It's been 25 years since a freshman from Long Island presented UB with her rather imposing list of "haven'ts." (UB came through, in the end.) Lang is now a professional spinto soprano with a repertoire ranging from Cole Porter to Puccini-and with a much bigger list, this one of accomplishments. A touring soloist and full-time teacher, she has sung in many different languages and cities, winning awards and acclaim throughout the U.S. and Europe.
Now living in a Manhattan apartment building, with a flutist down the hall and a jazz musician across the way, Lang talked recently about performing with the Metropolitan Opera Chorus (rubbing elbows with Pavarotti), eating seagull eggs in Iceland ("I wouldn't race to eat another one, but it was interesting"), her love of teaching, and of course, her memorable years at UB.
It is UB, where she earned a B.A. in 1971 and an M.F.A. in 1973, that Lang credits for jump-starting her development as a person and as an artist-primarily by exposing her to a diversity of people, languages and ideas. There was her roommate, Lydia ("It was like we came from the moon and Mars," says Lang), who taught her that pussyfooting around would get her nowhere. There was the octopus dinner. And there was the political climate of the time, which literally forced itself on her consciousness: "I was practicing in the old Baird Hall, in the downstairs practice rooms, and tear gas shells were lobbed into the building," Lang remembers. "It was very frightening." She did become more politically aware, she says, but like most music students, "I had performances to do-I had to practice! And I chose to do that."
By far the most important influence came in the form of Emeritus Professor of Music Muriel Wolf, who at the time was the music department's director of opera. Lang was a sophomore when she went and knocked on Wolf's door; a pianist since the age of six, she'd spent a year as a piano major before realizing it was her voice lessons she cared about most.
"Muriel immediately pegged me as someone who needed to be awakened out of a vague sleep," says Lang. It was Robert Schumann's Frauenliebe und Leben, a piece recommended by Wolf, that jolted her awake.
"She instinctively saw that I'd been singing repertoire that wasn't for me," says Lang. "I'd been singing little light Purcell songs about nymphs and shepherds who 'run away' and 'come and play.' She took one look at my personality and my body and my whole person and said, 'Oh, no, no, no. You need something with a little bit more substance.' I fell in love with German and I fell in love with singing from that Schumann song cycle. And it was her doing."
While a student of Wolf's, Lang was active in the opera workshops, sang pops concerts with the Buffalo Philharmonic, and toured the state "in the UB station wagon," before winning a place in the Santa Fe Opera's first apprentice program. Since then she has performed with many companies-from the Baltimore Opera and Niagara-on-the-Lake's Shaw Festival to the Iceland Philharmonic and the Kleine Festspielhaus in Salzburg-and has played numerous roles, including Alice to Donald Gramm's Falstaff in the opera by Verdi at Wolf Trap and Gerhilde in the Artpark production of Wagner's Die Walküre. Praised by the Buffalo News for her "notable stylistic range and considerable assurance," Lang has also been cited for "the wide range of expressiveness at her command," and for the "vibrant richness" of her voice.
This fall marks Lang's fourth season with the Metropolitan Opera's extra chorus, a position for which hundreds of singers audition each year. "It's fabulous," says Lang. "You're treated wonderfully and you get to sing with the greatest stars." The Met hires from the ranks of the extra chorus for its bigger productions, she explains, or when it requires "a different choral sound-maybe darker, or heavier, or when they need more women, or more men."
Lang debuted with the chorus in Wagner's Die Meistersinger. "It was a new production, with Otto Schenk as director, and it blew me away," she says. "We were given the music, we rehearsed, we had stage time. I got to speak with the major artists and the stage director and see how the whole world runs." Later productions included Puccini's Turandot; Berlioz's Les Troyens and Verdi's Otello, which starred Placido Domingo: "He threw a party for the entire cast, and I have a picture of myself with him with his arms around me that I cherish!" says Lang with a laugh. Last season she shared the stage with Luciano Pavarotti, in a gala performance of the first act of Otello. "Just to hear these world-class voices right up close! It was a huge thrill."
There have been other thrills in Lang's career. She has performed Show Boat at the Smithsonian and Rodgers and Hart in Reykjavik; directed a chorus in the middle of Grand Central Station; put her head under a piano and moaned as a soloist with the "extremely contemporary" group Continuum; performed in prisons and nursing homes as an Affiliate Artist; and returned to UB as a distinguished alumnus in the Visiting Artist series, to give a recital one critic called "a chronicle of accomplishment."
Despite the glamour of the Met and the excitement of singing a variety of music around the world, Lang considers teaching one of her most important priorities-a development that makes her former mentor especially proud. Says Wolf, "Ellen has kept her life going at a certain level of aspiration and enthusiasm, and she is having an excellent performing career. But I think what is really exciting now is that she's getting excited about teaching. That's an ultimate function of a performer, that you pass on what you've experienced."
A faculty member of Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey since 1988, Lang finds that teaching gives her a satisfaction similar to that of singing. "Both involve finding out who you are and how to be more of who you are," says Lang. "And both involve digging into yourself to find answers. In today's world, where communication is instant but often on a shallow level, the skill that one learns in singing or in teaching singing is a wonderful tool for life."
Of course, Lang will always leave enough time in her schedule for her next great role: "I guess in my heart of hearts what I'd love is to put on long blonde braids and a breastplate and be the star of some Wagnerian opera!"
CLARE O'SHEA, B.A. '84 and M.A. '87, is copy chief for Harper's Bazaar.