Barbara Aurora, known for pushing the boundaries of opera singing, dies at 85
Janis Hardy recalls watching a performance at the Guthrie Theater when the end of a very long train from an opera singer’s dress got caught in a doorway.
The performer, Barbara Aurora, had the audience so mesmerized with her soprano voice that no one noticed her walking slowly towards the door to release her dress.
Aurora was known for taking risks on stage and twice broke her nose while performing.
“She was famous for changing lines in the middle of the show and she said it with such conviction,” said Hardy, a mezzo-soprano. “She was a loose cannon on stage, which made her captivating to the audience.”
Barbara Aurora died Jan. 30 at her Minneapolis home at the age of 85. Her last name was Brandt, but she went by Aurora later in life. A memorial service is scheduled for 7 p.m. June 7 at the Westwood Hills Nature Center in St. Louis Park.
The Twin Cities were blessed with a great singer like Aurora in its fledgling opera scene in the late 1960s, friends said.
“She was a very flexible singer with a wonderful soprano range and a sound you never get tired of listening to,” said famed conductor Philip Brunelle, who was director of the Center Opera, as the Minnesota opera was known at the time. “You could tell she loved an audience and an audience loved her. As she sang, people were drawn to her because of her very honest presence.”
Aurora began performing growing up in Battle Creek, Michigan, and graduated from Michigan State University with a degree in vocal performance, her son, Gean Halstead, said.
She moved to Minnesota in 1954, with then-husband Boyd Halstead, whom she later divorced, and had three children.
Living in a small town in the Iron Range, she won regional auditions for the Metropolitan Opera and moved to Minneapolis in the mid-1960s. Aurora went on to perform at a number of opera houses in Minnesota, captivating audiences with her dynamic voice, and has toured the country performing in cities from Washington, DC to San Francisco.
The then-young Hardy played alongside Aurora for around 12 years, learning from the seasoned expert.
In one of her shows, Hardy saw what she had never seen before. Aurora moved the audience so much that they stood up and clapped loudly during a brief break in the song, but before the show was over. A cheering audience in the middle of a show was unheard of, Hardy said.
“She got so deeply invested in every character she played that it was hard not to watch her on stage,” Hardy said.
It was her voice that first caught the attention of her husband, Wesley Balk, who was artistic director at the Opera Center. Balk made it to the Metropolitan Opera regional auditions but was tired and decided to pack his bags before the last singer – Aurora – started.
Hearing her voice as he walked to leave, he stopped short, turned around and sat down, Hardy said.
In her spare time, she taught thousands of students, and growing up, Halstead remembers hearing singing and vocal exercises all over the house. Aurora also played the piano, and her creative flair was passed on to her three children, who all played instruments.
“I would be amazed by her performance on stage,” Halstead said. “To say that it was my mother.
Aurora has been traveling for much of her adult life, returning to Minnesota around 17 years ago to be closer to Halstead. But old age and dementia did not hold her back. She sang in programs at her long-term care residence.
Hardy remembers driving with Aurora in the passenger seat not too long ago, singing a folk song in the car.
“I got goosebumps because the color in his voice was still there,” Hardy said.
In addition to Halstead, Aurora is survived by her daughters Alesia Panagiotides and Christa Halstead.