Tag: comprehension

Helmut Deutsch: “You Always, Even After Fifty Years, Find New Things”

Helmut Deutsch, pianist, memoir, klavier

Photo © Shirley Suarez

“There is a way to say something,” my mother used to remark, “a way you have to learn.” The best form of written and spoken expression, that is, combines elegance and honesty. This matters greatly if you hope to have people do as you wish, in the way you want them to, while still holding your own. It is an art which is in ever-evolving states of evolution in my own life.

For Helmut Deutsch, however, such an integration is a way of being, on stage and off. One of the most acclaimed lieder pianists of our time, Deutsch combines bluntness and a distinct, and it could be argued, old-world Viennese elegance, to his approach to the art-work-life trinity, and most wonderfully expressed in Memoirs Of An Accompanist (Kahn & Averill), published in English last year. The memoir was first published in 2019, in German, as Gesang auf Händen tragen: Mein Leben als Liedbegleiter (Henschel Verlag), a perfect title for a musician who indeed has the gift of carrying song as if made, alternately, of solid iron and the most delicate glass; knowing which touch to use when is a great part of Deutsch’s mastery. In a celebrated career spanning over five decades, Deutsch has honed his reputation of being one of the most intuitive and artful of pianists, a full partner to vocalizing cohorts in manifesting the meaning of the words which ground much of the work, and the sounds between and around them which allow such works flight.

A great many things have been written about Deutsch and his work, but since our chat last month, I have found myself, like Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Lord Chandos, stymied for such words. What could possibly be written to capture such artistry? To listen is, as ever, simultaneously instructive and daunting; one is reminded, through the poetry of words and sounds, of the value of sitting in a place where silence is the only appropriate response. Indeed, I am a fan of lieder (as my past work probably demonstrates), and I am a writer, and I am a piano player (or was, and hopefully will be again soon); it is nevertheless impossible to parse the threads of these identities in experiencing the works of Schubert, Schumann, Strauss, Wolf, Brahms, Mahler (plus that of Goethe, Müller, Heine, Heyse, Morgenstern, Bethge) so intuitively performed. Such are the moments when intellect, instinct, and rather powerfully, curiosity, all magically, quietly meet. The pandemic era has forced one to make choices relating to the conscious endowment of attention; lieder has always placed large demands in this area, but the current times of forced isolation have allowed, at least on my own part, an even greater level of received power. There are no other breathing, coughing bodies to mediate reception of the artform – for good and for ill – but this directs and controls intensity of directed attention in ways I hadn’t quite expected; it’s made me listen to lieder in ways I could have never predicted, and deepened an ardent love, if also enforced occasional (if perhaps needed) distance from the quotidian. I can no longer put on Italienisches Liederbuch, for instance, without expecting to have the rest of the day vanish.

Deutsch’s meticulous attention to phrasing, his instinctual approach with singers, and his unforced musicality render such musical experiences deeper and broader, but simultaneously closer, more intimate. To listen to his work is to feel he is playing just for you, whether in a small space like a recording studio, or the vast expanse of the Bayerische Staatsoper. Listen to the clip below with Jonas Kaufmann (from December 2020), taped at that very spot; I had to sit in silence a full fifteen minutes after hearing it for the second, third, fourth times. This is artistry which requires concentration, consideration, digestion, and calls to mind the words of George Steiner, who wrote in Real Presences (Faber & Faber, 1989):

In a wholly fundamental, pragmatic sense, the poem, the statue, the sonata are not so much read, viewed or heard as they are lived. The encounter with the aesthetic is, together with certain modes of religious and of metaphysical experience, the most ‘ingressive’, transformative summons available to human experiencing. Again, the shorthand image is that of an Annunciation, of “a terrible beauty” or gravity breaking into the small house of our cautionary being. If we have heard rightly the wing-beat and provocation of that visit, the house is no longer habitable in quite the same way as it was before.

Perhaps, I can only add, it shouldn’t be, for such a transformation might be what lieder truly asks, if not demands.

This transformative power is one that Deutsch wields in both teaching as well as performance. His dual talents, as a teacher and an interpreter of lied, are long-standing, with twelve years of instructing composition, piano, and musicology at the Vienna Music Academy, and more than two decades as Professor of Lied interpretation and performance (Professor für Liedgestaltung) at Munich’s University of Music and Performing Arts, where he still gives classes, among other locales. His extensive discography includes recordings with some of the biggest names in the history of opera, many of whom (Peter Schreier, Brigitte Fassbaender,  Angelika Kirchschlager, Grace Bumbry, Yumiko Samejima, Camilla Nylund, Bo Skovhus, Matthias Goerne, Olaf Bär, Diana Damrau, Dietrich Henschel, Michael Volle, Piotr Beczala, and Jonas Kaufmann) enjoy their very own chapters in the book. It’s not surprising Deutsch’s career is one marked by close work with singers, considering the central role singing played in his own musical development. The son of music-loving scientists who often sang at home, Deutsch had an active life as a chorister and writes that “as a child, it was the most natural thing in the world to be involved with choral singing. The children’s choir school in my area of Vienna was based in my primary school, and once a year there was a large choral festival during which about a thousand children gathered on the stage of the large hall of the Konzerthaus – a mighty experience for a little boy. Piano playing came later.”

The memoir begins with the pianist’s memories of touring with baritone Hermann Prey – the good times, the bad, and everything between – and then proceeds to move chronologically, with a myriad of observations on working with singers, the differences in audiences, the pressures (or not) of various live and teaching experiences, notable variations in performing spaces, and some timely (and timeless) advice for page turners. And, lest you think there must surely be no suitable place for conductors in a book written by a lied specialist, think again: Herbert von Karajan is given mention early on, and in a particularly endearing way, as Deutsch recounts an incident from the Salzburg Festival, when he was a chorister in the Singverein of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Wien (Society of Friends of Music in Vienna), an active part of Austria choral life. Karajan, as then-Music Director of the group (forebears included Gustav Mahler and Willhelm Fürtwangler), was set to conduct a performance of Haydn’s Creation at the famed summer festival in 1965; Deutsch was called to step in to play piano during rehearsals. “Knees shaking, I stepped up to the podium, shook Karajan’s hand and sat down at the piano,” he writes. “I had never played a single note of the Creation.”  The honesty with which the overly-fast-tempo incident is recounted, along with his honest reaction (and Karajan’s), may well inspire empathetic stirrings among those of us for whom the red-faced reactions of screw-ups in front of people we admire still sting.

A similar if less positive reaction is just as valid applied to those people and situations with whom we simply didn’t click, artistically, intellectually, or personally. Throughout its nearly 200 pages, Deutsch lets loose a refreshing honesty with regards to certain situations and recordings – but he is elegant in his assessments, and when he does name names (which is rare), there is a didactic spirit attached: one might learn from this thing he writes of, as a young singer, or pianist, or simply keen music lover. He also dismantles various overused cliches (“breathing as one” being but one) and approaches to material. “Striving to please and do everything ‘properly’ actually gives a boring and pale idea of both the music and oneself,” he writes. Everything, in music and in memoir, is meant for betterment – of performance, listening, overall creative experience. Richard Stokes, who is Professor of Lieder at the Royal Academy of Music, provides a sparkling English-language translation for the Kahn & Averill publication. Such linguistic lucidity beautifully captures the nuances of Deutsch’s speech patterns and mental meanderings, those thoughts when expressed by artists so often tend toward the musico-historico-narrative. Sentimentality, which could so easily sugar over the tone, is wisely avoided in favour of an umami-like pungency which reveals both firmness of intent and intense artistic commitment.

We spoke back in mid-February, as Deutsch was preparing to do a series of masterclasses in Vienna.

Helmut Deutsch, pianist, memoir, klavier, book, buche, memoirYour memoir is especially notable for its candour; that’s a refreshing quality.

I try to be polite as well, but it’s a little bit risky. So many singers are still alive and working with me. I didn’t really offend anyone, I don’t think. Perhaps you know the famous memoirs of Gerald Moore, and of course I have read this 50 years ago and I reread it a few times now, and found one thing very remarkable, that all the singers he was accompanying when he wrote the book – Dieskau, Schwarzkopf, de los Ángeles – were gods, but the others who had passed, he was not so nice to them. I thought, what I tried, is to give a real balance of not glorifying everybody who is singing with me at the moment because we are all human beings and have weak points also. I tried to make this as balanced as possible.

Something fascinating you explore is the automatic understanding that can occur between you and certain singers…

… it’s especially the case if you’ve known them a long time – for as long as I’ve known Jonas Kaufmann, for instance. After thirty years now, we are like an old couple!

You can read each others’ minds on stage?

Exactly. And what I think is very important as part of that is watching a singer’s body language. Of course I know him well, so I’m aware that he has an incredibly long breath and where I would have to speed up for other singers, he would say, “No, don’t get faster!” I’m able to know that after so many many years… although I had the opposite of this experience, with some remarkable singers who wanted to discuss every detail: “Let’s do this” and “Let’s try out that”. And this is interesting, but sometimes you lose any spontaneity you might have had; when you have figured out all these solutions and think, ‘This has to be like that all the time”… this is boring in the end.

So you feel there is a point where the studying must stop and instinct has to take over… ?

Yes, precisely.

How does that instinct relate to the study of text – on the Gál album with Christian Immler, for instance, with the texts of poets like Christian Morgenstern?

It’s interesting with him – do you know he is extremely popular in Germany and Austria, but only for his humorous poems? The dark stuff is almost unknown.

Morgenstern, poet, writer, German

Poet Christian Morgenstern (1871-1914)

Why is that?

Because he was known as a humorist, so he’s extremely popular just for that. For the generation of my parents and for mine too, they – we – knew parts of his poems by heart, they were so popular. And somehow he was… the idea of the audience is that he’s a funny guy, but he *was* dark. And you are right, Gál’s music complements it with these serious things. There are no jokes in it!

How is Gál’s music different or unique for you as a musician?

He’s certainly coming from the tradition of Johannes Brahms, although it’s amazing you would not think he was composing most of these early songs in the time of Gustav Mahler – you can’t feel any influence of that. He was very traditional. I’m sure Christian Immler told you everything about this discovery of what his daughter had, that he didn’t want these songs published. I think it was only because he got very old and these songs were written more than a half century before, so as an old man he said, “Oh I have not the feeling for this anymore” – but he’d only published five of his songs out of all this material. And it was interesting to convince his daughter that this is music to print – finally she agreed, but it took a very long time.

What’s that like to play?

Gál must have been a good pianist because, I would not say it’s easy to play, but it’s pianistically written. For comparison, you can see even in Mahler songs he was a very good writer but he was not a pianist, so some of his parts are a little bit against the piano technique – but people like Schumann and Brahms, and also Strauss and Hans Gál, certainly played piano very well, the writing is very logical.

Christian said that you and he never discussed interpretation in examining and recording Gál’s work.

That’s right, we never did – and I think we had no great discussions about such interpretation because we both fell in love with the songs when we saw the manuscripts, and we both had the same feeling that this is very good music, very precious. Christian is also one of these singers you don’t have to talk a lot with – there was not even discussions about tempo, as far as I remember, it was four, five years ago when we recorded it now, but there were no problems in terms of, “I see this different” or “I would like to do this much slower” or “This should be much faster” – no, it was chamber music on the very best level. On Modern Times we’d already done the known Hans Gál songs (then), and that was the start of this. Eva came to our concert (related to that album) in London and said, “Oh my father would have loved this” and I said, “What a pity he only wrote these five songs” and she said, “No no, there are many more!” And she invited us to see the songs, and we went through every manuscript for two days. He had good handwriting, very clear, and we are very lucky that, finally, with the help of the grandson (Simon), the whole thing worked.

Christian Immler, Helmut Deutsch, opera, classical, lieder, voice, piano, music, performance, Hans Gál

Christian Immler and Helmut Deutsch. Photo: Marcus Boman

So do you feel like an ambassador for his music?

Yes. You know the heritage of all his works is now in Vienna, and I hope they will do a little bit more for him now.

It’s interesting to think about composers like him, whose works are becoming more known, and reading about the reductions of famous works which you played when you were starting your piano journey. What, in your view, is the benefit to a young musician, of learning reductions?

I grew up with my very musical parents who were scientists, and I played a lot of four-hand music with my father. This was very important, because you learn, especially when you play the lower parts, in general your left hand is more important, and many little notes are not so important, so you must figure out the harmonies and the rhythms. And it’s totally different from learning a solo piano piece. In my young years it was still considered house music, that was still alive, because long-playing discs had just started and of course there was the radio, but it was quite usual to sit down and play Beethoven symphonies or to do a bit of sight reading – you got, in many cases, the essence of the piece much much more Later on I played, let’s say, more professional arrangements – for example, things specifically written for two pianos. Brahms wrote a lot of arrangements for two, or, one piano and four hands – all his four symphonies, the serenades, and many chamber music pieces, for instance. The symphonies I played on the piano, but in concert and really professional. It’s fascinating to do, because you think you know these famous four works almost by heart, and then you start playing and you are not… there’s the pure music, because you don’t have trombones and clarinets and strings; you have just this one instrument. It’s like seeing into a microscope; you see everything much clearer.

Of course it’s more fascinating with the orchestra, but to get to know a piece, to know it very well, to analyze it, you play it on the piano. I did an exam as an opera coach, so I studied starting with Mozart operas, Strauss and Wagner operas, and you are not, I don’t know the words… when you listen to a big orchestra you’re overwhelmed sometimes or many times by the instrumentation, by the use of instruments and their timbre – the brass or the solo flute or whatever – it doesn’t make you concentrate on the music only. But when you play on piano you get all the tones – in a good way. You are not disturbed, you are concentrating on the music and nothing else and you are not overwhelmed by that brass chord in a fortissimo or whatever. When you play rheingold on the piano, however, and I’m not a big Wagner fan, I must say, the music is very poor for many minutes and then of course comes the famous theme, and “Ah yeah, this is Siegfried’s theme!” but in-between there is not much, but Wagner was able to make everything interesting because of such great instrumentation work. On the positive side when you play Brahms symphonies you find out much more about the construction. It’s really fascinating. So I think Brahms, in his older years, said, “I’m not going to concerts anymore; I just will read the score of a Beethoven symphony and I enjoy it” – this is a little bit similar to playing on the piano only, and getting the essence and the main core of the music; you can adore it, or you can find out that, eh, it’s not everything so glorious, like in The Ring for example. But this is my very personal opinion.

Certainly there’s the opinion that certain things should not be performed in reduction, some things by Wagner, for instance; there’s a feeling we will just have to wait to hear those things live again now.

That’s right.

But that’s when the opportunity for lieder comes. You write in the book that Liederabend are not programmed so much, but, do you think now, in our pandemic era, it might be more?

I was feeling this in the last year because so many events were cancelled. I jumped in with Jonas very often – instead of Fidelio for instance, we had a recital. And somehow (the style of the music) fits or, it fits very much more with the isolation, the sense of intimacy – and I hope this will remain, even after the pandemic.

You write that Hermann Prey didn’t want people to look in the program books when he sang – ‘They will know the meaning of everything from my voice!’ – but I think it is vital to know the poetry and how the sounds relate…

Of course.

How extensively do you study texts yourself, even one you know well, before performances or recordings?

I must admit, first of all I started when I was fourteen, fifteen years old, I think. I wrote this in book, that I was a normal boy who was interested in sports and girls of course, but I was also reading a lot of poems, especially (the works of) Eichendorf and Heine and Goethe, and I fell in love with a lot of these poems; I only found out later that these are also songs: “Wow, these poems are composed of music already!” This was a shock in the best sense, in a very positive way. It was great! I must admit over the many decades I have to rethink the meaning of a poem very often and I do read, I read normally when I have a half hour before a concert and will be sitting in my dressing room; I’ll read the texts again. Also I know many of them almost by heart, but it’s the same feeling with the music, just the same: you find details in pieces like Winterreise or Dichterliebe. You always, even after fifty years, find new things, and this is very exciting. In the world of text, I am not so much at home, they are difficult texts and there are texts which seem to be very easy, very simple, but there is so much underneath and you can read and read again and again, and, “Oooh! Ah! There’s a double meaning! And there is a shift, a metaphor, that image…!”

With the great poems, sometimes I think there are great poems by Rilke, for instance, but he was not composed-to very often, it’s very difficult, the words … there’s so much music in the words already, that they don’t need music, or any kind of music doesn’t fit. Many times you have great songs written by more or less unknown poets too; if you look at Richard Strauss songs, (Julius) Bierbaum (1865-1910) for instance, is rather unknown, or mostly even forgotten. A poet like him was known in his time but not so much now, and he is survived only by these songs Strauss wrote. The quality of some of these songs with texts by more or less forgotten poets is really great, and some of them especially have a connection with the music. I didn’t really study German Literature professionally but it’s a permanent question: what did he really mean by that? And so on. When you teach twenty-something year-old (vocal) students, it’s so often the case that they didn’t think a bit about the words. They think about the voice, of course, and maybe sometimes the intonation, but you can feel from a singer very soon that he or she is thinking in terms of the meaning of a poem or single words, or that he or she wants a color which belongs to the meaning of these words, and sometimes you see there is no feeling for the material at all, and this is a permanent struggle when you teach, even with professional singers.

I was just going to say, sometimes there are singers who just churn it out, and it seems obvious they don’t really have an understanding or intimacy with the text; there’s output, and sometimes it’s impressive, but I can sense when there’s no input.

Exactly!

I appreciate your chapter in this regard where you write of your niece’s observations on Barbara Bonney in recital.

Yes, that was so interesting to see. My niece was fourteen or fifteen years old then and the reviews of the concert said, “Oh such wonderful interpretation!” But a child feels a lot. It was really impressive to hear her make such observations.

Her observations highlight the differences in listening quality between locales and contexts. Some of my musician friends have noted those differences too – they can pick it up right away, whether the audience is “with” them or not.

I totally agree, it’s very different from place to place. There are special audiences in Europe, in Wigmore Hall – that’s a very educated audience – and also in Vienna. You have people who have bought every series for forty years and are listening to sometimes the same pieces from the same (song) cycles for so long, and they are very critical. The big difference between London and Vienna in terms of audience is that the audience in the Wigmore Hall, in my experience, is rather cool when they don’t know the singer, but when it’s successful they are enthusiastic; the Viennese are not necessarily enthusiastic but they are much warmer from the beginning. It’s a case of, “Okay, you have your chance, we are happy to see a new face or hear a new voice.” But in London they are more critical. It’s amazing in the hall. It’s hundreds of recitals a year and the repertoire is much more than 50% in German – you are young, so there is time for you to learn German, Catherine!

The lessons continue…

Good, keep practising!

But, everyone has to have a starting point – for instance, I think it’s interesting you included a chapter on page-turners in the book. Why such a detail?

It’s a person who, in the best way, is not noticed; this is the ideal page turner. It’s someone the audience is not aware of as a third person. But really, I could have written fifty pages about this, because so much happens, it’s incredible. And I would say it makes a big difference if you are very close with this person. When you have the feeling she or he is criticizing, I’ve noticed… I have memories of recordings for example, I remember being in Frankfurt with a violinist, and we started with a piece which opens in a specific way, and my page-turner made a certain motion all the time. I said, “Is something wrong?” “No, what do you mean?” “You seem to dislike my tempo in this opening.” “In fact I do.” I said, “Okay, you don’t have to, but don’t show me, I’m not interested in your opinion.” And it’s not comparable to the situation between singer and pianist, but sometimes, if they are young people… they give me an atmosphere of being very interested and enthusiastic about a song or whatever, or, they can be judgemental. But of course I try to give some… humorous episodes. The importance of page-turners may disappear with tablets, maybe.

Or they may vanish because of continued performance restrictions. But perhaps now is also the perfect time for lieder, as you say, what with its mix of intimacy and intensity.

I am fully booked this year, but we are awaiting the next update from the governments in Austria and Germany. I am full with concerts in March and April and May, but we have no idea what is coming or not. It’s really frustrating, but I think we have the same situation everywhere. Master classes can happen online but I have in-person ones booked at the Vienna opera studio and in April in Munich. Inside these places everything is working, they are preparing a lot. Some places like Vienna and Paris they may only do one streamed performance and nothing else, like Carmen in Vienna and Aida in Paris – but they’re still working.

It’s heartening to observe this bit of cultural activity, however limited it is at the moment.

It is happening, and we have the possibility, especially for lieder and recitals, to go to 500 people in Munich and Vienna, maybe, depending on what the governments say. I was in Madrid recently with Jonas Kaufmann, at Teatro Real, and we had 800 people there; it’s a ⅓ of the capacity but it is still much better than nothing.

That’s a nice size for a lieder concert; the contrast between the immensity of a space and the intimacy of the music can sometimes be jarring…

… Ja, this is true, but the great singers are expensive! So (a small venue) is not practical anymore. When you think about what Schubert wrote, it was for a salon of thirty or forty people, and Schumann as well; the (trend of holding) lied recitals in big halls started very late. Now I’ve done stuff at the Met, and you can say it’s ridiculous, but on the other hand when almost 4000 people are listening to Mahler or Strauss songs… this is great. I remember going to the Musikverein at fifteen or sixteen years old, and I remember very well the recitals by Dieskau, I only had money for the very last row in the Second Gallery; I remember hearing some Schumann songs,and it being the very first time to do so, in this recital. This is almost sixty years ago now. I would say I was about eighty meters away from Dieskau, and… it worked. It was totally fascinating. So of course Dichterliebe or Winterreise were not written for a huge venue. But, on the other hand, when let’s say, famous people who must be paid, sing for, let’s say, Carnegie Hall and 2000 people, and there are five listeners there who say, “Oh, this was so exciting! I see there is in Alice Tully Hall an unknown singer but doing the same Dichterliebe; I want to go there”… well, there is progress! (Large venues) are good PR for the art form.

Kind of like live-streams; they’re not at all ideal but they’re PR for the art form, however temporary.

There is more music in private homes now – perhaps there no chance for anything live, only to put on a CD or to get concerts live-streamed… and this is better than nothing. So (the exposure) is, for this (classical) part of the world of music, a good thing. For now!

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Catherine Foster: “Having Something Taken Away Spurs You Into Another Place”

Catherine Foster soprano British singer vocal voice sing portrait

Photo: Uwe Arens

Lately I’ve been gravitating toward the work of artists who possess an air of authority, ones who strengthen my resolve to weather the current, rather frightening storms of unprecedented global pandemic. Those artists include sopranos Lyubov Petrova (that conversation posted recently), Chen Reiss (who I spoke with in March 2019; expect a new conversation soon), and Catherine Foster, an artist who didn’t start out in the opera world, but in healthcare. That former life still provides the Midlands-born soprano with a steady stream of onstage inspiration.

Foster is known for dramatic repertoire, and has built a career performing the music of Strauss, Puccini, Verdi, and most especially Wagner. She recently made debuts as Leonora di Vargas in Verdi’s La Forza del destino (at Oper Köln) and Eglantine in Weber’s Euryanthe with conductor Marek Janowski, as well as Die Färberin (the Dyer’s Wife) in Die Frau ohne Schatten at Nationaltheater Mannheim in 2019-2020. Cultural review site Die Neue Marker proclaimed in its review (translated from its original German) that throughout the sumptuous Strauss work, Foster “increased her modulation-rich soprano, always present in all registers, to stratospheric heights, combining soft colouration with persistently powerful yet always round vocal attacks. Her phenomenal ability to span large dramatic arches with unbroken intensity, without any technical losses in the constant focus of the harmony of her expressive soprano timbre, is spectacular.”

Until today (Tuesday March 17), Foster had been set to make a highly anticipated return to her native UK for the first time in two decades, for an in-concert performance of Elektra on Wednesday (March 18th); because of the corona virus, those dates, like almost if not all of the events in the classical world, have now been canceled. Elektra was to have reunited Foster with conductor Kiril Karabits (who she previously worked with touring Mahler’s Fourth Symphony) and she was to have performed with Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (BSO), having been hailed as “the world’s best Elektra.” Prior to the cancellation, Foster had been upfront on her Facebook page about her feelings performing amidst the current corona virus pandemic, writing that “Elektra is a tumultuous journey at the best of times but this has added a new dimension.”

Listening to her robustly elegant soprano, one is struck by a sound that possesses shades of authority, delicacy, strength, and vulnerability, warmth and expansiveness, in ever-shifting varieties like reanimated bronzen shards threaded into an El-Anatsui work; glinting, shimmering, shifting, ruffling and revolving, it is a timbre, which, no matter the repertoire, allows a dramatically complete picture. Her path to music was formed early. As soon as I could talk I was singing, according to my mother!” she said in 2009, and indeed, Foster went on to sing in the local choir in her youth, becoming lead chorister at 15. Another vocation beckoned however, that of nursing, and Foster’s training eventually led her to become a midwife. Singing in her spare time in an amateur choir, inspiration to return to music came via a conversation in a delivery room, which then led to singing teacher Pamela Cook, the co-founder of Cantamus, a celebrated all-girls choir based in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire. Cook recommended the budding singer for an audition at Birmingham Conservatoire, where Foster studied for two years before graduating. During her studies she was awarded the Dame Eva Turner Award, which allowed for a year of post-graduate studies at the Royal Northern College of Music.

In the late 1990s, Foster worked with the Welsh National Opera, Opera Northern Ireland, and English National Opera, before being faced with the tough decision as to whether or not to relocate abroad. Foster was a newlywed but also determined to keep going as a singer; moving to continental Europe was done of necessity, as is so often the reality with life in the classical world. Recalling the decision in a 2018 interview with The Standard, she said the situation in the UK was “like a closed door, I’m too tall, I’m too blonde, I’m too this, I’m too that…”. Moving to Germany, Foster  found the gruelling-if-necessary experience that formed the path for a natural expression and expansion of her creative abilities while integrating all the wisdom and experience (not to mention work ethic) from her nursing days. Through her time with the Deutsche Nationaltheater and Staatskapelle Weimar (from 2001 to 2011), she sang a variety of roles and styles, including Mimi in La bohème, Turandot, Elizabeth in Don Carlos, Abigaille in Nabucco, Leonore in Il trovatore, Sente in Der fliegende Holländer, Elizabeth in Tannhäuser, Leonore in Fidelio, and of course, Elektra. “I was working with an A-class orchestra and ensemble on a daily basis” she told The Times in 2013.

Foster opera soprano voice vocal sing singing singer stage culture classical Wagner Brunnhilde performance Washington

As Brünnhilde at Washington National Opera. Photo © Scott Suchman

It was amidst such varied creative experiences that she first encountered Brünnhilde, Wagner’s irrepressible heroine, in 2007 at Nationaltheater Weimar (released on DVD). Since then, Foster has become associated with the role and has appeared in a myriad of Ring Cycles – in Weimar, but also with Oper Köln, Aalto Theater Essen, Staatsoper Hamburg (where she recorded it with conductor Simone Young), Washington National Opera, Staatsoper unter den Linden (Berlin), and Gran Teatre del Liceu Barcelona, to name just a few. Of her 2013 performance as Brünnhilde with De Nederlandse Opera in Götterdämmerung (under the baton of conductor Hartmut Haenchen) it was noted that “it isn’t difficult to understand why Catherine Foster has become a much sought-after Brünnhilde in opera houses around Europe. Her voice is well-projected with beautiful high notes that easily cut through the orchestra.”

For Wagnerites – practitioners and fans alike – few places are more special than Bayreuth. The composer founded the Bayreuther Festspiele in 1876, conceiving and designing the house expressly for his own works’ presentation, most especially for the immense Ring Cycle. Foster’s first opportunity to perform at famed festival came when the festival’s co-director, Eva Wagner-Pasquier, having previously seen Foster perform Brünnhilde in Riga. The 2013 Ring Cycle production that marked Foster’s premiere Bayreuth appearance was directed by Frank Castorf and led in the pit by Kiril Petrenko, in a modern (and not entirely popular) staging. Foster went on to appear at the famous festival for five more consecutive seasons and took Brünnhilde took Hungary as well, where she performed with conductor Ádám Fischer and the Hungarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Hungarian Radio Symphony Choir, and Budapest Studio Choir at Budapest’s Müpa: Béla Bartók National Concert Hall. In a review of Götterdämmerung from June 2019, Bachtrack’s David Karlin noted that the soprano “can hit a high note with laser precision from a starting point anywhere in the stave below, sustain it as long as she wants and do so without ever going shrill. In the Act 3 immolation scene, she made good use of all that power, but also projected pianissimo clearly, fixing the audience with such a piercing stare that it felt as if she was singing to each listener directly.” Foster received the London Wagner Society’s Reginald Goodall award in 2018. With any luck, she’ll be returning to Budapest in June for a full Ring Cycle, part of a full 2020 slate including TurandotTristan und Isolde, Die Walküre, a Verdi opera gala, and a return to Deutsche Oper next season, as Senta in Der fliegende Holländer.

Much sooner however, was to have been a return to native soil, March 18th at Lighthouse, Poole, and March 21st at Symphony Hall, Birmingham; those dates hae been canceled. Along with Foster, Elektra in concert was set to feature Susan Bullock as Klytämnestra and Allison Oakes as Chrysothemis; students from Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and Trinity Laban Conservatoire were to form the chorus. The performances, and the planning and preparation around them, were two years in the making. We had the opportunity to chat in late February, before the pandemic was a real threat in the classical world and beyond. Foster was at home in Weimar, corralling her dogs (“Come in sweethearts, it’s getting cold out there!”) and eagerly preparing for Elektra. We enjoyed a lively conversation in which the jovial soprano mused on everything from learning German to real-life inspirations from her nursing days. Despite the cancellations, there’s tremendous value in sharing her ever-evolving thoughts around the Ring, new and not-so-new roles, and her evolving relationships with conductors and directors. Foster also discusses why she has no bitterness toward having to leave her home country, and why tough circumstances can sometimes provide unexpected pathways – telling and oddly prescient words for our current tough times. As you’ll read, Foster, while heartily embracing the high-art aspects of the job, keeps her feet planted firmly in an earthy authenticity, one that elevates her artistry while underlining her warm humanity – a balm for our times indeed.

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As Brünnhilde at Bayreuther Festspiele. Photo © Enrico Nawrath

When you moved to Germany in 2001, is it true that you didn’t know the language?

I could ask for a cup of coffee and that was it.

“But please don’t respond because I don’t know what you’re saying!” I can relate.

Yes, entirely! I remember coming here and no one spoke English back then. It was only in 2006-2007 that I first heard English on the street, but it was the best (environment) for me. My husband bought me a TV for Christmas, this really old-fashioned, huge thing, and I put Teletubbies on, and watched a bunch of very American series dubbed in German, and I had this book — the internet wasn’t out yet you couldn’t Google anything — that sat at the side, and I’d look up phrases: “Don’t shoot!” and “Don’t move!” It was an experience.

I never wanted to sing in the German fach; I just fell into it when I started having singing lessons. I never wanted to do opera or especially Wagner — I thought it was way too long! But now I absolutely adore the German language and adore singing in in German. I’m studying Elektra, and doing it of course in Britain, uncut, and what (Hugo von) Hofmannsthal does in the text is unbelievable; the nuances you can get out when you know the language, the colours you can put into the voice because you’ve not parrot-fashioned the words on top of what it means. You know precisely how things sit within the structures of a sentence.

Speaking of knowing structure, you’ve sung Elektra a few times… 

I’ve sung it 52 times so far.

… and you’ve frequently performed the role of Isolde as well, including earlier this year in Bologna. When you start a new production is it a blank slate creatively, or do you think, “I can use this from here and that from there” and re-contextualize accordingly? What is the process for you?

The thing is, if you work with a Schauspiel director, for plays and things like that, then it is traditional that the actors and actresses don’t come having memorized their role, they memorize it during the rehearsal period. You can’t do that with an opera; it isn’t just words you’re memorizing, it’s music as well, and you have to be prepared, so of course you have your own ideas. But what I do find is that they mature, these pieces and roles mature like a good wine; you need to let them lie a bit. No matter how much you try with the first run, there’s no way you can actually know everything about the role, or know everything about a character.

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As Elektra in Wiesbaden, 2016. Photo © Sven-Helge Czichy

For example, I’m doing Elektra uncut this time, and there’s six pages that I’ve never performed on the stage; I was going through it with my pianist yesterday, and I can tell vocally when I get to the point where I finish the bit I’ve already done on stage, then I do the uncut bit and go back into the (existing bit) — the body knows where it’s going and it’s a lot more comfortable. It’s like driving a car; when you change cars you have to think, “Where is this part going? The gears feel different…” but after a while it becomes second nature. When you’ve got that part done – all the nitty-gritty bits – and you know where you’re going and how, then you can start putting other layers on top. 

For a new production, it’s the singer, the conductor, and there’s a director; those are three people who come together. The conductor has his idea of the music; the director has his concept; the singer comes with their ability to sing the role and some ideas. But if you don’t want a different concept there’s no point in employing a director – it’s our responsibility to listen, and to try and make that concept work on the stage, which, nine times out of ten, you can. The odd one you think, “Hmmm” but that’s very rare. I can count on one hand productions I’ve done that I just don’t get it from the inception, but I think the more mature you are with these roles, the better it is, and it’s a lot more comfortable for the audience and you can start to play with it even more.

My Elektra is based on three patients I used to look after when I was a student nurse in training; I had to do six months in the psychiatric unit, and I remember three wonderful patients who never went away out of my mind, so I use those memories. And if you look at Hofmannsthal when he wrote Elektra, he studied women in these asylums and how they were, and that’s his way of writing what these three ladies are all about. I find it very clever. 

It’s fascinating that you directly relate your work on Elektra to your work as a nurse – there’s an air of authenticity that seems discernible throughout your work.

For me that’s what acting is. I’ve never had acting lessons, so I do take my previous experiences and use them. There’s a part when I go onstage where I have to find it in me. But… what does that really say, when I love Elektra?! 

It means you combine imagination with experiences in the real world; the connection with the quotidian is clear.

If you think about a character like Brünnhilde, that role has been with me almost as long as my daughter has, and to me it’s (the story of) a young girl growing up. If you look at Wagner’s heroine, they are the ones that save the world; the men don’t save the world, the women save the world. So Walküre is very much based on a young teenager whose daddy is everything – whatever daddy says goes – and she’s probably been in that state for thousands of years…  

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With Johan Reuter as Wotan in Die Walküre. Photo © Szilvia Csibi, Müpa Budapest

In suspended development.

That’s right. Then she starts to question things, and that’s when he gets angry, and that (reaction) also happens to be real. It makes me recall a relationship of mine in the past, and how, when I started to question what this person was doing, things got violent and angry. I always say Wotan gave Brünnhilde the power of love, but he himself has the love of power, and that’s the difference between the two; she can grow and mature because she’s learned to use power through her love, but he can’t change because he’s only in love with power. So therefore he’s unable to move on but she can move on, and therefore sacrifice. Siegfried is a testosterone-driven boy; it’s all about him, and about them getting together. It’s a prenuptial wakeup call.

I’ve think of Siegfried as the vehicle through which Brünnhilde achieves an actual sensual experience of the real, human world; she needs to have that experience, with all its interconnected pleasures and pains, so one world can end and another can begin.

You could also say he really can’t come into existence without her.

True! The awakening applies to both of them but the way it manifests is so different for each.

And I believe Brünnhilde, much as she was born of both Wotan and Erda… well, fate decided she had to be born; everything has its own time, everything has a beginning and an end, and this is Wotan’s end, so she was born, but of course she saved Siegmund and Sieglinde, and how much did she fall in love with Siegmund (in anticipation of) Siegfried – is that why she did what she did? It’s like Siegfried had to happen and he is the vehicle for her realizing what she has to do. 

Yes, Götterdämmerung doesn’t abruptly end when Siegfried dies; we have to see her through her journey.

Brünnhilde says it herself: “I had to betray the person I loved the most to realize what I had to do.” The thing is, the Ring is cursed, everyone who touches it has to pay a price, even if you didn’t take it voluntarily; Brünnhilde took it out of love, Siegfried didn’t have a clue what it was about, Wotan did sacrifice something but not his life. The curse is ever-transferring, and essentially Brünnhilde says to Wotan, “I know what you did: you gave me the curse. So I will follow this through now; I will do what you should have done, and so goodbye, father! Valhalla is going to burn as it should have done already. You asked me to finish this and I will finish this” – and she does.

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Turandot, Oper Köln. Photo © Bernd Uhlig

You have a history with Brünnhilde, and with Turandot, though her self-realization at the close is far less clear. 

Oh, she doesn’t change! She is psychotic as far as I’m concerned! I don’t know what’s happened in her past to make her like she is, but I’ve done the Lydia Steier production – I’m going back this year to do it again – for me it’s fantastic, one of the best. We developed it together. When we did it, Lydia had this great idea that it’s all set like Big Brother if you like: they’re on an island, they don’t have a lot of money but have found a way of making money by advertising that someone can marry this Princess if they can solve three riddles, then it’s the sidekick who comes on and does all the organizing, and then on comes Calaf.

Now, every Calaf always wants you to believe he’s a nice guy; he is not a nice guy, otherwise he would not stand there and let Liu get tortured. He’d say his name and then, “Please, don’t torture her, don’t cut her hands off!” But because he’s also the son of a king, he doesn’t care whether he lives or dies, and this is what Turandot sees in his eyes, this “I don’t care, it doesn’t affect me” attitude, which really unsettles her. You have the Third Act which I don’t think is about love or anything about that; it’s all about power, and I think he has had such a rush, if you like, that he’s won that he plays with fire again, but he doesn’t come to Liu’s rescue. This is what I like about Lydia’s production – there is no sympathy, this character doesn’t know how to give that. She doesn’t really change; it’s a question of whether she’ll carry on or not.

You’ve been in some contemporary productions, including a staging of The Ring by Frank Castorf at Bayreuth. What’s it like to be part of Regie presentations?

The thing I always ask is, does it tell a story? Or do you have to have a book of notes to tell you why you’re doing certain things? There was a lot of controversy over the Castorf ring and I was asked why the public didn’t like it; I said that’s not for me as a singer to answer, the direction is personal taste. My husband came every year for six years and he saw the Castorf staging, and it grew on him, he said because there was so much on the stage you had to pick one thing you looked at and just watch it. I also met a lot of young people, in their late teens to early 20s, who absolutely adored Castorf and they said something very interesting: he makes you discuss it, and whether you love it or hate it, he makes you discuss it, so therefore, he’s won. It’s relevant whether you like or dislike it; you need to think about it. and I thought, that’s an interesting point of view. 

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As Brünnhilde at Bayreuther Festspiele. Photo © Enrico Nawrath

So the contemplation is what matters, not the knee-jerk reactivity… 

Yes, that’s what matters; he makes you think. It doesn’t matter that he made the gold oil – what is it that people want today? It’s oil, so he made the gold oil, but you know, if you can stay true to the music and the character then you can take The Ring and put it anywhere in the world, at any time, in any period. You can make it a family saga, a country saga, a world saga; it’s basically love, hate, money, power, it’s who is in charge. Castorf had a lot of symbols in his (production), which came from growing up in the DDR. People not from the DDR didn’t get, but anybody I invited to come along who’d grown up in that said, “Oh my God, that is so clever!”

Applying your car metaphor to conductors, I would think some maestros provide different styles of roads and gear shifts and signposts; sometimes you know the route but others want you to use a whole new highway. 

Yes, you start again! I’ve experienced The Ring on the whole with about 32 conductors, and they fall into two categories: either they’re extraordinary experienced, or it’s a first time, so there’s a desire to always try to find something different. The experienced know how to let an experienced Wagner singer go. I’ve just been to Budapest last summer with Ádám Fischer and he came off stage and said, “You know, the more I leave you alone, the better you get!” He didn’t try to make me do anything and said he was really inspired after this last Ring. Working with certain singers gives (conductors) different colours. But why does opera still draw people today after centuries of singing and hearing the same roles? The only thing that changes is the people who sing and perform it. (Live performance) has to have something magical, otherwise, if you wanted it exact, go buy a CD, but where’s the magic in that? Every time I’ve ever done a Ring cycle, you have the stage, the singers, and the public, and they come with you, and by the time you finish Götterdämmerung you’ve done a huge journey together of sixteen hours.

How does that translate into new roles? You had your role debut as Die Färberin in Die Frau Ohne Schatten in Mannheim, for instance. Do you have an idea where you want to go with new parts, or is it more of a journey?

Part of my studying and getting to know (Die Färberin) and finding her was having two years to learn the opera. If you do Fest you don’t get two years, you get six months, if you’re lucky, to learn a role. The fact is, I had two years to really investigate (Frau) and do some research. I hadn’t realized it was essentially Strauss’s Zauberflöte, which was a gift with the way the direction was going; the only person I could connect to was Mrs. Bucket from Keeping Up Appearances, which was fabulous – you know, the table had  to be set down exactly right, and she catches herself, and tries to be this lady with the hair and everything. Especially in the second act all I could think was, “Mrs. Bucket!!” I’ve been asked to do another production this autumn, so I’m very happy to be able to do it again so quickly. I’ve got to check if it’s cut or uncut.

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Photo © Uwe_Arens

What are your feelings going back to sing in England for Elektra? Is there any sense of lingering resentment that you had to leave?

No, the complete opposite – if I hadn’t have left, I wouldn’t be where I am now and certainly wouldn’t be  speaking German. Things happen for a reason. To me it’s a resolution; I’m coming full circle. I was looking to get on the stage, I wanted to sing, I didn’t even know that Germany existed when I first finished college, it was my singing teacher who said, “Oh, I’ve a pupil who’s just gone to do a Fest contact” and I said, “What’s that?!” and she told me Germany has opera houses in every city – I had assumed it was like Britain.

In 1999 when, literally, I was too tall, too blonde, too this too that, and everybody else was getting work, I thought, “My God, I can’t keep going like this.” I wrote 200 letters, I printed 200 CDs, and I sent them out; I got three auditions, and I got one job offer, and that’s all I needed. You just need one, and that’s what I got, which was in Weimar. I started here in May 2001, and by autumn 2006 I was studying Brünnhilde, literally, and truly, it never occurred to me that I shouldn’t do it. It’s all in how you look at things — what’s the point of resentment? I’m having a very good career. One could argue I have this good career because I didn’t get the work in England, I know several singers who never got the courage to leave the UK because they have just enough work to not actually push them that extra distance away. Sometimes having something taken away or being denied the possibility to do something spurs you into another place – sometimes it makes another door open.

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