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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 ( ]

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:


Anonymous said...

Whoa! great voice. doesn't look like she gets to sing much in the operetta though.

JD Hobbes said...

Von Otter is a remarkable and versatile singer and actress. Frankly, I am not a fan of modern opera, but I find her most interesting and talented.

I am not familiar with her history of performance, but I imagine her impressive stature would intimidate most male singers. I wonder if that has caused significant problems in the past. One can think back and imagine her on stage with Gigli. Ha ha.

Jing said...

What an interesting and entertaining posting. Many, many thanks, Chloe Hannah! I have been a fan of Anne Sofie von Otter for a number of years. She sings on two of my favorite cds: “Così Fan Tutte” (Solti) and “I’incoronazione di Poppea”(Gardiner). So this tribute is most welcome.

The comments and video on “The Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein” are quite riotous. It seems to me that European directors are far more bold and willing to take risks in operetta and opera than their counterparts in the U.S. The controversies stirred by the new productions at the Metropolitan Opera this season (especially “Tosca”) underscore this for me. There was a time when people like the American director Peter Sellars seemed to inspire hope for an era of innovation in this regard, but I guess he is now much more welcome in Europe.

Many years ago, in the sixties, I was visiting in East Berlin and attended a performance of Offenbach’s “Orpheus in the Underworld” at the Metropol Theatre. Upon entering, I had the uncomfortable feeling that every other person in the audience was a STASI or KGB agent or member of the Politburo. Stocky men in ill-fitting suits sat next to bored, unhappy-looking women. Nobody spoke a word. Nobody smiled. Everyone studied his or her program dourly. And the curtain went up. What I experienced then was the most raucous, risqué, clever, bawdy, hysterical stage production I have ever seen. Follies-Bergére – Las Vegas – Burlesque – soft core porn! And it was brilliantly sung and played. It was unbelievable and everyone screamed with laughter, including me, who had no idea of what exactly was being said and sung (if actually that was even relevant). Then, three hours later, the final curtain fell and the lights came up. Silence again reigned. People rose, straightened up their clothing, looked at their watches, and filed out - as if leaving the site of an execution. I have no idea what all this added up to - perhaps something about the power of theatre in an oppressive state? An inexplicably high degree of toleration for what is permissible on stage?

But this posting by Chloe Hannah on great singing, wild productions, and Offenbach, brought back that baffling memory. Thanks!

JD Hobbes said...

Jing, well said!

I had some frightening/odd moments in East Berlin as well and imagined that maybe I was the only one. Thanks for sharing yours.

Anonymous said...

Good point. For those readers who are not familiar with the palpable fear in East Germany in those days, they might rent the film "The Lives of Others" (Leben des Anderen).

Edmund St Austell said...

Thank you, JING, J.D. Hobbes and Anonymous I and II...I'm sure our author will appreciate your comments. J.D.: I had the same thought about her height. My all-time favorite ballerina, Darcey Bussell, had exactly the same problem. She was close to 5'8" flat-footed. When she went up on point, she soared up to about 6' 3" ! There were very few men who could partner her well. Roberto Bolle, from La Scala, did the best job, as he was tall himself. But some of the Russians, like Irek Mukhamedov, who danced brilliantly with her, spent a lot of his time looking up! I always imagined him with a crick in his neck after a show! JING: I find your story about the somber and seemingly paranoid audience to be fascinating. I think you are probably right about laughing when they were permitted to laugh, and then falling silent when the paranoia returned. That's a role for theater that goes beyond catharsis into some kind of uncharted territory! Thanks Anonymous2 for the film reference.

chloe hannah said...

Hello everyone and thank you for all your kind comments!
In Basel we have many stage directors from East Germany and often their style of directing does reflect the dark and depressing. It can't have been too much fun in those days. But I certainly see Germany as the hub for progressive opera. No country other than Germany has as many opera houses in small towns. They also try hard to make opera appealing for a younger crowd, which is always a good idea.
As for von Otter's height (I wonder how tall she really is?): good thing she's a mezzo!

JD Hobbes said...

Chloe Hannah: Thank you again. I was in former East Germany this summer (from Prague to Berlin) for some time. Many of the old attitudes linger, but there is hope. The big problem, of course, is unemployment. Once that is solved and once the East finds more prosperity, I expect Germany to be a leading force in the world. I was very excited about some things I saw in Berlin. Of course, the last time I was there was 1970, so there has been a BIG change. I sense huge energy, many young people, and a country searching for its new place and identity as it recovers from the curse of 60 years ago.
Noch einmal, vielen Dank und Gruesse aus den USA.

Edmund St Austell said...

Your comment, Chloe Hannah, about Germany making opera appealing for a younger crowd, is very interesting. That certainly is important, and the fact that it is done through the opera staging itself, in the opera house, also strikes me as being important. That's where it has to work, in the last analysis.


corax said...

chloe hannah, sei wilkommen! this is a splendid post [dare i say 'first post'? i am sure other readers of GREAT OPERA SINGERS join me in hoping there will be more such].

there are so many things to comment on here. i will single out two for now:

1. von otter's unusual preparation and background. someday it would be interesting to have an article that talleys the different levels of education, academic preparation, and perhaps socioeconomic stratum of a number of famous singers.

2. the notion of 'making opera appealing for a younger crowd' -- part of a larger question about the accessibility of *kunstmusik*. grand opera is, of course, historically the purview of the aristocratic set; one way to make it more accessible 'to the masses' is to show it in movie format, with supertitles, in ordinary cinemas. another is to compose *new* operas that are intended to appeal to a broader sector of society. has von otter expressed opinions about these options?

Anonymous said...

Many thanks to Chloe Hannah for this fascinating article and for the portrait of Anne Sophie von Otter.
She has a very pleasant voice and fine technique. Also she is versatile and brave – there is an opinion that modern music is uncomfortable for the voice. She sings Berg, and it’s interesting for me also because Berg’s “Wozzeck” was staged in December 2009 in the Bolshoi for the first time since 1925. The direction is very “modern”, which means , that the libretto was changed significantly. Of course, there is controversy about it and some people say that such a type of music never attracts famous singers. Berg’s songs are more melodic though.


chloe hannah said...

Thank you once again, everyone, this is just wonderful!
Corax, I'm not sure about your first question. It is an interesting one. My instincts tell me that opera is an artform for the upper or educated classes and therefore only young adults with that kind of upbringing will even think of choosing such a career, especially today when popular music has such a great pull. On the other hand, someone who has a brilliant voice will always attract comments and suggestions (I know I am telling people to be opera singers all the time!) Maybe Edmund can help us out here as he has experience in the business.
The idea of making classical music appealing to the young is something Edmund recognises because it has pretty much been all I have talked about during the compilation of my PhD. I do believe that a lot depends on the stage direction and trying to make opera something valid for today and not just an archival presentation of something from two centuries ago. I have no problem with stage directors trying anything out, I even quite enjoy it when they tamper with the music itself (I have only witnessed this a handful of times). The result is not always to my liking, but I will applaud them for trying.
Liebe Grüsse

Edmund StAustell said...

Thank you, C. As to my experience with singers: curiously, most are not from upper class backgrounds. Most are people from very ordinary backgrounds--often working class--who found their voice and were somehow bitten by the opera bug and decided to give it a shot. It is even, sometimes, a social elevator, something akin to sports for some gifted African American kids trying to find a way up the socioeconomic scale. The study, effort, and risk-taking required to make any kind of progress in so difficult a field does not appeal naturally to the privileged class. They already, as a rule, have status and money, and if they go into the fine arts, it is usually from a superior position, let us say studying piano, composition and conducting at Juilliard, or other great conservatory. I think this was true in the old days also. I can instantly think of what are probably the two greatest tenors of all time, Gigli and Caruso. They were from desperate poor backgrounds and probably didn't have 5 years of formal schooling between them.

Anonymous said...

And then we have the interesting and rare case of Cecelia Bartoli. Artistic family. Great talent. What more can one say.

chloe hannah said...

That's interesting, Edmund. I think that over here maybe it's a bit different. I'm not speaking of Gigli and Caruso but of the young singers I have met working in opera today. Many of them had previous degrees in law or biology (some in piano or other instruments, too) and then decided to go for something they were more passionate about. At least that has been my experience in the last ten years.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Ja, aber Sie leben in einem zivilisierten Land:)

Avvocato Orsini said...

Signora "Chloe Hannah" if you permit, I would be very pleased if you would send me an email at "" because I desire to discourse with you about the state of opera.

I am a very proud traditionalist, and I tire of modernists who cannot adequately express their sentiments in a refined and coherent manner, so it would be a great experience for me to speak with you, because you are both a modernist AND can express your sentiments in a civilized mode! :)

Kind respects,

Lauro Orsini.

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