written by Vanessa Salvia
Eugene Opera choir member Christie “Chris” Lamb enjoyed classical music early in her life. One of the few vinyl records her parents owned was Carmen. “We played it over and over and I’ve had that music in my head and in my heart all my life now,” Lamb said.
Now 63, Lamb has been a member of Eugene Opera’s choir for thirty-four years, ever since a 1982 help-wanted ad in the Register-Guard enticed her to audition. As an alto, she’s the lowest of the women’s voices, singing a range that is also called mezzosoprano.
Lamb grew up in Portland during a time when music was still a significant part of public school education. “Our grade school had a fantastic music teacher,” she said. “The first time I sang opera was in fifth grade. She taught us to sing music from The Pirates of Penzance, which I have since performed six times as an adult. I fell in love with many symphonies, especially The Nutcracker Suite, The Grand Canyon Suite and Peter and the Wolf.”
Lamb has played piano since she was in knee socks and sang in choirs from grade school through college. She attended college as a music education major because teaching high school music seemed the most reliable route to employment in the music world. “But by the second term I changed majors because there was such a glut of teachers,” she lamented.
Lamb’s first performance with Eugene Opera was 1983’s The Magic Flute, performed in the Hult Center’s Soreng Theater. She started taking her two children to the opera when they were 3 and 4 years old, and her now-35-year-old son continues to attend Eugene Opera performances, whether Lamb is part of the choir or not.
I’ve had a long history with the opera. I’ve seen the company through several different directors and boom-or-bust financial issues. We’ve been fortunate that we’ve been able to keep going.
Opera is an expensive art. It involves sets and scenery, costuming, makeup, wigs, a full orchestra, stagehands and multiple artists. Despite those challenges, Eugene Opera increased to four performances last season, up from two. “It’s an unprecedented expansion,” Eugene Opera director Mark Beudert said. “No other company is doing that. Doing four productions released so much energy in the company and in the community that it was a very exciting year. We felt like we switched from a half marathon to a marathon, but it was so rewarding.”
The vision to expand was matched by recent performances of modern operas that few other companies undertake, such as 1987’s Nixon in China. Along with acts from Aida and Die Fledermaus, Eugene Opera boldly performed the third act of the 1956 French opera Dialogue of the Carmelites, in which an order of nuns is led to the guillotine during the French Revolution.
But the finances for this expansion have not worked out as planned. Following disappointing New Year’s Eve ticket sales, Eugene Opera cancelled its final two performances—West Side Story in March and Peter Brook’s La Tragedie de Carmen in May—citing a financial shortfall.
According to a statement Beudert made regarding the decision, the opera is determined to get its finances in order and come back strong next season. Eugene Opera has set a series of town hall meetings to get the community’s input on what audiences want.
For Lamb, singing opera is so much more exciting than simply standing on risers and singing in a choir—what the singers call a “park and bark.” “With opera, you have a character to become and you have movements, sometimes choreography, sometimes dancing, and there are a lot of different things going on all at once,” she said. “You might get a solo singing line or dialogue or something else to do. With opera, I found where I wanted to be.”
As a performance nears, rehearsals increase in frequency to the point that the music is on a loop in Lamb’s ears. She’s constantly running through lyrics, which are usually in a foreign language. Choir members are responsible for learning their parts on their own, because there are few opportunities to rehearse with the entire cast and orchestra.
Lamb can never get enough of the feeling of the curtain rising to see 2,500 faces in the Hult Center. But that’s not what most excites her. “To me, it’s not the first performance that’s the most exciting but the first time we sing with the orchestra,” she said. “You hear all the notes you never hear when you’re accompanied by just the piano. You hear all the parts and how they blend together. It’s like a big puzzle and all of a sudden it gels.”