach, for example,” she said, “and I recognize the greatness, but it’s just not fun for me to sing. It just doesn’t suit my voice very well. But then there are certain Handel arias, where you pick up, and you sing through it once and you think, ‘Right, that sounds great.’ It fits really, really comfortably in the voice.”

One such piece is Handel’s “Silete venti,” one of two selections she will perform with the CSO. The Latin motet was composed in London some time between 1724 and 1730. “It’s really hard,” she said. “The final ‘Alleluia’ is going to keep me up at nights, but the rest of it feels fairly comfortable.”

The other piece, “Laudate pueri Dominum,” a cantata composed in 1707, doesn’t fit her voice as easily, she said. Forsythe She suspects it was written for a castrato, male singers who maintained their pre-pubescent high voices through surgical removal of their testicles. During the height of the phenomenon in the 18th century, some reached a kind of rock-star fame. The castrati were known for their extraordinary breath control, and this cantata has long lines with seemingly no place to take a breath. “And it will go low just when you want it to go high, and vice versa,” she said.

Forsythe is also a huge fan of Handel’s famed oratorio, Messiah, and always looks forward to the holiday season, when she typically sings in at least one presentation. This year, she will appear in the oratorio for the first time with Tafelmusik, a Toronto-based Baroque orchestra, and she’s excited because she has heard good reports on the ensemble from her friends. “I love Messiah. People get sick of it, but I never do,” the soprano said.

In March, the singer will go on a seven-concert European tour with French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky in a program titled “Orfeo, the Myth.” She’s a big fan of the celebrated artist, whom she met while singing in the Boston Early Music Festival’s production of Steffani’s opera Niobe, regina di Tebe. “Basically, whatever he wants to sing, I’m happy to show up,” she said. “It’s going to be an all-Philippe show with little glimpses of me. I’ll just wear some fabulous gown and look pretty next to him.”

As a teenager, Forsythe fostered no dreams of opera, Baroque or otherwise. After graduating from Cold Spring Harbor High School in Lloyd Harbor, N.Y., she began her studies at Vassar College in 1994, initially focusing on marine biology. Because she had been the star of musicals at her high school — “a big fish in a very small pond” — she also auditioned for voice lessons. But she was turned down, so she joined an a cappella group to get her “musical fix.” Later, a slot did open up in the music school, and she up ended graduating with a degree in music. “So it all worked out,” she said with a chuckle, “but in the meantime, I had a lot of different interests, and marine biology was only one of them.”

The soprano decided to pursue master’s studies at the New England Conservatory of Music, and again, things did not come easily. She was rejected from the opera workshop program, so she tried to get an audition for a Harvard Early Music Society production of Francesco Cavalli’s opera Giasone. She was told that it had already been cast, but a week later she got a call that a small part was available if she could try out right then. “The person who conducted the audition was my now-husband, Edward Elwyn Jones,” she said, “and it turned out to be very fortunate because not only did I meet him but [music director] Martin Pearlman from Boston Baroque came to the production and invited me to come and audition for his organization.”

That encounter with Perlman proved to be a turning point. It led soon after to her singing at a fund-raiser for Boston Baroque, an engagement that she thought at the time meant that she had arrived and her future was set. “But, of course, that’s not the way it went,” she said. “I would get a job and then there’d be a lull. And I’d get another job. It has been a very, very gradual climb, and it’s still sort of gradually climbing.”

That she performs primarily Baroque repertoire had a great deal, at least at first, with her living in Boston, where her husband serves as organist and choirmaster in Harvard University’s Memorial Church. “By virtue of being in Boston for such a long time, it’s just kind of the thing that they do here,” she said. “Boston Baroque, Handel and Haydn, Boston Early Music Festival — these are all organizations that I work with. I could have gone into new music as well. I won’t say that my voice doesn’t suit more standard repertoire, but in the States, certainly, I don’t get hired to do that kind of thing. In Europe, I will get hired to do more mainstream [works]. But over here, I was just getting hired to do Baroque, and it turns out that I love it. And now, I prefer it.”

Through it all, her specialized career path has earned her considerable esteem both in the United States and abroad, including her performance as Euridice on a Boston Early Music Festival recording of Charpentier’s La descente d’Orphée aux enfers, which won a 2015 Grammy Award for best opera recording.

“Well, I can’t complain, can I?” Forsythe said. “I’m at a wonderful place where I can say no to work, which I usually do, because I don’t like to be away from home. My agent despairs of me. But I do like to perform, so I just basically try to say yes to the great things like the Chicago Symphony or Covent Garden. Those are the yeses, and I let a lot of other stuff go.”

Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic of the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts journalist.