Sunday, January 17, 2010
Anne Sofie von Otter
[Dear Readers: This is the second in our series of guest essays, and I am very pleased indeed to be able to present a prodigiously talented young woman from Switzerland whom I have known for over five years now, and who never ceases to amaze me with her knowledge and abilities. I am honored to have her as a faithful reader of this blog. A brilliant artist (witness her rendering of Anne Sofie von Otter on this page), a stunning linguist (German, Swiss German, French, Italian and—very much to the point today—English. She possesses a graduate degree in musicology and is currently finishing her Ph.D. in interactive computer program design, with a view toward creating software for classical music education targeting a young adult audience. She also, not coincidentally, knows more about modern opera and modern classical music than anyone I know. Her knowledge greatly exceeds my own in this area, and I am delighted that she has chosen to do the following piece for us. I will respect her privacy, as we all do with each other, and call her by her website name Chloe Hannah (www.chloehannah.com) ]
Anne Sofie von Otter
Anne Sofie von Otter was born in 1955 in Stockholm and at the age of 28 made her professional debut in Haydn’s Orlando Paladino In Basel. Basel is also the city where I was born and raised; the city where I was introduced to opera. Basel has a long tradition of nabbing brilliant young singers who later go on to enjoy highly successful careers. Examples include Montserrat Caballé, Angela Gheorghiu and Nina Stemme, whom I am old enough to have worked with myself in my days as a student volunteer (one of my school friends actually looked after Stemme’s baby during rehearsals).
As the Basel Theatre claimed the prestigious (German-speaking) Opera House of the Year award a few months ago, Anne Sofie von Otter’s return to Basel was announced. Since the early eighties she has sung just about everything from Bach to Zemlinsky at opera houses around the world, including performances at La Scala and the Met. I was particularly excited to relive von Otter at the Basel Theatre, because I had seen her sing Octavian in Vienna 15 years earlier in a rather traditional production, where she excelled at her boyish performance thanks to her physical height, her vibrant personality and, of course, the warmth of her deep, mezzo voice.
My friend Waltraud, an alto in the Basel choir who used to perform as a soloist, fondly told me about how she had been singing the Mother to von Otter’s Hänsel all those years ago; about how Waltraud’s unborn child would kick during her performance (not surprising if you know the crazy melodic lines Humperdinck wrote for the role), and how von Otter grinned at her and said, "Your third child." "My third?" "Well, you’ve already got Gretel and me. Though, if you don’t mind my saying, I hope you do a better job with this one!"
It appears that von Otter was the one to get back in touch with the Basel Theatre. Naturally, the director said, "Whatever you want to sing, we will make it happen." Not only did von Otter choose her piece, Offenbach’s little-known Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein, but she also expressed her desire to work with Swiss stage director Christoph Marthaler, who had brought forth a few productions in Basel some fifteen years prior. "For him," she stated, "I would play a cleaning lady!"
Before going on the Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein, however, I think it would be good to hear the magnificent von Otter voice, shown off to great advantage in a this recording of Alban Berg's song "Nachtigall" I personally think this is stunningly beautiful and hope you get as much enjoyment out of her singing as I do!
If you’re a big opera fan, operettas are often something you merely tolerate, a by-product of a greater art form, the cheddar sandwich you settle for when they are out of smoked salmon. An Offenbach operetta is never going to have quite the pull of a Strauss opera. And then there is Marthaler, the director who painfully probes your patience.
Gérolstein is no exception here. The first twenty minutes pass without any music being played. The singers and choir walk aimlessly around the stage until one of them turns towards the audience and calls out loudly "Is there a stage director in the audience?" Gradually the orchestra pit fills up as the instrumentalists, dressed in military gear, dribble in, initially playing the Tannhäuser overture before the conductor realizes he picked up the score for the wrong evening (this of course results in huge laughter from the audience).
Von Otter, in the meantime, is tantalizingly drifting around the stage, but only starts singing 40 minutes into the performance. She plays the title role, a duchess who, out of boredom, begins a war. And boy, does she exude majesty! A head taller than some of the men sharing the stage with her, she sings, completely in control of her every move and her voice. Her pronunciation, both in the sung French and in the spoken German dialogues, is perfect (possibly the happy result of growing up as the daughter of a diplomat).
Then, more important than the music in the case of a mediocre operetta, there is the acting. Von Otter has to perform some strange moves. As she sings, an actor gives her face a massage. When she sees her love interest for the first time, she groans to the audience, "I am so… hot!" We watch her bob her head to loud techno music, wear ridiculously large sunglasses, bury a man’s head in her chest, and then, after the orchestra has left to join the battle offstage, those remaining start drinking and von Otter gurgles a melody in her whisky glass. It is actually at this point – the break with Offenbach’s operetta – that we are treated to von Otter’s most beautiful singing. To the notes of a piano and a lone baroque cello, von Otter lies down and sings the gorgeous Händel duet "Son nato a lagrimar" from Giulio Cesare. Her voice catches all the subtleties that were not required by Offenbach’s deft score. This moment, along with the aria "Piangerò la mia sorte" that follows, marks the highlight of the evening before von Otter joins the rest of the ensemble in their drinking binge, gets married while a woman in the background throws up, stumbles down the steps, purposely singing off-tune, to finally fall asleep clutching one of her beloved rifles.
Just for a moment one wonders how Marthaler could treat a great opera star in such a grotesque way. But the enthusiasm in von Otter’s face dispels any skepticism, so evident is her dedication to the performance. At the premiere she threw her arms around Marthaler during the applause. It also speaks volumes about her character; that cheeky Hänsel from 1983 is just as easy-going and unpretentious nearly 30 years into her career. And just one week into 2010 all January performances of Gérolstein were sold out.
Here is a video, accompanied by a very few short interviews with those involved in the production, speaking of how von Otter got back in touch with the theatre; of Offenbach’s operetta; of the changes made to the original score; of the stage design; and of Marthaler’s style of directing. The performed piece really needs these explanations because the original score is not well known, nor does one really understand many of the choices made by the stage director. Von Otter is the real pull here:
at 8:22 AM