A Shape-Shifting Opera Singer, With a Debut to Match

Still, they were supportive, and Petersen’s piano teacher exposed her, she recalled, to “everything from Bach to Hindemith.” In a school music class, her voice was noticed, which led to singing in a church choir and learning the sacred repertoire of Schubert, Mozart and more. When she was 15, her parents took her to her first opera, Verdi’s “Rigoletto.” She fell asleep.

“I did not understand anything,” Petersen said. “I came late to opera, actually.”

That happened when she studied voice in Stuttgart, financing her education in part by performing in a cover band called Square on weekends. Petersen played keyboards and sang hits like Celine Dion’s “The Power of Love” and Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.” With a keyboardist colleague, she would do gigs that included performing “Starlight Express” on roller skates.

“It was good training, because the nights were long and there was a bit of toughness involved,” Petersen said. She imitated the voices of the original singers, a skill that paid off later when she entered a competition with categories for classical repertory, then chansons and musical theater. She won the top prize in both, channeling Barbra Streisand in “Yentl” for her show tune.

But once she turned 25, she focused entirely on opera. She joined the ensembles of houses in Nuremberg and Düsseldorf. As a light coloratura soprano she sang roles like Ännchen in “Der Freischütz” and Oscar in “Un Ballo in Maschera.” Then, in 2003, she went freelance.

Petersen began to develop a more personal repertoire, and signature roles. There was Susanna in Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro,” whom she saw as a “quick, funny and inventive” kindred spirit. And the title antiheroine of Berg’s “Lulu,” which she sang in about 10 runs before retiring it at the Metropolitan Opera in 2015. That role, notorious for the complexity and extremity of its music and psychology, was, she said, “the big thing in my life. ”

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