OSU Alumna Eugenie Grunewald Puts Drama in Columbus Opera

Above: Mezzo-soprano and Ohio State University alumna Eugenie Grunewald as Azucena with tenor Marcello Giordani in Verdi’s Il Trovatore. Grunewald serves as dramatic coach for performances Friday and Saturday by Opera Project Columbus.

Singing opera can be grueling work – if you can get it. But Eugenie Grunewald has a pretty straightforward take on it.

“You’re telling a story, that’s all,” Grunewald said. “You’re telling a story.”

International operatic mezzo-soprano and Ohio State University alumna Eugenie Grunewald returns to Columbus this week to serve as artistic consultant for Opera Project Columbus‘ production of A Taste of Opera: Scenes from Opera’s Best. The production will feature scenes from operas by Verdi, Bizet, Mozart, Puccini, Wagner and Richard Strauss  in performances Friday, April 20 and Saturday, April 21 at 8 p.m. at Gray Chapel on the campus of Ohio Wesleyan University.

As artistic consultant Grunewald will coach Opera Project Columbus’ singer-actors in communicating their characters’ personalities and emotions – in short, their stories – in sound and gesture.

“We wanted (Grunewald) because of her vast knowledge of the dramatic interpretation of each role,” said Opera Project Columbus founding artistic director Heather Spence.

Grunewald’s career as a singer has taken her to some of the most prestigious opera houses and concert halls in the world. But it was the world of drama that first captivated her as a youngster in Columbus.

“When I was about six, my mother took me one summer to see Wonderful Town at the Stadium Theater at Ohio State,” Grunewald said. “I didn’t realize there was this whole other incredible world on a stage and I desperately wanted to be a part of it, which is how it happened. And the next week she took me back to see The King and I, which had children in it, and I was like, ‘How do I get in this?’”

Grunewald saw every play she could get tickets to, took dance classes and piano lessons, acted in community theater productions and sang in school choirs. Two of her music teachers in the Columbus schools, Carol and James Gallagher, gave her opportunities to sing solos in choir performances and other encouragement to pursue her musical interests. When she entered the Ohio State University Grunewald, already both a skilled musician and a skilled actor, declared herself a voice performance major and headed for the stage.

“Anywhere I could perform, I would.  I would just find every opportunity I could to get on the stage,” Grunewald said.

After graduating from Ohio State, Grunewald began building what would become an international operatic career. Early on, she took auditions and parlayed even small, modest-paying performances into lines on her resume and a portfolio of good reviews (including a stellar one in The New York Times). She gained experience on the operatic stage in a young artist program with Sarasota Opera. Taking first prize in the Enrique Caruso International Voice Competition and receiving career grants from some well known foundations boosted Grunewald’s name recognition and, along with her other professional achievements, helped her get a manager. Her European career was launched when her manager arranged for Grunewald to audition before one of the foremost artist managers in Spain. Grunewald eventually landed a gig at Barcelona’s Gran Teatre de Liceu singing Giovanna Seymour in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena. From Spain Grunewald’s career blossomed into Germany and elsewhere in Europe.

Even as she was wending her way through the ranks of the opera world, Grunewald often took time to coach younger singers. That work was a revelation for her.

“What I found time and time again,” Grunewald said, “was that there are a lot of technically very well trained singers who have no connection to the text (of the opera libretto), to the character, and really had no ‘road map’ for how to go about what I call ‘inhabiting’ a character.”

And inhabiting a character, getting into his or her mind, heart and skin and walking around a bit, isn’t just icing on the cake; it’s an essential ingredient for any singer who aspires to a career on the stage. In order to be competitive in the cut-throat world of opera, singers must be able to step on stage – sometimes at a moment’s notice – and instantly and believably transform themselves into people they’re not – all while singing with impeccable vocal technique and compelling musical artistry.

“That’s how ready you have to be,” Grunewald said. “So that’s why I’m rather passionate about this kind of work.”

As some of the emotional stock-in-trade of opera, passion is, in fact, one of the things Grunewald aims to bring out in the performances of the singers she coaches. But more importantly, she strives to bring singers’ awareness to the words they are singing and to how those words define the human beings they portray onstage.

“I ask a singer a whole list of questions: who are you, what’s your age, are you high-ranking or are you a peasant, what’s your background, what happens to you in the course of the opera, what do you think happens to you after the opera? It comes down to text. You have to know what you’re saying, but you also have to know what everyone else around you is saying.  And not so much just acing from your point, but reacting to what all your colleagues are doing,” Grunewald said.

But knowing who a character is on the page and bringing him or her off on stage can be worlds apart.

“That’s where the thought process comes in. You have to think like the character,” Grunewald said. “What is she feeling, what is she thinking? Just like anything else, to make that part of you takes practice. The artist has to dig deep and try different things. Say you’re singing a lullaby. You have to really see the face of that baby or of that young child.  I don’t need to know what child you’re thinking of, but you as the artist must have in your mind the face of a child you love. Then it becomes believable.”

As Grunewald coaches the singers of Opera Project Columbus for their performances this weekend, she is revisiting operas she has sung, in some cases, dozens of times. But this time she won’t be creating the action herself. Instead, she’ll be looking from the outside in, searching not for the singers she knows are onstage, but instead for the people they want her to believe they are, if only for a little while.

Opera Project Columbus performs A Taste of Opera: Scenes from Opera’s Best Friday, April 20 and Saturday, April 21 at 8 p.m. at Ohio Wesleyan University’s Gray Chapel.

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