While soprano Erin Wall boasts an enviable operatic career that has taken her to some of the world’s top houses, she also devotes much of her schedule to concerts with symphony orchestras. “It’s not an accident. I love concert work,” she said from Boston, where she was finishing up a run in the title role of The Merry Widow at the Boston Lyric Opera.
Part of the appeal is practical. Such concerts require much less time away from her two small children than opera productions, which demand multi-week commitments. And part it of derives from growing up as the child of musicians who played in the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, and feeling comfortable in that realm. “It’s one of my favorite things to do, and I really enjoy the repertoire,” she said. “I love singing Mahler. I love singing Strauss — the Four Last Songs.”
While Wall has regularly served as soloist for Beethoven’s Choral Symphony, the work in which she has been heard most frequently is Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 in F-flat Major, “Symphony of a Thousand.” She first performed in the large-scale masterwork while on tour with music director Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony in 2006; the soprano was featured three years later on a Grammy Award-winning recording of it with the same forces. Since her debut in the work, she has gone on to 19 additional engagements involving Mahler’s Eighth — some 40 performances in all. “It’s one of the pieces I’ve had to start writing down and keeping track of,” she said.
But when she returns to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for concerts on June 23, 25 and 26, she will be heard in a work she has never previously performed: Bruckner’s Te Deum. “It’s not an enormous thing for the soloist, but I’m excited,” she said, noting that her father is a big fan of the composer. The CSO concerts also will mark her first time working with Riccardo Muti, the orchestra’s music director. Muti closes his final 2015-16 residency with this program, which also features Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9.
Wall, 40, who was born in Calgary and grew up in Vancouver, is well-known to Chicago audiences in part because she spent three seasons with the Ryan Opera Center, Lyric Opera of Chicago’s artist-development program in 2001-04. “It was everything,” she said. “I don’t know if I would even have a career if it wasn’t for that. That was basically a huge part of my training, and everything else came from that.”
After graduating from the program, she was hired the following fall to be an understudy for soprano Karita Mattila as Donna Anna in Don Giovanni, the kind of assignment that is usually non-eventful. But a day before opening night, Mattila informed Lyric officials that she was ill and might not be able to perform. “I was about as well prepared as you could be in that scenario, because she alerted them the night before, which a lot of singers don’t do,” Wall said.
Fortunately, Wall had just done a run-through with the understudies and had already had a costume fitting — just in case. So when Mattila confirmed that next day that she could not perform, Wall was ready. Christoph Eschenbach, who was conducting the program, spent an hour with her running over the music, and other Lyric staff members rushed to offer assistance. Wall’s last-minute appearance turned out to be a triumph. “It wasn’t exactly a replay of the hoary old Hollywood cliché,” wrote Chicago Tribune music critic John von Rhein, “but it was close enough, and it has bumped Erin Wall into a select circle of important young American opera singers who are achieving marquee status before the ripe old age of 30.”
Donna Anna has gone on to be Wall’s signature role, one that she will reprise next season when she makes her debut with the San Francisco Opera, one of this country’s big-three companies, along with the Metropolitan Opera in New York City and Lyric Opera. Before then, Wall makes an important role debut July 30-Aug. 24 at the Santa Fe (N.M.) Opera as the title character in Samuel Barber’s Vanessa, a Gothic-tinged psychodrama that has been unfairly neglected since its highly successful debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1958. This new production is directed by James Robinson, artistic director of the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, and conducted by Leonard Slatkin, a steadfast champion of Barber and other major 20th-century American composers.
Along with everything else she has done, Wall also has become something a specialist in contemporary opera. “I don’t seek it out, but it seems to seem me out,” she said. The soprano has, for example, performed in two staged productions and two concert versions of Finnish composer Kaija Saariho’s L’amour de loin, a mythic love story that premiered in Salzburg in 2000. “It’s a big challenge, but I love that piece,” Wall said. “I think it will endure.” Last summer, she starred at the Festival Opera de Québec in a production that will be seen at the Metropolitan Opera in 2016-17. “Fittingly, soprano Erin Wall was silken and powerful, regally sure at turning a searing leap into a sob,” wrote Opera News critic Lev Bratishenko.
In early 2015, she took part in a Lyric Opera of Kansas City production of “Silent Night,” which debuted in 2011 and won the Pulitzer Prize for composer Kevin Puts the following year. Based on the film “Joyeux Noël” (2005), it tells the story of a Christmas Eve cease-fire during World War I. “It’s really a fantastic role for a soprano,” Wall said. “You get to play a sort of strong, independent, free-thinking woman, which is fun as soprano. I’m very emotionally attached to that story now and to the piece.” She will return to the role Nov. 12-20 in a production mounted by Michigan Opera Theatre in Detroit.
Performing new operas, she said, is a treat because they offer the opportunity to work with living composers and to sing repertoire that doesn’t come with the weight of history attached to it and expectations about how it should be done.
Among Wall’s other activites in 2016-17 are debuts in two roles she has long wanted to perform: Ellen Orford in Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes and Desdemona in Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello. She understudied the latter role under Renée Fleming while studying at the Ryan Center and attended all the rehearsals, hoping one day she would get the chance to take on the role herself.
Wall has not returned to Lyric Opera since the 2011-12 season, but the wait will soon be over. “I’m coming back,” she said. “I’m not allowed to say what or when yet, but I am coming back.”
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic of the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts journalist.