Meet the Musicians: Anna Brumbaugh

Zach Manzi

My name is Zach Manzi, and in addition to playing bass clarinet with Nu Deco, I sit down and talk with my fellow musicians about their lives––work, play, and everything in between. I have never been part of a group with people who do such varying things as musicians, and I’m thrilled to help you get to know them.


Clarinetist and original Nu Deco member Anna Brumbaugh, from Boulder, CO, performs with Florida Grand Opera (FGO), Palm Beach Symphony (PBS), Central City Opera, Lakes Area Music Festival, and of course Nu Deco. We sat down one October evening to talk over Anna’s spontaneously-crafted homemade margaritas, hidden away in her North Beach condo, which is lovingly overgrown with plants of all shapes and sizes. Across one wall nearest to us is a healthy collection of worn LPs and books, and in the kitchen, dozens of tea varieties from her mom’s tea shop. Miles Davis plays over the record player, and we sit by candlelight.

Q: Anna, I know you play music all across the board on a weekly basis, but what do you spend your free time listening to?

A: I’ve been listening to a lot of jazz recently. I love that there is live jazz in Miami, and that’s something that’s been expanding my own creative impulses. Hearing something that’s live and being written in the moment is the most inspiring thing you can listen to. In the car I listen to all of my mom’s 70s CD’s––The Cars, The Police, The Eagles. That’s my favorite driving music. At home, a lot of opera, including the operas that we play in FGO. I always come home and listen a lot to prepare of course, but I also re-listen to them. I’ve probably listened to La Bohème, which we’re playing now, thirty times this year.

I grew up listening to opera. My mom was a pianist, and my great-grandmother was a rehearsal pianist at the Metropolitan Opera (the Met). My mom grew up in Poughkeepsie, NY and started going to Manhattan every weekend when she was eight because she was accepted into School of American Ballet as a dancer and the Juilliard Pre-College Division as a pianist, probably the two most musical ways you could grow up. Eventually she lived in Manhattan with my great-grandmother. The way she describes it, she grew up under the piano at the Met or at the critics desks at the top level of the opera house, where she would do her homework. She eventually was accepted to dance in the New York City Ballet.

So, we only listened to classical music––opera and tons of ballets constantly––and my mom was SO insistent on exposing us to classical music at a young age. She was really insistent on exposing us to classical music and took us to Central City Opera [in Colorado] and Santa Fe Opera every summer. We would spend the year studying for that. And of course when we were in New York, we would go to the Met and the Ballet.

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Q: What is the piece of music that has been the biggest part of your life?

A: It would hands down be The Magic Flute by Mozart. It’s the first opera I ever saw, at Santa Fe Opera, when I was 3. We walked in and we were all dressed up, and her big thing was to take my sister and me down to the opera. We drove down to Santa Fe, and she planned these naps so that we would be fresh because the operas started super late––it’s outside and they plan them around the sunset. It probably started at 8:30PM and it’s a three hour opera. We got there, all dressed up, and the usher looked at me and said, “She’s not five.” And my mom was like, no, but if she makes one sound we will get out of here. We had done so much studying that it just wasn’t an issue. Other kids grew up watching Sesame Street but we grew up watching tapes of operas, so it was this thing that was familiar to me but like I’d never seen before. It was probably like watching Sesame Street live for another kid!

So the next year in kindergarten, I dressed up as Princess Pamina, the main character in the opera, for Halloween. I really worked on my costume; we got this really cute blue dress and everything. I showed up to school and nobody knew who I was. I was totally devastated; to me it was the same as dressing up as a Disney princess! I came home and was upset, and my mom was like, “don’t worry about it.” She emailed her entire office and said, “I’m going to show up with my daughter dressed as Princess Pamina, and nobody knew who she was at school.” So then I went around her work and everybody complimented me, telling me what a beautiful Princess Pamina I was.

I have to say Magic Flute was always in my blood, in a way, and this summer it came full circle––it was my first opera at Central City. That’s when it hit me, how well I know this music, and that the music is so timeless, that it could speak to somebody as a three-year-old, and be resonant and make sense.

Q: Did you plan to get two jobs playing in opera pits?

A: I think I just never got away from what I love. I’ve never loved the idea of audition excerpts, but there was something so catchy about practicing opera excerpts, so I probably just practiced them way more than I practiced other ones. At Santa Fe Opera, I would always ask to go on the backstage tour because I just liked seeing the opera pit. And I’ll never forget the first time I walked into FGO. It was surreal; I had always imagined myself there. I love playing in an opera pit. I like the anonymity––I like the role of the clarinet in an opera, we get all the good solos––but I don’t like being on stage with the lights and stuff, that feels super weird. I love that we’re in a pit, I like the role of the singers, and I love the role of the story, that you’re part of something so much greater. That’s how I was introduced to classical music. As much as I love symphonies and think they’re really important, I hope that I’ll always be in an opera company.

Q: In addition to all this performing, you teach, right?

A: Aw, yeah, that’s probably the most special thing I do. So I teach at the NWSA, high school division, and at Miami-Dade College. I have eleven amazing little kiddos who I love. When I started at New World, I was nervous about what I could give my students as a teacher, like how much knowledge I have. It feels like having these eleven little lives who depend on you. These people entrusting me with their feelings about being vulnerable as performers. Preparing their hearts with that is a daunting task, and you feel responsible for making sure they feel comfortable in that moment. They’ve changed me in every way for the better, in having more conviction in what I believe, because I have to translate that to them. I really love each of them. I have to say that knowing them has made Miami feel more like home.

Q: Going back to your performing work, why do you think opera should be played still today?

A: The music is universal. I started going to opera before I could read and when I learned how to read subtitles. I never was one to read the subtitles, and it never bothered me, and I think that shows how much the music transmits the story. You can feel the music without knowing precisely what’s going on. The people involved really have to strive for perfection on every level, and that was the exciting thing about going to the opera to me, seeing people strive for these high notes. It’s exciting to know something could go wrong. Also, opera always took me to this other place. I loved being taken out of reality, I loved the darkness of the theater, it gets so much darker than a symphony theater. I noticed that the first time I played in an opera too––we’re in a dark pit with stand lights, and it took me out of my own reality. So selfishly, it transports me to this other place as well.

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Q: That’s interesting, it seems like opera is similar to movies in this way––one director, one set of characters, one story––and should therefore be the most relatable performing art there is. Some people think opera is not for everyone.

A: Yeah, and I realize it’s easy for me because I grew up going to it. But everybody has experienced heartache and loss, and nobody shows that better than in an opera, just the utter terror of losing a loved one. They just do it to the nth degree. So if somebody doesn’t know where to start with opera, I would concentrate on the story. It’s all about these universal human experiences that we all have. I would also suggest to understand the performers, like what it takes to sing like that. Watch them in a master class or understand the acrobatics of the voice. I think it’s so intense that sometimes people don’t even know where it’s coming from, it’s so foreign, they don’t even know how the human voice produces that sound, so we shut off. I play opera because I always secretly want to be a soprano, which I can’t, my voice never really showed up. Playing clarinet is the next best thing. But understanding how incredible it is, for an acoustic, human voice to fill a hall, always gives me chills.

Q: Who are some singers people should listen to?

A: The best master classes, hands down, are with Joyce DiDonato. That goes for anybody––there’s really nothing she speaks to that isn’t relatable to everybody in some way. She started doing them at Juilliard, in Paul Hall. I remember being there and somebody telling me, “Joyce is doing a master class,” and I told them I had to practice! I’ll never forget that I was literally upstairs when she was giving one and just didn’t go. I make all my students listen to her classes, just the way she talks about sound production, spinning air, and connecting notes just completely changed my clarinet playing, and my approach to teaching. The human side of it––being okay with failure, and understanding the process. She was late in her career to get signed, and she always doubted herself. I guess she taught me to have that trust, investing in the work and the process.

My favorite singer right now is Jonas Kaufmann. His voice is incredible and breathtaking, and I think that’s universally accepted, but his acting––he just captures everyone. It’s visceral and exciting, and he’s so intense and intentional about every word.

Q: What do you think is the entry point opera?

A: I would say anything Puccini or Verdi, really. The stories are thrilling, and they’re not that complicated––some operas are like, “Okay what’s going on? Who’s married to who?” But Puccini and Verdi are easy to follow. I always think about my dad with this. He came to the two operas I played this summer.  He was excited about Magic Flute just to tell everybody around him that I was playing principal clarinet, but then he came to Il Trovatore by Verdi, the other opera we did over the summer, and we got in the car after and he was like, “Whoa, that was really good! That was like 10x better than Magic Flute!” And I was like, I mean yeah, it’s Verdi! It’s a lot more exciting. He said, “They just did so much more! I never got bored.” It reminded me, he’s not a musician by trade, but it was nice to know that he loved the tenor hitting the high notes and the fast-paced orchestra tuttis.

Modern operas are now set on topics that are very current––there was recently an opera about Steve Jobs, premiered in Santa Fe. Dead Man Walking by Jake Heggie is probably the best opera I’ve seen in my life, which was at Central City Opera in 2014 or so. That production, with my friend Michael Mayes singing the lead role, was the most incredible stage production I’ve seen in my life. So, Puccini to get into the love of opera, but don’t be afraid to explore.

Q: What has been your favorite Nu Deco moment?

A: This was two years ago, when I was living in Boca, and it took me forever to drive to Nu Deco. I was actually late for rehearsal a couple times. I just remember feeling lost, like I didn’t really know what I was doing with my life, and I wanted to feel a little bit more guidance. I remember going to rehearsal, and there was something really sweet about the fact that we all came from different places in Miami, and we all have different playing experiences. It’s people from the opera and the ballet, and some people fly in and now we have these cool guys in the rhythm section who play at Lagniappe all the time. The fact that everybody was just there, I felt this really intense feeling of comfort and togetherness. I know these people because I’ve played with all of them in different capacities, and here we are all playing together, and I felt very at home. I’ve always kept that when I’ve played with Nu Deco––something here feels right. I love my job at the opera, but I love that I can turn that off sometimes and go to something really different. It was this feeling that we all need variety but that we also need community, and to not be afraid to admit that to each other. As long as I’ve known Sam and Jacomo, they’ve treated me as a little sister in the best way, that they’ve always believed in me. I’ve always felt welcome there and I’m really grateful for that.

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