Heidi Melton approached her first Richard Wagner opera with the caution of nearing a wild animal. "I had always thought that I couldn't look at it or touch it because everybody had said, 'It's a voice-ruiner, don't do it till you're 50,'" Melton, 33, said.
But in 2007, while she was in a young opera artist program in San Francisco, she got a last-minute call to replace a diva who would not be available for the first few weeks of a production of Wagner's "Tannhäuser."
"It just fit," the soprano said in a phone interview from San Francisco. "I thought, 'Hey, this might be something.'"
The Spokane, Wash., native began to delve into the Wagner repertoire, keeping her in demand in operas and concert halls around the world.
"She's a Wagner singer who's growing up, and she's about to hit her stride," said Mark Russell Smith, conductor and musical director of the Quad-City Symphony Orchestra. "She's being booked everywhere. She's a big deal."
Melton will perform a solo from "Tannhäuser," albeit by another character in the opera, this weekend for performances with the orchestra, recreating the program from the symphony's first concert.
"She's taken off. It's just kind of fortuitous," said Smith, who hinted last week that Melton may return during the 2016-17 season for something longer than her five-minute aria.
Her aria, “Dich, teure Halle" ("You, Dear Hall") is very appropriate, said Melton, who received her bachelor's degree from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., and her masters in fine arts from the Curtis Institute of Music in Chicago, where Smith also is a graduate.
"It's a perfect piece for that because it's basically talking about a beloved hall and singing about people who have been in the hall and what they have meant," she said. "It's a lovely piece to sing for an occasion like this."
Melton said that for her, Wagner "just sounds like coming home."
"You know how you get home at night and put on your stretchy pants and they just fit and they just feel right? This is how that repertoire feels to me," she said. "It's exhilarating and amazing, but it also feels comfortable."
The orchestra, she said, is just as important as the soloist in Wagner's material. "I like that it's a group effort."
Acclaimed in reviews nationwide, Melton said singing Wagner is her destiny.
"Honestly, I just think I was supposed to sing this stuff," she said. "You don't want to hear me sing Mozart. I have utmost respect for people who can, but (Wagner) just fits me.
"I like singing for a long period of time and I like singing loudly. These are kind of prerequisites, but it's who I am as a person," she added. "It works."
About a month ago, Melton moved to Berlin, "a really cool city," where her vocal coach lives.
For the previous three to four years, she was a self-described "suitcase vagabond," living in hotels while rehearsing for her next performances.
"I carried everything in a suitcase like a turtle wherever I went, which was interesting," she said. "My suitcase was always overweight. I basically could have paid rent with my luggage fees."