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Voice of Truth

JESSICA DUCHEN visits Eva-Maria Westbroek, an artist who is completely at home in the verismo repertoire. This year, the Dutch soprano brings her bold performing style to Andrea Chénier at Covent Garden, and to Santuzza in a new Cavalleria Rusticana at the Met.

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Photographed by Sim Canetty-Clarke at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
Dress by Charles & Patricia Lester Ltd, London; Storm Diamond earrings by Asprey; Fleurette Watch and Berenice Ring by Van Cleef & Arpels
Clothes styled by Nick Cox; Makeup and hair by Babette Weber.
© Sim Canetty-Clarke 2015
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As Sieglinde in Die Walküre in 2011, with Jonas Kaufmann as Siegmund
© Beth Bergman 2015
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In the title role of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole, 2011
© Bill Cooper 2015

Backstage at London’s Royal Opera House, Eva-Maria Westbroek is heading to a wardrobe fitting — specifically, for the supersized prosthetic breasts necessary in the first revival of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s opera Anna Nicole in September 2014. This 2011 work, though it brings pop culture into the heartland of grand opera, is a classic operatic story of a real-life “fallen woman,” the Playboy model Anna Nicole Smith. Singing the title role, which was created for her, Westbroek dons the giant mammaries after Anna Nicole undergoes plastic surgery. “If you want to change your life, put on a blonde wig and fake breasts,” Westbroek jokes. “I’ve never had so many friends before — everyone wants a hug when I’m wearing them, from the guy in the canteen to the conductor!”

Perhaps the preeminent Dutch soprano is being unduly modest in attributing her popularity to these accoutrements. As she sails through the opera house, tall, strong and golden-haired, it is evident that she is widely adored; she greets wardrobe assistants, press officer and everyone in between as old friends. “I come here just to hang out,” she says. “I love this place! It’s wonderful to be back.”

Anna Nicole divided the London critics on its premiere in 2011. Its simultaneous embracing and lambasting of American pop culture (“fabulously vulgar, tackiness raised to an art form,” said The SundayTimes) continues to draw a variety of reactions from audiences, but Westbroek, now forty-four, was universally lauded, the perfect choice to play its heroine. Like the character portrayed by Turnage and his librettist Richard Thomas, Westbroek is all about warmth and giving — quick to laughter and tears alike and devoted to her friends, family and dog. (Her spaniel, Ruby, travels with her whenever possible.) Onstage, she conveys a meltingly generous heart reflected in her rich, powerful and fulsome tone. Her voice’s variety of color and capacity for emotional expression are equal to those of any soprano on the scene, and hers is not a sound of stainless steel but one of honeyed ice-cream.

January finds her back at Covent Garden to sing Maddalena in Andrea Chénier, that lavish verismo joy by Umberto Giordano that appears in full on the stage all too rarely. “It’s so full of emotion and so lush! I can’t wait to sing it,” Westbroek says. She has done so once before, in concert, but this will be her first time onstage in the role. “The big challenge is to convey all the emotion without losing yourself and your voice,” she adds. If the opera is too rare a treat, that is because of its tenor role. “You need an amazing tenor with a huge personality and sensational singing, and those don’t come around all the time,” she says. “It needs to be a spinto dramatic tenor. But of course Jonas Kaufmann is the perfect example of all that.”

Kaufmann sings opposite her in this new production, directed by David McVicar and conducted by Antonio Pappano. Tenor and soprano are well-established colleagues. Nobody who saw them sing Siegmund and Sieglinde together in the Met’s Die Walküre in 2011 is likely to forget it, so thoroughly did their generosity of expression suit one another. “His voice is so stunning that you have to be careful to stick to your own singing and not to get too distracted by it,” Westbroek admits. 

After that run is over, Westbroek takes on the title role in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos in Zurich. In April and May, she is again at the Met, this time as Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana. This past autumn, Westbroek returned to the Metropolitan Opera in a role that has been central to her career to date — Katerina Ismailova in Shostakovich’s masterpiece Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. “The first time I sang it was in a fantastic production [in 2006] at De Nederlandse Opera in Amsterdam, with Mariss Jansons conducting the Concert­gebouw Orchestra,” she says. “That was an amazing experience.” Recorded on DVD, her performance won her a Dutch VSCD Classical Music prize for “most impressive individual artistic achievement,” pushing her into the international limelight. 

She subsequently made her London debut in the opera in 2006, with Pappano on the podium. “It was a phenomenal production by Richard Jones,” she says. The Amsterdam production, by Martin Kusej, subsequently traveled to Paris and Madrid, with Westbroek leading the cast. This, though, was her first time performing the role in New York. The Met production, dating from 1994, is by Graham Vick, and James Conlon, who conducted it at its premiere, will be back on the podium. 

Katerina Ismailova is not, at first glance, the most sympathetic of heroines, but Westbroek urges us to look deeper into her being. “People say Katerina is so vicious, but I love her and totally understand her,” she says. “She’s so passionate and so in love, and it makes her crazy. I love her desperation when she sings a love duet with Sergei and asks him to kiss her — and he does, but she can tell he doesn’t have the same passion for her any more. She goes further and further to try to get that feeling back, but he’s just not interested in her any longer. It’s so sad that it breaks my heart every time. So many people have gone through relationships when they’re totally in love, but the other person is ‘ugh’ — and it’s the worst feeling. That’s what she’s got into. It’s so dark, but the emotions are so true.”

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As Minnie in La Fanciulla del West at Covent Garden, 2008, with José Cura as Dick Johnson
© Clive Barda/ArenaPAL 2015

Westbroek’s ultimate role remains Minnie in Puccini’s Fanciulla del West. “The story is amazing!” she says. “It’s all about love and forgiving, in a way very spiritual. Minnie’s insecurity is something I totally relate to, and some tiny things are very funny — for instance, when she has a date with Dick Johnson and she gets out every beautiful item she’s ever bought — her shawl, her gloves, her shoes that are too tight — and she starts to put roses in her hair. Then he arrives and says, ‘Oh, are you going out?’ It’s so cute and so true. Everybody’s been there. And she’s so passionate about her love that even if she feels betrayed by him she betrays her own belief system — that she would never lie — and lies and cheats for love. I find it wonderful. And the music is beyond spectacular.”

The role’s vocal challenges are well-known, but Westbroek feels its emotional demands are equally daunting. “It’s very difficult not to lose yourself,” she says. “This is true for a lot of Puccini. I had some rehearsals for Manon Lescaut, and I was so moved that I cried all the way through the third act, until I couldn’t sing any more. The next day I sang Act IV and cried so much that I lost my voice. It’s the same with Fanciulla.”

Whether to allow oneself to feel emotion while singing or stay detached and rely on technique to project those feelings is a question that all opera singers face; each individual finds a way to strike a balance. Westbroek’s choice is to do both. “People always say that you shouldn’t feel the emotion but make other people feel it,” she says. “I’m not sure I agree. Everyone said that my rehearsal when I cried was my best one.

“I love old recordings of singers from even before the war,” she adds, “and as I’m a big fan of that era, I read everything about it that I can lay my hands on. I studied with one of those ladies because of that — the Italian soprano Iris Adami Corradetti. She is interviewed in a book called The Last Prima Donnas, by Lanfranco Rasponi, which is a must-read for anyone interested in opera, and there she says that all the great verismo ladies used to cry while they were singing. She herself would always cry — and her recordings are some of the most moving things I’ve ever heard. I think you have to make people cry, but they cry when you cry, because then they really start to live the performance.”

Westbroek’s life in performance goes back a long way: she was attracted to the idea of the stage before she considered becoming a singer. She was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where her father was a geology researcher at the university; the family moved back to the Netherlands while she was a child. “I actually wanted to be a ballet dancer, believe it or not, when I was eight years old, but I had absolutely no talent,” she says, laughing. “After that, I wanted to be an actress.” She started singing in her teens, with an eye on jazz, but her first teacher advised her that her voice was much better suited to opera. And as she had not listened to opera before, she borrowed some recordings. Soon, she says, she found herself hooked. 

“With opera, you get to do everything,” she says. “It’s all-encompassing. First, singing is almost like martial-arts meditation, because you have to have such a connection with your body, you have to be in the right state of mind, and then of course there’s the acting — becoming the character, bringing everything together. That’s why I prefer opera to concerts — because in a concert I’m just me, and I prefer to be somebody else! It’s much more fun to be Anna Nicole or Katerina Ismailova and start killing people.”

Westbroek studied at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague and made her opera debut in the U.K., singing Mère Marie in the Aldeburgh Festival’s production of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites at the Britten–Pears School. She sang her first Tosca at the early age of twenty-five after winning a competition for the role in Rome. Nevertheless, a hiatus followed. “It was difficult to be hired, because people couldn’t believe you could have a voice like that at twenty-five,” she says. 

During the last five years of the millennium, she had to contend not only with the loss of confidence that resulted but with personal tragedy, when her mother died. Working as a singing waitress in Amsterdam helped her to rebuild her self-confidence: she could see people enjoying her performances. She found an agent at last, and in 2001 a turning point came when she was offered a contract at Stuttgart Opera.

She spent six years there, singing repertoire that ranged from Verdi to Janácˇek, Offenbach to Busoni. “That was a fantastic break, and I loved it,” she says. “I learned so much — it was a wonderfully inspiring environment.” Then came the Amsterdam Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.

Whatever critics have made of her performances, she tries to ignore them. “I totally refuse to read my reviews, because it disturbs my state of mind too much,” she says. “I get criticized every day, all day long, when I’m rehearsing — but that’s the sort of criticism that makes me become a better singer, a better performer and a better person. But the tone of so much newspaper criticism today is so lacking in respect or human insight that I find it absolutely shocking every time.” 

“Some artists say they don’t read reviews, but Eva-Maria genuinely doesn’t,” confirms Mark-Anthony Turnage. However, he suggests that she has little to worry about: “The Anna Nicole reviews were mixed after the world premiere, but whatever they said, Eva-Maria was the one element who received out-and-out raves all ’round. She’s astonishing!” 

Westbroek prefers to take her cues from audiences rather than critics. “They’re warm and wonderful, and I think they don’t vary significantly from place to place,” she says. “It’s all about the piece you’re doing. They react emotionally to the entire experience. If you’re in a production that’s not so good, you won’t have such a good reaction, and that’s normal.”

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As Katerina Ismailova in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at the Met in 2014, with Anatoli Kotscherga as Boris
© Beth Bergman 2015

Directors have a lot to answer for, and Westbroek says she would prefer to discuss the ones she likes, rather than — well, the others. “There are some who are sensational, and I’ve been very lucky to work with them,” she says. “Richard Jones is so clever! He gets the best out of you and will help you to become better every single time. I love working with Richard Eyre, too. He is very sensitive, and he makes observations that are simply gold.” She also admires David McVicar and Stéphane Braunschweig. 

“I need a good director,” she adds. “I need someone to tell me whether something is coming across or not. I love the process of rehearsing, learning to become a character and finding new, creative ways to do things. That’s why I love being a singer. I much prefer that to coming in at the last minute, just walking in without any rehearsal. I don’t feel secure enough for that — I prefer really to work hard.”

She gravitates to directors who are attentive, advise sensibly and honestly and do more than basic pointing. “You need someone to go deeper into the character, and to notice what you’re trying to do. What I find frustrating is when you’re trying to do something and someone doesn’t pay attention.” She has no particular preference for traditional or modern productions. “I just like it to be good,” she says, “and true to the story’s emotions. I hate it when emotions are ignored, when the music and the emotions are not connected, or when you’re not allowed to have emotions. I’m in opera because of its emotion, but I’ve worked with some people who are against that, because they think it’s too cheap or sentimental — and that’s awful. Why do we go to an opera house? To be moved! I want to be moved, and I want to move people. I don’t want to be cold and distant.”

It is hard to imagine Westbroek ever being that way. Her generosity of heart extends to becoming an ambassador for the charity Musicians Without Borders, whose mission statement is “to use the power of music to support individuals and communities devastated by war and armed conflict.” 

“When you make music together, all borders go away,” Westbroek says, “because we realize we are all basically the same as humans — we all have the same wishes, dreams and emotions. I think this is an amazing thing to do.” The charity offers projects for victims of torture, refugees and other war-traumatized individuals and creates projects that aim to connect divided communities. “It tries to give them a place to make music together,” says Westbroek, “and then fantastic things can happen. 

“Music is such a powerful tool for consolation and healing, to connect to other people and give you a sense of self again,” she adds. “I have always wanted to do something like this. I wanted to do something positive for the world, but I’m useless at practical things! My friends all said, ‘There’s one thing you can do, which is making music.’” She gives benefit concerts for the organization, including a performance of the Verdi Requiem in Amsterdam in May 2015, commemorating performances of the work given in the Theresienstadt concentration camp during World War II. 

As for future roles, it is tempting to wonder whether Wagner will feature more prominently in Westbroek’s repertoire. His more lyric roles suit her ideally: triumphs to date have included her Sieglinde in the Met’s Walküre, relayed to cinemas worldwide and now released on DVD. She is outstanding as Elisabeth in Tannhäuser — her generous, glowing personality can bring this almost too saintly lady to convincing life (which is a rarity), and her voice sounds both comfortable and intense as she embraces the thrills of “Dich, teure Halle.” In November 2013, at Dresden’s Semperoper, she performed Isolde for the first time, with her husband, Dutch tenor Frank van Aken, as her Tristan. 

For all that, she hesitates to travel too far into German repertoire; her first love remains Italian opera, Puccini in particular. “I don’t know why it is, but that was always my dream,” she says. “I would listen every night to Renata Tebaldi’s recordings, fall asleep to the sound of her voice and dream about it.” Westbroek adds that she has been asked to sing Brünnhilde but insists that the role is not for her. “I know I look like a Brünnhilde,” she says, “but I don’t think I have a Germanic sound.” 

Of course, some very fine Brünnhildes originally insisted that they would never sing the role, Nina Stemme included. “Well, who knows?” Westbroek says. “Maybe I will change my mind someday. I’m not a politician, so I’m allowed to do that!” she adds, laughing. “For the moment, though, I think roles like Brünnhilde, Senta and Beethoven’s Leonora are not really for me. It’s just an instinct. And I tend to follow those.” spacer 

JESSICA DUCHEN is a music journalist and author based in London. Her output includes biographies, novels and plays, and she is a frequent contributor to The Independent and BBC Radio 3. 

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