Opera singer hits ‘highest of highs, lowest of lows’ during pandemic

Washougal native Anne Maguire won a prestigious award in late February; by March, she was struggling to find work during COVID-19 shutdowns

Washougal native Anne Maguire, a mezzo-soprano, has performed in operas and symphonies across the United States. The recent COVID-19 closures and cancellations throughout the music world, however, have made finding work tough, Maguire says. (Bre Johnson photo)

From the highest of highs to the lowest of lows, opera singer Anne Maguire, a native of Washougal, has experienced a wide range of emotions during the past few weeks.

Shortly after winning one of the biggest awards of her professional singing career, Maguire is temporarily out of work due to the rapid spread of COVID-19, which has forced the cancellation or postponements of public events, including musical performances.

Portland Opera, for instance, canceled the remainder of its 2019-20 season today, but said the 2020-21 season is still scheduled to begin in September. 

“Opera houses are shutting down across the globe, and singers are losing their livelihoods,” she said. “Things have been insane. The entire opera world is in shambles right now. People are losing contracts and income like crazy, and we’re all scrambling to figure out how to not go bankrupt and also maintain some sense of sanity.”

In stark contrast, the 29-year-old mezzo-soprano was celebrating last month after being named as one of five winners of the 49th annual George London Foundation Awards Competition for young American and Canadian opera singers. 

During the final round, which took place at Gilder Lehrman Hall at The Morgan Library and Museum in New York City on Feb. 21, Maguire sang the aria “Wo in Bergen du dich birgst” from Richard Wagner’s opera “Die Walküre (The Valkyries)” for her award-winning performance.

“My initial reaction was one of disbelief,” said Maguire, who took home a $10,000 prize. “(When) they announced my name as a George London winner, I was fighting back tears and shaking while standing up on stage having my picture taken. The George London name carries an enormous amount of prestige. The foundation has a long history of choosing singers who go on to have outstanding careers household names like Kathleen Battle and Renee Fleming, as well as one of my mentors, world-renowned helden bass-baritone Alan Held. So yes, I would say this honor means a great deal more to me than any award I have so far received.”

During the past several years, Maguire has distinguished herself on stages across the country and has been awarded competition prizes from Opera Birmingham, Jensen Foundation, the Metropolitan National Council Auditions and others. 

Maguire’s roles include Baba the Turk in “The Rake’s Progress;” Die Hexe in “Hänsel und Gretel;” Frau Mary in “Der Fliegende Holländer;” and Elizabeth Proctor in “The Crucible.” 

She has performed as a soloist with several orchestras, including the New Haven (Connecticut) Symphony in Mahler’s “Third Symphony” in May 2019 and the Berkeley (California) Community Orchestra in Haydn’s “Lord Nelson Mass” and Mozart’s “Coronation Mass” earlier this year.

“As far as favorite roles or pieces I have performed, I would have to say Elizabeth Proctor from Robert Ward’s opera, ‘The Crucible,’” she said. “Not only is the music soaring and moving in a cinematic sort of way, but Elizabeth’s character is strong, convicted and full of love. Opera performances aren’t the only sort of works I enjoy, though. One of my favorite performances to date was as the soloist in Mahler’s ‘Third Symphony’ with the New Haven Symphony Orchestra. Mahler’s music is utterly sublime. There is no feeling quite like standing with a massive orchestra at your back and being swept up into the sound as you sing. It’s probably the closest feeling to flying I’ll ever experience.”

Maguire’s early vocal training included a broad range of genres, including classical, jazz, musical theater and folk music. She gave credit to performing arts teachers Kelly Gregersen and Jennifer Mahorney, who cultivated her musical ambitions when she was a student at Washougal High School.

“(They) really helped foster my talent and enabled me to believe that pursuing a career in the performing arts was not only possible, but would also end up being incredibly rewarding,” she said. “Sadly, Jen Mahorney passed suddenly in 2018. I miss her dearly.”

Gregersen said that Maguire “was obviously incredibly talented even then.”

“I first saw Anne doing a song during a choir Broadway review at (Washougal High) and was so excited to get a chance to work with her,” he said. “The role I will always remember was when she played the witch in ‘Into The Woods,’ and she just killed the part.

“Anne was the kid who took direction and then just kept going,” he continued. “She would take a suggestion, add another idea of her own and just keep building. She took great pride in a job well done. I didn’t get to work with her for long, but loved having that chance. Anne has stayed in touch over the years, and I’m thrilled and not overwhelmingly surprised to see her rise to great things.”

She received a bachelor of arts degree in music/opera from Boston Conservatory in 2012 and a master’s degree in music from the Yale School of Music in 2017.

“I have always known singing would be a part of my career in one way or another,” she said. “Music is something which I simply cannot live without. Opera specifically captured my heart while I was studying classical voice at The Boston Conservatory. My goal was to achieve a solid classical education and to go on and pursue a career in musical theater, but during my time there I not only fell in love with opera, but learned that my voice was uniquely suited for it.

“I love opera because for the most part operas explore the entire spectrum of the human experience the highest of highs and the lowest of lows,” she continued. “Operatic themes revolve around jealousy, revenge, murder, rape, lust, redemption, love, ecstasy, etc. Although everything is heightened with the music and sets and pageantry, it is also so very deeply human.”

Maguire has learned that “this career requires an enormous amount of self sacrifice.”

“You can be on the go for months or years at a stretch, travelling from one place to another, living out of a suitcase,” she said. “Other times you have no contracts lined up and you have to take a combination of odd jobs just to pay the bills.”

Maguire, who currently lives in Connecticut, said that being far away from her family is “one of the biggest sacrifices” that she’s made.

“But the biggest challenge any opera singer faces is finances,” she continued. “In the older days of opera, patrons would financially support singers they liked. They would help with living, travel, costuming, lessons and the like. But patrons are fewer and further between, and now we are expected to finance our own careers. Education is ongoing for singers. Voice lessons with a master teacher in New York City cost around $250 on average, and coachings with conductors and pianists can cost $150 to $200. Every application to audition costs us. Fees run anywhere from $35 to $175 per application, and out of 10 applications we might get one audition. The financial burden is heavy for anyone who comes from humble means.”

Maguire has been able to overcome those challenges, however. Her voice has been praised for its recognizability and its “dark,” “opulent” and “velvet” timbre.

“I would say I am the kind of singer who needs to have an emotional connection to what I’m singing,” she said. “I give my best performances when I focus less on how I am singing and more on what and why I am singing. Singing is different from all other forms of music because we get to use language as an expressive tool. So even in opera, where the vocal quality and technical ability must be high, the intention of the text must come first. Otherwise it’s just uninformed sound. And truly, I find the quality of the sound of my voice improves greatly when I am singing from the heart.”

Even though she doesn’t have any performances scheduled for the time being, she’s optimistic about her future. She said she’s in talks with “a couple of fantastic houses” about performances in upcoming seasons. 

“I hope to perform with the Portland Opera sometime in the near future since I consider it to be my ‘home’ opera house,” she said. “And I may yet spend some time in Germany, which has a thriving operatic business.”