Belonging to the Two Percent
Amanda Halgrimson's muscles are cooperating at present. In Mozart's "Magic Flute" at Berlin's renowned "Deutsche Oper", she, as the "Queen of the Night", and the violins exchange notes in their highest registers. At that point, the fruits of her skill and unending practice are striking.
"It's like running the marathon," Amanda explains. "You can't just get up one day and run 26 miles. It takes a lot of practice. But the fun thing is that once you get to a certain age, all the muscles start working together and you don't feel like you're fighting yourself. Sometimes your muscles don't do what you want them to do because they're not developed enough. Then suddenly, one day, you can sing all the time! It all works, all the phrases come out right. That happened to me maybe three years ago. Singing is now really fun."
But success didn't come quickly to the Illinois Lutheran. After graduating in music from Northern Illinois University at Dekalb, she toured the eastern U.S. for two years with the National Opera Company of Raleigh, North Carolina. Hoping for bigger things, she then moved to New York City. "I lived there for one-and-a-half years and did 80 auditions," she recalls. "But I never got a job. That's a lot, and it was pretty depressing. I was eating carrot sticks, crackers and peanut butter because I didn't have any money."
"But I had a great roommate in New York," Amanda adds. "We got each other through a lot. It was tough; there was a lot of rejection. My friend's also a Christian, which helped me a great deal." Her friend later abandoned singing and is now a lawyer in California.
"Then I won the Met [Metropolitan]," Amanda beams. "First, I won the district, then the finals. The finals are a major annual audition at the Met in New York, and all the big singers were there as my judges. So, after losing 80, I won that one. I had auditioned for that competition in Chicago four or five times, but never won."
After winning the Met competition in 1987, offers began arriving. One contract guaranteed her 11 performances in Amsterdam, which became her European debut. "I was in Amsterdam for six weeks, then it was over. That's how my business is. After that, I went on an audition tour to Switzerland and Austria, getting into a new production of "The Magic Flute" in Vienna. I got everything I auditioned for in Europe, even if they were all the "Queen of the Night" role, and this after not getting any work at all." Suddenly, my life was here in Europe.
"The Magic Flute" [Die Zauberfloete], being the most popular opera in the world, is offered by nearly every opera house. Yet the "Queen of the Night" role is the hardest to cast because of its extremely high notes. "So," Amanda explains, "most of the people who sing the 'Queen', are specialized in that. Either you start that, and are then lucky enough, as I am, to do other things, or you get stuck in the role and just keep doing it."
A recording of Mozart's "Don Giovanni", directed by Roger Norrington and featuring Amanda Halgrimson, is sold by an international record firm. Amanda has protected her voice by limiting the amount and variety of roles she sings. A damaged voice is often characterized by a broad vibrato.
In Switzerland, the singer rented an apartment in St. Gallen and bought furniture for the first time. "I decided to move to Switzerland because I had lot of performances in Zurich and St. Gallen," she explains. "I had lived out of my suitcases in other people's apartments, and this was when I was 32-33 years old. My one-room apartment was the smallest thing you could imagine. But it was mine, so that was very exciting."
After an additional audition at the Met, Amanda chose to sing "Queen of the Night" for Berlin's "Deutsche Oper". "The contract from the Met wasn't what I had hoped it would be," she explains. "But Berlin offered the premier of 'The Magic Flute' plus ten performances and a very nice salary."
After being in Berlin for an additional season, she was hired to sing "Don Giovanni" there. "The Deutsche Oper was happy with that, so they then asked me if I wanted to come and stay. I said 'yes'. By then I was pretty pooped from all the running around."
"I just had my meeting with the director," Amanda adds. "I'm going to have another contract until 1997. I'll be getting additional big roles: We're doing Verdi's 'Il Trovatore' [The Troubadour] next year."
She continues: "In this business, 2% of all singers make a living at singing. I'm very proud that I'm one of those 2%. But I'm also thankful, because I remember what it was like not to have a job. I've worked hard, and I'm very disciplined with my lifestyle."
Amanda's singing career began at "Our Savior's Lutheran Church" in Naperville, Illinois. "Herb Carlmark was pastor then," she recalls. "We had 3-4 choirs and a great youth group. It was a great time to be a kid there. It was all about music the whole time." Her family has always been musical: Her father, Ed, is a tenor, her mother, Connie, a pianist and mezzosoprano. "I often sang together with my brother and sister in church," she adds, "and I still do so today."
In St. Gallen, Amanda experienced a revitalization of her faith. She recalls: "Just after I had arrived there, a gal came up and asked me: 'We're having a Bible study on Monday at three. Do you want to come?' Suddenly, I had found a home, a place to rejuvenate."
That enthusiasm has carried over to Berlin: The singer has participated in a tiny invasion by opera singers of the English-speaking "American Church". Its pastor, the ELCA-sponsored Rev. Dean Bard, claims his church is home to six US-born opera singers.
Bard, a former employee of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, insists: "Amanda doesn't come to choir rehearsals, but she has made a beautiful contribution to the church through her solos." Alan Poland, the choir director, points out that Amanda is willing to pinch-hit and "sing any voice" when necessary. The organist, Kathy Egner, adds: "One would think it intimidating to have all these singers here. But Amanda is so appreciative of what others do. We're grateful to have her here; she shares her talent willingly." Rev. Bard concludes: "Basically, Amanda's just a faithful member, just part of the family here. She's not on a different plane."
Europe's opera houses host a large number of North American singers. Even Amanda's "daughter" in the present "Magic Flute" production, Carol Malone, is a US-born Christian.
Surrounded by friends at the "American Church", Amanda claimed: "This is who I am; that [singing] is my job. I love it though; it is a gift that God has given to me." Her faith makes it possible for her to "do evil roles without becoming evil myself". The "Queen of the Night" is the primary villain of Mozart's best-known opera.
Would she recommend the career she has chosen to other aspiring Christian singers? "Yes, it's worth it," she replies, "but only if you're very sure you're prepared to pay a price. I couldn't have done it without my father's help." He told me: "'I will help you out, but you have to prove to me that this is important to you and that you are willing to strive for it.' When he saw that I was serious, he became willing to help me financially."
Amanda concludes: "There's room for everybody who wants it badly enough. It's a matter of sticking it out. You're onstage 5% of the time, the rest of the time you're dealing with agents and bureaucracies. That 5% has to mean so much to you that you're willing to stick with it. There's a lot of junk that goes along with this business as a business."
"Audiences aren't sophisticated," she insists. "Concerts stir people's souls, just like football games. I once did Beethoven's Ninth with Roger Norrington in Carnegie Hall. On the last chord, the audience sprang out of their seats screaming 'Bravo!'. They just loved it! I had never seen this before, it was very exciting." Such recognition may indeed be Amanda Halgrimson's biggest reward.
Dr. Bill Yoder
Berlin, November 17, 1994
Written for “The Lutheran” in Chicago/USA, 1,400 words
Note from September 2021: Born in 1956, Amanda Halgrimson-Walzer is currently still performing as a professional singer.