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PSO looks homeward

Made in Maine. You see that green sticker on everything from moose ornaments to mustard. Next Tuesday, more than the music will be made in Maine. The soloist will be homegrown, too. The Portland Symphony will turn its spotlight inward to what Portland has to offer the world stage.

For the last four years, Margaret Yauger, international mezzo, has lived in Maine, teaching at USM, singing with the PSO, and jetting off around the world. A call from the PSO in Portland comes in to her New York agent who calls Cape Elizabeth to book her for a show at Merrill Auditorium. Made in Maine.

Margaret Yauger has sung with orchestras and opera companies on stages in Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Mexico, and across North America, including at the New York City Opera with Beverly Sills back in the day. The list of her opera repertoire numbers nearly 50 different demanding roles in as many operas in half-a-dozen languages.

The Portland Symphony knows a good thing when itís staring them in the face. Yauger has recently sung the St. Matthew Passion, the 9/11 broadcast, and Beethovenís Ninth under Toshiís baton, and next Tuesday will sing Mahlerís Rückert Lieder with him on the podium as well.

Written separately, these five songs of Mahlerís are often grouped together by poet. The poems speak of devotion to love, to art, to insomnia, even limes (yes, limes). Rückertís poetry was a favorite of many of the 19th-century composers, especially Mahler and Schumann.

While Yauger has sung two of the five Rückert Lieder, Tuesday will be the first time she has sung the full complement of Mahlerís settings. "Brahms and Mahler both handle the voice so well," says Yauger. Mahler is no stranger to her; she sang his Kindertotenleider for her senior recital at Converse College. "I suppose itís the melancholy that appeals to me."

Yauger met her husband, bass Malcolm Smith, 30 years ago at a festival in Central City, Colorado, and returned with him to Germany where he was singing on a regular basis. Immediately, Yauger was employed in the ubiquitous state-sponsored opera of that country.

For more than a decade, she was the leading mezzo of the Deutsche Opera in Düsseldorf, singing four different operas a week and never in English. For a native of Alabama, this was a different life, a welcome life; as a singer, this was rewarding work, putting oneís gifts to the challenge day in and day out. "I have good nerves," she says, modestly.

Then tragedy struck. "Iíve spent the last 10 years dealing with near-constant pain," Yauger confides. Pain as a result of a simple ankle operation gone awry seven years ago in Germany, severing the nerves to her foot.

Once back in the US, doctors at St. Lukeís in New York "rewired" her, she says, performing what at that time was an eight-hour, never-before-attempted nerve transplant operation that saved her foot, but left her crippled, necessitating her performing now with a crutch that leaves her bodyís muscles in knots for days afterwards.

"Sure, I lost something career-wise," she concedes. "There were repercussions. I lost a MET contract for one thing. But I believe in making it better, not bitter, and I know now what I can do and canít. Those are the decisions you have to make."

Gone, for the most part, is the operatic stage where she had made a significant career. But in its place are concert performances such as next Tuesday. Since her career readjustment, Yauger has sung Wagner with the National Symphony, Brahms with Roanoke, Verdi with Berlin, and Handel with Jacksonville. She has sung Beethoven with Heidelberg, Berg with Boston, and Strauss with the London Symphony under Seiji Ozawa. Margaret Yauger is a survivor.

After the devastation of her operation, "I needed beauty," Yauger admits. "I was desperate for some beauty in my life." Having gone to graduate school in Boston, she knew of the beauty of The North Country, and in one trip back, she and her husband "fell in love with Maine."

Ellen Chickering of the USM School of Music heard her sing with the PSO and hired her on the spot. Now, in addition to tooling around the world, canes in hand, Margaret Yauger shares her gifts with young singers.

"I pray that I may reach someone," she says. "You have to be obsessed with singing. I expect a lot from my students and work them very hard on technique because I believe in that long haul. But if you donít express yourself, do something else. Itís a responsibility to your talent."

And what will she be thinking as the orchestra wraps her in their arms Tuesday night? "I love the orchestration," Yauger says. "It is such a turn-on to sit up there in the middle of an orchestra. Itís like flying!"

Composer J. Mark Scearceís Urban Primitive makes its Maine premiere during this concert with Margaret Yauger. He discusses the work at 6:15 p.m. on the day of the show. He can be reached at scearce@usm.maine.edu

The Portland Symphony Orchestra play at Merrill Auditorium, in Portland, March 11. Call (207) 842-0800.

Issue Date: March 6 - 13, 2003
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