Soprano Christine Brewer grabs her pashmina and breathes through its soft weave the minute a fellow traveler sneezes. "My husband and daughter would probably say I'm a little on the paranoid side. If someone starts coughing I usually get up and move."
The care and maintenance of her voice are pretty boring, she says. Almost 90 percent of what she drinks is water, from a liter bottle she tucks into her music bag and refills constantly. For spice, herbal tea occasionally. A glass of dry, dehydrating wine only if she's not rehearsing or performing the next day. Coffee, never. And at least eight hours of sleep, which is tough when your blood's still zinging from Wagnerian arias at 2 a.m.
"I usually just go back to my apartment, have a beer, look at e-mail, call my husband," she says. "I do have the gift of being able to sleep anywhere. I'm about to fly to Paris, and I'll be asleep before the plane takes off."
And if airplane germs make her sick? "I always make sure I have the ingredients for chicken soup: carrots, celery, onions, egg noodles, and frozen chicken breasts. I put some parsley in it, and some really hot cayenne pepper that helps open up your sinuses. In Chicago, we had such a long run [of Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten] that a cold went through the entire cast. I started with the chicken soup and ate it for every meal, even breakfast. I was able to sing through it, every performance."
Singing in the United Kingdom is heavenly, she says, because it's rainy there. For Santa Fe operas, she shows up a few days early, drinks lots of water and lets her lungs adjust to the elevation. "Oh, and sometimes I put Vaseline in my nose just to keep everything moist."
The glamorous life of a diva can be over-reported.
Brewer is not even prone to tantrums: "I try not to shout," she says. No road rage? "I gesture." No yelling at her husband from time to time? "Well, he would probably say yes. But I try to keep it to a minimum." She turns serious. "Years ago, when I was teaching and directing, I saw a vocal therapist, because I was having trouble with my speaking voice. She said, 'Speak always as if you are in the same room.'"
Brewer religiously avoids restaurants with smoke, live music, or loud conversation; she's not about to strain to be heard. The same holds for performing in lousy acoustics: "If you start pushing your voice because you are in a dead hall, you're only going to hurt your voice. I figure it is the hall's responsibility. And the audience already knows if they have a wonderful hall or a dead hall."
Just as a piano can only hold so much tension before it breaks, Brewer's voice can only soar so high for so long: and most of her roles, these days, are big: Isolde, for example, never leaves the stage in Act I or Act II, and Tristan und Isolde is a five-hour opera.
"Physically it's very draining," she says. "You have to learn to pace yourself. I studied with Christine Armistead at Washington University. At first I freaked out; I said, 'I can't do this.' She said, 'Let's just look at one scene at a time, just be in that moment. So I wasn't thinking about Act III in the middle of the first act."
The danger of singing heavy, dramatic music, Brewer says, is that "the music is so seductive it makes you want to start singing more passionately and maybe pushing your voice a little bit. I've learned to hold back and let the orchestra do it for me. I think of the orchestra as being my thoughts, and I ride on top of it. So I don't have to push to make something happen; I just have to think of my words and let them motivate me. I find it actually helps save my voice. Usually by the end of an opera I feel like I could sing it all over again."
For balance, she books recitals and chamber music. "Singing Mozart and Handel keeps my voice very flexible, and useful, in a way," she remarks. She's also been coaxing her manager to book more concert performances: "Then all I have to worry about is making beautiful music. Not 'Oh, I'm going to have to lie down while I'm doing this'": or balance, goatlike, on a steeply raked stage, as she did to express one director's vision of Tristan und Isolde.
The only hazard of concert opera is that all the instruments: brass, woodwinds, percussion, vocal cords: are onstage together.
"Sometimes that becomes a balance issue that the conductor has to address," she says. "But David [Robertson] is very good about keeping the orchestra a bit quieter."
One allows a fine instrument to warm up slowly, when moved: and in Fidelio, Beethoven allows the soprano to do the same. "Leonore starts out low and gets higher and more dramatic toward the end of the opera: and by then my voice is totally warmed up," Brewer says happily.
Christine Brewer sings Leonore in the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra concert performance of Fidelio, March 28, 30, and April 5.
Jeannette Cooperman is staff writer for St. Louis magazine.