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By Ken Trainor
You wouldn't think so, judging by how upbeat and energetic she is, but Christine Steyer has a seen a lot of tragedy. Actually, she sings a lot of tragedy. She died of consumption as Mimi in La Boheme and killed herself in Madame Butterfly. Soon she'll die of consumption again as Violetta in Verismo Opera Company's upcoming production of Verdi's La Traviata at the Arts Center in Oak Park (see sidebar).
"My voice type is just destined to die," says Steyer, who describes herself as a "full lyric soprano," which falls mid-range on the soprano spectrum.
"I have agility, which is nice," she notes. "That means my voice can move a lot."
And that's good because the role of Violetta covers a lot of ground.
"The first act," she says, "has a lot of high notes because she's a coquette. She's having a party. She's at the height of her profession, having a great time — the famous drinking song, the famous aria with all the coloratura. So you need the flexibility of high notes. Once that's over, her life takes a downward spiral, and the vocal writing gets much more serious, with longer phrases and longer notes. Now they're about deep emotion and drama. Then the third act has the death scene with lots of heavy singing."
Always a tricky thing to pull off, belting out an aria while you're dying of consumption.
"That's a good point," she says. Done poorly, "it can become farcical." As with so much in life, there's an art to it. At the beginning of the third act, the music is light, so she sings like someone in a weakened state. Then her lover arrives. She rallies, as does the music, "so you want to pound it out." Up and down a few more times, then she dies.
"In rehearsals we have to laugh because it can get so intense onstage," she says. "It's a very sad story for a number of reasons. It's a very simple, believable story, about three well developed characters, who are in a triangle. We can understand because we've probably all played those roles at some point in our lives."
The real "Violetta" was a courtesan in mid-19th century Paris. One of her lovers was the son of the famous novelist, Alexandre Dumas, author of The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. The son wrote about his affair in a novel, The Lady of the Camellias, which was later adapted to the stage. Verdi saw it and turned it into La Traviata, which roughly translates as "the fallen one."
"She's a sympathetic heroine," Steyer says. "She died at 23. She was brought up, really, without a family. She's brilliant, learned to speak several languages, was a brilliant conversationalist. It's a rags to riches to rags story. For a woman to rise to that level of financial independence with no family is impressive. Then this young man shows up and sees the inner Anna Nicole Smith, falls in love with her and wants to get her out of this way of life. No one's ever said those words to her before. Is he really telling the truth? Does something like true love really exist? She knows that when she gets older, her beauty will fade. She's also sick — never a cough without a reason — and she knows the money can be gone very quickly.
"Every time I do the role," Steyer observes, "I learn a little something more. And life teaches lessons too. Every time you do it, you add layers of understanding to the character. A lot of moral questions come up, which are very interesting. I noticed it this time more than in the past."
The journey begins with Journey
But it was Steve Perry, lead singer of the rock group Journey that got her started on this path.
"That's the reason I'm a singer today," Steyer says. "Several others my age have said the same thing. He was the big singer when we were growing up. Such soulful singing. It's not an operatic voice, but it's operatic for a pop singer. 'Open Arms' — if it wasn't for that song, I might be a hockey player," she says, laughing.
Steyer wasn't exposed to opera until her freshman year at Knox College in Galesburg. While majoring in Asian Studies and Art, she worked in the music library and one day put on a recording of Renata Tebaldi singing "Mi chiamano Mimi" from La Boheme.
"It was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard," she recalls. "I must have played it a hundred times — one of the greatest singers of all time singing one of the greatest arias of all time with a great orchestra and a great conductor. It moved me so much."
She took some voice lessons, then drifted away. In senior year her interest revived, and she decided to get a second degree in voice. Following another bachelor's degree and a master's degree from the University of Illinois Champaign, she was on her way.
"I got into opera late," she says, "but the nice thing is if you take care of your voice, your prime is between 45 and 55. It gets better with age as long as you don't ruin it. A lot of dancers are done by 30. I can do things now with my voice that I couldn't do two years ago. I constantly work on how to be a better breather. Ninety-five percent of singing is about breathing. Not only strength but subtlety. You can have just a little more control than you you had."
But as with most artistic paths, it's not easy cobbling together an income.
"It's really hard," she says. "The industry has changed a lot. The golden age of opera singing was the 1950s and '60s. Today the singers don't have the time to train the way they used to. There's more pressure to be thinner, to make a debut at a much earlier age. It was more about the voice then. Pavarotti and others debuted later and were bigger people. Back then, I was told, if you took a role like Traviata, you needed a year to prepare. They were making enough money so they could do that.
"In the old days, singers would sing until they were 65 or 70. Most people can't do that now. The pressures of the business have worn them out."
But that doesn't keep aspiring singers from trying.
"Today there are so many people who love the art form and come from all walks of life," Steyer says. "There's a need to sing. They heard some singer like I did. Something spoke to their soul."
She performs a lot. Steyer and a colleague from Lyric Opera recently won a competition sponsored by Hawaii Public Radio. She spent three weeks in England this summer with her husband, Paul Geiger, also a singer, performing in a musical version of Jane Austen's Persuasion.
"I do some crossover singing," she says. "I like to sing American music and show tunes." But she particularly loves art songs, usually favorite poems or famous texts set to music. "Art song is about the words," she notes. "It's easier on the voice and you do it in smaller spaces."
Steyer, her husband and tenor Franco Martorano started a small company, Bellisima Opera, a few years back. When the economy went bad in 2008, that effort stalled, but they continue to make appearances in schools, performing 20-minute programs for no more than 100 students at a time, mixing opera, show tunes, art songs, duets, and a little comedy.
"We walk around so we're close," she says. "We want them to actually feel the vibrations in our bodies."
The kids ask questions afterward, such as, "How long can you hold a high note?" The trio turns it into a competition and the kids time them.
Steyer supplements her performing income by teaching voice. "You put it together here and there," she says. Including a one-hour, one-woman show she put together with her husband's help, titled, "So You Want to be a Diva?" Steyer wrote the comic title song based on her own experiences. It offered an opportunity to laugh about the downside of leading an artistic life. She's scheduled to present it at the Nineteenth Century Club in October.
Steyer and her husband have lived in Oak Park since 2005. At the time, she was singing full time with the Lyric Opera Chorus and it was a straight shot down on the el.
With Violetta, she's making her first appearance with Verismo Opera, but she has known artistic director Bradley Schuller since they went through an apprenticeship program in the late 1990s.
"It was kind of like going to war together," she recalls, "a rite of passage."
As with her own opera company, Verismo is a small enterprise struggling to become sustainable during a difficult time for the arts. But smallness has its advantages.
"Sometimes the little companies get it right," she says. "Lyric Opera is 3,500 seats, so the acting is lost unless you're sitting up front. This production is up close. Bill Powers, the director, is a singer in the older tradition. He's really made this singer-friendly. The singers are in downstage positions. They're able to sing their best because of the staging.
"This is one of the greatest operas, and the performers do it justice in a way I haven't seen. The cast is very strong and the costumes are beautiful."
A full orchestra is beyond their means, but Steyer says even that has worked to their advantage. The pianist, Pedro Yanez, is "brilliant," she said, with resume to match. Better to go with a top-notch accompanist than a middle-range orchestra ensemble that costs much more and can't rehearse as much. "This serves the music best," Steyer says.
Ultimately, she observes, what brings people to productions like this is "the need to be moved. We all know what it's like to be the lover, to be so much in love that our heart gets broken into a thousand pieces. We know what it's like to be a victim of things beyond our control. This is one of the most human experiences you'll ever see on the stage.
"The first and last question you have to ask is, 'Am I moved? Am I believing it?' I think this production is going to get it right."