Lyric soprano Ruth Ann Swenson attracted attention from the moment of her 1983 professional debut in San Francisco. The determination evident in her Despina in that production was a recurrent thread throughout her developing career, preparing her to both enjoy the rewards of celebrity and also accept its responsibilities. The blonde, very pretty young singer returned to San Francisco to sing a concentrated yet rewardingly diverse repertory. Such roles as Gilda, Pamina, Nannetta, Ines (in Meyerbeer's L'Africaine), and Dorinda in Handel's Orlando reflect a penchant for variety while avoiding roles that were vocally inappropriate. Her always-rounded instrument filled out during the two decades following her first appearances, yet she moved cautiously in adding to her catalog of heroines. As the new millennium approached, such roles as Rosina reflected a new amplitude in the middle and lower registers while testifying to a still easy top range. Swenson also began investigating somewhat heavier parts, such as Amelia in Simon Boccanegra, the title role in Maria Stuarda, and Mozart's Countess.
Nurtured by the San Francisco Opera, Swenson also enjoyed recognition elsewhere beginning almost immediately. Her European debut took place in 1985 at Geneva, where she once again essayed Despina. Thereafter came engagements at the Salzburg Festival and at the Munich Staatsoper (where her introductory role again was Mozart, but this time the far more difficult Konstanze in Die Entführung aus dem Serail). Paris audiences heard her Euridice at the Theatre des Champs Élysées and her Susanna at the Opera-Bastille. Nannetta served for her successful Chicago debut in 1988. When Swenson made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1991, it was as Zerlina, one of her many "ina" roles, others being Adina, Despina, Norina, Rosina, and Amina. Critics welcomed her full and supple voice and winsome appearance. Since that time, Swenson has been a Metropolitan regular, heard in such other roles as Gilda, Lucia di Lammermoor, Zerbinetta, Gounod's Juliet, Massenet's Manon, and the heroines in Les Contes D'Hoffmann and Musetta.
During the 1994 - 1995 Chicago Lyric Opera season, Swenson returned for Ann Truelove in Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress. She won high praise from English critics when she sang a poised and full-voiced Semele at her 1996 Covent Garden debut. While Swenson has been charged with an occasional lack of dramatic fire, audiences and critics alike have been pleased by her thorough preparation and professionalism and the lovely sound she offers. Interpretations are invariably well thought out and presented with great attention to detail, while her singing is consistently focused and polished to a high gloss. A tendency in the mid-'90s for the voice to sound somewhat over-weighted was checked before it became a problem. Within a short time, her instrument sounded more firmly concentrated and well able to accommodate its expanded size.
Among Swenson's recordings are her several solo discs and two especially attractive interpretations in complete opera performances. Her Juliet is well-balanced between boldness and reticence and very well-sung. As Musetta, she casts fresh light on a figure frequently played as a caricature. Swenson, instead, is engagingly saucy and offers one of the best-sung performances of the role ever committed to disc.