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The OPERA NEWS Awards: Waltraud Meier

Her voice is a dark star, big, bold and bright, but black in color.
by Henry Stewart. 

ON AWARDS Meier hdl 416
As Isolde at La Scala, 2007
Marco Brescia/© Teatro alla Scala
HER ISOLDE TRULY SEEMS TO SEE THE THINGS SHE DESCRIBES IN THE LIEBESTOD.
ON Awards Meier sm 416
Waltraud Meier as Isolde at La Scala, 2007
Marco Brescia/© Teatro alla Scala

WALTRAUD MEIER'S acting skill makes her one of our greatest performers, on or off the opera stage. Her consummate artistry lies not just in the dexterity of the voice but in the aptness of the characterization. Of her signature roles, she’s best loved for Isolde, which she first performed at Bayreuth in 1993—and which she retired in Munich last July. She owned the role as few singers ever have and emerged as the best of the post-Birgit Nilsson generation. Has any other interpreter of “Mild und leise” seemed to inhabit so many psychospatial planes?

Though Meier always tailored her performances to suit different directors’ ideas, a basic approach was apparent. Her Isolde seems truly to see the things she describes in the Liebestod—the dead Tristan’s smile, his chest’s rippling with a beating heart—and to hear him talking to her; progressively, she becomes more awed and more immersed in her vision. But Meier doesn’t play it as a mad scene; it’s far more sublime. Her soul seems to have joined the surging torrent, the ringing sound, the World Spirit’s wafting breath. It’s so intense, so glorious, that you’re left unsure as to whether the moment is transcendental or insane. 

Kundry, another signature role, no doubt appealed to her for the dramatic transformations—not just within one scene but across the entire drama. Compared to her mad horsewoman in Act I, in whatever production, Meier’s ensorcelling seductress in Act II was always a different creature; ditto the foot-washing baptism candidate in Act III. “Every gesture was irrevocably aligned with both text and music,” Jeffrey A. Leipsic wrote in opera news, of her final Isolde. He could have been talking about any Meier assumption.

Her mezzo-soprano is a dark star, big, bold and bright, but black in color—the perfect instrument for her repertoire, which is mostly Wagner with a little Strauss. Italian and French are all mellifluous vowels, but German is brusque, with cornered consonants cutting into each other like splinters. Meier’s diction is bliss.

Now centered in Munich, she was born 172 miles away in Würzburg, a picturesque wine-town halfway between Frankfurt and Nuremberg. She began her career singing Wagner, of course; she made her international debut at Teatro Colón, in Buenos Aires, as Fricka in Die Walküre. Within three years she had advanced to the Wagnerian mecca, Bayreuth, where she triumphed in 1983 as Kundry. She sang the role there for the next decade before moving on to Isolde, which was outside her fach; she was encouraged to try some of the dramatic-soprano parts by conductor Daniel Barenboim, with whom she collaborated closely through much of her career.

Perhaps her only closer collaborator was director Patrice Chéreau, a posthumous opera news Award recipient in 2013; they first worked together on Wozzeck,in Berlin, in 1994. He neglected no aspect of the art form, Meier told opera news last year, unifying “the musical level, the singing level, acting level, word level.” She could also have been describing herself; no other singer has so holistic a technique.  —Henry Stewart 

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