“There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow”, so says Hamlet, in Act 5 Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s famous play, and indeed, the phrase holds several painful truths for our times. The sad news of the passing of mezzo soprano Christa Ludwig at the weekend was met with a chorus of loving tributes and tender memories. That such an event occured amidst the hodge-podge of COVID-forced closures and reopenings inspired numerous listenings of her past work and moments of melancholy if vital contemplation.
Music, and the will toward its live presentation, has taken on a potent symbolism amidst pandemic; that will never really went away in certain places, while in others it has vanished entirely. Marketing buzzwords (“pivot” and “experience” and “reimagine) seem to be clothing a nifty, selfie-snapping holographic Emperor I’m not sure I’m ready to applaud. As digital producer Jon Jacob highlights in a recent blog post, the way certain forms of music – and more broadly, culture – are perceived has heavily colored large swaths of its current presentation and much-awaited in-person iteration. The past year-plus has forced a much closer connection to sounds and sights, solidifying and simultaneously blurring the relationships to entertainment, escapism, imagination, and immersion. Thus has music – sound as much as visual counterpart – become far more immediate and simultaneously distant, heightening the consciousness of directed attention, specifically in relation to one’s perceptions of time. Neuropsychologist Marc Wittmann explores this issue in Felt Time: The Science Of How We Experience Time (The MIT Press, 2017; translation Erik Butler):
Where full attention is lacking, intensive experience is impossible. […] Presence is not simply a matter of mental focus; it also concerns the corporeality of the moment. The experience of presence occurs when body and mind, space and time, constitute a unity: here and now.”
(Chapter 3, In the Moment: Three Seconds of Presence)
Somewhat ironically, I have yet to see Wiener Staatsoper’s new production of Parsifal directed by Kiril Serebrennikov, and featuring Jonas Kaufmann and Elina Garanca; Wagner himself decreed that his final opera should, as Bachtrack‘s Mark Valencia succinctly put it, “be reserved exclusively for the Bayreuth Festspielhaus in order to avoid the “Entweihung” (sacrilege) of merely entertaining opera-goers.” Those of us who thrive on the experience of the live in all its sensual glory have been (continue to be) forced to gawk at a glassy, glowing image ready-made for entertaining diversion. The immediacy which live experience so thrives on is now mediated through headphones, screens, speakers. Occasionally there is the unwelcome noise pollution of traffic and neighbours seeping through thin, uninsulated walls and ventilation shafts. Pressing hands against speakers does not, in any way, fade ugly circumstances out and bring something better back in, but oh, the intention is good, and surely that must count for something.
Intention is what seems to be guiding so many of us these days, for good or bad, and the most seemingly simple acts are, paradoxically, sometimes the most heroic; such is oft-contradictory nature of the times. Entering a big-box store pharmacy to get my first vaccination last week, I longed to hear some kind of music that wasn’t the determinedly busy-buzzy rock-pop every store seems to now pipe through its gaggle of tinny speakers. (It seemed wistful to want for the days of Muzak, and yet.) As I tried not to be alarmed at the full parking lot and number of shoppers (how is this acceptable but attending – giving – a chamber concert, indoors or outdoors, is not?), a fashionably-attired mother-daughter team passed within inches of me, the younger member giving me a disdainful stare as I sat perched on the edge of a chair with a specially-marked area of tape around its perimeter. I stuck out my legs thereafter, feet touching tape, toes beating out a hurried, pseudo-tap “La donna è mobile”, comically sarcastic if self-soothing. It brought to mind memories of my own mother shopping at a certain supermarket because the owner would always put on opera at her visits; she would merrily bob her head along to that very aria as she picked up the week’s supplies. Not everyone has such (supposedly) fancy tastes, I realize, but then, my mother would say that classical music isn’t at all fancy. “That’s stupid,” she once said in relation to all this. “Just sit there and listen.”
It wasn’t Verdi but Mahler I had floating through the brain, or rather, heart, the day I received my first vaccination. The sounds of Das Lied von der Erde came floating in and out of the ears, its closing lines undulating like multicolor waves against the aisles of colorless boxes within view:
Still ist mein Herz und harret seiner Stunde! Die liebe Erde allüberall
Blüht auf im Lenz und grünt Aufs neu! Allüberall und ewig
Blauen licht die Fernen! Ewig… ewig…
A picture of mezzo soprano Christa Ludwig came into mind’s eye, not of her performing this work, but from her final concert in Vienna in 1994; the poise, confidence, and grace were buoys against those long, grey aisles, and the prick of a needle behind a closer door moments later. Just sit. Just listen.
I do not recall the first time I ever heard Ludwig’s voice, it was simply present, like oxygen – sensitive, feeling, alive. It was the famous 1964 Warner Classics recording of Das Lied von der Erde, featuring the mezzo soprano, together with Fritz Wunderlich and conductor Otto Klemperer, that led me back to a classical path I had strayed from for over a decade. In NPR’s tribute to Ludwig, music writer Anne Midgette notes that “If you want to sing German, you could do no better than to listen to Ludwig, who managed to sing German art songs with tremendous nuance and feeling, but without the sort of preciousness that even some very great people get in that repertory.” I think the warmth Midgette is referring to here (I think it’s that) extends to Ludwig’s performances of Mahler’s repertoire as much as to formal lieder. The phrasing, the pauses, the careful breaths, the coloring, the tremendous control and modulation – there is so much technique to be found and (rightly) marvelled at, whether in opera, art song, or orchestral work, but there is also a deeply felt humanity. Ludwig knew the lines well enough to know she could draw – really, really well – outside of them, and she trusted both her onstage colleagues and her audiences to follow her along on those journeys. To be confident about your choices as an artist is one thing; to be confident about showing such authenticity, as a woman and a public figure, is quite another.
In her wonderfully-titled memoir (“In My Own Voice”, Limelight, 2004), Ludwig wrote that “(c)ourage is needed to reveal one’s own feelings in interpretation and not tell the audience with raised forefinger: “The composer wanted it like this, and no other way.”” There must be room for that flow and confidence, but oh, what an uphill battle it can be for an aging woman to cultivate either (or both) of them within the confines of contemporary (and digital) culture. Courage, to paraphrase Ludwig, has indeed been needed. I stood at my easel this past weekend, for the first time in almost a year, and rather magically, I didn’t hear the mewls of insecurity which so often (and loudly) screamed; energy goes where attention goes, and the direction of it, like surgical incision, must be precise, flow allowed without judgement. Leaving doors open means allowing a spiritual kind of lüften; thus emanating from the carefully-placed speakers on Saturday was Die Frau Ohne Schatten, Strauss’s 1919 metaphysical opera about creation, connection, choice, and unique identity. Christa Ludwig sang in the very first Met presentation of this opera back in 1966, as the Dyer’s Wife, alongside then-husband Walter Berry as Barak. My first time seeing this opera live was in 2013, a conscious if rebellious (and ultimately life-changing) decision to skip a graduate school class.
The memory of that live experience still washes over me, a wet, warm, salty blanket of timbres and textures and tones, and instead of drowning, my fins make a happy, flapping return; I’ve been swimming upstream ever since, and over the past six years, negotiating an ocean of loss. Learning to live with less (people, opportunities, money, food, space, fun, conversation, closeness, trust, touch) has meant learning to be more careful in directing the sort of attention and presence to which Wittman alludes. I listen (read, watch, speak, and write, I hope) in very different ways, and relistening to Ludwig’s work recently, I was struck by the extent to which everything – the whirl of fans within, the din of traffic without – simply stopped. Her “ewig” is here, for us, for me, for this moment, and, somehow, feels hyper-concentrated: forever, right now, stay present, that voice entreats. And so, reapproach, recalibrate, reimagine: buzzwords for the era of coronavirus, advice for the will to return to culture, fortitude for colouring outside the lines. One has to trust one’s instincts; if others choose to follow, so much the better. Defy augury, that voice continues to whisper, the readiness is all.
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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.
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.
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 Turandot, Tristan 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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sarah Grether (Gazelle) and Camilla Nylund (The Empress). Photo: Hans Jörg Michel
Inner questions ran rampant during a performance of Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman Without a Shadow) at Staatsoper Berlin this past Sunday. There was only one gazelle depicted onstage, but a veritable herd presented themselves with every moment, each one leaping with questions: what do the unborn children represent? Why do they matter? Should they symbolize something else, and if so, what?
These are the questions at the heart of this opera, and in German director Claus Guth’s production, the questions became meditations. Strauss’s 1919 opera, with libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, is a symbolic tale of two worlds haunted by absence – namely of that ultimate symbol of family, children, but also, it must be noted, of mothers; the “woman” of the title, the ethereal Empress (whose mother is entirely absent), seeks her “shadow” (symbolizing children) in the world of humans, specifically via a Dyer, Barak, and his Wife, otherwise her husband (The Emperor) will be turned to stone. Guth stages the piece as the dream of The Empress, a vision that awakens into the consciousness of a need for her own inner revolution —and evolution. In many ways the production is an operatic Rorschach test of sorts (with ink blots in the program too), tied to themes of culture, family, experience, lived circumstance and accumulated moments. What do we carry from our families into our adult lives? How do we reconcile being the “shadow” of another, and casting our own? What responsibility do we bear to one another, and, just as importantly, to ourselves and the expression of our needs?
Iréne Theorin (Barak’s wife), Camilla Nylund (The Empress) and Wolfgang Koch (Barak). Photo: Hans Jörg Michel
A co-production with Teatro Alla Scala di Milano (where it was presented in 2012) and the Royal Opera House Covent Garden (staged in 2014), the award-winning presentation, first presented in Berlin in April 2017, features fantastical elements and beautiful, Expressionist-style designs by Christian Schmidt. Instead of merely presenting pretty pictures, Guth wisely uses the assorted imagery to underline Frau‘s thematic resonance, allowing one to more clearly recognize and accept human fallibility, especially within the delicate arena of relationship. The dynamics inherent those relationships is squarely the focus, with very little romanticizing despite Strauss’s rich score; it is a world fraught with miscommunication, dysfunction, and deeply repressed fury. The length of the work (roughly four hours, with two intermissions), combined with a very intense musicality and highly allegorical narrative, means it can be a somewhat daunting work for newcomers, but the rewards, musically and otherwise, are immense. My premiere experience seeing Die Frau ohne Schatten live at the Met in 2013 marked a major turning point — creatively, emotionally, spiritually. It started what, in retrospect, I might term my own inner revolution (and evolution), still unfolding in leaps and bounds, and will always occupy a deeply personal place where art and life meet, though five years on, I still find myself swimming in the oceans of questions it inspires.
The role of offspring, the meaning of a missing “shadow,” the length and intensity of questing for one, and, as ever, the role family plays in that quest — these questions are all very much underlined in Guth’s smart and surprisingly resonant production. I write “surprisingly” because, while I enjoy much of the so-called “Regie” style of direction, it doesn’t always move me emotionally, though I recognize emotions don’t always have to come into play in order to have a good night at the opera. His production of Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro, premiered in Salzburg in 2006) had some interesting ideas to be sure, but left me cold, something I felt strange about considering the warmth of Mozart’s score. Barrie Kosky’s very unique take on Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (premiered at Bayreuth last year) was hailed by many for its inventiveness, yet others vowed after seeing it that they would never again return to the annual Wagner festival. So while some deeply love Regie and think it is vital in moving opera forwards, others are convinced it is destroying the sense of wonder and fantasy that is part and parcel of opera.
Paul Lorenger (Black Gazelle/Keikobad) and Camilla Nylund (The Empress). Photo: Hans Jörg Michel
Die Frau ohne Schatten as realized here challenges the latter view entirely; it is very full of wonder, very much inspired by fairytales, and very beautiful to look at. But as I wrote earlier, that opulence is not for its own hollow sake; it isn’t simply pleasing costumes and sets. The design here serves a wider purpose, and in the world of Strauss and Hofmannsthal, it is to underline the deep divides between the archetypal figures of men and women, and the healing, regenerative power of love, a love that may or may not manifest itself (in the form of physical offspring) but is experienced within one’s self, and through another second, separate self. Recognizing and accepting the division of a second self, and working toward unity (and it is work, as the opera emphasizes) is a worthy endeavor, though it comes with great risk. Our hearts might freeze in the process (or turn to stone); we might use these roads of discovery for nefarious and selfish ends; we may never be entirely free of the shaping our parents gave us. As Guth notes in the program, Keikobad (the Empress’s father) “clings to his only child — through a prison of determination — and the child does not manage to look behind the mask of power or tear it down to recognize her own emotions.”
Sarah Grether (White Gazelle), Camilla Nylund (The Empress) and Michaela Schuster (The Nurse). Photo: Hans Jörg Michel
Equally, the role of the Nurse here is given extra prominence, opening up experiences, to paraphrase Guth’s notes, which the Empress could never reach alone, and “in this way, the nurse gives her her shadow. (She) is a catalyst, a primal form of dynamic energy, beyond all moral standards.” Mezzo-soprano Michaela Schuster’s vivacious performance as The Nurse was a highly charismatic portrait of ever-tightening control; while the character is certainly fascinating (and is, in my view, given rather the short end of the stick in the end), her portrayal here doesn’t attempt to gloss over the questionable power dynamics between her and the opera’s other two principle female players. Guth frequently places her standing over, above, or at the edges of a scene, arms folded, chin up, hovering, a silent dance of control and manipulation; not for nothing does she sport black wings to match the coterie of similarly-winged, top-hat-wearing gents who wield power in mysterious if highly felt ways.
Camilla Nylund (The Empress) and Burkhard Fritz (The Emperor). Photo: Hans Jörg Michel
Schuster’s Nurse, Camilla Nylund’s Empress, and Elena Pankratova as Barak’s Wife, created a powerful holy trinity that was implied via creative direction and design choices, noticeably through the contrasting use of textures: rock, glass, wood; bone, fur, skin. There are many seen and unseen forces within the realm of human relating, as Guth points out, and many of them involve an experience of the sensual which is central to an experiencing the spiritual (and vice-versa). The two here go hand-in-hand, as they should, something clearly reflected in Strauss’s luscious score, with luxurious writing for strings, percussion, and what I call low-b(l)ow sounds (basses, horns). Baritone Michael Volle, as Barak, and tenor Simon O’Neill, as the Emperor, both represent flip sides of a similar spirit (and a similar physicality certainly helps drive this point home), an archetypal male presence torn in two, silent yet mute, inert yet active. Again, Guth’s staging emphasized the multifaceted layers of intimate relations, and the quest to find, form, and notably evolve an identity within a traditional framework that frequently demands the subsuming of individual needs. The curved set housing Barak and his Wife in separate pseudo-cells at one point was a simple, powerful image, deeply symbolic and highly memorable, like so many of the moments in this multilayered production. Toward the end of the opera, the Empress proclaims that “the love is in me, and it is enough,” before being surrounded by tiny gazelles, symbols of her own self as realized in the way in which she and her husband first met: she was the delicate creature he hunted, but who became trapped himself in a web of spindly uxoriousness, a web whose holes grew bigger with the absence of a perceived symbol of love (perhaps the ultimate symbol), children.
Guth’s placing the opera within the realm of dreams (and thus the subconscious) forces one to consider not only not only the holes in own lives but the shadows that occupy them. Might we turn to stone without recognizing, nay, embracing them? The questions are in us, as Guth reminds in this production, and they are enough.