Nathalie Stutzmann made her National Symphony Orchestra debut last season singing the contralto part in Dvorak's cantata, "Stabat Mater." Audiences were serenaded by her voice, as deep and rich as maroon velvet. This week she returns to display its succulence in a performance of Wagner's "Wesendonck Lieder," a song cycle inspired while the composer and his wife were staying on the estate of his patron, Otto Wesendonck.

He based the songs on poems written by Wesendonck's wife, Mathilde. Some speculate that Wagner and Mathilde were romantically involved. Whether or not this is the case, he was working on "Die Walkure" at the time and the themes of "Tristan and Isolde" are plainly evident. Although his original version was for a female voice and piano, he orchestrated it for a chamber orchestra to play beneath Mathilde's window on her birthday. The first song is "Der Engel" (the angel), the second is "Stehe still!" (stand still), and the fourth is "Schmerzen" (sorrows). He designated the other two as "studie zu 'Tristan und Isolde.' "

"This is a very intimate piece," Stutzmann said. "Wagner wrote an incredibly beautiful legato with gorgeous dark colors to suggest that he was in love with her. The meaning of the second song is the idea that time is running away and he wants it to please stop because he is scared. Christoph Eschenbach is using the Henze chamber version. The vocal line is written to look a bit like a cello part, very comfortable for a contralto."

Stutzmann grew up in France and began vocal studies with her mother before moving on to Nantes Conservatoire, then to the Ecole d'Art Lyrique de l'Opera de Paris where she focused on lieder. Her extensive repertoire now spans baroque to contemporary.

National Symphony Orchestra with Nathalie Stutzmann
Where: Kennedy Center Concert Hall, 2700 F Street NW
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday & Saturday
Info: $10 to $85; 202-467-4600; 800-444-1324;

Today Stutzmann is frequently heard singing and conducting at the same time in concert. Examples of her expertise at coordinating both responsibilities can be viewed on YouTube. Her guest conducting engagements extend well into the future with concerts in both classical and romantic repertoire scheduled for Sao Paulo, Valencia, Sweden, Finland and elsewhere. She eagerly awaits her operatic conducting debut in 2014 for a production of "L'elisir d'amore" at Opera de Monte-Carlo.

"This week, I want the Kennedy Center audience to enjoy one of the most incredibly romantic works of deep German spirit," she said. "The original version was a bit high, but this is perfect for a low voice with more modern orchestration and many solos for the instruments."