It’s such a truism that it’s passed into cliche: there are all too few singers who can even survive the average opera by Wagner or Strauss, let alone sing those works with undiminished strength and beauty of tone. Yet Swedish soprano Siv Wennberg, who tosses off fiendishly difficult roles like Salome the way other singers approach Mimi, is virtually unheard of in this country. Despite the worldwide shortage of dramatic sopranos, she has never been invited to sing at the Met, the Lyric, or the other international opera houses of North America. She has performed at every major European opera house except La Scala, in hard-to-cast roles like Leonore in Beethoven’s Fidelio, the empress in Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten, and Brunnhilde in Siegfried. She has been acclaimed as Wagner’s Isolde, as Senta (a signature role she’s performed over 100 times), and as Elisabeth by critics from around Europe, in a stunning array of adjectival fireworks. But these days she’s doing most of her singing in Sweden. Her fans claim she’s been blackballed; at the very least her obscurity here is hard to fathom.
Wennberg comes across in conversation as an intelligent singer, one who paces herself and does not like to take on roles before she can handle them. “Brunnhilde in Gotterdammerung [a more demanding role than in the other two Ring operas in which Brunnhilde appears] and Turandot are two roles I would very much like to sing–but not yet.” Currently she’s preparing for her first performance as Strauss’s Elektra, to be performed in Oslo early next year. “You must have time to put a big part in your head and in your heart, in your body and in your voice,” she says.
Wennberg’s reluctance to perform parts for which she doesn’t think she’s ready, and the time she spends getting them set in her brain, voice, and body, set her apart from most singers of our day. (Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, for example, reportedly required multiple prompters in the wings to get her through Der Rosenkavalier at Covent Garden in her first outing as the Marschallin.) It may also account for some of her lack of celebrity: the singers who are willing (and at least mostly able) to do the big, difficult, and in-demand roles when they’re called upon are the ones who get the big contracts and the big bucks.
And Wennberg has a reputation for being outspoken, a quality that colleagues and managements have never, throughout musical history, found particularly endearing. “There’s a lack of good personalities today in opera,” she notes. “There is no originality. Most of the singers of my generation are just doing bad imitations of the great older singers. It’s a pity. They’re singing well, but they’re all singing just like the others, and it’s boring. The opera world, the art, needs personalities. It’s absolutely imperative.”
Wennberg has made only one appearance in the United States, a concert version of act one of Wagner’s Die Walkure in Detroit in 1983. She’ll make her second tonight, April 5, in a benefit concert for the Swedish American Museum, accompanied by pianist Michael Wilson. The program will consist half of Scandinavian songs by Grieg, Rangstrom, and Sibelius, and half of the lieder of Richard Strauss, whom Wennberg calls “my house god, a composer I am singing from deep in my heart.”
The Swedish American Museum is at 5211 N. Clark; tickets are $12 ($10 for museum members, $5 for students and seniors); for more information call 782-8111.
In an effort to dramatize homelessness in America and help the public see through the statistics to the specifics of the problem, a new wave of what might be called street-people theater has begun to build. Recent local efforts have included L.A.P.D. Inspects Chicago, which featured homeless Chicagoans under the direction of members of the Los Angeles Poverty Department theater company, and Off the Streets, a troupe of current and formerly homeless actors who perform their touring production of a commercial comedy, The Foreigner, to raise funds and awareness.
The most recent such project is Address Unknown, the name of both a new ensemble and the show they have put together. Directed by Laura Kohler, an actress who also leads urban and wilderness living courses for Outward Bound, Address Unknown was developed by participants in First Step, a social skills and self-esteem training program run by Christopher House, a north-side social service agency.
Since January, Kohler has led theater-game sessions to encourage the ten or so company members to turn their own experiences into monologues and scenes for the hour-long performance. The results, she says, are candid and uncensored. Some are satiric–a depiction of the chaotic processing of needy people at a public aid office, for example–while others are more somber–an account of applying for a job while trying to hide the fact that one’s address is an overnight shelter, or an ex-hustler’s recollection of deliberately withholding knowledge of his AIDS infection from a man who has offered him a place to stay in exchange for sex. All come from the participants’ urgent need to tell their own stories directly, unobscured by the stereotyped images and self-promotional trappings of the commercial news media.
“They don’t have to like what we say,” says one cast member. “That’s not the point. We’re just showing what’s out there.”
Address Unknown plays Thursday through Sunday at 7 PM through April 14 at the Edgewater Theatre Center, on the second floor of the Edgewater Presbyterian Church at 1020 W. Bryn Mawr. General admission is free. The performances will be augmented by a lobby display of art and poetry by homeless people. For more information, call 472-0846.