Seeing Stars: Soprano Nancy Gustafson
By Kat Smith
Acclaimed opera star Nancy Gustafson volunteered to help Steffanie Pearce, founder and executive director of Opera Naples, promote the company after reading about ON in the news. “Opera Naples is doing great work—and they’re local,” Gustafson says. “I’ve lived in Naples for 19 years … I thought, we’ve got all this talent right here, we ought to help Opera Naples become a great regional company.”
Pearce enthusiastically accepted the offer, which resulted in the World Star Benefit Concert November 18 at Moorings Presbyterian Church in Naples.
Not only did Gustafson agree to sing, she arranged for some high-caliber friends to join her: tenor Richard Leech, who has performed in many of the great operas around the world, including more than 200 appearances at the Met; and Sylvia McNair, a two-time Grammy Award winner who crosses over from opera to musical theater and cabaret.
Gustafson, Vienna State Opera’s leading dramatic soprano, has performed in myriad leading roles at the Metropolitan Opera, Teatro alla Scala in Milan, Opéra National in Paris, and Chicago Lyric Opera.
NI met with the vivacious and very un-diva-like Gustafson in her Wyndemere home.
How often are you in Naples?
I’m here most of all in the summer months. I love it here in the summer; I get up to play sports earlier. I play tennis, I have a golf lesson … no problem with getting times for tennis or golf. You go to the restaurants and you don’t have to make reservation, you don’t have to wait on line. … It’s paradise.
How did you wind up in Wyndemere?
My [former] husband was general director of the Canadian Opera company in Toronto. Our friends owned a place here in Wyndemere. … My husband looked at some places in Sarasota and Bradenton, then he came here. I met him in Naples and stayed for three days at Bill and Fritzi Williams’s house in Wyndemere and I fell in love with it. I said I want one just like this. … Then we went and stayed at The Ritz-Carlton, Naples, and if that didn’t lock the deal, nothing did. It was heaven.
How did you become involved with Opera Naples?
I work with a festival of young singers with Maestro Lorin Maazel, who used to be the music director for the New York Philharmonic. There was a baritone we hired for one of the operas that we did, his name was Matthew Worth. I also organize a benefit concert—this will be the twenty-first year—for the severely physically disabled in Chicago every Christmastime. I hired Matt to do that concert, and Matt came down and sang from Cosi Fan Tutte, which Opera Naples did a few years ago. When Matt was in Naples, he introduced me to Robin Shuford Frank, who is a pianist for Opera Naples. I needed a pianist when I was down here to work, to study my music and practice. Every time I come to town, I call Robin. I thought, Opera Naples must have good singers because they have Matt Worth… So I thought if they’re getting that level of singer down here this must be a good company. … At one point I told Robin if there’s any way I can help Opera Naples, tell Steffanie I’d be happy to help.
What is your favorite role?
At different points in my career, it’s been different roles, but right now, Salome I do a lot. I’ve done more than 100 performances of La Traviata, I’ve done probably more than 120 Die Fledermaus. Now I get more joy out of who I’m singing with than what I’m singing. And who’s conducting, so you can make really good music.
Do you enjoy other genres?
On Sirius Radio, I listen to On Broadway and I love it. I started singing because I always wanted to be Julie Andrews or Barbra Streisand. I love musical comedy.
Do you have favorite performance venues?
I’ve sung a lot in Vienna, so it feels very much like home there. I loved singing at the Royal Opera. San Francisco, that’s where I got my start. One of my greatest joys is singing at the Palais Garnier in Paris, the old opera house. It is so gorgeous.
Do you have a pre-performance ritual?
On the day of performances and the night before performances I talk to no one. I mean, if I’m at home I speak to the person I’m living with… but I do not talk on the phone or go anywhere to have conversation. My biggest problem is my talking voice is very low. I speak incorrectly so I tire myself out talking. I never go out for dinner the night before a performance because once in Jerusalem I got food poisoning the night before opening night of Traviata.
You must attend so many functions requiring great clothes. Do you have a go-to fashion designer?
My designer for my everyday clothes was always Ellen Tracy. That’s changed recently. I’ve fallen in love with online shopping. I have a great website, BostonProper.com, for summer clothes. For a long gown… recently at St. John, I found a lot. I bought a lot of long gowns in Europe. All my shoes are Ferragamo. They are the most comfortable. Often if I need a gown and I am in the United States, I go to Saks Fifth Avenue. I love the Saks in Naples; I just bought a gown there for a concert. Waterside Shops is one of my favorite places. You’ve got a wide selection. I also love Nordstrom. … It’s never too packed, it’s beautiful and relaxing.
What do you like to do in Naples?
I’ve got three favorite activities. One is to have a drink and watch the sunset at The Ritz-Carlton.
Second thing, I am in love with Silverspot Cinema. You can reserve your seat, you can get food, you can take your cold drink in there, or a glass of wine. If you’re going on a date you can have your dinner there. It makes going to the movie theater so much fun.
And I love to go to Old Naples to Fifth Avenue or to Third Street South. Campiello is one of my all time favorites. I also love all those great restaurants on Fifth.