Wendy Bryn Harmer: The Corset Patrol Years
When you write fiction, you make up stuff. I mean, obviously, that being the definition of fiction. But some stuff is imagined based on real knowledge, and other stuff is more imagined based on…imagination.
One of the themes of TEN GIRLS TO WATCH is mentorship. Egads, that sounds like a sentence from a terrible term paper! Still, it’s true. And among the mentors and proteges in the novel are a pair of opera singers: one an up-and-coming young soprano, the other a well-established star. In real life, I took voice lessons for years, have sung in plenty of choirs, and have maybe even performed an aria or two, but the stage? Real opera? The careers of real opera singers? Imagination based on imagination.
Which is one of the reasons I was so thrilled to interview Wendy Bryn Harmer about the early years of her opera career. She’s the real deal. No more imagination based on imagination! A graduate of the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, Wendy has appeared in their productions of Le nozze di Figaro, War and Peace, Parsifal, Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Die Agyptische Helena, and Jenufa. You can see her right now (tonight, in fact!) as Gutrune in the Met’s production of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. Here’s the skinny on how she got her start.
Is there a job or a moment you think of as “your first big break”?
My first big break was being accepted to study at the Music Academy of the West. It is a summer school in Santa Barbara for musicians. I attended after both my junior and senior years of college. The singers all study with Marilyn Horne, the fairy godmother of young classical singers. She was, and still is, my idol. I was totally in awe of her career and her artistic choices when I was starting out, so to be taken under her wing changed everything for me. I am certain that my career path has everything to do with her.
What was your first real apartment like?
My first apartment was at Broadway and 68th street [in New York City]. The Metropolitan Opera helped me arrange this sublet when I started my contract there. I have never left The Met, but I left that apartment pretty quickly. I didn’t like living that close to work. I didn’t like that I couldn’t go to yoga without running into the artistic director of Opera Company A, or a designer from Opera Company B that is hoping you trim down a but more before your next corset fitting. I HATED that a super famous manager (who made no secret of planning to sign me some day) eyed my guac at Rosa Mexicana as if to say “Remember that corset fitting coming up?” My husband lived in DC where he was going to law school, so as soon as we both lived in the same city, we found a bigger, happier apartment that wasn’t spitting distance from the stage door.
Are there any particular experiences that capture the essence of your early twenties?
When I think of my early 20’s, I think of adventure. I spent a summer studying in Florence, two summers working and studying in Vienna, a large part of “in between” at The Metropolitan Opera. I was a “young artist” at The Met, meaning I was paid to show up every day and have someone teach me everything I needed to know. If they decided I needed to learn something they couldn’t teach me, they would ship me off to someone who could. Micah [my husband] and I lived apart (law school…blech) so I spent a lot of weekends taking the train to DC. It was actually a great way to start a marriage…everyone does their own laundry, no discussions about who cleans the bathroom this week, plus the added adventure of Amtrak!
Is there anyone who has been a real role model, mentor, or inspiration for you?
Mentors! First, Marilyn Horne. I would be nowhere without her. I was so casual about this whole thing when I started out. I was so genuinely naive that it wasn’t obnoxious, just kind of sweet and dopey. I really didn’t know enough to be scared or nervous or shy. I just showed up places and sang. She nurtured me without putting any pressure on me. Also, James Levine, the music director of The Met. He is a legend, and I have been blessed to work with him. I am not sure I showed a lot of promise when I first showed up at his door, but he always made me feel like I was going to be someone. When there are three or four things to fix about a certain phrase or passage, he has the uncanny ability to fix them ALL with one comment. I have never felt “less than” around Maestro Levine. And EVERYONE is “less than” Maestro Levine.
Thanks so much to Wendy for revisiting her early years, and three cheers for great mentors!