Fitting a voice that’s grand enough to fill the world’s most prestigious concert halls into the confines of a quaint little meetinghouse isn’t as easy as you might assume. But there’s one obligation renowned opera singer Barbara Quintiliani will be happy to escape when she comes to the Monadnock Music Festival next week.
“I’m excited that I don’t have to die at the end of the evening,” said Quintiliani, a Massachusetts native who has won some of the most coveted awards in opera and played unforgettable roles on stages all over the world.
Being a world-class opera star means mastering the death scene, of course. But for Quintiliani, who rose to fame overnight from blue-collar roots and who knows more than she’d like about hardship in real life, it’s nice to get a break from the drama. Her solo concert on July 20 at the Peterborough Town House will offer music in keeping with the carefree mood of midsummer.
“It’s fun music. It’s lively. There’s no esoteric poetry. I just want people to enjoy it and have a good time,” said Quintiliani, whose past roles include the title role in Wexford Festival Opera’s production of Donizetti’s Maria Padilla and Elettra in Mozart’s Idomeneo at the Washington National Opera.
She’ll kick off the Peterborough concert with a selection of arias from Handel operas before presenting a series of songs by French composers followed by some Spanish folk songs. Later in the show she’ll sing several pieces by American composer Elinor Remick Warren.
But if the pieces are lighter than her usual fare, that doesn’t mean this celebrated soprano will be holding anything back. “I think it’s one of the hardest things to do as a singer, and one of the most rewarding, to stand there – just you and a piano – and sing,” Quintiliani said. “I really love the opportunity to give a recital with piano. It’s really nice to scale back and see people’s faces and be able to communicate on that level.”
There’s a frankness about this style of performing that befits Quintiliani as well. Growing up in a blue collar family, her childhood clouded by her mother’s mental illness, Quintiliani had never so much as heard an opera singer when she joined the school chorus to fulfill her high school graduation requirements. Noting her indifference, her chorus director gave her a copy of Faure’s Requiem Pie Jesu and told her to prepare her own rendition for the following week.
Half goofing around, Quintiliani practiced mimicking the strange sounds and came back the next week with a spot-on imitation. “After the first line, his jaw just dropped,” she recalled.
Quintiliani’s career took off almost instantly. At age 19, she made her debut at Opera Boston, and at age 22 she won the national Metropolitan Opera Competition. Suddenly, she found herself rubbing shoulders with the upper class. “It was culture shock. I was always afraid of saying the wrong thing or doing the wrong thing,” said Quintiliani, who still lives in Lowell, Mass.
Eventually, though, the young star learned an age-old lesson. “There’s an Oscar Wilde quote I really love,” she said. “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”
Sometimes, Quintiliani wishes she were anyone but herself. In 2009, at age 27, she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. A year later, she was diagnosed with a second, rare autoimmune disease called Churg-Strauss syndrome. In the past few years she has spent countless hours in hospital beds and faced enormous physical hurdles to simply get on the stage and do what she loves best. Music – and the unwavering love of her husband, Steward Schroeder – have kept her going.
In her usual candid way, Quintiliani told her story of fighting these two life-threatening diseases last year in an Emmy-award-winning mini documentary by Boston Globe writers Darren Durlach and Geoff Edgers. “I could have gone about my career and never said a word,” she said. “But I felt like I had to do it. I felt like I was hiding by not talking about it.”
And when you have the kind of voice that brings a thousand people to their feet, hiding is not something you do well. “To be a great artist, you have to live life and face it head on,” Quintiliani said. “For me it’s about the joy that music brings. If I can’t sing, I’m extremely unhappy. Singing is like breathing for me.”