An American opera singer, June Anderson (born 1953) specialized in roles from operas by Donizetti, Rossini, and Bellini that require bel canto singing, although she sang operas by many other composers.
June Anderson was born in 1953 in Boston and raised in Connecticut. When she was 11 she began taking voice lessons at her mother's urging. At the age of 14 she performed in her first opera, The Princess and the Pea by Ernst Toch. At the age of 17 she sang the part of Gilda in Rigoletto and, in the same year, was a finalist in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. Although she was the youngest singer to be named a finalist at these auditions, she decided not to continue training for a professional career and instead went to Yale University where she majored in French and graduated cum laude. She then challenged herself to become a well-known singer in two years, and if she failed to do so, to enter law school.
It was at this point that she began working with the vocal coach Robert Leonard, with whom she studied for many years. He was able to depend on her hard work and high standards to develop excellent breath control, which allowed the natural quality of her voice to project itself unhampered by lack of support. His approach was to build a great voice over time and not to rush the process of growth. Anderson agreed with this approach and frequently declined offers to sing roles that she felt were not suited to her vocal development even though they posed no technical difficulties for her. She worked hard to develop her voice, even though there were many discouraging moments, and as she said, " … without a touch of luck, hard work doesn't necessarily pay off." It did, however, and she became a member of the New York City Opera Company, with which she made her debut in 1978 as Queen of the Night in Mozart's Magic Flute.
There were many operas in which she sang while at the New York City Opera Company, including Le coq d'or by Rimsky-Korsakov, Rigoletto by Verdi, the role of Donna Elvira in Mozart's Don Giovanni, three different roles in Les Contes d'Hoffmann by Offenbach, Il barbiere di Siviglia by Rossini, Giulio Cesare by Handel, La traviata by Verdi, and a concert version of I puritani by Bellini. Although she received good reviews from New York critics, she felt that she was not being given the roles she felt ready for. As she put it, "I sang very few performances and covered just about everything for other singers!"
It was through the recommendation of Sherrill Milnes that Anderson was brought to the attention of Giovanni Lupetin, an agent for European opera houses. He arranged for her to sing in several provincial houses, where she was heard by Italo Gomez, the manager of La Fenice in Venice. He was so impressed by her voice that he offered to mount a production of her choice. Without hesitation she chose La sonnambula by Bellini, which she felt "was written for me." Anderson also signed a contract with La Scala, the opera house in Milan, to perform La sonnambula and with the opera house in Rome to perform Semiramide by Rossini.
It was at this point that June Anderson decided to move to Italy as she perceived her career to be developing more rapidly abroad than at home. Once she had made her debut in the major houses of Italy (she was the first non-Italian to win the prestigious Bellini d'Oro prize), offers to record and to perform came from all over the world. She sang Die Feen by Wagner in Munich in 1983. Her strong lyric vocal quality meant that repertoire outside the difficult bel canto style was possible for her, but she selected her roles with care. She sang in Canada and on the West Coast in the same year, performing I puritani in Edmonton and Il barbiere di Siviglia in Seattle.
In 1984 she again sang Il barbiere di Siviglia, this time in New Orleans; then La sonnambula in Venice; La fille du regiment by Donizetti in Parma; Lucia di Lammermore, also by Donizetti, in Geneva. In 1985 she began to sing operas that were not in the standard repertoire. In Pittsburgh she sang Verdi's La battaglia di Legnano; in Paris, Meyerbeer's Robert le diable; she also sang two Handel operas, Samson in Chicago and Giulio Cesare in Washington, D.C.
Although her life was centered in Italy, Anderson was acclaimed internationally both for the quality of her singing and the intelligence and willingness to work for the sake of the music rather than for herself. As she put it, "I attack the music from the inside out."
The following year Anderson made her debut at Covent Garden where she sang Semiramide to critical praise. She returned in 1987 to sing Lucia in Lucia di Lammermore. Her desire to explore further the lesser known works of the bel canto composers led her to accept roles in Beatrice di Tenda by Bellini in Venice, Maometto II by Rossini for San Francisco, and Armida by Rossini at Aix-en-Provence. She did not confine herself totally to unusual operas, however. During the same period she sang two standard works by Verdi—La traviata in Santiago and Rigoletto for both Covent Garden and for her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1989.
Recordings and Concerts
Throughout her career Anderson recorded and gave concert performances of several operas. By her own admission, the difficulties she encountered in finding adequately staged productions of bel canto operas caused her to consider whether she should increase the number of her recordings and concerts, avoiding the frustrations of the stage and permitting her to exert more control over the final result. In 1983 she presented Albinoni's Il nasciemento dell' Aurora in Vicenza and in Venice in concert form. In the same year she filled in for Monserrat Caballe in a concert performance of Semiramide at Carnegie Hall. That performance was very widely acclaimed, but resulted in no significant new offers for roles in the United States and was a contributing factor in her decision to move abroad to further her career. She returned to Carnegie Hall many times singing Handel's Ariodante and Beatrice di Tenda and Berlioz' Nuits d'Ete. She sang Bernstein's Candide in concert in London and planned to record the work.
Her recordings followed the thrust of her career, including some of the lesser known operas of the early Romantic period. She also recorded some of the French repertoire, which endeared her to the French, so much so that she was asked to perform in July of 1989 at the opening concert of Paris' new Opera Bastille. The French operas she recorded include Bizet's La jolie fille de Perthe, Adam's Le postilion de longjumeau, Auber's La muette de portici, and Halevy's La juive. In addition, she recorded Rossini's Mose in Egito, Maometto II, Les soirees musicales, Il naciemento dell' Aurora, and, for variety, Carl Orff's Carmina burana (a 20th-century work based on medieval Latin texts) and Bernstein's Candide.
Anderson's vocal qualities were admired by many critics on both sides of the Atlantic, even when her dramatic skills were not. She was compared to Joan Sutherland, Jennie Tourel, and Nellie Melba. Peter G. Davis in New York magazine wrote that her singing "shows off the clarity, evenness and facility of an agile voice with an easy upper extension." Words such as "creamy," "lush," "brilliant," and "assured" have been used to describe her voice. In her own words, she was "a big lyric (soprano) with high notes and agility."
After establishing herself as a prima donna in the United States and in Europe, June Anderson finally reached a level of achievement that placed her among the top international opera singers. Her special affinity for and ability to perform bel canto roles gave her career a direction and focus that served her well. The operas that require bel canto singing are written in a highly ornamented style that emphasizes the agility of the singer. The style flourished in the early Romantic period in Europe, particularly in Italy from about 1811 to 1843. Many singers find the unusual technical demands of the repertoire, particularly the high range and the rapid runs and ornaments, to exceed their ability to perform it well.
Throughout the 1990s, Anderson performed many roles for the first time, including Elena of La Donna del Lago in Milan (1992), Maria in Mazeppa at Carnegie Hall (1993), Desdemona in Otello in Los Angeles (1995), Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus at the Metropolitan Opera (1995), Giovanna in Giovanna d'Arco in Barcelona and New York (1996), and Tatiana in Tokyo (1996). In 1997 Anderson assumed the role of Norma the Druid priestess for the first time at Chicago's Lyric Opera and received many good reviews. John von Rhein of the Chicago Tribune gave Anderson credit for "not only taking on such a tough role at this stage of a comfortably settled career but—amazingly—pulling it off so well" and asserted that her first playing of Norma "had to be reckoned a qualified success."
Anderson's talent was not narrowly confined, however. She appeared in many operas outside of the bel canto repertoire. Whatever period of music she sang, her performances were of exceptional quality.
Although some of her critics characterized her as tempermental and moody, her reaction to the impression that people are terrified of her is laughter. She described herself to Kathy Petrere of the New York Times in a 1995 interview as "Jell-O with chilies. A really distinct flavor, but in the end it's Jell-O." She admitted to being a perfectionist who "can't stand it" when she made mistakes. Anderson also defined what she deemed most important in life as "friendships," and noted, "If I never sang another note in my life [my friends] would still be there." As she commented in the same interview, "Singing is my job, it's not who I am."
Further Reading on June Anderson
Anderson has been reviewed frequently in magazines and articles. In the August 1986 issue of Opera News she appeared on the cover. In the New York Times on October 29, 1989, Walter Price wrote an article discussing her career and her debut at the Metropolitan Opera House. See also Chicago Tribune (February 7, 1997), New York Times (November 6, 1995; April 8, 1997), and Opera News (June 1997). Also see the June Anderson page online by Laurent Lacoquelle at http://pages.infinit.net/balza/junea.hmt.