One of the top lyric and coloratura sopranos of our times, Ruth Ann Swenson is especially renowned for her work at the Metropolitan Opera and the San Francisco Opera, where she first made her mark in the operatic world. With a smooth, agile voice and a delightful presence on stage, the golden-haired diva has performed in many of the great opera houses in the United States and Europe. Among the recordings in her extensive discography is a 1991 performance of Kismet – a rare foray into the domain of the Broadway musical.
Born in Bronxville, New York, Swenson was raised in Commack, New York. She studied at Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts and at the Hartt College of Music in Connecticut. Entering the Merola Program at the San Francisco Opera, she made her debut with that opera company in 1983, winning praise for her portrayal of the maid Despina in a production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte. Other early roles with the San Francisco Opera included Gilda, Pamina, Nannetta (Falstaff), Inès (L’Africaine), and Dorinda (Orlando).
In 1985 she made her European debut in Geneva, again as Despina. Engagements followed at such major houses as the Munich State Opera, where she sang Konstanze in The Abduction from the Seraglio; the Théâtre des Champs Élyssées in Paris, where she sang the female lead in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice; and the Opéra-Bastille in Paris, singing Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro. She was also a guest at the Salzburg Festival.
Her debut at the Chicago Lyric Opera took place in 1988, when she again sang Nanetta. In 1991, she made her Met debut as Zerlina in Don Giovanni; since that successful debut, she has become a regular at the Met, her roles including Gilda, Lucia di Lammermoor, Zerbinetta, Gounod’s Juliette, Massenet’s Manon, Musetta, and the heroines in The Tales of Hoffmann.
Also in 1991 she took part in a Sony recording of George Forrest and Robert Wright’s musical Kismet, featuring fellow Met singers Samuel Ramey, Jerry Hadley, and Julia Migenes (as well as the opera-loving funnyman Dom DeLuise), with the London Symphony Orchestra and conductor Paul Gemignani. The score, which adapts tunes by the nineteenth-century Russian composer Alexander Borodin, has as one of its highlights the well-known number “Stranger in Paradise,” sung here by Swenson and Hadley.
Swenson made her acclaimed Covent Garden debut in 1996, singing the title role in Handel’s Semele. Other roles she has performed in leading houses have included Liù (Turandot), Rosina (The Barber of Seville), Elvira (I Puritani), Ann Truelove (The Rake’s Progress), Gilda (Rigoletto), Giulietta (I Capuleti e i Montecchi), Violetta (La traviata), Marguerite (Faust), the Countess (The Marriage of Figaro), Rodelinda, Cleopatra (Giulio Cesare), Hannah Glawari (The Merry Widow), and Ginevra (Ariodante).
In 1996 Swenson was among the distinguished opera stars honoring James Levine on his twenty-fifth anniversary at the Metropolitan Opera, an event broadcast on television. And in celebration of her own twenty-fifth anniversary at the San Francisco Opera, Swenson was honored in 2008 with the San Francisco Opera Medal.