In January we welcomed Anita Hartig to the Askonas Holt family. Charlotte Gardner spent some time getting to know the Romanian soprano, how she became a singer, and how she feels about her current and upcoming roles.
We’re talking at the start of a busy and exciting year for you, but before we get on to your current and upcoming engagements let’s talk about how you got to this point in your career. To begin at the very beginning, are you from a musical family? How was your love for music first kindled?
I come from Bistrita, a city in the heart of Transylvania near the Charpatian mountains. Both of my parents are musical, but in the same way that all Romanian families are. We like to get the whole family together and sing songs around a campfire, and in fact just generally we like to sing outdoors surrounded by nature. Then we go to church, where of course we sing again! So, singing has been a big part of me for as long as I remember.
When did you discover that you had the kind of voice you could become a professional singer with?
Well, growing up, the highlight of these family gatherings I’ve mentioned was when my brother and I performed Romanian or German folksongs we had learned. My brother is a very talented instrumentalist and plays organ, keyboard, accordion, guitar and piano, mostly self-taught. So, he would play the keyboard, and I would sing with what everybody described as my “angel voice”, which I believe I inherited from my mother; she has a very lovely voice, and would teach us songs and sometimes sing with us. Opera, however, came into my life much later.
I understand that you took a little bit of persuading initially when it came to considering operatic singing. What changed your mind?
Well, I don’t think I’d even heard any opera before I was seventeen because there was no theatre or opera where I lived. So, although I knew by that stage that I wanted to sing, I was thinking more along Romanian pop music lines. However, a dear school friend of mine insisted that I could do more with my voice and handed me two Maria Callas CDs, saying I should listen to them. So I did, over and over again. I couldn’t stop! It just bewitched me, and from that moment I knew that I could and would sing opera too. Callas’s voice…. The feelings I had when I listened to her Butterfly, Traviata and other roles; so many emotions, such sensitivity, such passion, such power, and such fragility. I wondered, how is it possible that one woman’s voice can arouse all these sentiments in me? I became sure that opera was the only art form through which I could transmit myself the same things I felt when listening to it. So I started to study, and it was a difficult journey but I had to follow my dream regardless.
When did it become clear that the singing career really was going to happen? And how did it feel?
In my second year at music academy in Cluj Napoca I started collaborating with older colleagues and teachers in various different groupings, even as a soloist with a baroque ensemble which is not necessarily my natural musical habitat, and through these collaborations I began to gain experience of singing in public, working with different conductors and orchestras, and just getting to sing a wide repertoire for voice and orchestra; from Bach, Haydn and Beethoven through to the Romanian composer, Caudella. It felt scary and wonderful all at the same time. Then, for our final year exam we had to perform an act from an opera. I sung Fiordiligi in the second act of ‘Cosi fan tutte’ and was spotted, I found out later, by a critic who wrote to the former director of Vienna State Opera, Ioan Holender, telling him of a young, interesting voice in Cluj named Hartig. A while later I received a letter inviting me to audition for Mr. Holender in Bucharest, so I got on the night train and arrived in Bucharest in the morning (trains in Romania being very slow!), did the audition, and was told right there that I had to leave Romania for Vienna to start a career. It was overwhelming. At that time I had no idea what a career even meant! However, a few months later I found myself in Vienna, hired at the Vienna State Opera. My career at started. That was 2009.
You’re in the middle of two back-to-back returns to The Met, the first of which you’ve recently finished, singing Liu in Franco Zeffirelli’s sumptuous production of Turandot. This was a role debut for you. What were most looking forward to beforehand?
The fact that I was getting to sing in this classic Franco Zeffirelli production and do so in such a wonderful opera house. Also, just to be singing the role night after night, because it’s a fact that the more often you sing something onstage the better it gets.
It’s a particularly dramatic, emotional role with its unrequited love, torture and suicide. How much did you find yourself living the character? Or is really living the character not such a good idea?!
The characters I sing always make me want to find out more out about them and at the same time more about myself. So with Liu, my own personality type is fairly quiet and introverted, which I think is right for playing her. Likewise, I’m a faithful person and so is she. So, we have some things in common. Then from her I can learn the wonderful, selfless love that eventually results in huge sacrifice on her part. Her deep, simple, absolute humanity makes her one of the most beloved figures in operatic literature.
Then speaking more generally, I think that you have to live the character as far as you can without it actually affecting the voice, and this is a very fine balance to get right. Sometimes I find myself almost crying when dying, or losing Alfredo or Rodolfo, and I think that’s right because the public want to see onstage not only a singer but an actor, even if the resultant voice is not perfect. Certainly I myself want a singer to move me in the way I was moved upon first hearing Maria Callas, because it wasn’t her beautiful voice that touched me but the passion I heard in it; the abandon, the tears and the love, the fragility and the humanity with all that it means to be human. Imperfect and perfect at the same time.
So, singing Susanna at the moment is quite a contrast! You’ve sung her for the Vienna State Opera, and most recently for Covent Garden. What are you enjoying about reprising the role for The Met?
Aahh Susanna! It was Susanna, and Musetta too, who helped me to tap into my own sense of fun and cheekiness. As a performer you’re presenting yourself before an audience, and yet I’m actually still a very shy person, so with Susanna I have fun getting to be a different person to the one I am in private. And as I said before, singing at the Met is wonderful, and this is with a different cast and with maestro Fabio Luisi, whom I admire very much as a musician.
Has your Susanna changed and developed much over the various productions you’ve sung her for? What do you want your audiences to take from your portrayal of her?
Susanna is different every time I sing her because she develops as I develop as a singer and woman. Also, of course, because it’s not all about Susanna but about the whole of Nozze, and the opera is so different every time because of the different houses, productions, acoustics, cast, conductor, city… Everything. This particular production at the Met is set in the 1930s, meaning that Susanna’s body language is different both to what it would be in an eighteenth century era production, or in a modern one, so I did some research in preparation as to how women had to behave in that period: how free they were or were not, what rights they had, and how they had to behave in society. Now of course there’s the fact that as a servant Susanna would never have become friends with her employer in the first place, but that’s the whole fun of Nozze; there comes a point at which the audience has to get confused about who is who, and whether they deserve the position they inherited. This is the message of the opera. Really though, what I want to give the public is just beautiful acting, beautiful singing, a good laugh and perhaps a tear too. I just want them to let themselves forget about the worries of everyday life and get lost in the beauty of the music with us.
Then it’s Liu again in April, conducted by Gustavo Dudamel in a new production for Vienna State Opera. What are you looking forward to about this production?
I’m looking forward to singing in Vienna again as it’s been a while. I’m also looking forward to working with Gustavo Dudamel and the director, Marco Arturo Marelli, as this will be my first time working with both of them. As a singer you’re not told much in advance about what a production is going to be like, but the story is really a fable so I hope there will be beautiful, colorful spectacular settings amidst which I get to sing Liu again and grow the pair of us!
You were a member of the Vienna State Opera Ensemble between 2009 and 2014, and Liu is just one of many guest returns there in the diary, including Mimi, and Marguerite in ‘Faust’. What does it mean to you to have this continued relationship with the opera house?
It’s always an honour and a joy to return to the houses you have already sung in, and Vienna means a special amount to me because it was where I started, where I grew, and it’s also where I met my fiancé, at the opera ball. So it has a beautiful energy and a real love story, not just the love stories from the operas I’ve sung there.
Then, another exciting forthcoming role debut will be Marguerite, for Toulouse Capitole and later for Opernhaus Zurich. How are you finding the character and her music? There’s a fragility to her that perhaps slightly echoes that of Mimi, which of course you’ve had in your repertoire for longer.
It’s a new challenge. As a character it’s true that she’s close to Mimi, but it’s in French so I will be thinking about the details of vocal production such as how, in French, to make sure that the words are understood but not at the expense of the roundness of the voice. It’s a longer opera too; after singing for two and a half hours it ends with a very difficult finale which tests the limits of even the most experienced sopranos. I like the tessitura of this role though. Also the simplicity of the character. It suits both my personality and my voice, I think. So, I’m looking forward to seeing where it takes me and how my voice is going to develop as I discover and sing it.
Moving on to more frivolous topics, are you someone who sings around the house? If so, what are you singing? Is it all opera, or do other genres creep in behind your own four walls?!
Ha ha, it completely depends upon where I am and what my accommodation is! In some accommodation I feel free to sing at home, but in some the neighbours complain! In the summer I actually prefer going to the theatre to sing, just to have that extra walk and then the focus. Then as for what I’m singing, it’s usually vocalizes and fragments from a different opera to the one I’m currently singing in. Or some phrases or high notes from the one I’m performing. Sometimes I also sing arias from operas I hope to do sometime in the future. Sometimes, very seldom though, something else like Romanian lieder pops into my head and I sing that for a little before getting back to the serious stuff!
How do you relax when you’re not singing?
Singing is so much in my veins that I can’t stop thinking about it, although usually for the couple of weeks of summer vacation I like to spoil myself with the usual sorts of things; finally seeing friends back home, going shopping, visiting my grandparents, spending quality time with my loved ones, finally having that extra glass of something, staying up late and the like. Perhaps it sounds boring, but for me it’s heaven.
Finally, what are your hopes for the future?
To be able to give something back to the world having been given so much, even if it’s just a small grain of sand by comparison.
Anita Hartig is currently starring as Susanna in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of ‘Le nozze di Figaro’, alongside Rachel Willis-Sørensen, Isabel Leonard and Mikhail Petrenko. Performances run until 26 March 2016. Performances of ‘Turandot’ at the Wiener Staatsoper begin on 28 April 2016.