Reunion: Anna Tomowa-Sintow
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Reunion: Anna Tomowa-Sintow

DAVID J. BAKER catches up with the soprano, whose performances with Karajan, Levine and Böhm remain legendary.

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Photographed by Luigi Caputo at a Salzburg Master Class, August 2014
© Luigi Caputo 2015
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The diva as Aida at Lyric Opera of Chicago
© Tony Romano/Lyric Opera of Chicago 2015
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Tomowa-Sintow as Amelia in Simon Boccanegra at the Met
© Beth Bergman 2015

How many divas can count Herbert von Karajan as an eager fan? The late conductor worked with a succession of favorite sopranos, but Anna Tomowa-Sintow is the one he spoke about on the record. 

“Toscanini never had access to a voice like hers,” the conductor said, according to his biographer, Roger Vaughan. “She can hit C-sharp at nine o’clock in the morning.” In 1973, at the age of thirty-two, the little-known Tomowa-Sintow, formerly of East Berlin and Leipzig, sang a remarkably brief audition with the maestro; by her own account, he stopped her after just two or three measures of her solo from Bach’s Magnificat, declaring, “This is exactly what I’ve been looking for!”

Karajan’s intense collaboration with Tomowa-Sintow extended from 1973 until his death in 1989, with a steady run of productions at the Salzburg Festival and elsewhere, along with recordings and videos, of some twenty works, focused on Mozart and Strauss roles. She moved in the highest circles. She performed seven roles in seven Metropolitan Opera seasons, often with James Levine, with whom she also made recordings. She sang under Colin Davis at Covent Garden, Kurt Masur in Leipzig and, more briefly, with Böhm, Sawallisch, Muti, Abbado, Prêtre, Pritchard and, in an Otello in Japan, with Carlos Kleiber.

 “You know, I have never given up singing,” she says, speaking by telephone from her secondary residence in Salzburg. After her announced farewell to the opera stage in 2004, she kept busy with recitals “everywhere, including Japan,” focused on Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Strauss. Then, in Berlin in 2013 and at La Scala in 2014, the septuagenarian made her operatic “comeback” in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Tsar’s Bride under Daniel Barenboim. “It wasn’t a starring role, you know. I was cast as Domna Saburova, a lively, colorful part — the heroine’s mother, age-appropriate!” 

“I’d like to take it a little easier now,” she adds, with just a trace of coyness, “but I still have master classes in Austria and Bulgaria lined up in 2015, and I continue to sit on juries for competitions. After each round of master classes in Sofia, I perform some songs at the closing concert. And I’ve discovered that I love working with young singers. The ones in their twenties right now — I find them really appealing, so eager, curious, hard-working and talented. This is a strong and promising generation.”

There’s not a sharp edge anywhere in Tomowa-Sintow’s conversation. She quickly establishes an informal rapport, asks courteous questions, laughs easily. She seems a happy woman with nothing to prove — and no need to prove even that. “It all just happened,” she says of her career. “I worked very hard, but really, it all came to me. I’d underline that one thousand times. I didn’t set out with ambitions for fame or a prima donna career. I felt no compulsion or powerful drive.” 

No fight, then? No buttonholing of conductors, agents, impresarios or publicists? “It all came to me.” When you think of the period of her breakthrough — and that’s the right term, considering the Iron Curtain in the 1970s — it seems likely that an ample, bright voice such as hers must have acted as a sesame. In the opera world, a generation of big-scale singers was passing. Verdi, Strauss, Puccini and of course Wagner were becoming hard to cast.

Tomowa-Sintow began to fill many important roles, one by one. The size and character of the sound itself were extraordinary — an easy, gleaming top, a seamless transition to the open, plummy lower register. Before ever hearing her name, I heard her in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, a performance that seemed totally dominated by one note — at the peak of the vocal quartet, a huge sunburst of a high B. Later, in a live recording of La Traviata,from Bulgaria in midcareer, she hit an impressive high E-flat. Her tone at those peaks was not just brilliant and wide; it emerged with apparent security, without those hints of struggle or defiance that sometimes contribute to dramatic effect.

The roles, like the notes, seem to have come her way from the start. After voice and piano study in Sofia and a few seasons in the young-artists’ studio at the Leipzig Opera, she says, “I was asked to make my debut as Abigaille” in 1967. Abigaille in Verdi’s Nabucco, at the age of twenty-six! “It was a real success. Everyone was so kind, but I only sang it a few times. I had the good fortune, in Leipzig, to work with a conductor named Paul Schmitz, who had studied directly with Richard Strauss. He coached me in my first Strauss parts, which I loved so much. I sang my first Arabella there.

“In every part I sang, I learned it first on my own, at the piano. My early piano schooling was a great help to me. Even now, I study a score note by note — I learn it from the inside. I tell you, I approached each part, always, with love. I am always completely prepared before I work with any accompanist or conductor.” 

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With Herbert von Karajan during a Rosenkavalier rehearsal at Salzburg, 1983
© E. Perauer/Karajan®–Archives 2015

This intense preparation, she says, is where her real focus lay. “I was not trying to win fame. I didn’t look any farther ahead. When I got to Salzburg to perform under Maestro von Karajan, I was one of the nine women in leading parts in a world premiere [of Carl Orff’s De Temporum Fine Comœdia]. I heard the other singers talking about this production as their entrée into Salzburg. They didn’t seem interested in the opera otherwise. I had no illusions about winning a steady place at the festival. I just wanted to sing this part well — as if it were my last.”

In fact, she was to become a Salzburg fixture. Firm technique and musicianship were clearly essential to sustain a good rapport with a known perfectionist such as Karajan. In style, too, her singing was highly compatible with — and no doubt shaped by — the conductor’s distinctive manner in his mature years, when his perennial emphasis on high gloss and precision was combined with extremely soft edges, or what some critics considered legato to a fault. (Even in Donna Anna’s usually stormy aria “Or sai chi l’onore,” in the video and audio Giovanni under Karajan, Tomowa-Sintow’s vocal attack is soft, and the lines flow seamlessly.)

She disputes that appraisal of the conductor. “To try to sum up or define Maestro von Karajan in words is not easy. And everyone has two sides, you know! What he demanded of everyone he worked with was, really, precisely what he asked of himself — the peak of concentration, dedication and perfectionism.” She recalls his insistence that singers perform everything from memory, “even the Missa Solemnis, all the requiem masses, The Creation and so on. But the point of that discipline was that, at the end, when you interpreted the music at the performance, everything had to be full of freedom and spiritual intensity.”

Tomowa-Sintow also rejects Karajan’s reputation as a despot. “You know, he absolutely didn’t want singers to be afraid of him. He was kind, helpful, witty and friendly. He was, heart and soul, an excellent adviser and mentor — he helped singers to develop. He always wanted to know what other roles you were doing in other theaters, and he gave valuable advice. He helped me, phrase by phrase, line by line, with the part of the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier when he heard I was to sing it at the Met, under another conductor [Erich Leinsdorf]. Who else would have done that?”

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At rehearsal with James Levine
© S. Lauterwasser/Lebrecht Music & Arts 2015 

The Karajan she remembers was also collegial with other conductors. She recalls James Levine’s frequent presence at Karajan’s rehearsals in Salzburg. “And when I prepared the role of Madeleine in Capriccio with Horst Stein conducting, [Karajan] sat in on every rehearsal, score in hand. Karajan didn’t know the work, but he became fascinated. Then he asked me to record the final scene with him.” In the video of the staged performance of Capriccio under Stein, the interpretation offers a stark contrast to the Karajan style. Tomowa-Sintow and Stein make the heroine’s quandary seem emotionally intense, almost desperate; this is not the placidity we sometimes feel when Tomowa-Sintow works with Karajan. 

The conversation turns to James Levine,  whom she calls “a great, spontaneous, born opera conductor. Without using words, I felt we were simply one. I learned so much from him, especially this dedication. You know, I hardly ever listen to my recordings. I’ve never had the time. But I prefer the ones recorded live — like ‘Ernani, involami,’ which I had the privilege to sing, with Jimmy conducting, at the Met’s [100th] anniversary concert [in 1983]. And, speaking of live recordings, I like the first Don Giovanni, under Karl Böhm, made live from the Ponnelle production in Salzburg.” 

She names three favorite roles — “my three As — Aida, Arabella, [Donna] Anna. But I’d hate to leave out others, such as the Forza Leonora, or the Empress [in Die Frau ohne Schatten] or, oh yes, Fiordiligi! But there’s something about those three As. What I love is the variety, the contrasts, in each.”

Looking back, she sees two constants that gave her strength and stability. “I am deeply interested in Asian religion and philosophy, and I don’t think I could do without meditation to keep me calm and focused. And my real support is my husband.” She and Albert Sintow have been married for more than fifty years, “since I was nineteen. We’ve been together every step of the way, with our daughter, Silvana. Family was always essential to me. And we’ve got two wonderful grandchildren.”

Tomowa-Sintow allows no talk of sacrifice for the sake of career. “Oh, maybe one sacrifice,” she says, correcting herself, with a laugh. “All those years, I never had a chance to celebrate holidays properly, because that’s when you’re so often performing. Now, when I finally have the time, and enjoy cooking, I find that I don’t know how to ‘do’ Christmas or New Year’s or Easter — how to do the decorations, the traditional trappings, the festivities. That’s one role where I’m just about useless.” spacer 

DAVID J. BAKER is a writer and translator based in Connecticut. 

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