GCU rooted international opera star in music, faith

GCU alumna Amber Wagner was a sociology major until auditioning for Dr. Sheila Corley, who persuaded her to switch to music. She has since made her mark on the opera world, with international engagements that have taken her to Australia, Germany, Italy and New York, to name a few. (Photo courtesy of Gretchen Kelley)

By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau

Amber Wagner wasn’t sure what she was going to do.

The Grand Canyon University sociology major needed money for college, so she took a chance and ambled over to the Music Department to audition, hoping to land a little scholarship money.

That’s when she met Dr. Sheila Corley – a serendipitous meeting that would change her life.

“I still get emotional thinking about that,” Wagner said at her 2013 GCU Alumni Hall of Fame induction.

She already had hit a roadblock in her life, walking away from a college in Florida that she said wasn’t the right fit for her. Not quite knowing what her next step would be, she took a semester off and ended up at GCU, the college her best friend was attending.

“I decided I would go in to get a sociology degree. I have a very practical father,” Wagner said as she and her 5-year-old son embarked on their latest road trip, to go see family for the holidays. But after that “one little audition,” as Wagner called it, the now retired Corley told Wagner, “We really want you to be a music major.”

That’s when she took yet another chance and changed her major to music.

Wagner performs in The Metropolitan Opera's production of "Der Fliegende Hollander" ("The Flying Dutchman") in 2017. (Photo courtesy of Richard Termine)

It would be a life-altering decision for the soprano, whom Opera News featured recently as one of its “18 to Watch” in 2018-19. The list features the editors’ picks for which singers will grab the diva spotlight in the coming season.

Wagner, a California native, spent much of her formative years in Hillsboro, Ore., a midsize city close to Portland, where she remembers going with her family to see Luciano Pavarotti in concert with the Oregon Symphony Orchestra.

Both her parents are musicians. Her mother played and taught flute, and her father played saxophone and taught community band. Wagner took up the clarinet, though that was short-lived -- “I gave up clarinet in the third grade,” she said -- but would go on to sing in high school choir and performed in her high school's productions of "The Music Man" and "The Matchmaker."

Her first year at GCU, she auditioned for the President’s Singers, the campus' main singing ensemble. She didn’t make it into the group on her first try but eventually did become one of the ensemble's vocalists.

“In 1998-99, they traveled around as part of the recruiting team. It was a good way for the Music Department to make connections with people,” said Wagner, who aspired to be a Broadway singer.

But Corley had other ideas for her. The GCU professor introduced her to opera and to the idea that she could be a professional performer. Corley “believed in me, and she poured into me,” Wagner said at that 2013 Alumni Hall of Fame induction.

The opera singer told the Sydney Morning Herald in a July 2018 article, “I wasn’t overly thrilled at the idea of opera at first, but I slowly fell in love with it and felt that my voice was definitely destined to sing classical music.”

She has proved that to be an understatement. Wagner is one of the GCU Music Department’s great success stories.

Just a year after graduating with her vocal performance degree, she was one of six winners in the prestigious Metropolitan National Council Auditions, in which singers vie for a spot on the Met’s roster. Susan Froemke documented the auditions in her film, “The Audition.”

It was the same year Wagner launched a three-year stint with Chicago’s Lyric Opera Young Artist Program to further develop her craft. She told the Chicago Tribune in 2011, “They benched me my first year so I could work on my technique and explore repertory. (Ryan Center director) Gianna Rolandi said she didn’t want anyone on the outside to hear me because they would just get crazy ideas about me. It was super-wise advice.”

Wagner makes her debut as Aida with Opera Australia. (Photo courtesy of Prudence Upton)

Wagner has been wise in her career, too, expressing to the Tribune how she has chosen longevity in her career over making money. It's her father’s practicality, perhaps, coming through.

She established a reputation for triumphing in some of opera’s most vocally demanding roles, namely those impossibly huge German roles by the likes of Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss. She has added to that dramatic penchant with the likes of roles by Verdi and Puccini.

Opera aficionados have called Amber Wagner a “sizable soprano” whose vocals exhibit a “creamy beauty” and “rich amplitude.”

This season already has featured her return to Australia to champion tragic slave girl Aida in the Verdi work of the same name for Opera Australia. It marked the first time she performed the role. She returned from Sydney, one of her homes away from home, in August.

It was just one of her stops this year in a season that also has taken her to Rome to perform the role of Senta in Richard Wagner’s “Der Fliegende Hollander” (“The Flying Dutchman”) and to the Metropolitan Opera in New York to perform a new role, that of Giorgietta in Puccini’s “Il Tabarro” (“The Cloak”), one of three one-acts that make up the composer’s “Il Trittico.”

She will return in January to the Sydney Opera House and Opera Australia for “Turandot” and then is off to Germany to perform with Oper Frankfurt to bring to life Sieglinde in Richard Wagner’s “Die Walkure” (“The Valkyrie”).

Amber Wagner said though her voice is “a God-given gift,” it’s still a gift she has worked hard to develop. She has honed her technique and extensively studied the foreign languages in which she has to sing, all while being careful to take care of her instrument.

“It’s all about being really strategic – what you sing and when you sing it. It’s about knowing your limitations,” she said, or risk ending a career before it’s time for that career to be over. “Also, it takes a lot of time to sing it (a particular role) into your voice. By the time we got to the seventh show in New York, I said, ‘OK, now let’s open the show!’ – to know how far you can go dramatically onstage.”

Kicking off 2019, Wagner will perform the role of Turandot at the Sydney Opera House with Opera Australia from January through March. (Photo courtesy of Gretchen Kelley)

Wagner somehow maintains a busy international schedule while also balancing life as a single mom, traveling with her young son and making sure to work in some down time off the road so they can recuperate.

Life as an international opera singer might not have been if not for her time at GCU. Although Wagner said she stumbled across the University’s music program, it was fortuitous that she did.

“People would say, ‘But why didn’t you go to a conservatory?’ Well, that’s not where I was meant to be,” she tells them, adding of the Music Department, “It was really a stellar program.”

The University rooted her, too, in aspects of her life beyond music: “I am absolutely, staunchly rooted in my faith. I believe very much that God gave me this gift. The only reason I do what I do is because God gave me this ability and people poured into me.”

GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at 602-639-7901 or by email at [email protected].

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