Choral Production of ‘Elijah’ to Include Alumna Amber Wagner
By Doug Carroll
GCU News Bureau
Maybe you had the chance to see Michael Jordan in his first few years with the Chicago Bulls, or hear Bruce Springsteen as he was starting to fill arenas across the country.
Pretty special, huh? Still talking about it, right?
Such an opportunity awaits GCU students, faculty and staff at 7 p.m. Tuesday at First Southern Baptist Church, adjacent to campus. Soprano Amber Wagner, a 2006 graduate of the University, will be a soloist in Mendelssohn’s “Elijah,” and here’s the best part: It’s free.
Wagner, 31, hasn’t sung on campus — for these purposes, the church can be considered campus — since launching a career that has taken her to the brink of international opera stardom. Last fall, she received rave reviews for her performance in the title role of Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos” with Chicago’s Lyric Opera, and her upcoming schedule includes bookings in Germany and Finland.
Even with her career soaring, she has remained remarkably down-to-earth, as students of Dr. Sheila Corley discovered when Wagner stopped by their voice class on Friday to talk about her craft and pass along some coaching tips.
“You learn how to really sing when you start performing full time,” Wagner said. “On that stage, you’ll do whatever you need to do. In the middle of performing, it’s survival mode. Sometimes I’ll look at the ‘Exit’ sign in the back and think, ‘I’m coming!’”
She credits her success to God’s blessing and to being in the right place at the right time. Her first big break came in 2007 when she was one of six winners of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions Grand Finals. The concert and the preparation for it were documented in the film “The Audition.”
Also that year, Wagner began a three-season apprenticeship in the Lyric Opera’s Ryan Center for young artists. She said she’s still learning and is able to take away at least one need for improvement from each role she is in.
Although she reminds herself that she’s “not doing brain surgery onstage,” there are times when she feels the pressure of high expectations. Four performances into the “Ariadne” run, drained of effort from singing back-to-back arias, she suffered what she called “an epic meltdown” in her dressing room after the show.
“I thought after that, ‘I’ll never criticize another singer for acting crazy during a run,’” said Wagner, who is married to Gabe Salazar, GCU’s campus music minister. “I have an amazing husband and support system. I come back to Phoenix and get myself sane again. This business can make people crazy — and not in a good way.”
She said her Christian faith, too, helps keep her anchored in what’s most important.
“I really own my faith now,” she said. “I have the resolve and the courage to stand up for what I believe in. I’ve been given every single role by God. He entrusted me with this gift, and I’ve felt this more than ever in the past year. (My calling) is bigger than singing.”
Senior Christina Cullers, who has one of the best voices in GCU’s music program, had an opportunity for a brief technical critique from Wagner.
“She’s so friendly and personable,” Cullers said. “It makes you want to work with her.”
Tuesday’s “Elijah” concert represents the culmination of months of preparation by Dr. Juan Hernandez and GCU’s Choral Union, a 100-voice choir consisting of students, faculty, staff, alumni and members of the community. Thirty players from the Phoenix Symphony will accompany the choir.
“This is a first for our University,” Hernandez said. “We’ve never had a community chorus do this repertory. It sets a high standard for us. Many universities take years to do this.”
Contact Doug Carroll at 639.8011 or [email protected].