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Reunion: Elly Ameling

The Dutch soprano chats with HANS PIETER HERMAN about her long and varied career on the recital stage and shares her thoughts on the future of the art of song.

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Ameling in a 1989 portrait by Malcolm Crowthers
© Malcolm Crowthers 2012
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Ameling during preparations for the seventh volume of Hyperion's Schubert Edition, with pianist Graham Johnson, in 1989
© Malcolm Crowthers 2012
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Songstress Ameling
© Malcolm Crowthers 2012

The art song was the centerpiece of Elly Ameling's long and distinguished career. Born in Rotterdam, Holland, in 1933, she became well known for her recital appearances early on. Blessed with a soprano that was bright, warm and agile all at once, she excelled as an interpreter in a great breadth of music — Mozart, Brahms, Wolf, Schubert and Fauré. In New York, her recitals at Carnegie Hall were anticipated as fervently as those of Janet Baker. She was a cerebral singer who also conveyed great joy in singing; as a recitalist, she scored not only an artistic but a commercial triumph. Opera appearances were rare — she made a belated debut in 1973, as Idomeneo's Ilia at the Netherlands Opera — but she was also much in demand as an oratorio and concert singer, in works ranging from Bach's "Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen" to Berlioz's Les Nuits d'Été

"My work should speak for itself," Ameling told OPERA NEWS recently. "Bach never gave interviews. He worked." Nevertheless, she took time via email to discuss her career as a singer and teacher of art song.

OPERA NEWS: Did you choose art song as a part of your career, or did it choose you?

ELLY AMELING: When you like poetry, as I do, an art song comes as an enhanced poem, and that attracted me as soon as I understood languages. I was born in the Netherlands, and in those days — the 1940s and '50s — at age twelve we were already taught German, English and French. I have always been very grateful for the lessons in foreign languages and literature in school. It is that wonderful oneness of words and melody that is the true heart and joy of art song.

ON: Did you have carte blanche in choosing your repertoire, or did record producers and pianists with whom you so successfully collaborated over the years influence you?

EA: Usually it will narrow itself down for you — if you keep in mind that the voice is there to serve the repertoire and not the other way around. It is lovely, then, to maintain a wide range of choice, but it is indeed a matter of dividing. I never sang pieces for which I did not have a natural disposition. For instance, I never learned to speak Russian, and the Russian way was alien to me, so I never chose to sing that repertoire. I did program concerts, with lyrics by Goethe, of many different composers and recitals with only songs portraying female characters in many different languages.

The record companies who wanted to keep recording the usual warhorses occasionally needed to be redirected, and over the years I managed to gain a large amount of input. They thought that French repertoire was difficult to sell, but when a then-influential Japanese market manager heard me sing a recital of French music, a French album was soon recorded. The best overall idea of my personal choices can be found on the collection of five CDs that was released in honor of my seventy-fifth birthday celebration.

ON: What drew your attention to a new song, and how did you learn the songs in preparation for your concerts? Did you repeat the poetry out loud, or was learning the music and the words one inseparable thing?

EA: When I played and sang through a piece of music, it was indeed one inseparable thing — the first moment of inspiration that never leaves you. Then I analyzed and translated the text, of course, after which you almost already know the song from memory.

Always, you should read the biographies of poets and composers. If possible, I remained longer after a concert, or arrived sooner, to see as much as I could by visiting museums. Often a text refers to ancient times or another period in Western culture — information one has to acquaint oneself with in the best possible way. For instance, finding connections and references to political situations of the different eras — who is able to sing "Die beiden Grenadiere" without knowing about Napoleon? Who is able to interpret the poetry about women without knowing the social background of females at the time these words were written? I'm thinking of Goethe's Gretchen, but also "La Diva de l'Empire," by Numa Blès and Erik Satie, or the poetry of Emily Dickinson set to music by Aaron Copland.

ON: What are the challenges in approaching work of Schubert and Wolf?

EA: Schubert has that wonderful richness of melody in which he emotes all of his feelings. He usually creates an overall — and spot-on — atmosphere surrounding either the subject or the character of the poem. Wolf interpreted the text word for word and note by note. Wolf differs from Schubert in that his harmonies are mostly very chromatic. This creates a lot of tension in the piano, which does share equality with the vocal part.

The psychological interpretation of the characters also differs. Take a look at the Mignon lieder by Wolf — completely different from those by Schubert. If you schedule the big dramatic Mignon from "Kennst du das Land?," by Wolf, with Schubert's little girl in one concert, the difference becomes very clear. Generally, Wolf has developed the psychology of the character more dramatically than Schubert has. According to Wolf, Mignon is much more the adult woman than the young, almost childlike girl — and both exist in Goethe's writing. I sometimes think, "What would Schubert have written if he had lived longer? And what would Wolf have written in response?"

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Ameling in rehearsal for a September 1977 "Schubritteniade" during the Benson & Hedges Music Festival at Snape Maltings, with pianist Dalton Baldwin
© Nigel Luckhurst 2012

ON: What are your thoughts about the differences in audiences for art song in Europe and in the U.S.?

EA: It is my impression that the American public experienced the music on its own, without preconceived notion and prejudice about who is singing. The New York public usually knew the repertoire well. It's no wonder, when you look at who sang and still sings in New York City. In Europe, the people reacted differently. The Finns didn't move a muscle. I would think, "This is a comedic passage. So why aren't they laughing?" Later it was explained to me that it had to do with their way of concentrating. It was the same in Japan, where at the very end of the evening the ovation occurred with an outburst of enthusiasm that always led to numerous encores. In London, the audience is full of knowledgeable experts who listen quietly, with utmost compassion, and who simultaneously turn the pages of the booklets that are provided at these concerts.

ON: Do you think that the art of song has a future?

EA: The general interest for the art of song has always been subject to the whim of the public. One has to accept that only a small number of people understand and have a feeling for languages that is a necessity to enjoy a recital of art song. When general language skills diminish due to a change in education, the future will obtain fewer admirers of the genre. But that can also improve again over time, right?

Right after the Second World War, during a time of parsimony, there was a lot of interest for art song in the Netherlands, and then again during times of rapid prosperity, let's say between 1990 and 2010, there was an increase in the number of true song recitals offered to the public — in the recital hall of the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and at the Wigmore Hall in London. In Germany the Liederabend never subsided. In France it has been put on the back burner for a while, especially since the times of Ravel, Debussy and later Poulenc, with all their incomparable interpreters.

ON: The first of the five CDs that were mentioned earlier contains only opera arias. Have you ever wanted to sing more opera, and if so, what roles would you like to have performed? Did you ever feel that you should have sung more opera to reach an even bigger public?

EA: Perhaps Mélisande, Susanna, more Ilias in Idomeneo, eventually the Countess in Figaro and the Baroque operas. When I started my career, my country did not have an opera company of great quality. That didn't lure me, unlike the immense oratorio tradition Holland is known for. Right out of school, with my knowledge of and love for literature, I found that the art of song fed most naturally into the development of my talent. I do not think that it was my intent to reach a bigger audience, but just to do what I do best. It was something only a few great singers were able to accomplish so impressively at the time — Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Gérard Souzay, Pierre Bernac, certainly not least, my countryman Bernard Kruysen. That does not mean that there weren't others who chose art songs as their way to communicate their artistry, but rarely were they able to reach the core soul of the matter as successfully as these artists did.

ON: What advice do you give to young talent?

EA: Study the languages in which you want to sing. That doesn't necessarily have to be French and German, because you don't have to sing everything. You also don't have to be fluent in a certain language, but you do have to know the structure and acquaint yourself with its grammar. In this respect I think of the excellent course "The German Lied" at the Franz Schubert Institut in Austria, where every morning young talent is being taught one hour of German poetry, in which they learn the language in great detail. Only afterwards the daily classes of the singers — and, very important, the pianists who also teach there — begin.

I try to evoke the musical and vocal ideas of the young singers by looking at what is behind and between the notes that are on the page. What inspired the poet, and what was the composer's intention with it? One has to own a voice that is able to show different colors, have the skill and ability to measure the use of consonants — diction — and have a spirit that is quickly adjustable, because a recital usually holds twenty-two songs, all very different in atmosphere and character.

Without a powerful imagination and the capacity to affect and impress the audience, we shouldn't even start with this art form. In my opinion, this also applies to opera! A world of expression — our heaven on earth! spacer 

HANS PIETER HERMAN is a Dutch baritone who is based in Amsterdam. He sings in opera, concert and recital and teaches voice. 

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Current Issue: December 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 6