Audrey Luna: on a high note

Portland State alumna returns home for a recital after soaring to the heights of the opera world

by BRUCE and DARYL BROWNE

A shock –a frisson of emotion, of sheer joy amidst a fountain of favorite songs –was the prevailing feeling among audience members Sunday afternoon at the vocal recital of Audrey Luna at Portland State University Recital Hall.

Luna’s name has popped into opera junkie conversation since singing her record-breaking A above high C (A6, do not try this at home) in the premiere of contemporary British-American composer Thomas Adès’s opera The Exterminating Angel (with Ms. Luna in the role of Leticia) at the Metropolitan Opera. We scoot forward on our seats in anticipation of more magical record-breaking notes. But there is so much more in the total package on stage, including acting, vocal endurance and, at times, gymnastics, as in another Adès opera, The Tempest.

Luna as Leticia in ‘The Exterminating Angel’

At her PSU recital, Ms. Luna, partnered with PSU faculty pianist Chuck Dillard, offered us the vocal works of three composers: Richard Strauss and Claude Debussy in the first half, and just one song, one glorious rhapsody, by Samuel Barber in the second. These three composers happen to be her favorites.

The five Strauss songs, plucked from three different song cycles, demonstrated his proclivity for athletic vocal lines, with leaps and coloratura for the singer, and a wide palette of harmonic colors. Strauss’ romantic-era vocal works are, according to English soprano Susan Gritton, “a sumptuous wave for the voice to surf, with wonderful opportunities for timbre and line.” Ms. Luna loosened as she rode those waves.

She and Dr. Dillard adhered like velcro on each song. Dillard’s tinkling scales and arpeggios in “Herr Lenz” were a delight. Professor Dillard heads the Collaborative Piano program at PSU, and his work in this recital defines “collaborative” and acknowledges the level plane upon which recital partners exist.

Dillard and Luna performed at Portland State.

The first of several selections from Six Songs (Sechs leider), “Ich wollt ein Strausslein binden,” set to the poetry of German/Austrian Clemens Brentano, was most compelling in tone and expression. “Amor,” from the same cycle, was Ms. Luna’s final offering on the recital, a fireworks display of vocal maneuvering.

With the Debussy, we were lifted even further by Ms. Luna’s rapturous voice and elegant delivery. “Quatre chanson de jeunesse” sets the work of three different poets, each evoking dreamy impressionistic landscapes populated with typical French characters of the time: Harlequin, Pierrot, Cassandre and Columbine. Luna’s command of the language, the images of each word of poetry, was a magic carpet of vocal line, peppered with particularized articulation of each word.

For me, Samuel Barber‘s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 was the perfect capstone of the afternoon. A song may be elevated three times over: first by the poet of the original text, second by the music of the composer and last, but not least, by the singer. It was a perfect illustration of a happy wedding of words and music, further heightened by the artistry of Ms. Luna.

There’s not a wrong word by the author, James Agee, a wrong note by Barber, nor was there a misstep by Ms. Luna. The work is new in her repertoire, but it sounded like an old friend. She captured perfectly the essence of the young boy questioning his identity, and wove a magic spell around the stunningly evocative text of Agee. With suave inflections and an afterburner of vocal range, Ms. Luna made us believe and we left transformed. That’s all one can ask.

My only regret of the entire evening was that the hall could not contain 1,000 voice students and teachers. Here was an exemplar of the finest traits to be found in such an undertaking: highest level of programming, great level of contrast in every feature of vocal delivery, delicious selections of poetry from three languages, French, German and English.

These hypothetical students would have learned a dozen voice lesson’s worth of precepts. They would have encountered excellence in artistic presentation, vocal line propelled by well-grounded breath management, variety of articulation, vocal declamation – “Singing the meaning,” as Harold Copeman says – and so many more niceties observable in the intimacy of recital.

Made in Oregon

Ms. Luna’s initial pathway to contemporary opera in general and Adès’ The Tempest specifically was laid by a Met Opera casting director who heard her sing a high Mozart aria and advised her to try out for the energetic role of Ariel. Nurtured by a mother who supported her with music lessons and other opportunities, the Salem native completed her music degree at Portland State University in 2001, then took post-graduate training at Cincinnati Conservatory of Music with Barbara Honn and ventured out to the Young Artists program in Pittsburgh and to summer gigs in Santa Fe Opera. Most formative was the mentoring she received in Prof. Ruth Dobson’s voice studio and the PSU Opera program. Ms. Dobson’s mentoring, says Luna “was foundational and vital” in her career.

Prof. Dobson can be credited with the ascension of the Portland State opera program and for fostering a long line of successful singers. Kelley Nassief, Charlotte Pistor, Peter Marsh, Clayton Brainerd, Angela Niederloh, and Oliver Mercer are but a few who have made significant contributions in the opera world, internationally and in our own musical playground. Prof. Christine Meadows herself is an alumna of the PSU program. And many more are out there. They are our people, as is Luna, and we welcome them home as often as possible.

Kudos to Prof. Meadows, Portland State University Opera Chair for more than a decade. Under her tutelage the program has expanded. Check out the Relating to Opera series, free to the public. And take in a Portland State opera production, one of the fine opera offerings available to Portland audiences.

Sunday’s audience were among the lucky few hundred to have heard this recital; others might have heard her sing at Lewis and Clark College last Wednesday in collaboration with Portland Concert Opera.

Her future? Flying this very week to Vienna for a 2011 opera by German composer Manfred Trojahn, Orest. Audrey Luna would like to sing the role of Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata. Bet she will someday. And Oregon will gladly welcome her back anytime.

Conductor and educator Bruce Browne is Professor Emeritus at Portland State University and former conductor of Portland Symphonic Choir and Choral Cross Ties. Daryl Browne is a musician, teacher and writer.

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