Christine Brewer has spent much of her career on opera stages. But when she’s asked to sing Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem,” her answer is always yes.
“It’s a special piece, and it’s always an honor to do it,” says Brewer, named “one of the top 20 sopranos of all time” by BBC Music.
Brewer joins the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus in Britten’s masterpiece Wednesday and Saturday at Davies Hall. Conducted by Semyon Bychkov, the concerts are part of a worldwide celebration of the Britten centenary year.
Britten composed the “War Requiem” in the wake of World War II, and it remains among his most unusual scores. The composer, a pacifist and conscientious objector, set traditional Latin Mass texts along with verses from World War I poet Wilfred Owen.
Brewer, whose opera roles span Beethoven to Wagner, has a keen affinity for Britten’s music; signature roles include Ellen Orford in the composer’s “Peter Grimes” and Lady Billows in “Albert Herring,” a role she’s currently singing in London. But she says the “Requiem” is unique in its power to move an audience.
A former public school teacher who champions music education, Brewer recently discussed the work with a group of Illinois sixth-graders.
“They got it right away,” she says. “Britten’s music speaks to people. Even if it’s painful or not very complimentary, he’s able to make it real. That’s what makes the “War Requiem” so poignant. He sets the words of Wilfred Owen in a way that goes right to your heart.”
Britten wrote many roles for specific singers; the soprano part in “War Requiem” was for Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya. When Vishnevskaya was barred from traveling to England for the work’s premiere, soprano Heather Harper famously stepped in on 10 days’ notice.
Brewer met Harper a few years ago. “I’d written to her a few months before — I told her I was a huge fan,” she says. “I’d heard her sing the Four Last Songs when I was a student. It was the most beautiful piece I’d ever heard. I also loved her Ellen Orford.
“We became pen pals, and when I met her in London, she said ‘You know, I only had a few days to prepare the ‘War Requiem’ — and I sang it from memory.’”
Recalling that conversation, Brewer chuckles. “I probably could do it from memory,” she says. “But it’s always nice to have that score handy.”
IF YOU GO
Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem
Presented by the San Francisco Symphony
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday
Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
Tickets: $37 to $156