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On the Line

Irish mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught, who makes her New York recital debut at Carnegie's Weill Recital Hall in December, talks with Brian Kellow about putting together a program of song, adapting to life in Munich and how the liederabend helps her prepare for roles on the opera stage.

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Irish mezzo Erraught, who makes her New York recital debut in December

TARA ERRAUGHT is a rising young opera star, perhaps most famous for having learned the role of Romeo in the Bayerische Staatsoper’s Capuleti e i Montecchi in a startling five days, earning glorious reviews in the process. In early November, I heard the Irish mezzo-soprano perform a recital in the Music for Galway series at the National University of Ireland, Galway. She was accompanied by Dearbhla Collins, whose brother, Finghin Collins, is Music for Galway’s artistic director. Erraught proved herself a naturally gifted recitalist. Her connection to text was wonderfully specific without ever being overplayed, and the bloom on her high notes in songs such as Brahms’s “Die Mainacht” was stunning. Her performance of “Ging heut Morgen übers Feld” suggested that she might be a potentially great singer of Mahler’s songs. Certainly if she keeps working at it, she could move right to the forefront of current recitalists. 

On December 4, Erraught makes her New York recital debut at Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall, accompanied by Henning Ruhe. Recently OPERA NEWS spoke with her by phone at her home in Munich. 

OPERA NEWS: Tell me a little bit about how you go about assembling a recital program.

TARA ERRAUGHT: It’s a mix. Usually what I do is try and find a route to the program. For example, it’s been Brahms and Strauss—just because it’s a different kind of poetry. When Dearbhla Collins and I set out first, we did more Wolf and much “busier” kinds of poetry—more like opera. I had to wait before I could come to Brahms. We sat down and talked a lot about it, and obviously, living in Germany, I hear so much Strauss all the time. And living in Bavaria—when you sit down to Rosenkavalier the first time, there’s so much dialect and strong accent, the accent you hear on the street. The more I understood the music and the German language itself, the more I thought, I have to look into Strauss, because the poetry is so important to him. He really writes around the words. It’s a gift for the instrument. That’s why I decided on this kind of program.

ON: In Galway, I was so happy to hear you do the Copland songs [“Long Time Ago,” “Simple Gift,” “At the River”], which I thought you sang beautifully. You said in your remarks at intermission that you had loved them for a long time.

TE: You would be terrified to do them. I used to work as an usherette at the National Concert Hall in Dublin. I heard Thomas Allen and Thomas Hampson come in and do the Copland—these huge, incredible male voices. Then on YouTube, you look it up, and here’s some unbelievable video from Marilyn Horne, and you think, 'I’m never going to do that.' I have waited for years and years to do the Copland songs. The ones I did in Galway are my three favorites. I’d love to do them all. I thought, I’m going to put them in a program. There are the Percy French songs and some of the other Irish things that we have that are close to them—the kind of rising they have is very much the same, so I feel connected to them. The English is different. I can’t sing the word “beautiful” the way you guys in the States say it. I say it with a big strong Irish t.

When someone says, “Put together a program,” that’s the most difficult question. It’s not to find the music, it’s to narrow it down to a single program. I start by taking a base language—German and English, German and Italian, German and French, go from there and work outwards. 

ON: Are you doing the same essential program at Carnegie Recital Hall that you did in Ireland?

TE: The Carnegie program is slightly different. Same Brahms. [“Vergebliches Ständchen,” “Wie Melodien zieht es mir,” “Meine Liebe ist Grün,” “Die Mainacht,” “Mädchenfluch.”] We’ll start with Liszt—some top hits [“Die Loreley,” “Oh! Quand je dors”] and three unknowns. Liszt and Delius and Quilter. The Delius we are going to do in English—I went for one Norwegian coaching and thought, “Oh, you know what? No. Blatantly no. And we put some Quilter in. Quite a short set. But what I found is that more in the piano part they complement each other well. Then the second half is the Brahms we did in Galway, and we finish with the Strauss. I work with Ronnie Dunne and Brigitte Fassbaender, and they both said the same thing—“You are too excited, so this first time out, take your favorite things and do them, and then come back and we’ll do a set of something serious.” For the Strauss, I’m doing the big hits—“Morgen,” “Die Nacht,” “Zueignung,” the big things. The big hits. 

ON: You have lived in Munich for how long?

TE: This is my eighth season at the Munich Studio. There’s so much music in this city. Every night, there are at least four or five classical performances. With recitals, I feel like I’m coming over here with my sack of repertoire slung over my shoulder and sticking my hand in and picking out a few things. 

ON: When you were still living in Ireland, did you have much of a chance to do liederabends?

TE: There wasn’t as much of a chance to do them as there is now. In the space of eight years that I’ve been living abroad, Dearbhla Collins and her brother Finghin have set up this incredible song series, not just in Galway but in Dublin. Six weekends of liederabends, and they do it in three different venues. It’s a huge thing—music in Great Irish Houses, which is a summer festival. In the National Concert Hall, they have celebrity series, and I was blessed as an usherette to watch these incredible people come in. But now it’s more frequent, and the variety of repertoire is huge. I said to Jack Mastroianni [Erraught’s manager], if I’m going to learn liederabends, let’s do them more than three times. So Jack set up a six-stop tour. And we went to Kansas City, and let me tell you, I fell in love with singing in America. It was the most educated audience. They knew everything. We threw in some crazy repertoire, but they were like on top of it. I didn’t realize it until there was question-and-answer directly after the recital. It filled me with an excitement that stills spurs me on to this day to keep going. I wasn’t aware that there was this flair and excitement from the audience point of view. 

ON: But the song recital has always been a big part of your background.

TE: One of Ronnie Dunne’s main mantras was that you have to make sure that you sing liederabends. It was the only way, as she said, to take out your technical toolbox and make sure everything is where it should be. No orchestra and colleagues to hide behind. The whole night is yours. It’s a wonderful, secure feeling when you put a program together and sing it through, and you think, I’m fine. I’m not tired. It’s grand. It’s a gift of time to help the voice settle into itself, and then you bring that to the opera theater. It’s fundamental, I think—you know?

ON: Once you had moved to Munich, how long did it take you to feel really comfortable communicating in German?

TE: Years. Having a German boyfriend has made a big difference. Being exposed to his family and friends, you get used to it much more. I will say, with German classes, fine. But it was the social interaction in the opera house, with the dressers and ladies who do the wigs, that really did it. They’re so patient and wonderful, and it was through their patience that I got it at all. With the sung language, I would say it was five years before I felt solid. It was when I had come off of Hänsel und Gretel, and it was a premiere production here, and I was the only non-German member of the cast, which is also kind of terrifying, but a wonderful responsibility. I think that’s what really cleaned it up. 

ON: You must have some great stories about adapting to life in Munich, after all those years in Ireland.

TE: Any spot of bother I could have gotten in, I was in. The whole thing was such a culture shock. I left Dublin thinking that everyone who studies with Ronnie was going to be the next Callas, and I arrived in Munich, in a three-piece suit in the Opera Studio. I thought it was all business. I’d spent three months’ wages on it. And the Americans are coming from the airport in their jeans, and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s sooooo unprofessional.’ I had my little briefcase and leather bag. It’s like I thought I was going to work in the White House! They all looked at me coming in the door, thinking, who is this fruitcake? 

In the second year of the Opera Studio, I was desperate to be in a premiere production on the main stage. They had never found anything for me. I was in the toilets one day, and I heard a colleague saying she wasn’t well, and she was going to cancel rehearsal. She was meant to sing Giannetta in the new production of L’Elisir d’Amore. I said, “Is it high? Maybe I could sing the rehearsal for you?” “She said, “Go on!” I said, “I’m going to tell a small white lie.” So I ran over the office and told them I knew the role. And then I ran down the street and bought a score, rather than checking it out of the library, because then they would have known I was lying, and I learned it. I stayed up all night, beating the Italian into me, and I turned up the next day, and the other colleague decided to withdraw from the whole production, and I landed myself in it. I said to the director, “I will do anything you want. But I need to be noticed.” He was one of these beautiful German Regietheater people. He said, “Let’s go have a coffee,” and we made up this incredible backstory for the character—a fruitcake of a kid who wears dreadlocks—and the premiere was the night I met Jack Mastroianni. He came to the dressing room afterward, and only because I put my neck on the line and told the people at the company a white lie. And a couple of years later I did the bloody Capuletispacer 

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