OperaMetro had the esteemed privilege of talking with star soprano Diana Damrau about her new Warner Classics recording of arias from the operas of Giacomo Meyerbeer, but also about a whole raft of stuff…delightful artist, she! As is customary in these pages, the interview is structured as if we were chatting over hot mugs of tea in a quaint tavern in rural Connecticut after horseback riding on a brisk spring day, not unlike today.
Well, no, in reality we did it on the telephone, a wonderful chat nonetheless I must say, but the truth is I haven’t sat a gee since I was ten. She rides quite well apparently, at least once up in Connecticut, so she tells me.
OperaMetro (OM): Good to warm up a bit!
Diana Damrau (DD): Indeed! I'm good though.
OM: Diana, it is sincerely a pleasure to have this opportunity to chat with you!
DD: With you as well!
OM: Your new album is a rich collection of arias from the Meyerbeer operas. One aria, the Shadow Song, I can whistle, grew up with it from an RCA recital LP by Anna Moffo; another I’d nail playing name-that-tune if QXR ever broadcasts it on the radio. The four big operas I know fairly well through recordings, but the others? I'll bet no one save scholars and possibly Meyerbeer’s adoring parents have ever even heard of the others. I mean, why Meyerbeer?
DD: I became fascinated with Meyerbeer’s music when I was a student in Würzburg. I was asked to sing his cantata Gli amori di Teolinda. It moved me as I was singing it, it just ‘spoke’ to me, the way he expresses emotion in the orchestra, in the vocal writing. I am a singer who likes to immerse myself in a composer's music, sometimes with their librettists too, like Mozart with Da Ponte or Strauss with Hofmannsthal. I feel that one can discover many emotional insights through such an immersion. With Meyerbeer, the deeper I went, the more riches I found. It’s unbelievable that he could write music for German, Italian and later French texts.
OM: Well, not so unique: Handel set to music German, Italian, and later English texts. Gluck composed for libretti in German, mostly in Italian, but later in French.
DD: Yes, of course, but one feels with Meyerbeer he was able to dig into the musical souls of these different peoples. His arias are connected to the dramatic moment, but in general his writing for the Italian texts is different from his writing for a German text, and both are different from the French operas. There is a certain earthiness to the German arias; I find warmth and sunlight in the Italian arias; I feel a grandeur in the French arias.
OM: I hear what you’re saying; I hear what you're singing.
DD: Like you feel the Russian soul when singing the songs of Rachmaninoff. I love these as well.
OM: Meyerbeer is known for cementing the style of Grand Opera in Paris from Robert le Diable, through Les Huguenots to Le Prophète and L’Africaine. You include two arias from this last one listed and one aria from each of the first three. Nicely done, too!
DD: Thank you! Yes, they’re all wonderful arias. I am particularly fond of Marguerite de Valois’s big aria in Les Huguenots. It’s noble, grand, as you say.
OM: Problem is, though, these operas are rarely revived these days. They’re big, I mean BIG scenically, large casts and chorus, maybe a ballet (if it’s even left in these days, production costs being what they are).
DD: Yes, big, but because of this they’re also big events when they’re staged.
OM: How many opportunities does one get to perform them? I think they deserve to be revived, though of the four I’ve seen, only one was live on a stage (at the Metropolitan Opera in January of 1977…and three times at that, because one never knows when they’ll do it again…unfortunately I missed Les Huguenots in Bard’s Summerscape a few years ago). The others I know only through DVDs. I’m particularly fond of the Robert le Diable from Covent Garden in 2012: interesting production, also my first introduction to Bryan Hymel on stage, putting the persona to the voice from his French recital on the Warner Classics CD Héroïque.
DD: Ah yes, Robert. I was to sing Isabelle in that production, but instead I was giving birth to one of my children instead.
OM: You’ve certainly been busy at the Met since. A hot Manon in 2015, a new Pecheurs de Perles last January, a new Roméo et Juliette this January, an important revival of I Puritani in February…wow!
DD: Ach ja! I’ve been busy.
OM: I especially looked forward to the Manon that season because a. you were singing, b. Vittorio Grigolo was Des Grieux, but c. Emmanuel Villaume was conducting, not to mention d. that it’s a favorite opera of mine. You and Vittorio have a real chemistry. I’ll go so far as to say that you and Emmanuel have a chemistry too. Tell me about these men in your artistic life.
DD: They are both particularly sensitive to the emotion and passion of the character, to the drama, and to the music. Emmanuel is a wonderful conductor to work with. He brings out nuances in the music that speak to me, the singer on stage, and as well to you in audience. You’ll hear it in the Meyerbeer album. Emmanuel was very supportive during the Manon. It’s a very tricky opera to sing, actually.
And Vittorio, ah yes, Vittorio! He is a natural, he is always 100% in the emotional moment. In the Manon, I always felt we were building up through the whole evening for the last scene, which I find so magical I never want it to end.
OM: I was very moved by that scene with you two, especially by the way he held you and cry he uttered, as if his true love had really died, not “okay, we’re done here.” I included the photo of the scene in the review on OperaMetro. Not surprised that your Roméo et Juliette together was intense as well. The Tomb Scene was equally touching.
DD: I love working with him. Vittorio wants magic, he wants to inspire all on stage, get you involved, and when he does this, wonderful things happen. We just did Antonia and Hoffmann in Les Contes d’Hoffmann. Same thing.
OM: Switching gears: more often than not, Diana, I’ve seen you at the Met in a comic opera, and I must say that you’re very funny, a natural really, particularly noticeable up close in HD, but the little comic touches also come through live in the house. Rosina, Adina, Marie, the Countess Adele in Le Comte Ory, all with Juan Diego Florez.
DD: Well, I very much love to laugh.
OM: You’re laughing right now.
DD: There is so much positive energy in laughter.
OM: I’m feeling it just talking to you.
DD: Juan Diego is a large part of the success too. I love working with him as well.
OM: So, as long as we’re on comic operas: all of the popular Italian comedies, L’Elisir d’amore, Barbiere, etc. have been recorded over and over again. Ever thought about doing a recital disc of arias from those wonderful German operas lying just below the surface of the standard repertory? I mean Der Wildschütz, Zar und Zimmermann, Martha, Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor, etc.
DD: Oh dear, I love those operas! Wildschütz is marvelously fun!
OM: The entrance aria by the Baroness, Auf des Lebens raschen Wogen in Act I is my favorite.
DD: And the quintet in the Billiard Scene in Act II is great.
OM: Probably pretty tough to stage if the singers actually have to make all of the shots! Moving on, you’re also a master of the soprano repertory of Richard Strauss as well, having conquered the higher voices, Zerbinetta, Sophie, Aithra in Die Ägyptische Helena, and the like. What’s next for you from this wing?
DD: I’m close to embracing the Vier letzte Lieder. Ravishing music!
DD: Yes, maybe soon, in a few years. In the more distant future the Marschallin.
OM: How distant?
DD: You know, so many roles are tempting, but each has to be right for my voice. And then, I’m always looking ahead to the time when I can fit it into my study schedule, my performance schedule, maybe recordings. I sample roles, like, for instance, I’ve been looking at Luisa Miller in Verdi’s opera. But then I think, maybe not now, yet all the while knowing as I say this that maybe I’ll miss the chance to learn it and perform it in the future because some other opportunity has come along. The choice of what to learn next is a big one. It has to be a natural fit and then also one has to find the right time for it within the arc of your career.
OM: Lovely to speak with you, dear Diana Damrau. May we meet sometime in the future.
DD: Yes. A pleasure to speak with you.
Interview date: May 5, 2017
Portrait of Ms. Damrau courtesy of Jurgen Frank; photo by Ken Howard from the Metropolitan Opera production of Roméo et Juliette, January, 2017.
The review of Manon with Diana Damrau and Vittorio Grigolo from April of 2015 is on the page Met-Fourteen-Fifteen, toward the end of the season.
“sat a gee” is a phrase in the Major General’s song from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance.
Couldn’t resist. Means "rode a horse"
Bathing suit weather? Unfortunately not yet...
Enjoy her new album. J