Christine Brewer, award-winning soprano, to perform with regional music collaborative

By Grace Schneider, Staff Reporter

WOLF LAKE, Ill. – Christine Brewer steps out in front of hundreds of audience members, this time it isn’t for the BBC Proms or Wigmore Hall in London, but instead for a captivated audience of students and staff at Shawnee High School.

The high school sits in the unincorporated community of Wolf Lake nestled between the southern Illinois towns of Aldridge and Ware, only miles from the Mississippi River.

Brewer was named one of the Top 20 Sopranos of the 20th century by BBC Music Magazine in April 2007 and the New York Times dubbed her as “one of the best in the business.”

She was was honored in the 48th Annual Grammy Awards for “Best Choral Performance” and “Best Classical Album” for her work on William Bolcom’s Songs of Innocence and Experience.

Brewer will be a featured soloist in a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s iconic “Messa da Requiem” – a collaborative concert among the Southern Illinois University, Southeast Missouri University and the John A. Logan College music programs.

The piece is a musical setting of the Catholic funeral Mass for four soloists, double choir and orchestra. The “Messa da Requiem” was composed in memory of Alessandro Manzoni, an Italian poet and novelist whom Verdi admired.

Edward Benyas, orchestra director at SIU, and Sara Edgerton, orchestra director at SEMO, said they combine their students every couple of years to put on concerts of this nature.

“I believe this is one of the greatest pieces of Western music ever written,” Benyas said. “There is nothing quite like conducting incredible music like this and I am extremely excited to see it all come together. I would honestly consider it ‘the concert of the decade.’”

Benyas had worked with Brewer before and said having a soloist of her caliber can “really raise the level” of the rest of the orchestra and choirs. He said he hopes to show the talent of southern Illinois by bringing in local soloists, while also presenting an internationally acclaimed artist.

Brewer said she always holds southern Illinois in her heart.

On April 11, the Grand Tower native returned to her alma mater, Shawnee High School, where she performed, spoke about pursuing dreams and answered student questions.

“Our family was always musical,” Brewer said. “I don’t ever remember a time where I didn’t sing. My family tells me that the first time I sang in public, I was 3 and broke out into ‘She’ll be Comin’ Round the Mountain.’”

Shelly Clover-Hill, Shawnee School District 84 superintendent, said she was impressed with the assembly and the students.

“She’s a wonderful storyteller, besides an opera singer. I knew that she would be able to hold the kids’ attention,” Clover-Hill said. “It’s hard to keep those little kids’ attention for well over an hour and she did it.”

Brewer’s mother, Deloris Burchyett, was an avid church singer and was a member of a women’s group, “The Shawnee Trio.” Brewer said she grew up hearing her mother’s music and once she was old enough she joined her mother in the church choir.

As a student at Shawnee High School, Brewer sang in the chorus and, under the direction of choir director Meta Cozby, joined the Madrigal singers and auditioned for several musicals.

“I tried out for the musical my freshman year,” Brewer said. “And guess what? I didn’t make it. Mrs. Cozby told me that she thought I would have fun in the orchestra, (she played the violin)  and I did.”

After another year of auditions, Brewer finally received a role in the musical. During her time at Shawnee, she sang the leads in the shows South Pacific and the Sound of Music; a musical which has followed her throughout her career.

After high school, Brewer attended McKendree College, where she met her husband Ross and pursued a music education degree. She continued to sing at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis and after watching the leads for some time, she realized singing was what she wanted to do.

“My husband Ross is a teacher,” Brewer said. “He was made for that job; he was called to be a teacher and he could see that I wasn’t. He was the one that told me that I was using my teaching degree as a crutch and that I was called to perform.”

She said everyone is called to do something different and you need to be honest with yourself.

“You need a team of people you trust who are honest and encouraging,” she said. “People who will tell you the truth.”

Brewer said her mother preached honesty and storytelling.

“My mother always asked me after a performance ‘what are you saying?’ If you don’t know what the words truly mean – you can’t tell the story,” Brewer said.

She said it can be difficult to stay passionate in each performance but remembering to make the music touch someone’s life helps her to stay engaged.

“Someone in the audience will be hearing this piece for the first time and somebody will be hearing this performance for the last time,” Brewer said.

Brewer said she tries to make every recording sound like a live performance because recordings aren’t honest.

“I am much more excited by a performance that is played with passion and honesty that drops a note here or there, than a performance that is theoretically perfect, but lacks passion and emotion,” Brewer said.

One of Brewer’s final lessons to the students was to continue being adamant and to know you are capable of anything – even if you are from a small town.

She told a story about how she ended up taking a master class from a world-renowned singer, Birgit Nilsson, who invited Brewer to Europe with her for several weeks for singing lessons.

“I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t called every day to see if there was an opening in that class,” Brewer said.

Brewer said her mother used to credit her vocal talent to a higher being.

“My mother always told me that your instrument, your voice, is God-given,” Brewer said. “She said ‘You had nothing to do with that. It’s a gift.’”

Brewer continues to work with sixth-grade students in Marissa, Ill., the school where she formerly taught music, in an outreach program run in conjunction with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.

The combined group will perform at tonight at 7:30 p.m. at Bedell Performance Hall in Cape Girardeau and the group will hold a second performance at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday at Shryock Auditorium in Carbondale.

Tickets are $20 for adults and $8 for students under 18 or with a college ID. Current university students get into the concert for free with a valid student ID.

Staff reporter Grace Schneider can be reached at [email protected].

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