Wednesday, February 2, 2011

La Monnaie Parsifal | Kundry. Alone. Untied.

My kids came to the show yesterday. This is always the litmus test for a production for me. Do the kids engage in what they hear and see. (Read: do they stay awake?) And more importantly, we ritually designate nicknames once they spend a bit of time around my colleagues. They all felt disappointed to not get to meet Roméo to knight him with something preposterous (Examples of past singers & directors…Elmer Fudd, Gorilla Man, Boobs, Lurch, Nipple Man, etc…). Its our family shorthand for singers we know and (cough cough) love.

The (really important) critics have weighed in: Despite a regie that is characterized as "dreamlike" and "ethereal" the kids really enjoyed themselves. And they want the snake's autograph.

To further delve into a "Behind the Scenes" look for this production, I'm asking some of my colleagues to give some of their thoughts into their characters, artistic process and careers. Here's the first installment in the series:

Anna Larsson | Kundry (aka Xena, Warrior Princess)

Photo: Bernd Uhlig
Are you a contralto or a mezzo or … ? 
About ten years ago I started to ask myself what I would like to sing when I "grow up." For opera singers who are not very light in voice that means "what do I sing after the age of 40?" Being a total german/romantic junkie I started to look at other roles of Wagner than Erda, which was my debut role in 1997 in StaatsOper with Baremboim in the Kupfer Ring. I later sang Waltraute in Götterdämmerung and loved it, so I began to dream about singing Fricka and Kundry. I have spent a great deal of my career singing orchestral concerts, with great conductors and orchestras. As a contralto I've sung a lot of Mahler. In order to develop my career I started about five years ago to secretly work on Kundry at home, slowly, one little part at a time. And I loved it. So when here in Brussels for Gurrelieder, Peter de Caluwe asked me to sing my first Kundry I immediately said "Yes!" I know its not written for contralto but I decided not to think about classifications but rather what I felt was possible.  l think of myself as a singer, not a "category."

Its funny how things works out:  a new vocal path in my life usually starts in my imagination. If I can think it, maybe somebody else can too. And if I start working on something, the opportunity usually comes. And when someone asks me, I'm prepared. I know what to answer.

This is very hard to know when you start as a young singer, to know what to do. Do you have to take all the jobs you're given? Is it better to be seen in a role that's not perfect for you than not to be seen or heard at all? This confusion can stop a singer from developing easily.

I've noticed in your interactions with your colleagues, especially with the younger members of the cast, you are a nurturer. People seem to gravitate to you and you genuinely care about them. Care to comment?
Well, thank you. My husband Göran Eliasson and I have started an artist agency in Sweden and we take time to work with young singers that we believe in, coaching and nurturing new talent. I also do quite a lot of masterclasses for young singers in Sweden whenever I get the chance. Its so important that we singers help the younger generation, and Sweden has a lot of good voices. I constantly encourage my collegues to do the same. I've seen it has a very good side effect: you become a better singer yourself. And now both Hillevi Martinpelto and Katarina Dalayman are teaching there. Mark my words, we have a Swedish boom of fantastic young singers coming up! It keeps us on our toes, and we learn at the same time when we encourage them along.

Right before coming to Brussels you were given a great honor as a singer. 
Yes, I was just announced Swedish Court Singer and it really means a lot to me, its a title from the days from our "theater king" Gustav the 3rd. He built the Drottningholm opera house outside Stockholm that's still in original state and presents an opera every summer. In my country it's the greatest honour a singer can be given there, even though I mostly work abroad.

What are the aspects of Kundry that you find interesting? Have you been able to address them in this production?
Kundry is everything; she is beautiful and soft, a victim of circumstances, and she is hard as stone, seizing an opportunity when she has to. She is strong and weak, she is wise, deep and soulful as well as ugly, mean and spiteful. She wants to be a lover and she has to hate. For me it was so important that I had the opportunity with the director for my first Kundry to try and find a way to show that. She is not just a male projection of what a woman can be, but a human being, with all the shortcomings we have. So I was really happy and relieved that this was the case with Romeo. He and I trusted each other, and that is the best way to work, we do really have to let ourselves go and be truly creative in the moment.

How did you prepare this role?
This role probably took the longest preparation of all roles I've done. I find it's really important with Wagner to speak the text on the note, instead of singing it. That means I have to talk it for at least six months before we start on the stage. But my first encounters with the role was when I started play around with it about ten years ago.

Had you any experience in Regie theater? If so, what are it's particular challenges to you? If not, does the idea of doing more avant garde productions intrigue you?
I've done a few avant garde productions before, Mats Eks Orphée in Stockholm, Stanislaus Nordeys Pelleas in Salzburg, Grübers Poppea in Aix en Provence, Pierre Audis Tamerlano to mention a few. I find that there is no other way to do opera today than to try and read it with new eyes. The directors I've mentioned are deeply musical and geniuses in their own ways, and I have learned so much from all of them. Opera is really difficult with all its elements, but the moments that work are to die for. I don't really care about the period costumes anymore, I just want to feel free and learn how to express the story of the character.

Can you please give a brief description of your part of the rehearsal process? It's demands and challenges
I find it really hard to specify how Romeo helped me to set this Kundry free, I guess its a combination of his poetic imagination and courage to follow his ideas. He never gives negative critique, he never tries to force anyone to do anything because he is full of respect for others. And so I found myself doing everything he wanted and loving it. I guess the challange has been to let him take full responsibility for the work. I said so many times "I need something there" and he would answer "Its good, it will come, don't worry" and then come back with fantastically strange and new ideas next time. He's really in charge. We just had to enjoy the ride.

How are you finding singing this role?
To sing this role is much easier than I thought it would be. Especially when so many people told me not to. Because the regie is very emotional in a sort of understated and real way--never fake--its not counterproductive with my singing or breathing. Of course its not easy, so many more high notes than I ever sung before in public, but if I let go it works, at least so far...

What is important to you for constantly attracting new audiences?
I think its really important to recognize that opera may be difficult at the beginning for new audiences, and that it is allowed to be. We don't have to make it "easier to understand"  to attract certain groups. I would myself never go to a match of cricket (really difficult to understand how it works) without looking up the rules, how it goes and so on. Otherwise I couldnt follow it. And of course they don't change the game to attract people to come. Its the same with opera, it is not just ordinary entertainment. It should ask questions, be provocative, powerful, sincere, poetic, ugly, beautiful. I know that with couragous opera intendants like De Caluwe we educate the audience and the sponsors. Of course everyone doesn't agree with the mise en scene but we learn and discuss and the result is we all want to see more. Its so important that we keep this integrity in the artform otherwise its soul is dying and we lose the audience. Art is in constant movement, it will never stop asking questions and will continue to try to open new aspects of what it is to be a human being.
Thank you, dear friend for your encouraging words and positive attitude through the past weeks. It's a real honor to share the stage and be singing with you. 


SandiegoSuzanne said...

Thanks for the insightful questions and Anna's equally insightful answers. After hearing what you have experienced in this production it is good to see things from a slightly different angle. Gives us a sort of 3-D of the production.

Geert said...

Hello Anna, thanks a lot for your participation on this blog.
I completely agree with you that opera should ask questions, be provocative, powerful, sincere, poetic, ugly, beautiful ...
I think that the Parsifal production has all these elements and that's why it is such an unbelievable experience.