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Princess Di

Brian Kellow talks to the sensational DIANA DAMRAU, whose upcoming season includes Donizetti’s Lucia at San Francisco Opera and Leïla in the Met’s new production of Les Pêcheurs de Perles.

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Photographed by Dario Acosta in New York
Top and skirt by Halston Heritage • Shoes by Stuart Weitzman
Pendant necklace, ring and earrings by Bulgari • Makeup and hair by Affan Malik
Clothes styled by Brandy Kraft
From the Archives 
Damrau’s first OPERA NEWS cover story (John Morrone, March 2007)  
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Damrau's Zerbinetta in the Met's staging of Ariadne auf Naxos
© Johan Elbers
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Damrau as Leïla in Lotte de Beer’s “reality TV” staging of Les Pêcheurs de Perles at Theater an der Wien, 2014
© Werner Kmetitsch

There are singers who captivate us with their pure vocal beauty, and there are singers who overwhelm us with their heart and generosity. Then there are those whose keen intelligence, revealed from one stage moment to another, is what we remember most. They may have beautiful voices too, but it is their uncanny ability to illuminate their roles, both powerfully and subtly, that lingers. Some of the smartest stage performers of the past few decades include Hildegard Behrens, Régine Crespin, Elisabeth Söderström, Lauren Flanigan, Jon Vickers, Thomas Allen, Simon Keenlyside and Gerald Finley. It’s taking nothing away from Diana Damrau’s entrancing voice and dazzling coloratura facility to say that this brand of musical and theatrical intelligence is the greatest weapon in her performer’s arsenal. 

This much was evident on the stage last winter, when she sang Manonin a revival of Laurent Pelly’s immensely likable production of Massenet’s opera. Each of her scenes seemed to unfold spontaneously; when she sang the opera’s most famous arias, she brought her own freshness and spark to them, taking a breath here, laughing a bit there — but never laying on so much detail that she derailed Massenet’s musical line. Perhaps Damrau wasn’t the ideal Manon; her Cours-la-Reine scene, in particular, seemed more Dolly Levi than French gamine. But it was hard to quibble about a performance that was so breathtakingly alive. Like all major artists, Damrau has great powers of persuasion — and it was a pleasure to be won over. 

Surely it was Damrau’s sharp instincts that led her to suggest her latest Met project to the company’s management — a production of Bizet’s Pêcheurs de Perles, directed by Penny Woolcock and conducted by Gianandrea Noseda, which bows on New Year’s Eve in a special gala performance. Although the opera does get done quite a bit regionally, the Met’s production has “specialty” appeal as the company’s first staging of the work since it opened the 1916–17 season, starring Frieda Hempel, Enrico Caruso and Giuseppe De Luca. The role of Leïla, the Hindu princess loved by two rival pearl-divers, Nadir (to be played at the Met by Matthew Polenzani) and Zurga (Mariusz Kwiecien), is not exactly a spectacular showcase for soprano, although the duet with Zurga, “Je frémis, je chancelle,” can generate heat. Other sopranos might object that Leïla’s music is overshadowed by the rapturous music of the two men — the duet, “Au fond du temple saint,” and Nadir’s solo, “Je crois entendre encore.” But Damrau has utter confidence in the work’s musical value, having performed it in concert in Mannheim and in a full production, staged by Lotte de Beer, at Theater an der Wien in 2014. 

Bizet’s opera is one of the things she wants to discuss right away when she meets me in the Met press lounge during her run as Manon while battling a stubborn virus. “I took cough medicine, and it dried out my larynx,” she says. “The opening of Manon was okay, but the last performance was horrible. The whole family has it. Everyone is coughing. Concerto grosso.” She is bright and upbeat, however; if there are many things she would rather be doing than this interview, she doesn’t show it. 

Damrau is widely known as a cooperative and generous colleague. In the circumstances of an interview, her good cheer seems utterly genuine — and also somewhat impenetrable. The impression she gives is of someone who approaches each situation with good will and an open mind; by nature she doesn’t seem inclined to criticize or indulge in a viewpoint that might be seen as negative. Perhaps this has to do with her intense dedication to her singing life: she wants to be the best she can be, and she’s not about to weigh herself down with any distractions that might impede her from doing the job as well as she possibly can. 

“A lot of stage directors don’t want to do Pêcheurs de Perles,” Damrau says. “The story is a little bit — the surprises are hard to believe — but you have to trust the music. You always hear a bit of Micaela, a bit of Carmen, but it also has this warm, wet sense of perfume of India. At the Theater an der Wien, I talked avec  — avec! Oh, my God!” She collapses laughing, still in Manon mode. “I talked with them for an hour. They did it as a TV reality show, and you see the manipulation of the TV people, who invite these three people to a jungle challenge. All three of them get turned inside out in front of the camera. It gave it another layer of comic moments, like social critics of our time. You could laugh, but it didn’t — ridiculize anything. It was one of the happiest moments of Regietheaterwhere you could say, ‘This helps the opera.’” 

Damrau feels a deep connection to French repertoire. “It has everything,” she says. “The heart and blood and temperament of the Italian, but also its own elegance and beauty and lightness.” She began studying the language in school, where she focused on mathematics, chemistry and physics. Since she moved to Geneva six years ago, with her husband, French bass-baritone Nicolas Testé, and their two sons, Colin and Alexander, she can truly live her life in the French language. (Occasionally Damrau and Testé get to perform together; he sings Raimondo to her Lucia di Lammermoor next month at San Francisco Opera.) 

Like many sopranos, Damrau finds the antiheroine Manon somewhat tricky in terms of how the audience may respond to her. “But I have to say that everything she does, she does with full conviction,” she says. “She goes 150 percent for it. It’s like six one-act operas, and in each one she is in a completely different state of being.” She admits that in life we are often drawn to narcissistic people, simply because they seem so much more interesting than everyone else. “You have to be a real singing actor for Manon,” she says — “a charismatic person onstage. I think the voice type is not so important. You want to have both the lyrical part and the shiny, younger-sounding voice. The spectrum is so big. You should have as much as you can get.”

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Dress: Adrianna Papell; Earrings and ring: Golay Fils & Stahl, Geneva; Necklace: Richard Strauss coin medallion
Photograph by Dario Acosta

Damrau was born in 1971 in the Bavarian city of Günzburg. At fifteen, she began studies with Carmen Hanganu at Würzburg’s Hochschule für Musik. “It was clear that my voice is a high coloratura. It had some lyrical qualities, but my teacher said that the first roles are the light lyric, but also for sure the coloratura repertoire. She built up my middle range, built it up from the center, not working on the high notes. She forbid me to sing the Queen of the Night at the beginning. The high D was much more difficult than the E-flat, so it took some time to get this right — to get the passage from the middle range to the high notes right and keep the voice in position. Fortunately, I have a good connection with my body. I did a lot of modern dance in my youth, and I understood what she said when she spoke of breathing with support.” 

After graduating from Würzburg, she studied with Hanna Ludwig in Salzburg. Damrau’s first stage experience came at the Mainfranken Theater in Würzburg, where her early roles included Barbarina in Le Nozze di Figaro and Yniold in Pelléas et Mélisande. There followed a long association with the National Theatre Mannheim, where she gained valuable experience as Gretel, Lucia di Lammermoor, Adele in Die Fledermaus, Valencienne in Die Lustige Witwe and the Countess in Csárdásfürstin. One role at Mannheim that she definitely did not want to do was Johanna, the imprisoned daughter in Sweeney Todd, in Germany’s first production of the Sondheim musical, but she came to love both the role and the show and admits that “the meat-pie lady [Mrs. Lovett] is on my bucket list.” 

She also sang extensively at Oper Frankfurt and at Munich’s Bayerische Staatsoper, where her celebrated roles include the four heroines in Les Contes d’Hoffmann. “I must say it’s not that difficult to do all four,” she says. “You can choose which Giulietta you want do, and there are so many choices! In Munich, Giulietta became more like a character role, almost like in a musical, and I could use a lot of chest voice. It was not singing like a mezzo-soprano. You can’t imitate a mezzo-soprano as a coloratura. With Olympia, you can go one-and-a-half tones lower. You can make all of this work for the instrument you have. The biggest sing, where you can’t cheat and choose anything else, is Antonia. It’s a lyric soprano, so it sits somewhere in the middle.” 

Damrau’s Met history, beginning with Zerbinetta in 2005, is rich and varied. There was Aithra in 2007’s Ägyptische Helena, in which she more than held her own with Deborah Voigt’s Helena, and a superb Lucia in a revival of Mary Zimmerman’s 2007 staging of Lucia di Lammermoor, in which the heavy Romantic/Gothic atmosphere initially seemed a little thick; interestingly, with Damrau the following season, the production revived quite well. “I love the idea that she comes back as a ghost at the end,” says Damrau, “to make it easier for him to die, so they can be reunited. It is from the epoch of the Romantics. Nature, visions, ghosts — things we can’t put our hands on. The specter of feeling, in music as well as in literature, becomes most important. 

“Another thing I adored in the production — usually, when there is the big sextet, they stay there with their arms out and their swords, and it’s, ‘Okay — now we have to sing.’ Very seldom is it staged convincingly.” In Zimmerman’s staging, the sextet is sung as a photographer is arranging the families for a wedding portrait. “Everything is tense, and nobody knows what to do — so we take now the wedding pictures!” Damrau says, laughing. “They follow the instructions of the photographer, and it makes the tension of this moment so incredible.”

More recently, as Gilda in the Met’s Rigoletto, Damrau’s vocal and dramatic authority contributed immensely to Michael Mayer’s wildly uneven staging, set in early 1960s Las Vegas. The production made some faulty assertions — one being that Rat Pack-era Vegas was loaded with Arab money — but for Damrau, the staging worked, “because it showed you the contrasts — the world of Las Vegas, a bit wild, and the traditional Catholic people. This is the American Rigoletto. Fantastic.”  

She is encouraged by the high level of Regietheater in Germany and Austria, where audiences don’t have the same reluctance as Americans to accept the new. But she is willing to talk about a production that didn’t please her — Doris Dörrie’s staging of Rigoletto at Bayerische Staatsoper in 2005. “Earth is destroyed,” Damrau says with a sigh, “and now it’s the planet of the apes, and the king of the apes is the Duke. Which tenor wants to be a monkey onstage? You can’t find that. The biggest problem was that it made fun of Verdi’s music. The party at the Duke’s palace had hopping monkeys going, ‘Oooh-oooh, aaah-aaah.’ And I had nightmares, because in this version, Gilda wants to make love with an ape. So my dream was that I gave birth to a monkey baby with big teeth, out of my head. I became very sick with bronchitis and sang two performances, or three, and said I wasn’t coming back.” In general, one senses that if Damrau objects to something, she won’t sign on, as was the case when she passed on singing Konstanze in Calixto Bieito’s Entführung aus dem Serail at Komische Oper Berlin. “It’s the one where they cut the breasts off,” she says. “It was very violent, and I said, no — I’m not going to do this.”

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Damrau as Violetta in Act I of the Met’s 2013 revival of Willy Decker’s staging of La Traviata
© Beatriz Schiller

Damrau is such an imaginative and admirably present artist that, despite her gift for florid singing, it’s easy not to classify her as a coloratura; her work delves so much deeper than that of the average sixteenth-notes singer. In Damrau’s case, points of comparison are elusive. She possesses a greater degree of vocal beauty than Natalie Dessay, yet she doesn’t quite have Kathleen Battle or Judith Blegen’s pearly tone, and she’s more intensely dramatic than Arleen Auger. One touchstone may be someone less obvious — Elisabeth Söderström, because of the graceful ease and deeply internalized truth of almost everything she sings. 

“One of the most exciting things is sitting down at the piano with her,” says pianist Craig Rutenberg, the Met’s former director of music administration, who has often partnered Damrau in recital. “She has no preconceived notions. I will sit down and play the introduction to something, and she sight-reads the song. She has a way of anticipating what’s to come. She starts off in a manner of someone who is so secure in her musicianship that she begins a phrase that’s going to unfold in a natural way. It’s not just solfège. There are very few singers who have that.” 

An excellent example of Damrau’s musical intelligence can be found on her 2013 Erato recording, Forever: Unforgettable Songs from Vienna, Broadway and Hollywood. One of the most thrilling selections on the album is Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “A Wonderful Guy”: Damrau starts the song in legit coordination, then switches into speech mode, a midlevel mixing, and ends in full high belt. There’s a keen dramatic logic to approaching the song this way, and it stands as one of the most personal versions ever recorded.  

David Charles Abell, who conducted the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra for Forever, recalls being skeptical about the project. “Diana chose all the songs,” Abell says. “I knew she was an amazing coloratura, but could she belt? We spent a day and a bit going through the repertoire, and she had just had her second child and wasn’t completely recovered. She didn’t sing all that much. Whenever we could, we used the original keys. I didn’t really hear her sing out until the sessions, and she completely blew me away. If I took a little ritard or rallentando which stretched something, she had the breath to get right through it. She is a very character-based singer — an acting-based singer.” 

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Damrau as Massenet’s Manon in the Cours-la-Reine scene of Laurent Pelly’s production at the Met
© Beatriz Schiller

In May, two months after our initial interview, Damrau and I are speaking by phone from her home in Geneva; soon she will be singing Adina in L’Elisir d’Amore at Zurich Opera, and she is taking a bit of time at home first. One of her sons is fussing, and she hands him a chocolate while she talks to me. “Chocolate is always the last remedy,” she says. “He stopped immediately. Good.” 

Her voice drops a bit as she reflects on the life she has chosen. “Singing is such a whole experience for body and mind and soul,” she says. “You have to have control over your body, but you must have the artistry to guide you, to go for the beauty. That’s what we want. If you sing the Witch in Hänsel und Gretel, or something like that, you have other goals. But usually, it’s the beauty. We are longing for beauty — and to touch people, and to be able to do this, it can take time. You can be brilliant in technique, and that impresses people. But it’s not the whole thing. It takes a long time to be able to combine these things, and you need time to grow. And” — she sighs a little — “people are not too patient.” spacer 

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