An Hour with June Anderson
by Kathy Petreré
The Lyric Opera, Chicago
The Lyric Opera, Chicago
American Soprano June Anderson hates her voice...and doesn't recognize it when she hears it. But I am certain that when she was born, God himself reached down and touched her tiny throat. When she sings, it is the voice of an angel that opera-goers the world 'round hear. (Ok, at least in my opinion.)
But June Anderson, my Diva, is much, much more than her voice. Not only immensely gifted, June Anderson is smart ("Most people are surprised that I can put two words together and one of them might be a subject and the other might be a verb.") and beautiful, with long, luscious blonde hair enveloping her like the mane of a wild animal. Reputed for her "ego," June Anderson expects perfection -- nothing less -- from herself, and can demand, and perform, on her own terms.
The toast of Europe, June Anderson has been likened to Joan Sutherland and Maria Callas. If you don't like opera, listen to her, because you, too, will fall in love with her unbelievably rich coloratura and the vulnerable sweetness of her bel canto characters.
Listen to the vocal calesthentics in "Glitter and Be Gay" from Leonard Bernstein's Candide, and see if you don't leap up from your chair and start cheering unabashedly. You will hold your breath during the long notes, savoring every second. Well-known for her seemingly effortless above-the-staff high, high, high notes, June Anderson's feet are firmly planted on the terra firma.
Her critics say she's temperamental, moody and difficult. But what I discovered is that she's not so tough. In fact, June Anderson is shy, hates talking to strangers, and considers herself a wallflower. She uses descriptive words like "futzing" "smushes" and "gungy." She has major stagefright and loves being anonymous.
And at the suggestion that people are terrified of her, June laughs, "How you could be terrified of a bowl of Jell-O, because that's what I really am. Jell-O with chilies. A really distinct flavor, but in the end it's Jell-O."
She is also warm and funny, and privately, a bit self-conscious, but focused, determined and totally resolute about her job, what she wants and what she expects.
She cooks. Sometimes. Usually only for herself and maybe one other person. Three people plus herself is a Dinner Party and causes her to break out in rashes.
And she eats junk food. French fries at a designer McDonalds in New York, at an upstairs table by the window. Always by the window. Lately however, not being part her low-fat diet, the french fries have taken a back seat to a more healthy cuisine. After last night's performance, June went home and heated up a spinach pizza, along with non-fat chocolate frozen yogurt for dessert. And refrigerated tap water. What fine fare for a Diva.
Indeed, she is very hard on herself, harder than director or conductor would ever be. Fear of imperfection seems to rule her life, both professionally and personally, although she claims to allow herself mistakes in her living room. She related a story of doing her warm- up in Venice after a bout with illness, and afterward receiving a phone call from someone assessing her voice -- that they had heard from outside the building. June was mortified.
"I thought 'Now I'm getting critiqued on my vocalises. I can't even do vocalises in private,'" she whimpered. The look of horror that washed across her face reliving that moment was surprising and disturbing.
"Sometimes it can be a problem rehearsing because I tend to censor things before I've even finished doing them. I have to learn to allow myself to make mistakes in front of people...I can't stand it. I don't like making mistakes," she said adamantly, underpinning the belief that for here, even occasional imperfection is so...loathsome.
"It's necessary to have the freedom to make mistakes because it's only by making mistakes that you can find the right street." But it is guaranteed she won't enjoy making those mistakes, not for one second.
But long before she was June Anderson, The Soprano (roll those r's), she was June Anderson, The Kid. She started her career performing a song-and-dance when she was three years old. When asked about her opening number at such a tender age, June crooned, as only a Baby June could, "I love my ba-by, my baby loves me! Don't know no-bod-y, as happy as we!" laughing and adding, "And did a tap dance.
"I was a very tall three-year-old. I think I refused to take my glasses off because I was born with eye problems and so I've had glasses since I was eleven months old. And refused to be separated from them as a child.
"My mother had wanted me to dance, and singing seemed to come naturally because I sang all the time. She says that I just wandered around the house, my life was 'en r‚citatif,'" she giggles and begins to sing, "When are we going to eat now? I'm hunnnnnggrry."
The biggest surprise: she's a sales shopper. "People have said I should write a book on sales shopping the world over," she gleefully told me, "Because when I go to a town I tell the natives where they should go shopping."
Laughing, June adds, "It's partly radar, partly research. I definitely have shopping radar. I know...I just have a feeling sometimes that I have to go to a store and that's when they've just had a big shipment of Romeo Gigli or something. I like to go forage for things. I'm a forager."
But June, you can only buy so much stuff before your apartment(s) gets full; then what do you do?
She answers quietly, "I, I know...," her voice raising to laughter, "That's why I need to buy another apartment!"
In a loud, excited whisper she let me in on a secret, "Every time I go to a new town, I head for Walgreen's because I love it! And I'll just buy anything."
Eyes sparkling with enthusiasm, and voice rising to a normal, but still passionate level, "I love going through the racks and seeing what's new and...'Oh, a new thing for hair, okay, I'll buy it....' I mean, it's not just for the regular old emery boards and, you know, nail-polish remover. I love it!"
With her intensive multi-continent travel schedule, I asked June if she ever got lonely. Her green eyes glanced up then back toward the table, thinking about how to answer. She replied slowly, "I...not really...every now and then, lonely...but not bored. There is a big difference.
"Because I like spending time by myself, I'm not someone who has to always be with somebody. I can always find something to occupy me, whether it's watching an old movie or reading a book or studying Russian or...shopping, going to an art gallery. There are tons of things to do. Sometimes the days just aren't long enough."
"I think when you're a successful female it really narrows the market a lot. I've kind of priced myself outside of the market. Most successful men do not want successful women as partners."
So does June Anderson have it all? At forty-one, she's beautiful, smart, gifted, in demand, and can seemingly have and do whatever she wants. Her laughter poorly conceals a tender spot. "Nah, I'm over forty and unmarried. So there," she wistfully chuckles, "No one has everything. But I've got a lot."
Our time is up. Before she leaves I must know what is most important to her? Shopping, acting, singing...but what, really?
Thoughtful, she replies, "Friendships, the people around me. Most people are acquaintances, the ones who are really around me are friends, and in my mind there's a big difference. I have a lot of acquaintances, and not a lot of friends. But the friends I have are great. Because most people, they don't really care about me, they care about her. The one who gets up there and sings. And if I never sang another note in my life [my friends] would still be there. And that's kind of the difference.
"Singing is my job, it's not who I am."