Risk and Reward: A conversation with Soprano Meredith Hansen

Meredith Hansen stepped on stage for the audition she figured would be her last. She had set out to be an opera singer, and for a few years the universe had responded with awards and concert bookings.

At the same time, a very different path beckoned. Hansen had originally taken a job at a pharmaceutical company to boost her earnings after graduate school. A quick study, she soon attracted the attention of upper management. They put her on a career track toward biotech project manager, an opportunity that both thrilled and confused her.

What about the voice she had honed since high school?  The talent that landed her roles in musicals and prompted encouragement from teachers to pursue a career in opera? The biotech job promised financial security, but was that worth giving up singing the world’s greatest music, possibly on the best stages?

“I was very much at a crossroads,” Hansen said. “I thought I had chosen the wrong dream.”

While that dream promised the joy of pursuing it,  it made no such promise of stability and security. Nonetheless, she decided to give the opera one last shot, if for no other reason than to confirm that a career in singing was unrealistic, that her future lay in the corporate world.

This led her to that audition in 2009 for the Boston Lyric Opera, where she had sung in its renowned chorus. She led off with an aria from Dvorak’s Rusalka, a dark precursor to Disney’s The Little Mermaid with which she had successfully auditioned in the past. Its heroine faced a similarly wrenching choice, a chance to become human in return for losing her voice forever.

Hansen normally speaks quickly and in perfectly constructed sentences. But when asked about her connection to Dvorak’s water sprite, she slows to a phrase at a time seeking composure, saying, “This one makes me a little emotional.”

“She is passionate, she is committed,” she said. “She is strong and she’s more than a little rebellious.  All my life I have felt a strong connection to the water.  It is my element.  It is Rusalka’s home, her origin.  And yet she yearns to be in another world, a fish out of water.

The BLO audition won Hansen the role of Frasquita in Carmen as her company debut and with it, a new hope.

“I knew that the door to sing and perform full-time was only going to open once,” she said. “And so I knew that I had to walk through it.”

Boston Lyric Opera named her to the inaugural class of its Emerging Artists initiative. In addition to her work with BLO, her performances since have included multiple roles with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and several with the Metropolitan Opera as well as many regional opera companies and orchestras throughout the country.

“The audition that was supposed to be my last changed my life,” she said.

Hansen grew up in Cohasset, Mass. Her father introduced her to the popular musicians of his youth, including Joan Baez. Meredith loved “not only her singing and her exquisite and unmistakable sound but also her sense of purpose, her activism, the economy of words in her songs.” She was able to see Baez perform live on several occasions including Baez’s final US engagement.  “To see the woman, the artist who had such an intensely personal place in my development as a person and a performer…it was an experience I will never forget.”

Her mother planted another seed at age 7 by taking her to see La Bohème. “I was completely enthralled by the whole thing,” she said. “I was just blown away by the largeness, if that’s the right word – the whole picture, the emotion, the drama.”

The sound of another Joan, lyric coloratura soprano Sutherland, set the hook for the repertoire Hansen would later explore, grow to love and pursue.   Both Joans remain the voices in her ear to this day.

In the meantime, she competed in swimming and equestrian events growing up. Her talent as a field hockey goalie in high school attracted college scholarship offers from her sophomore year, a path that would have led to a very different destination.

She performed in musicals and entertained thoughts of making it to Broadway. “Even then I Ioved opera; it just wasn’t something that occurred to me I could do,” she said.

Her first voice teacher, Maureen Hague, thought otherwise, and told her so after a few lessons when Hansen was 15.

“She’s the one said, ‘If you want to make a go of this, you can and you should.’”

Her gratitude for the teachers, directors, conductors and coaches in her life runs deep, prompting her to list them all separately on her resume. Full acknowledgment is important to her, as obvious an obligation as paying your tab at a restaurant. The right teachers can also lend perspective on the career itself. Meredith has followed her instincts and chosen her mentors carefully throughout each stage of her journey.

As one of them, Virginia Pyle, told her, “This career is difficult at best, lonely often. And having that one person you know you can count on can make all of the difference in the world.”

That person now is Edward Schwartz, a jury consultant who at last and through his wife gained the appreciation for opera his late father had tried to instill. They live in Boston with their son, who will soon turn 2. In a career known for peaks and valleys, motherhood has provided an important anchor.

She recalled a favorite passage from Renée Fleming’s autobiography, The Inner Voice — the Making of a Singer, in which Italian soprano and director Renata Scotto told Fleming that raising her own son had allowed her to sing from a healthier perspective.

“Have children,” Scotto confided. “I don’t live or die on the stage every night. I have more than that in my life.”

Hansen’s yoga practice grounds her. She experiments with recipes, sometimes creating new ones. She enjoys pickling her own vegetables and was slicing radishes at the start of this conversation.

“I’m a little bit of a homebody,” she said. “I like being in my space with my two favorite people.”

Yet even at home, Hansen has never really slowed down. While still holding down classic roles such as the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro, she has deepened her repertoire as her voice has grown and evolved in recent years to include the bel canto of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena and the declamatory verismo of Verdi’s Luisa Miller.

Her ideal vacation spot is pretty much wherever there’s an ocean. And the best place to take in the Atlantic with her family lies 45 minutes south, along the Massachusetts Bay coastline to Sandy Beach in her hometown of Cohasset.

Her new partnership with Athlone Artists represents a different kind of homecoming. Hansen told her Facebook friends she’s thrilled to be working with Miguel Rodriguez, Athlone’s founder and president.

“He is really committed to each of our individual stories, not to us becoming a cog in a wheel or being part of the sausage factory where we all come out exactly the same,” she said.

Sharpening her gratitude is the knowledge of how close she once came to passing up that dream.

“It’s funny,” she said. “One of my favorite expressions is Goethe: ‘At the moment of commitment, the entire universe conspires to assist you.’”  And it has.

It’s not that the risks of her chosen career went away. In the best of times, she said, “There are ups and downs in this career – in LIFE – that you cannot see coming. The perspective I have gained has equipped me to deal with those ups and downs with as much grace as I am able”

But unlike Rusalka, who ended up back in the lake as a demon of death, Hansen has found fulfillment , which she now knows comes in many forms. To get there, she had to give up the known for the unknown.

And ever since, she said, “I am able to do what I dreamed of doing all my life. On so many stages, and to me, that is success.”