Christiane Karg found a moment in her busy schedule to speak to Clemency Burton-Hill.
You’re currently a member of the Frankfurt Opera ensemble: what have you been up to recently?
This has been a short, but very busy season – I have been singing Kristina in The Makropoulous Case, Calisto in La Calisto (Cavalli), Pamina in Die Zauberflöte and Zdenka in Strauss’ Arabella, my first big Strauss role. The great thing about being in a company like this is you do a lot of big repertoire in a short time, all very quick, not much rehearsal but you get to know them very well. I love these roles; I hope I will be singing them a lot over the next few years!
As well as opera, you also have a busy career as a recitalist. How important is it for you to find a balance between the two?
I couldn’t live without either. I need the mix and balance and I think it’s really important to do both. I am a workaholic because I love my job so much, but I think you can get bored if you always do the same thing. Opera takes a lot of energy and concentration on one role, with different people telling you exactly what they want, and sometimes things can get lost because you have so much to do, there’s so much going on. But I like to work on the small details and for recitals, it’s much more your own work: you choose your pianist, your programme – actually, with Lieder you have to think about every single word. And language is really important to me.
So how would you approach a recital – for example, your upcoming Wigmore Hall concert with Malcolm Martineau this summer?
I always devise my own programmes. I am not so keen on just doing a cycle: I like to come up with my own theme and explore those ideas. So it might be ‘1001 nights’, or a flower theme; seasons, perhaps; or a year in songs, which was the theme of my first CD. This Wigmore programme is arranged thematically around botanical and nocturnal ideas, including Strauss, Fauré, Debussy and Berg. With Lied you have the chance to do whatever you want – if you don’t like a particular song, you can stick in another. I like to sing in lots of languages, and I like to put different composers together in surprising combinations.
And if you could sing any one composer…?
Well I’m open to everything but I love singing Mozart. His music was the first I ever sang and maybe it will be the last! I studied at the Mozarteum in Salzburg and during the Mozart year (2006) I was awarded the prize for best final exam and made my debut at the Salzburg festival. Mozart composed for every kind of voice, for every time, for every age, for everybody. His music is the base of my repertoire and it requires really disciplined singing: you have to use your voice in a very good way.
Any Mozart on the horizon?
For the first time this year I am singing first soprano in the C Minor Mass in Salzburg. It’s very important, this annual event, and every famous soprano has sung it. So I’m very proud!
What else is coming up for you?
A lot of French repertoire which is great because I love singing in French: Debussy, Berlioz, Rameau. But I’m also singing baroque, some Strauss, some Mahler, some Beethoven and I’m off to a lot of festivals. I’m working with some wonderful people: Mariss Jansons, Yannick Nézèt-Séguin, Daniel Harding and the Bayerischer Rundfunk. I’m very happy to work with that orchestra – I am from Bavaria so it is like coming home!
You also have another disc coming out soon…
Yes, with Arcangelo and Jonathan Cohen, whom I met at Glyndebourne. It’s called Amoretti, as in, the small cupids. I was feeling very inspired by early Mozart music, like Mitridate, and I wanted to pair him with contemporary composers other than the usual Haydn or Salieri. I chose Gluck, and also the French composer André Gétry, who lived at the same time and has so much repertoire to discover that is really great music, but not well known. Everything on the album is composed within a 10-year period. I will be promoting it throughout the UK and Ireland on the MS Europa; I’m very excited about it.
Sounds like you have a pretty hectic schedule – are there any downsides?
Not really, because I so love what I do. One thing I do miss is seeing my family: they really support me, and when I go home to Bavaria it’s the only place where I’m not primarily ‘a singer’. I have two sisters who are the most important thing in the world to me. Nobody else in my family is a musician: one sister is a chocolate master, the other works in a hotel and lives with me – well I say lives with me, I have a little house there that I share with her, but I probably only spend a few nights a year there!
What’s on your iPod?
I actually don’t listen to a lot of music outside of work because I find I really need silence. I love to run, but I never listen to music when I’m running; I want to take in the normal city noises. I like walking a lot, so in a new city I don’t take taxis, which I find really isolating. I like to get the spirit of the city, to walk and cycle. I like to go on the metro, see people, get inspired…
Who or what are your other great inspirations?
My teacher, Heiner Hopfner, who still comes often to hear me sing. I can always go to him for advice, and he is such a special person, it’s a true friendship. If I’ve been offered something and he says, this isn’t a good idea, I won’t take it. If he says you can do it, I feel secure. In terms of voices, Luciano Pavarotti is for me simply the best ever – that beautiful timbre always touches me, every time. Joan Sutherland is also a voice I love in different roles. I read a lot and I particularly get a lot of inspiration from poetry – Baudelaire, Eichendorff, Heine… And I go to concerts, which really inspires me; I often get ideas there. And I love to swim. In fact, I get a lot of my best ideas underwater!
Apart from underwater, where do you feel most at home?
I think it’s less about the place, more about the quality of life. Home is basically where my stuff is; where my shoes are! Usually I can organize my life easily far away from base. I want to be able to go running, and I need a pool (because I love to swim) – every day if I can. When I have these surroundings I am quite happy! But mostly I feel at home if I am doing good work. So I feel very lucky at the moment.
After your Frankfurt contract is up next year you could go anywhere – how are you feeling about that?
I am feeling so curious and excited about the future – I don’t even know where I want to live! As an opera singer of course I have to know Italian, so I studied there and was in love with it, I always wanted to live there. I love the sun and I feel comfortable there – it suits my energy. But really, I have one year left in Frankfurt and I have no idea where I’m going to go next. Maybe France, maybe Spain. Or maybe England? I am coming back to Glyndebourne next year! But what is really wonderful about this life is I can live wherever I want. I like the idea of being free and doing more and more work that I love.