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Hitting the High Notes: Opera Star Lauren Flanigan

Alum offers students wit and wisdom, performs tonight

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In the video above, Lauren Flanigan sings an excerpt from Vanessa, which she will perform in concert tonight at the Tsai Performance Center.

Dubbed “the thinking man’s diva” by Time magazine, soprano Lauren Flanigan preached her wry, good-natured gospel of less is more to a BU Opera Institute master class last week as part of a weeklong visit culminating in tonight’s free concert performance of Samuel Barber’s Pulitzer-Prize winning 1958 opera Vanessa at the Tsai Performance Center.

In 2007 Flanigan (CFA’81) starred in a New York City Opera production of the opera, a tale of a tangled cross-generational web of love, isolation, and longing, set in Scandinavia in 1905. “It’s an opera that deals with all the themes that Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee (Hon.’10) were dealing with in the ’50s—women waiting, men coming back, men being different, the role of children,” she says. Musically, the piece will “come as a revelation” to people who know only Barber’s orchestral works, such as Adagio for Strings, she adds. “He’s terrifically complicated.”

“I like concert performance because it allows you just to concentrate on the music and not the dramatic content,” she says. The dramatic demands of opera singing were a recurring theme at her master class. “That’s not opera, that’s Phantom of the Opera,” Flanigan playfully corrected baritone Lu Zang (CFA’11), whose eyebrow-raising during a Le Nozze di Figaro aria set her off and running about the often subtle demands of acting on the opera stage. “Mozart didn’t write a play, he wrote an opera,” she said. She praised Zang’s technical adeptness and “super” intelligence. “Acting is not like a jacket you put on; it’s you,” said Flanigan, whose vast classical repertoire, and commitment to performing the work of living composers, from Philip Glass to Stephen Schwarz, has made her a force in the opera world. Her youthful face framed by closely cropped white hair, Flanigan the teacher made her points with an effervescent brew of hyperbole, gesticulation, a habit of addressing people as “Baby” or “Dude,” and letting loose with the occasional four-letter word.

In class, the earthy, approachable singer implored students to relax. “If you’re constantly trying to do, do, do—don’t,” she said. “Just be.” When soprano Meredeth Kelly (CFA’12) took the stage to sing “But You Do Not Know This Man,” from the contemporary opera A View from the Bridge, Flanigan helped her fine-tune her delivery of the English lyrics. “Singing English messes you up,” she said and had Kelly import vowels from a classical aria to the modern piece. The result, a nuanced but definite improvement in the notes’ flow, had Flanigan expressing her approval by gleefully jumping up and down.

One of her recurring themes is the need for singers to hone their voices, and then tackle the demands of acting and physicality. She applies the same principle when preparing for a role. “My whole approach is you have to master the musical merit of the piece first,” she says in an interview. “You can do historical background work, but you can’t do anything else until you’ve mastered the vocal work.”

“As opera singers it’s a very simple, direct relationship” with the audience, says Flanigan, who recently appeared in the world premiere of the Stephen Schwarz opera Séance on a Wet Afternoon, in a role written for her. Sharing a story of breaking down onstage during a performance at La Scala after the director scolded her for looking at her tenor costar and not the audience, she said, “It’s us up here and him out there.” Does she read reviews of her performances? Her reply: “Oh God, no.”

Flanigan marvels at the talent flourishing at her alma mater. The Opera Institute is grooming its students for sophisticated audiences who are “super smart,” she reminded them. “They’re not like New Jersey housewives who go to see Wicked.”

She may not pay them any heed, but critics are kind to Flanigan. Last year she sang the title role in a New York City Opera production of Esther, a performance that New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini (CFA’82) called “vocally blazing.” And, for her good works offstage, Flanigan has earned kudos including New York City’s Good Neighbor Award and the Spirit of the City Award from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. For the last 15 years she has gathered her friends and colleagues in New York City’s opera community at Symphony Space for a benefit for the city’s homeless. Borrowing the phrase from Handel’s Messiah, she named the concert Comfort Ye.

“I’m a product of the ’60s, raised believing that you use your talent for the better,” says Flanigan. “My similarly minded friends can come and use their time and talent to sing for the homeless. Admission is a blanket, coat, a box of diapers, or can of food. We fill an entire food pantry in one night.”

The performance of Samuel Barber’s Vanessa, conducted by William Lumpkin, a CFA associate professor and music director of the BU Opera Institute, is at 8 p.m. tonight, September 28, at the Tsai Performance Center, 685 Commonwealth Ave.; no tickets are required for the free and open to the public performance. More information can be found here.

Susan Seligson can be reached at sueselig@bu.edu.

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