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Reflection: Richard Gaddes highlights early times, continued humanity of Christine Brewer

Richard Gaddes introduces Christine Brewer at the Walk of Fame ceremonies Wednesday.
Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio

On Wednesday, Christine Brewer was properly awarded a star on St. Louis' Walk of Fame in the Delmar Loop. To think about her journey there, it is useful to go back 34 years, when Opera Theatre of St. Louis had become the regional American opera company to watch. And that dates to 1976, when Richard Gaddes, a fearless young British impresario, was brought to town to establish the company.

Starting out in the business, Gaddes worked in London at the Wigmore Hall, where he established a noontime concert series for young singers. Later he formed his own music management business, and later still came to America at the behest of John Crosby to work at the Santa Fe Opera, which Crosby founded. From the Wigmore Hall days on, Gaddes was known for having extraordinarily keen eyes and ears for talent, and for encouraging talented young singers.

Thanks to the arrival of critics from all over the place in Webster Groves to visit this musical and dramatic wunderkind and to write about it, word about Opera Theatre went on tour nationally and internationally. Importantly, its reputation went from strength to strength locally and regionally as well. St. Louis came to love operas performed in intimate surroundings with fresh, young voices, singing their hearts out in English.

Early on, a very special group of music lovers began driving to St. Louis from Missouri’s Pike and Lincoln counties to see and hear the work of the company. Two of these visitors — Ann Mackey and the indomitable Elizabeth “Bunny” Herring — were particularly enchanted by company’s productions. They told Gaddes they’d like to bring opera up to Clarksville. Gaddes and artistic director Colin Graham paid a visit. This was just the sort of thing guaranteed to captivate Gaddes and Graham. And so, a most remarkable production of John Gay’s “The Beggar’s Opera” was born and delivered to Clarksville in late summer, 1982.

“The Beggar’s Opera” is the antithesis of highfalutin. It was given its premiere in 1728 and was a howling popular success, playing (for those times) an unheard of 62 performances at the Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre in London. The show provides satire times two — one pokes fun at the government of Sir Robert Walpole and the other goes after Italian operatic traditions and devices. Gay collected popular ballads and composer Johann Christopher Pepusch arranged them in to a reasonably coherent whole.

Christine Brewer in Clarksville
Credit Patty Kofron
Christine Brewer in Clarksville

The 1982 show in Clarksville was remarkable for the vitality and professionalism of the production and the loving-hands-at-home attention lavished on the opera folks by the people of the town and countryside. Cast members were put up in spare bedrooms and guest quarters of local supporters. Church ladies stirred up sumptuous feasts for the cast and crew. Rehearsals moved up Highway 79, along with stage properties, costumes, a huge box of wigs and other paraphernalia came too. At Clarksville, the show took shape in the old barn, renamed the Apple Shed.

If all this sounds amateur hour-ish, it wasn’t. And all of this is the wrapper for an important success story, celebrated in fine style Wednesday on a sidewalk on Delmar Boulevard, not too far east of Skinker.

“The Beggar’s Opera” included singers who were fledglings — along with one international celebrity, the mezzo-soprano Elaine Bonazzi. A number of the young singers went on to processional careers as singers and teachers.

But back to Clarksville. 

Appearing in the show in a tiny part was a woman from Illinois who’d taught school and who sang in church choirs, notably the choir of the Episcopal Church of St. Michael and St. George in Clayton. This singer is Christine Brewer, recognized by the BBC Magazine as one of the 20 greatest sopranos of all time.

Christine Brewer
Credit Christian Steiner
Christine Brewer

On Wednesday, before a large and adoring assembly of family, well wishers, beneficiaries of her generosity and teaching, music lovers and opera lovers and neighbors and friends, she was given her star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame. Blueberry Hill’s Joe Edwards, the founder of the celestial walk, made a presentation any award recipient would be delighted to hear.

Edwards summoned Gaddes to the podium. Gaddes, who can spot talent from the second balcony, recognized early on the significant operatic potential of Brewer’s voice and temperament.

And so she moved quickly from choir stalls to the chorus of Opera Theatre, and from there to Clarksville, where as Mrs. Slammekin she sang her first solo part in “The Beggar’s Opera.” 

Gaddes’ speech was six lanes of finely paved memory lane. He recalled Brewer’s career on the main stage of Opera Theatre, and her debut in her first major role anywhere — Ellen Orford in Sir Benjamin Britten’s titanic “Peter Grimes.” She sang the title role in Richard Strauss’s “Ariadne auf Naxos" here and became Elizabeth I, in Britten’s “Gloriana,” an opera commissioned to celebrate the coronation of Elizabeth II, and performed here in 2005.

He reviewed her international career in the leading opera houses of the world, her performances in concert with the greatest orchestras of the world, and her singing under the batons of the most celebrated maestros of our time. Her repertory is exacting: Weber, Wagner, Beethoven, Strauss, Wagner, Britten, Janacek. Her range is stratospheric; her orchestra-taming vocal muscle was evident at Powell Hall recently when she sang, with such vigor and moving intelligence, the Immolation Scene from Wagner’s “Gotterdammerung.”

As grand and artistically important as all that is, Gaddes recognized the true measure of Brewer’s greatness, which is her humanity.

He spoke, from years of experience, about how a little bit of fame and even a small monetary fortune often serve to infect once decent, well-behaved artists and change them into obnoxious, narcissistic monsters.

Not Chris Brewer.

In contrast to the tiresome grand diva-hood of some of her colleagues, Brewer’s magisterial artistry shares space with a gentle and kindly person who is respectful of and charitable to others. Her politics, as one might imagine, steadfastly embrace the underdogs: the poor and disenfranchised and the apparently disposable.

Although she is comfortable any place in the world, the center of her universe is Lebanon, Ill., where she lives with her husband, Ross Brewer, a beloved social studies teacher, now retired, and with her dogs and cats. She is volubly proud of her daughter, Elisabeth, who is a nurse, and of her crown-prince grandson, Oscar, who occasionally stole the show on Wednesday from his front row seat at the ceremony.

The Opera-tunities from Marissa, Ill., are all fans of Christine Brewer.
Credit Robert W. Duffy | St. Louis Public Radio
The Opera-tunities from Marissa, Ill., are all fans of Christine Brewer.

For years, she has sponsored musical enrichment programs and maintained a close relationship with children at the Marissa Elementary School, passing on her love of music to a younger generation. Her protégés at Marissa, Ill., named themselves Opera-Tunities. They traveled from Marissa on Wednesday to hear a rehearsal at Powell Hall and to present their annual contribution — a truly big one this time — to Music Director David Robertson. They then made their way from the hall to connect with the star and see her new star in the walk.

Brewer has lasting friendships with men and women in high places all over the world, and less exalted men and women who live nearby in Illinois and Missouri. For those of us in the latter category, each year she and Ross throw a hootenanny in their back yard. It rocks and rolls along with all sorts of music, and groans with fried chicken and pies.

If her schedule accommodates a request, she’s a pretty easy touch. For example: Once upon a time a Lebanon pal asked her if, to add cachet to a ping-pong tournament he conducts annually in his basement, she would come over and sing the National Anthem? She obliged; the pal was stunned.

She gives benefit concerts all over the place, and performed twice for the St. Louis Beacon’s annual gala holiday concerts – once singing songs by Wagner and Strauss, and again, as Josephine in a concert production of “H.M.S. Pinafore.” She is a regular in the 9/11 memorial concerts at the Sheldon Concert Hall sponsored by the Interfaith Partnership. After the death of Michael Brown, she starred in a Concert for Peace & Unity at Normandy High School, performing with other notable artists.

Gaddes told the audience about a lesson learned from the legendary Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson. Besides coaching Brewer musically, Miss Nilsson gave her advice about survival in the music business. “Stay close to the earth. Then when you fall down, it won’t hurt so much.”

And then, with Maestro Stephen Lord as her accompanist, she sang two favorite songs — Ida Bell Firestone’s “If I Could Tell You,” and “Mira” from “Carnival.” Her voice was big and bright and given the star and the reception, one really cannot fault her for levitating just a bit above the earth, As she sang, her voice was filled with emotion, and you could see in her eyes she was one happy woman. You could see, too, she was weeping, but just a little.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.