Opera star Michele Crider

A skillful jump into the fire

Opera star Michele Crider responds to a last-minute call with aplomb

Michele Crider was doing some gardening at her home in Austria one day two weeks ago when the phone rang. It was her agent in New York City, asking if she would consider going to Prague to sing Tosca.

“When do you need me?” she asked.

“Tomorrow.”

“So I grabbed my bag, got on a plane, and here I am,” she said a few days later over coffee at the K + K Hotel Fenix near Wenceslas Square.

That was Saturday afternoon. The next night she was at the State Opera, holding the audience spellbound with a riveting portrayal of Puccini’s tormented heroine. By turns passionate, seductive, tender and defiant, Crider owned the stage. There was no mistaking the world-class voice, but it was the controlled power of her performance, like a gathering storm, that dominated the evening.

There was no hint of that the previous afternoon. Attired in casually chic black slacks, tennis shoes and a color-coordinated shirt and pullover, Crider had just returned from a typical tourist run.
“I get a couple hours off, and do I go sightseeing? No, I go shopping!” she said with a laugh. “I got some great sundresses for my girls.”

Crider is married to an Austrian man whom she met in Berlin. They have two daughters, 2 and 9 years old. Originally from Quincy, Illinois, Crider started singing when she was 3 years old, standing up for solos at church. “I was not shy,” she says.

But it wasn’t until she was a teenager that a music instructor recommended dropping piano lessons and focusing exclusively on her voice. After studying at the University of Iowa School of Music, she went to Europe for training at the Zurich Opera House. In 1989, she won a prestigious award at the Geneva International Music Competition, launching a singing career that has taken her to many of the most prestigious opera stages in the world, including Covent Garden, La Scala and the Met.

“I’ve been really lucky,” Crider says. “But you have to be prepared. A lot has come last-minute; that’s why I always have my little bag packed by the door.”

It happened again when American opera star Aprile Millo, who was the scheduled guest star in the May 27 performance of Tosca at the State Opera, had to cancel due to illness. Is it difficult to live constantly on-call?

“I’m happy to still be in demand,” Crider says. “It’s tough for singers. You used to be taken because of your ability. Now the directors are all looking through a camera lens, and if you don’t fit into a size 8 dress, they don’t want you.”

Weight is one of those touchy subjects that are unfortunately unavoidable in Crider’s line of work, and she is remarkably candid about her efforts to slim down. “I’ve lost 30 kilos,” she says, “and I am still working on it.”

Classified as a dramatic soprano (though she feels she’s more of a lirico spinto), Crider is known for headline roles such as the title characters in Aida and Madama Butterfly. She’s been singing Tosca for less than four years, with more than the usual vocal challenges along the way.

“The first time I ever sang it was in Zurich, and that production ended with her shooting herself,” Crider recalls. The original ends with Tosca jumping to her death from a castle parapet, which is what she was asked to do when she sang the part in Vienna.

“But I was six months pregnant, and thought maybe I shouldn’t,” Crider says. “They asked me to go up and take a look at the jump, and I figured out a way to do it by disappearing behind a barrier.” But when the moment came, she tripped on the top step and would have rolled off had a stagehand not been there to save her.

Crider made the leap at the State Opera, and looked none the worse for it minutes later, taking multiple bows to enthusiastic applause. It was a remarkable performance, but the audience seemed to pick up on her personality as well. Warm, gracious and down-to-earth, Crider has all the credentials but none of the attitude of a diva — a refreshing change in a celebrity-driven business, and a great treat for opera fans in Prague.

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