You’ve recently finished a run as Donna Elvira at Théâtre des Champs Élysées – congratulations on an outstanding performance in a fascinating production!
Thank you! I found the production really intellectually interesting. It was quite minimalist – there were no big gestures, and a lack of movement, but I absolutely love-love-loved it! I found it so fascinating. Don Giovanni is such a dark story, even if it is a comedy: it’s such a dark story about how he plays with peoples lives and affects everyone around him. And in the end that’s his own downfall. It’s really interesting to have to search in yourself for all that, without the distraction of all the accessories and the costumes…
How did you find playing Donna Elvira?
She is one of my first grown up parts. I have played all the Zerlinas, Susannas a lot, but I just find her so beautifully human. You know, she tries to get him back, she persuades him, she wants answers, she has all these doubts: why do I still love him? But he is beyond her and there is nothing more she can do. And it is really like he’s raping her through Leporello; it is so horrible. But I loved playing her, especially in this production.
It sounds as though you were as fascinated by the psychology of the character as by the glory of the music?
Yes – I mean, of course it is such beautiful music, but the psychology of the journey she goes on is what really interests me. Sometimes it is fantastic to have parts you can just sing beautifully, but the psychology of a character is what is so appealing to me.
In that case it must be gratifying to be playing more of the ‘grown-up’ parts, as you call them?
Well of course, Susanna is one of my dearest parts to sing, but I have recently sung for the first time the Contessa in a semi staged concert version. And the depths we must find with the Contessa are so fascinating. When you graduate to the older parts you carry everything you’ve done with you, and that comes through, and it’s such an interesting process.
Earlier this season you were on tour with René Jacobs and the Akademie fur Alte Music singing Pamina, quickly followed by Susanna at the Vienna Staatsoper, and now Donna Elvira. I gather you’re soon off to Japan to sing Fiordiligi, and not long after that, you’ll return to New York to do the Contessa again! Not to mention a Requiem with Donald Runnicles and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra… Is it fair to say you’re having, ahem, a bit of a Mozart moment?
Haha! Well, my voice works really well in Mozart. The phrasing and musicality really suit my voice. But people also like to put singers in boxes so perhaps it’s also a little bit what people have put me in – I suppose it is easy to sell, a niche, you know: ‘this is what she does, it’s so easy’. Recently I sang Adina and had the sheer joy of singing bel canto. But I am not considered a bel canto singer – so instead the Mozart roles just keep coming! Which is maybe a little bit safe? But listen, I am not complaining, I love love love singing Mozart, his way of portraying people and personalities, and I feel really at home and comfortable in his music.
Has that been helpful for your development as an opera singer, then?
Yes: I trust myself singing Mozart and my voice has been able to mature and develop in a safe environment, not in the wrong repertoire or parts – and it’s absolutely been a very slow but sure growth. I’d been asked to sing the Contessa for six years and I always said ‘no, not yet’. I have very high expectations of myself: if I couldn’t do what I wanted to do with her emotionally and vocally I would not have been happy. Now I feel I have reached a level when I can sing and act her the way I want to.
And now you’re up for new challenges?
Well, even in Mozart the challenge there is to develop the new parts! I am singing Aspasia in his first opera Mitridate this summer, recording it with the Classical Opera Company. But yes, of course, I would love more of a challenge! I would love to sing, say, Juliette, or Norina in Don Pasquale, I would love people to have a bit more courage and faith and to hear that it would work!
You mentioned acting just now – and I was certainly bowled over by your dramatic performance in the Paris Don Giovanni. Many opera singers prioritise the music above all; is the acting aspect of your job something you feel strongly about?
Of course! Acting is so important. Opera is sung drama, and that is always something that is key to me: if you are just going to do beautiful singing, well let’s just do a concert, let’s not spend all the money on the staging and the costumes! We were so lucky in Paris because we had a core group that understood what Stéphane [Braunschweig, the director] wanted and it’s fun: you act, people react, whatever happens on stage is happening because we really know the characters. It was the same doing The Turn of the Screw at Glyndebourne – that was a mind-blowing experience. The music is so, so hard but to do that play, it was just so amazing, so challenging, rewarding, and that’s pure acting – if you can’t act it then you don’t bring anything to the singing, the singing has no colours.
Who are the directors who have most inspired you in that regard?
A director who taught me a lot is David McVicar: he worked with me a lot early in my career, saying, ‘stop this, stop that, that’s not on, that’s fake acting, you can’t get away with it!’ He saw when I was putting on, ‘oh, this is Susanna’; he saw through it immediately. It’s hard to work like that, but it’s really necessary – and it’s so good to meet directors who have the courage, to actually tell you not to do things a certain way. [Laughs]. So many opera directors want an easy life! But David is always pushing hard and I love that, I love his ideas.
So you’re off to Tokyo next. I know you have two young children, aged 9 and 5 – it must be tough to juggle the demands of a family and an international career?
I feel so happy and blessed that I actually have the work I have. So it’s always about the balance: after I come back from Japan and New York, I have a month and a half in the UK, in Lewes where I live and recording in London, so I will go back and forth – and no opera for a while! My kids are always asking, ‘mummy do you have to go, do you have to do that?’ And of course it is difficult to leave them, but l always try to explain to them that this is the way my work is, and also make them realize that if l didn’t have this job, they wouldn’t be able to come and visit me in all these wonderful places like NY and Paris. And they loved every second in Paris, of course. They’re coming to LA next spring, they have been to New York three times. My husband is also a singer so when one does an opera the other does concerts, and we have fantastic help from my mother in law.
Is it also important for you to strike a balance between opera and recitals?
Yes. After all the opera I am doing lots of recitals and concerts and a few things in Sweden, which is always important for me. I feel I must strike a balance between opera and concerts. Opera these days is often not even about singing beautifully anymore – it’s about being louder than the orchestra! It’s so nice to be able to sing with a piano, really quietly, pianissimo, and do everything the way you want to. I love the journey of the rehearsals and the performances, but like everything in life, it’s important to have the mixture…