Singing has always been important to Nancy Gustafson, a lyric soprano hailed by the New York Times for her “appealing, flexible” voice that another critic described as “[Maria] Callas-like.” But throughout her childhood, she tended to lean toward lighter music such as church choirs and Broadway show tunes. As a teen, Gustafson took private voice lessons but listened to James Taylor, Barbra Streisand, and the Beatles—certainly not opera.
Gustafson was first drawn to operatic music after starring in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience as a Mount Holyoke undergraduate. But she didn’t consider a career in the field until she began pursuing a master’s degree at Northwestern University.
When Gustafson won the role of Musetta in Puccini’s La Boheme, she realized that things she enjoyed in musical comedy were also part of opera—singing, dancing, and acting. In 1982, she won the Metropolitan Opera and San Francisco Opera national competitions and used the apprenticeship to land a contract in San Francisco.
In 1990, Gustafson made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera. Since then, she has sung with Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, and other top talent, and performed in Europe’s great opera houses. In addition to French and German, she speaks fluent Italian and sings in Russian and Czech.
Gustafson performs mainly in Europe, but always returns to the U.S. to sing at an annual benefit performance, Celebration. Proceeds from the event, which was created by Gustafson, go to the Over the Rainbow Association, which provides housing and employment for physically disabled adults.
Since 2006, Gustafson has been artist-in-residence at Northwestern’s Bienen School of Music.