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Voice of Experience : Why Christine Weidinger Left the Met Path to Stardom

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

As a tyro, she wins a big-time contest and is rewarded with a role in “La Boheme” at the Metropolitan Opera. That mighty establishment finds the soprano “useful” and keeps her busy for the next few seasons, offering better and better opportunities.

But one day, Marilyn Horne, a trusted colleague, suggests that the path to stardom lies not in rising through the ranks.

“If you want to develop as an artist,” says Horne, “then get away from the spotlight. Find your own style and voice. Leave this cozy arrangement at the Met--or be doomed to mediocrity.”

Christine Weidinger followed that advice and in 1975, left for Europe where, indeed, she came in for the vast, often knockabout experience that builds character, not to mention repertory and sophistication.

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“But to this day, I’m not sure I did the right thing,” says Weidinger, who sings the demanding leading role in Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte,” the Music Center Opera revival that opens Monday for five performances.

“Maybe it was foolish to walk away from such a sweet deal as I had at the Met. After all, that’s what most singers aspire to and there I was, giving it all up, breaking my ties there.

“Why? Because that fear--being mediocre--had me by the throat.”

It need not have. Some extremely tough critics have been won. (Of a recent performance in “Idomeneo” at the Music Center, The Times’ Martin Bernheimer wrote that she “swept all before her with galvanizing passion and stunning vocal bravura.”)

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Now, that fear is nowhere to be seen. Her wide, china-blue eyes smile as she flips through a scrapbook documenting 14 years spent in Germany, France, Italy and Spain. Even aside from her hard-won accomplishments--she has an active repertory of 30 roles and can sing 20 of them at a moment’s notice--Weidinger says that “life in Europe truly was more interesting and involving for a greenhorn like me trying to become an artist.”

However, now that the singer from a small, Upstate New York town has reconnected with the United States, she plans to cash in the chips of a self-imposed exile and makes no secret of her special desire to stay before the Los Angeles public.

It was for the Music Center Opera’s 1989 “Tancredi” that she returned home, winning rave notices here and elsewhere for other efforts. But despite the doubting, cautionary tone that sometimes creeps into her observations, the soprano has no regrets about the decade she spent with the tiny Bielefeld Opera in northern Germany.

“They treated me like a queen,” Weidinger enthuses. “I had only to ask for a role and it was mine.” At her debut in the fiendishly difficult “Norma,” the audience brought her onstage for 32 curtain calls. The company’s positive reinforcement paid off, says Weidinger, “in the extra something that a performer wants to give in an atmosphere like that. It was so gratifying I cried. Audiences are critical for me.”

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But not everything during those European years was a joy ride. Often Weidinger was sent on performances that precluded rehearsals and even meant skipped meals. What’s more, she and her husband, Ken Smith, also a singer, were at different career levels. So until he decided to forfeit the stage and become her manager, there were lots of enforced separations.

And other problems.

“The decision of whether to have a family caused 10 years of agonizing,” she says. “But it was an act of kindness on my part to forgo children, since I couldn’t give up singing and I couldn’t accept anything less than excellence in my career. This way, no one was shortchanged.”

Bielefeld, she points out, is an exception to the operatic rule in Germany and Austria, where most companies are run like bureaucracies. With their state subsidy they “are not directly responsible to the public. Performers are government employees, so everyone is expendable. There’s always another person under another rock who might be less trouble . . . which shoots down the impetus for excellence. Standing out because you’re better is not an advantage. Corporate politics rule. It’s a closed environment.”

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But Weidinger treasures the benefits--learning German and gaining some fluency in other languages as well. However, those good things are not without their counterparts, she says: “I always felt like a foreigner. No matter how well I spoke German and tried to fit in it didn’t help. But now that I’m focusing on bel-canto roles (with a high, agile soprano as qualification), I want to Italianize, so we’re going to live near Florence for the next year or two.

“It will take forever for Europe to unite because nationalism is very strong and people resist outsiders. It’s the opposite here,” she says, referring to a uniquely multicultural America and complimenting “the simpatico cast” for “Cosi.”

“The better your career goes the better brand of people you end up working with. A lot of negative things happen in life, but if you can get through this profession with your humanity intact that’s quite an accomplishment.”

Weidinger still ponders the last offer made to her by the Met 15 years ago: to sing a second cast Mimi in a new “La Boheme” for Mirella Freni. She would have been asked to imitate the originator, thus gaining little chance to explore her own talents.

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Passing up that opportunity is a moot point.

“I am what I am,” she says. “Someone who can sing difficult roles in top houses and know how to gauge herself, how not to fold in an emergency, how to know what’s medically treatable.

“Now is the payoff for all those times I sang with a 104-degree fever for a low fee and precious little else. Now the rewards are truly here.”

“Cosi fan Tutte” will be staged at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion Monday, next Saturday, April 15 and 20. Weidinger also performs the role of Violetta in the San Diego Opera production of “La Traviata” opening May 4 at the San Diego Civic Theatre.

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