Long May She Reign

Having appeared as the Queen of the Night—the high-flying anti-heroine of Mozart’s The Magic Flute—more than 300 times around the globe, including a record 53 times at the Met, soprano Kathryn Lewek has staked her claim as the world’s leading interpreter of the role. This month, she returns to dazzle audiences in Julie Taymor’s abridged, English-language production of Mozart’s enchanting musical fable. By Christopher Browner

The last time Met audiences saw soprano Kathryn Lewek, she delivered her trademark combination of fearsome power, effortless agility, and laser-focused stratospheric top notes in a Queen of the Night performance that The New York Times hailed as “utterly enthralling … bringing thrilling drama to a coloratura showpiece so fiendish that sopranos are lucky to get through it.” It was her 53rd Met performance as the Queen since her 2013 debut singing the role in which she remains supreme.

“During a radio broadcast a few years ago, they announced that I now held the Met record, and my mom called to congratulate me,” she recalls. “I said to her, ‘What on earth are you talking about?’ I really had no idea.” Of course, she was honored to have surpassed the many celebrated sopranos who have appeared in the role with the company—including her nearest competitors, Roberta Peters and Erika Miklósa, who each sang the part 32 times—but the accomplishment came as a particular shock given that, at the outset of her career, she never expected to tackle the role at all.

Originally trained as a mezzo-soprano, Lewek took her time acclimating to the virtuosic coloratura repertoire she sings today. Even after she had transitioned to soprano repertoire, she still didn’t include either of the Queen’s blazing arias in her audition packet, much to the surprise of the casting director of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, who nonetheless recognized her potential in the role and cast her in her first production of The Magic Flute in 2011.

This season, she racks up another dozen Met performances, starring alongside two dynamic young casts, including tenors Piotr Buszewski and Joshua Blue as the valiant Prince Tamino and sopranos Janai Brugger and Liv Redpath as Princess Pamina. Basses Brindley Sherratt and James Creswell trade off as Sarastro, while beloved Mexican tenor Rolando Villazón reprises his uproarious portrayal of the bird catcher Papageno, alternating with baritone Alexander Birch Elliott. Patrick Furrer and Gareth Morrell share conducting duties.

Lewek with soprano Hera Hyesang Park in 2021

Of the more than 20 Flute productions that Lewek has headlined, Taymor’s vibrant, family-friendly staging holds a special place in her heart. “You just can’t beat it. I totally understand why it’s become such a fixture at the Met,” she says. “It really plays up the fairy-tale aspects of the story, and I love seeing all the children in the audience— including my own daughter, who will see it for the first time this year!” Appearing in the opera each December also comes with the bonus of being able to be home for the holidays. “My children are five and two, and since I live only an hour and 15 minutes away in Connecticut, I’ve been very fortunate to have been with them for their first few Christmases, which has been so special,” she adds.

In the 12-and-a-half years since she first donned the Queen’s starry crown, the role has evolved for Lewek, who says that while she initially approached it with “extreme trepidation,” she ultimately settled into a “sweet spot”—though as she explains, “I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a ‘comfort zone,’ since there’s really nothing comfortable about singing Queen of the Night. But I reached a place where I had the perfect momentum and the perfect weight of my voice.” After undergoing a C-section to give birth to her first child, she had to adapt to what she describes as a “total discombobulation” of her vocal support system. “Even though I felt like suddenly I was singing with a new body, something in my brain knew what to do and sent the right signals,” she remembers. “Honestly, without this role, I don’t think I could have come back to singing at all. It really brought me out of the technical malaise I was feeling.”

And even as her voice continues to grow and she expands her repertoire to include more lyrical roles like Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata and Juliette in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, Lewek is glad to keep the Queen in her back pocket. “As long as I can still sing the role, the Queen can always come along for the ride,” she says. “It’s an incredible workout. If I’m having a weird vocal day, I just sing through the first aria, and it’s like a chiropractic adjustment. Everything is realigned. And really, after her, everything else I sing is kind of a piece of cake.”

Christopher Browner is the Met’s Senior Editor.