Christine Brewer knows the stereotypes of Richard Wagner's music: huge drama, huge voices, swelling orchestras and long, long operas.
But Brewer learned well before she started singing the 19th-century composer's music that it doesn't have to be that way, and really shouldn't be.
The soprano herself defies expectations. A celebrated star of some of North America and Europe's most prestigious opera stages, she comes from humble Midwestern roots in Illinois and began her career as a music teacher — not a professor, but a K-12 music teacher.
She also was bold and, in 1989, talked her way into a master class with vaunted Wagnerian soprano Birgit Nilsson.
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"I thought you could just call anyone," Brewer says, laughing.
Hailing from neither a prestigious opera program nor a heralded company, Brewer was told Nilsson would not hear her. But she did, and Nilsson invited Brewer to study with her in Germany. That started a friendship and valuable tutelage in the music of Wagner, including something not often associated with the German master: subtlety.
"She would painstakingly go through the scores and say, 'Look, the orchestra isn't even playing here, so you don't have to sing full tilt,' and she was right," Brewer says. "People are tempted to go sing full out all the time when singing Wagner, but they shouldn't. Number one, it's not healthy for the voice. Number two, it's boring."
Wagner's music is not for the young, either.
That's a big reason Lexington opera lovers don't hear his music much. With the student-based University of Kentucky Opera Theatre as the city's primary opera presenter, the student singers for the most part are not ready to sing Wagner.
"You shouldn't hear Wagner from students," Brewer says. "You need to wait until you're older and grow into it."
Lexington will hear Wagner on Friday in a program featuring Brünnhilde's Immolation Scene from Götterdammerung, the finale of his iconic Ring Cycle. In the scene, Brünnhilde and her horse leap atop her love Siegfried's flaming funeral pyre to bring the story to a dramatic close.
In her performance with the University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra, we won't see all that staging, which is another daunting task for any company that wants to present Wagner. Instead, we will hear the dramatic music from the soprano and the orchestra.
"My God," Brewer says, "can you imagine playing Wagner with an orchestra?"
She recalls singing a performance of Wagner at the Grand Teton Music Festival in Jackson Hole, Wyo.
"I looked over, and the principal cellist looked like Lynn Harrell," Brewer says, referring to the revered cellist known primarily for his solo work. (Harrell was the first in the UK Symphony's now long list of marquee soloists who include Itzhak Perlman, Gil Shaham and now Brewer.)
"I said, 'What are you doing playing in the orchestra?'" and he said he just wanted to play Wagner. "So Lynn Harrell played in an orchestra just to play Wagner."
That's devotion, and Wagner has inspired legions of devoted fans, as Brewer knows well.
"There are opera fans and there are Wagnerian opera fans," Brewer says.
She recalls going to a Wagner society conference with her daughter. At their tables were Wagner quizzes, which some people were taking very seriously.
"This one man asked my daughter if she knew the answer to a question, and she said, 'I have seen one Wagner opera. It was Tristan and Isolde, because my mom was in it, so I don't know how many people died in The Ring."
Brewer compares Wagner fans to devotees of another Ring, writer J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings series of books, and fans of the Harry Potter books and films and Star Trek TV shows and movies.
"There's something about the phrases in Wagner's music — long phrases — that just envelops you and takes you to another place," Brewer says.
If anyone, she should know.
IF YOU GO
What: The celebrated Wagnerian soprano performs with the University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra.
When: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 15
Where: UK Singletary Center for the Arts Concert Hall, 405 Rose St.
Tickets: $15-$40; available at Singletary Center ticket office, by calling (859) 257-4929 or at Singletarycenter.com.