The Met’s new Isolde this month is NINA STEMME, who thrives on the challenges of opera’s toughest roles.
by William R. Braun.
Photographs by Dario Acosta
Hair & Makeup by Affan Graber Malik
Fashion styling by Cliff Hoppus
Dress by Jenny Yoo Collection; diamond spiral earrings by Alex Soldier
© Dario Acosta
“MAYBE ISOLDE DOESN'T DIE AT THE END—maybe she’s just fulfilled,” says Nina Stemme, who knows a few things about the character. “She has understood, she comes to terms with herself and is at peace with the world and life.” Stemme may be talking about the character she has performed to worldwide gratitude for thirteen years, one she finally brings to the Met on the opening night of the season this month. But in the course of a wide-ranging interview, it becomes increasingly clear that there are close parallels between the evolution of Stemme’s interpretation of the role and the path of the soprano herself.
When Stemme sat down with OPERA NEWS for a few hours last April, she was between performances at the Met as Strauss’s Elektra. She was also juggling a long photo shoot, the comings and goings of family members from Sweden (her parents would soon arrive for the HD telecast of Elektra) and attendant visits to Broadway shows. Moreover, she had just come from her first coaching for her next new role, Wagner’s Kundry, which she performs in Vienna in the spring. Yet she handled it all with efficiency, cheerfulness and energy. Stemme, it seemed, was having no trouble running Nina Stemme, Inc. She clearly knows, in a factual but never boastful way, that very few singers today can carry a production as Turandot, Isolde, Brünnhilde or Elektra, and that this certainly is worth something.
Stemme’s gradual transition to reigning soprano in opera’s heaviest roles was never a given. Met audiences first heard her as Senta in 2000. She offered a highly individual, psychologically astute interpretation of the ballad, which she enacted as a solemn ritual that Senta repeats with regularity. At the unexpected entrance of Daland, she nearly panicked, as if caught in something illicit. But she hardly filled the house with sound, and Stemme herself thought at the time that she would never sing anything heavier. “I wrote to Birgit Nilsson. Since I got her scholarship in 1996, I felt obliged to keep her posted—okay, it turned out that she kept herself posted. And I said, ‘Senta is my limit, my grenzen partie [boundary role]’. I knew I was a lyric Senta, and that’s the way I wanted to sing her. That’s why I took on the part against some advice around me.”
Isolde, which was constantly offered by opera companies who need Isoldes, was a tempting but calculated stretch. The conditions for the new production at Glyndebourne in 2003—an acoustically “ideal” set, the sympathetic conducting of Jirˇí Beˇlohlávek, the chance to spend three months at the house—seemed favorable. Asked if the small Glyndebourne auditorium was also a factor, Stemme waves her hand. “Of course,” she says, laughing. And she had enough time. “I knew I had two and a half years, and if it was not for me I could cancel in plenty of time.” She adds, in the understatement of the year, “but then it turned out to be something for me.” It was an extraordinary fit (her Glyndebourne Isolde is preserved on DVD from a 2007 revival), and she never looked back. For a time, she balanced the role with lighter repertoire, noting that when she recorded Isolde for EMI she still had Marguerite in Faust in her repertoire. But her voice was showing her where to go. “I was happy singing Sieglinde in Die Walküre. I knew that I had to sing this role as long as possible. But then something happened within me after five years of singing it, that when you stand next to your Brünnhilde you feel like, ‘Hmm, I could do that as well.’ You get some ideas.”
Elektra felt less like a stretch than like an obvious continuation. “After I took on Brünnhilde, I felt a change to a little bit more metal, maybe—a more dramatic way of singing.” And, she says, “Salome didn’t feel so heavy any more. So I thought, it’s time for Elektra.” But she sat on the decision privately for a time. In another non-braggadocious observation, she says, “I knew that since I can sing pretty much what I want to, I’m very fortunate and privileged, if I said Elektra then they would all jump on me, so I tried not to say Elektra too soon.” But Stemme’s Elektra proved to be more than comprehensive. At the Met, at the end of a long, uninterrupted traversal of the role with the concluding “Ob ich nicht höre,” it seemed that if the ninety-piece orchestra decided to play even louder, she would simply continue to override them. Weeks later, as Brünnhilde in Washington, D.C., her high C at the end of the Prologue to Götterdämmerung was so easily achieved that the only possible reaction was to laugh.
Stemme as Elektra in Patrice Chéreau’s staging at the Met, 2016, with Eric Owens as Orest
© Johan Elbers
GIVEN THAT STEMME COULD COAST
on the enveloping magnitude of her voice, it is gratifying to find out how keen she is to analyze the psychology of the characters she plays. She notes that Minnie in La Fanciulla del West “isn’t too difficult in the dramatic singing.” But, she adds, “Emotionally she is quite a complicated character. She doesn’t understand herself. That’s what she’s singing about.” When Stemme started singing the Ring, she didn’t feel that Brünnhilde was “a complete role. Her path is not so grateful. It has wonderful moments in Die Walküre. But you don’t see her offstage where the character develops, like you do with Sieglinde. You can take Sieglinde by the hand and walk her from A to Z. But then I found a wonderful challenge in how to portray this, something for me to work on.” Turandot’s limited stage time is also a difficulty. “Maybe that’s my problem—when I do a part, I might as well be onstage the whole night. That’s what I’m used to.”
Her analysis of Isolde comes from an unexpected source—the long passage leading up to the “O sink hernieder” duet, very often cut in live performance. Stemme expects that the cut will be taken in the Met production—“We have to treat our Tristans with kid gloves and let them develop in peace and quiet”—but she still uses the material to deepen her portrayal. In this passage, Stemme says, “The music, the storytelling, the psychodrama between the two of them is so important. Without this section, we don’t follow, because there are still problems to be solved between Tristan and Isolde. They are not on the same path, and this section explores why they are not on the same path in a very subtle way. You understand so much more about Tristan’s character—that he doesn’t believe that anyone believes in him. He’s weighted by some kind of guilt, for his parents, for King Marke and all that. And Isolde doesn’t see that at all—she reads that totally differently.”
In Turandot at the Met with Marco Berti (Calàf), 2016
© Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera
STEMME'S EYES ARE LIVELY
. This could be observed as long ago as 2005, in Christoph Marthaler’s production of Tristan at Bayreuth. Marthaler’s conception of the character in Act I seemed to include Isolde’s wizardly control over the lighting fixtures in her cabin on the ship. This was inscrutable—Stemme says it was supposed to have something to do with the crazy side of being in love, and with Buñuel’s film L’Age d’Or—but she enacted it with an all-out Carol Burnett kind of kookiness. The eyes are alive again when another topic is raised. Most opera fans “know” that she graduated from business school. Did the degree help her career? She becomes positively impish. The eyes lift to the ceiling. “Oh—I didn’t finish. I did write my essay, but I had a few more exams to do.” Leaving school to become a singer “was terrible to decide. Nobody really understood. And nobody really could understand either. I’m the first artist in my entire family.”
Gold dress and scarf by Michael Kaye Couture; gold and sapphire
Astra collection earrings by Alex Soldier; Elsa Perretti Swirl cuff in
18kt gold by Tiffany & Co.
© Dario Acosta
Stemme gives a lot of credit to the after-school music instruction in Stockholm. “That’s what you did after school—you went to the music school. You didn’t think that much came out of it at the time, but afterward I realized how much it meant.” She presents every impression of being a grounded, self-sufficient musician. She no longer sees much point in singing anywhere but the largest houses. “It’s just more rewarding for me to sing in a big house. I feel that the mass, with my voice and the orchestra, that hits the audience is too much, the sheer sound of it, in a small house. I don’t feel I can give more beauty into it.” And although she was appearing in Elektra with Waltraud Meier, who reigned as Kundry for a generation, Stemme thought she probably wouldn’t ask Meier for insight into the role. “I have too much respect for an artist like that. She has done her process, so I think it’s difficult for her to speak about it or give a little advice. I would think so as an artist myself. We’re both kind of respectful.”
After her visits to the Broadway revivals of Les Misérables (“good story, good music”) and The Crucible (“Fantastic!”), Stemme had some thoughts about ways to keep live opera healthy. “We really have to work on how we receive the audience before the show, so that they can ‘land’ and sort of sink into the atmosphere. You end up sitting in a wonderful show, but with the audiences around, you end up feeling just like a packed sardine or anchovies. I think you can do just a little bit more, so that the audience gets more than they expected, not less. It’s the little things that keep artists coming back and audiences coming back. After The Crucible, fantastic applause, but the cast didn’t let us welcome them and thank them enough.”
Very few people can do what Nina Stemme does, and it is impossible to resist asking a final question: what does it feel like to stand above a hundred orchestra musicians and let loose with a high C? Sherrill Milnes once compared high notes to sex, and Stemme mentions that Nilsson was known to say something similar. “The high Cs towards the end of Turandot’s Act II, those are fun Cs. In the first monologue of Elektra, there I wish that the orchestra could just stop time for a moment, so I could stay on the C longer. I like it when I enjoy my top Cs! What happens between the orchestra and the stage, it really is a tango. It takes two to tango—it rocks. But you never have time to enjoy it, contrary to sex, because it goes on to something else—it’s not always the climax.” Signing off, she chirps into the tape recorder, “Hi, Birgit! I hope you like that I’m talking about this!”
William R. Braun
is a pianist & writer based in Connecticut.