by Marka Knight
Walking the backstage corridors at the Metropolitan Opera House is a distinctive experience, especially when soprano Diana Damrau is your tour guide. The lithe, lovely German coloratura met me at the Met’s stage door, bustling with energy, despite the fact that it was early in the morning of a long performance day.
Damrau is perhaps best known for her interpretation of Mozart’s Queen of the Night, but her repertoire is extensive. In addition to the Mozart and Strauss roles that have been bringing her international acclaim since 2002, her appearances include Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia, Gilda in Rigoletto, and roles in contemporary works such as Cerha’s Der Riese vom Steinfeld and Maazel’s 1984. She has performed in the major opera houses of Munich, Berlin, Milan, Vienna, Brussels, Washington, D.C., London, and New York City, under the baton of such conductors as Pierre Boulez, Sir Colin Davis, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta, and Riccardo Muti. She is also in great demand as a Lieder singer, and made her
In the 2007 Met staging of Strauss’s Die Äegyptische Helena, Damrau was planted onstage even before the conductor raised his baton, and remained there throughout the entire performance. The stage director, David Fielding, chose to highlight Damrau’s physical grace and commanding stage presence, making her character, Aithra, “the driving force behind the action of the opera.” In the first Met staging of this problematic opera since 1929, the New York Times called Damrau “a lovely, physically nimble and captivating artist, [Damrau] sang with impeccable agility, dramatic flair and penetratingly rich sound.”
Damrau is conscious of the myriad of physical and vocal demands placed on her, so her habit of appearing completely at ease is especially striking. As she leads me backstage, she is youthfully exuberant, eagerly chatting about what it has been like to create her critically applauded interpretation of Aithra, stopping only to graciously receive the compliments that follow her everywhere. Stagehands, fellow singers, and assistant conductors all stop us to tell her, “You’re my absolute favorite!” Even backstage at such an august institution as the Met, Damrau stands out as something special. Her interpretations are dancerly, fully grounded in a body she has trained just as assiduously as her voice.
Damrau returns the compliments. She is an avid fan of other singers, excitedly showing me the new Dmitri Hvorostovsky CD she bought at the Met store, full of wonder at the Anna Netrebko-Roland Villazon gala she was “lucky enough” to attend the night before.
When we said goodbye almost three hours later, Damrau stopped me on the way out. “Marka,” she said, full of eagerness, “don’t tell me you’re going to leave without going on stage?” We stood in the shadows of Barbara Frittoli’s Suor Angelica rehearsal, and both felt incredibly lucky to be there. During those three hours, I sat down with Damrau to discuss how she came to this point in her career, to ask about her future plans, and to hear her valuable advice for emerging singers.
What first inspired you to want to become a singer?
I think singing was very natural for me. We had musicians in our extended family and my grandmother had a really beautiful voice. I think she would have made a very good singer, but after the war it was not really possible. But I could hear that her voice was something special, so I asked her to teach me some songs, traditional songs from
My grandfather was also very interested in opera. When we were supposed to go to bed he’d play the Wolf’s Glen scene from Der Freischutz—so, “Sweet Dreams!”—and [music from] Carmen, too. These always inspired me to sing and dance along.
My first impression of hearing a “real singer” was the Queen of the Night. I think for most children, when they get in touch with opera, the character of the Queen of the Night is something really, really special. It’s so high and so dramatic, and the character has all these magical powers and this dark side: la femme sauvage, the mean stepmother from the fairy tales.
Then, on TV, I saw an opera concert of singers, and it seemed so unnatural. They were big and sweaty, [showing] no expression. Their faces were not beautiful; their sound was this wobbly vibrato, and I thought, “Oh my, is this opera? Hmm.” But then, when I was 12, I saw Zeffirelli’s La traviata—and from that moment on, opera was the most beautiful thing to me ever, really the conjunction of all the arts.
How did you start your training?
My mother’s cousin was an opera singer, and she told me, “Please, please don’t start getting singing lessons earlier than 15.” Your body is still growing, and you have to be really careful, and have good teachers who know what they are doing and are very cautious. And you yourself, you have to go against your artistic temperament, because, of course, I wanted to sing Queen of the Night, and Carmen, and Turandot right away.
So you really paced yourself right from the beginning.
Yes. My first teacher gave me a very good foundation of basic technique. Every singer’s career is so different, but mine really was just step-by-step. I started in a small theater in Würtzburg—where I had to do acting and musical theatre as well—rather than trying for the bigger houses right away. I sang My Fair Lady and the Queen of the Night the same year. Crazy! It was great, because we had so much dancing—flamenco, tap dancing, jazz dance, ballet, historical dance—for me it was like paradise!
How did you transition from singing at Würtzburg to having your international career?
Slowly. First I moved from Würtzburg to
Did you ever have any struggles with your technique during this time?
Not really, but I never stopped learning, and listening to myself, and asking my teachers. You really need to walk on your own two feet, but you also need people who know you and your voice and can warn you if you’re going in the wrong direction. But I think [that] vocally, most everything came naturally.
What advice do you have for the many young opera singers who are trying to become professionals?
It’s hard to say, because careers are so personal. Luck is a really important factor. You never know what will come out in the end. Some people don’t like traveling so much. Some people want a family. In my case it just hasn’t happened yet—finding the right partner—so I’ve gone on singing.
Sometimes you find that you just can’t do this. I know cases where the stage fright was so strong [that] singers with wonderful voices, great technique, everything in place . . . have to sing in a choir, because as soon as they sing one solo line, they lose their voice due to nerves. Having the whole package is so important.
But my advice is to listen to yourself, love what you’re doing, and relax. Ambition can make things very hard, so you have to see the other parts of life, other possibilities, and really love what you’re doing.
Can you tell us a little bit about how you prepare for a role? For instance, how did you prepare for the challenging role of Aithra in Strauss’s very seldom-performed Die Äegyptische Helena?
That was a real adventure! For me, Strauss just has to be repeated and repeated, and you always have to start again from the beginning. After maybe 30 times, it stays. I really try to find out as much as possible, historically speaking, and look at the mythology to define the character. And I noticed that Strauss wrote, “Aithra, die Junge,” “the young one,” so I realized that she is not that experienced. She is insecure, and caught up in love and her own problems, and this really influences the way in which I act the role.
Do you find that the stage direction has a strong effect on your characterization, or do you make most of those decisions before rehearsals begin?
No, stage direction can really change things. I was lucky in this production, in that it is personal and very symbolic. It plays with shadows, and consciousness, and psychological layers.
In a recent radio broadcast, you mentioned that it would be in the audience’s best interest to familiarize themselves with the plot of Die Äegyptische Helena before seeing it. Some people feel opera should be just entertainment. Others believe a certain degree of scholarship and effort makes for a richer experience. Do you have an ideal audience?
Well, I would actually have to say that children are my ideal audience. The reaction of children is so natural, and direct, and pure. They will tell you if you are exaggerating or if you are being real. But I think the more you understand, then the more open you are, the more you can just let your thoughts float around the story and the words, the more you can put yourself in the character’s situation. With these things you can find moments of truth, of a general truth. But it’s all there in the opera itself, if the production is not just “Eurotrash.”
By “Eurotrash,” you mean a production where a concept is just grafted on?
Yes, when it moves away from the opera itself and there is too much violence and sex on stage. When you see that the opera director used this production for his own psychological treatment.
So you feel the production concept needs to have a certain flexibility, which will give the audience room to identify with the characters?
Exactly. Mostly, I want the piece itself. Of course, sometimes a staging can really open an opera’s horizons. But some pieces are already so rich—like Rigoletto, La traviata, Arabella—they are complete. And with some modern stagings, the danger is very great that [such operas] will be reduced.
Since you are a veteran Queen of the Night, and she was the role that was so thrilling to you as a child, how does it feel to be adding Pamina to your repertoire—especially when you are singing both roles in the same production at the Met next season? [This interview took place before the November ‘07 Met production. –ed.]
Well, I’m actually doing my last “Queen” here, because this is a role you can sing only for a certain time. It’s like extreme sports. I love the character, and I’m not bored at all with this role, but there are other things coming up for me now, and there are also other
Singing Pamina makes The Magic Flute a whole new piece. It is a new human being I am getting into. She makes such a journey, from being this young girl, to being imprisoned, to falling in love, to undertaking the trials of, well, of life. Pamina and Tamino grow, and by the end there isn’t this separation anymore between the masculine and the feminine—but I know that I have to watch out for my mother!
Your debut at Weill Recital Hall was a great success, even though you were feeling a bit under the weather. Can you talk about the challenges of staying healthy and focused as a singer?
For me it’s important to have a healthy body, and to be aware and awake in my body. And knowing what you can and cannot do. Other people could eat half a cow before a performance, maybe, but I wouldn’t be able to. It also depends on your fitness that day. When you are really sick, and your throat is red, and the vocal cords are swollen, just be quiet. Take some medicine if necessary, but just be quiet. With time, you are forced to learn how to hear yourself when you have a cold. When your voice is OK, but you have a headache and you’re weak, you hear yourself differently. Then you have to be careful not to use too much force.
On the day of a performance, I try to save all my energy for the night. I wake up in the morning. I have my coffee. I do some vocalizing at the piano to test if everything is there. In the evening, I eat something really light no more than two hours before a performance.
Do you ever experience stage fright?
No, thank goodness. I think when you are really prepared and learn how to get into the character, then it’s really the character on stage. Diana Damrau is gone then. There’s no time for being frightened. I mean, people are coming to me, so I want to really tell them something.
Since you recognize that pacing yourself and timing is so important, I know you’ve chosen not to delve into certain operas quite yet. But you’ve recently expressed interest in expanding into some of the larger Bel Canto repertoire. Can we expect a Violetta from you in the future?
Oh, that’s my absolute dream role, you know! But I know I have to be really, really ready. I can do the first aria no problem, but I want to be able to show all the colors this role has. As you know, there are three different voices in this role. So before that I am going to sing all three women in “Hoffmann,” my first “Lucia,” my first “Puritani,” my first Linda di Chamounix and La fille du régiment here at the Met. So, I’m building it.
I always said to myself, and my teachers have told me, that before you sing “Traviata” you must sing La sonnambula and “Lucia.” You do the coloratura roles, and you come from the high, because I really want to keep my voice for as long as possible.
source: CAFE OPERA