When Angela Meade takes the Met stage this month as Elvira in Verdi's Ernani, the circumstances will bear little resemblance to the last time she sang the role here. That was back in 2008, when the young soprano stepped in at the last minute for an ailing Sondra Radvanovsky. At the time, she was a neophyte who had had virtually no rehearsal time and barely met her co-stars.
Now she's not only headlining the revival, opposite Marcello Giordani and Dmitri Hvorostovsky, she'll also make her Live in HD movie-theater debut in the production. Meade recently won the Richard Tucker Prize and was just named this year's recipient of the Beverly Sills Artist Award for young singers. Earlier this season, she shared the title role in the Met premiere production of Donizetti's Anna Bolena with none other than Anna Netrebko. So it's something of a surprise that Meade describes her road to leading roles at the Met as "a fluke."
"I didn't grow up listening to opera," she recalls of her childhood in Washington State. "My parents still don't listen to it unless I drag them to one! But I was participating in a community college choir and the director suggested I take some lessons. My teacher gave me a couple of arias, and I found out that it was a really natural thing for me."
It wasn't long before Meade dropped the pre-med classes she was taking to become a voice major at Pacific Lutheran University. She got into the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia, and while a student there she competed in the Met's National Council Auditions: and won. (Her experience in the final rounds of the Auditions was captured in Susan Froemke's acclaimed documentary The Audition.) Less than a year later came Ernani.
"I love to play strong characters, and I love that Elvira is not this weeping willow in the corner," Meade says of revisiting the role of her debut. "She's defiant and she knows what she wants, and she's not willing to just take whatever is handed to her on a plate. I really love her music, her aria especially: which you come in and sing right off the bat. It's a great way to start the evening."
A great way for the audience, certainly, but potentially unnerving for the soprano, particularly on the occasion of a Met debut. And yet, when Meade strode onto the stage to sing "Ernani, involami" in 2008, she somehow felt no fear. "It wasn't terrifying: it was probably the most exciting night of my life. And I felt like I was really ready for it."
It helped, too, that Meade is an artist who says she "thrives under pressure." And compared to the finals of the National Council Auditions, Ernani was a relative breeze. "It was more nervewracking being part of the competition than going out there and actually doing a production," she says. "When you're in the competition, you're so naked and exposed onstage: it's just you and the piano and no one else to help you onstage. When you're doing a full role, you get so into it that you kind of forget there's an audience out there."
As painless as her debut was, Meade is aware that her interpretation of the role of Elvira has nevertheless deepened and developed remarkably in the intervening few years. "I actually went back and listened to the recording from my debut," she says, "and I think my voice has really filled out in certain spots. I'm able to access my chest voice more easily, and I think it's richer. And the middle voice: it's still a work in progress, but it has come in and grown. So I'll be able to do many more shadings and dynamics."
The critics, for their part, are already enraptured with Meade's abilities. The New York Times recently declared of her performance at the Richard Tucker Music Foundation's gala, "Her sound was enormous, rich and unforced; her coloratura runs and passagework were dispatched with aplomb and precision." And even Meade's parents have given up their hope of their daughter becoming a doctor. "My father loves it now: now that he knows I can support myself," Meade jokes. "He had really wanted me to finish my doctorate, but I told him, 'This is an amazing opportunity and I need to see if it works. If it doesn't, I'll go back and get my doctorate.' But it panned out!"
Ernani opened February 2 and will be seen live in movie theaters on February 25.