A shape-shifting opera singer with a debut to match
Still, they were supportive, and Petersen’s piano teacher exposed her, she recalls, to “everything from Bach to Hindemith.” In a school music class, her voice was noticed, which led her to sing in a church choir and learn the sacred repertoire of Schubert, Mozart and more. When she was 15, her parents took her to her first opera, “Rigoletto” by Verdi. She fell asleep.
“I didn’t understand anything,” Petersen said. “I got to the opera late, actually.”
This happened when she studied singing in Stuttgart, partly funding her studies by performing in a cover band called Square on the weekends. Petersen played keyboards and sang hits like Celine Dion’s “The Power of Love” and Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.” With a fellow keyboard player, she would do gigs that included performing “Starlight Express” on roller skates.
“It was a good workout, because the nights were long and there was a bit of strength,” Petersen said. She mimicked the voices of the original singers, a skill that later paid off when she entered a competition with categories for classical repertoire, then song and musical theatre. She won first prize in both, channeling Barbra Streisand in “Yentl” for her show tune.
But once she turned 25, she focused entirely on opera. It joins the sets of houses in Nuremberg and Düsseldorf. As a light coloratura soprano she sang roles like Ännchen in “Der Freischütz” and Oscar in “Un Ballo in Maschera”. Then, in 2003, she went independent.
Petersen began to develop a more personal repertoire and signature roles. There was Susanna in Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro”, whom she considered a “fast, funny and inventive” kindred spirit. And the anti-heroine title of “Lulu” by Berg, which she sang in about ten passages before retiring it at the Metropolitan Opera in 2015. This role, known for the complexity and extremeness of its music and its psychology, was, she said, “the big thing in my life.