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Lyric Chameleon

Anja Harteros is one of Europe’s most fascinating and versatile sopranos. This summer, she makes her Bayreuth debut as Elsa in Lohengrin.
By A. J. Goldmann
Portraits by Laetitia Vancon
 

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Portrait by Laetitia Vancon
TOSCA IS A PIECE THAT'S IMPOSSIBLE TO IMPROVE. EVERYTHING IS PERFECT AS IT IS.”
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As Tosca at the 2018 Salzburg Easter Festival, with Ludovic Tézier as Scarpia
© Wilfried Hösl
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Elisabetta di Valois to Jonas Kaufmann’s Don Carlo at Covent Garden in 2013
© Clive Barda/ArenaPAL

ANJA HARTEROS IS MANY SINGERS IN ONE. The German soprano has a way of slipping into a role that makes it difficult to imagine anyone else singing it better. When she sings Elsa in Lohengrin or Elisabeth in Tannhäuser, her voice seems to melt into the music until it becomes an essential part of what Wagner wrote. As Verdi’s Desdemona, Leonora (both Trovatore and Forza) or Amelia (both Ballo and Boccanegra), she summons an attack that is at once aggressive and generous. And when she appears as Arabella or the Marschallin, she floats Strauss’s long lines with transfixing grace. Whatever she sings, Harteros’s performances are always lyrically opulent, theatrically fierce and enhanced by subtle psychological characterization. In terms of vocal refinement and dramatic intensity, she has few rivals. This summer, she makes her much-awaited Bayreuth debut headlining the festival’s new Lohengrin and returns to Munich to sing Strauss’s Arabella.

WHEN THE SOPRANO RISES FROM A SOFA at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich to greet me, I’m somewhat surprised at how tall she is. Onstage, she seems demure and down-to-earth, a “girl next door” who happens to sing better than most anyone else today. At our interview, she wears a blouse with butterflies and studs. I sense that it is significant. “I wore this the last time that I was opera news’s cover girl, in 2004,” she tells me excitedly. “And it still fits!” 

At that time, Harteros had just made a triumphant Met debut as the Countess in Figaro. A few years earlier, her victory at the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition helped her launch a brilliant career.

At the time of her Met debut, she already dreamed of the meatier, more challenging roles she is known for today. “I always knew that this was the direction my voice would develop in, but when one is young and just starting out, one can’t begin with Forza del Destino,” she says in her quick, excited German. “My thinking was that I’d start out with the roles that I could nail one hundred percent at a large house like the Met. I didn’t want people to say, ‘Oh, someday she’ll make a good Countess.’ I was a good Countess. So you could say that at the beginning of my career I ended up taking a bit of a step backward, but just in order to have the opportunity to sing at major houses and work with great people. That’s why I started out with thisfach—because Mozart roles are ‘written for the voice,’ as everyone says,” she adds with a smile.  

Harteros gives special praise to the conductors who have supported and encouraged her as she has eased into the heftier roles she felt she was born to sing. “In Munich, it all began with Zubin Mehta. He is my absolute favorite conductor,” she says of the maestro who paced her as Agathe in Der Freischütz (the vehicle of her Bavarian State Opera debut in 1999, when Mehta was GMD there), as well as in subsequent productions of Figaro and Otello. Most recently, maestro and diva reunitedtwo seasons ago for Ballo in Maschera. 

“Working again with him after all those years, I wondered if it would be as mystical and thrilling as it had been in the beginning. But it was! Because he simply is a magical person. He has an aura about him, and I feel I’m just able to sing so well with him. It’s not an analytic approach. It goes straight to the heart. And I can give that back to him, and it’s very special.” 

The BSO’s current chief conductor is Kirill Petrenko, a precise, exacting maestro, under whom Harteros has sung Tosca, Rosenkavalier and Tannhäuser, and whose approach she describes as more cerebral. “I must say, however, that even though his way of working is more intellectual, somehow the way he thinks through the music appeals to the heart. Somehow he manages to do this. It’s a bit like Stravinsky said—‘The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees oneself.’ I think Kirill subscribes to that idea.” 

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Backstage in Munich
Portrait by Laetitia Vancon
 

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WHEN WE MEET IN EARLY MARCH, she is about to start rehearsals for a new Tosca at the Salzburg Easter Festival. Tosca is the closest thing to a calling card that Harteros has, and I’m curious to know how she approaches a new production of a work—and a role—she knows so well. “It does make me somewhat apprehensive,” she admits. “Tosca is a piece that’s impossible to improve. Everything is perfect as it is. It’s so precisely written. So I always need to ask myself, ‘Why should I bother doing anything differently?’ But despite this, maybe I’ll discover a new perspective on the character.  What I find absolutely fundamental to Tosca is to make her appear direct rather than calculating,” she says. “Tosca is actually not the outsized personality that we often think of her as. I think her ‘diva’ personality is really restricted to her art. She has this divine gift to be a singer, but she shouldn’t be flamboyant. For me, Tosca is truly a humble artiste. But she’s still in love, and she’s still a woman.”   

Harteros doesn’t have many calling-card roles, mostly because she doesn’t want any role to feel like business as usual. “When I made my debut at the Bayerische Staatsoper as Elsa, I said I didn’t want to sing Elsa too much,” she says, referring to her 2009 role debut (alongside Jonas Kaufmann) in Richard Jones’s modern-dress production. “I’ve been good at keeping that promise.” 

One of the few places she’s sung Elsa is Deutsche Oper Berlin, another house where she frequently appears. When I caught her in that role in 2015, her performance was utterly spellbinding. From her otherworldly Act I “dream” to the ravaged paranoia of her wedding night, every note was bewitching. “If you ask me, Elsa must always have something naïve and virginal about her, and I can only find that in her when the role always remains fresh and new. And when you do a role again and again, there’s always the danger that it can start to seem a bit stale,” she says. “I want to be able to sing this role with a lot of feeling. That’s not something you can make routine.”

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As Leonora di Vargas in Munich’s 2013 Forza del Destino, with Jonas Kaufmann
© Wilfried Hösl
 

•••  

THIS IS NOT THE FIRST SUMMER Bayreuth has tried to engage Harteros. This time around, however, Harteros found herself persuaded by Christian Thielemann—Bayreuth’s music director, who is leading the Lohengrin performances. “He made this a project close to my heart. He told me that it will be such a great and special production, and I couldn’t think of a reason why I wouldn’t do it,” she says. 

To win her over, the conductor showed her designs from the production, whose sets by the renowned painter Neo Rauch piqued her interest. “I think it’s going to be a very beautiful project, with room for the fairy-tale aspect of the story. I think that’s a nice change in our very rational world.” 

Thielemann has also been instrumental in bringing Harteros to the Salz-burg Easter Festival. In 2017, she sang her first Sieglinde there in a high-profile Die Walküre that could have been nicknamed “The Anja & Anja Show,” in reference to the evening’s Brünnhilde, the powerhouse dramatic soprano Anja Kampe, who, like Harteros, was making her role debut in the run. (To date, neither Anja has sung those roles on any other opera stage.) As the beleaguered Wälsung, Harteros was strikingly defiant and erotically charged.  

“With Wagner, it is often the case that the composition’s focus or point of view is masculine. It isn’t always all that kind to the women,” she says. If that’s the case, she must feel much more supported by Richard Strauss, who carried on a lifelong love affair with the female voice. 

“For me, Strauss is always a bit of a struggle,” she says. “There are these small tricky things no one in the audience ever notices, but which are always there.” She adds that the trick is to make it look easy. “Of course, as a German native speaker I have the advantage of being able to think through why did Strauss put this line to music in this specific way. So for me, it’s mostly a matter of interpretation.”

While hardly a rarity, Arabella has never been a perennial success, like Rosenkavalier—nor has it undergone the sort of critical reappraisal that Die Frau ohne Schatten has enjoyed. I ask Harteros how best to approach the opera. “Well,” she begins slowly, “you need to go to Vienna and watch the Viennese and ask them about this waltz culture of theirs. And you very quickly understand how much the Viennese adore it! And that’s why I think that Arabella is a loving depiction of this bygone world. I’m certain that’s what Strauss set out to capture. And if you don’t approach it with the prejudices that make this piece seem old-fashioned to us, as non-Viennese or non-waltz fanatics—if you can put that aside and approach this work in the spirit of love and openness—then it’s a wonderful, wonderful piece. And this unspoiled character of Arabella takes the mothballs away and makes the society shine.” 

Even though she made her debut in the role three seasons ago, she suggests that she may retire it soon. “Arabella shouldn’t be too old,” she says. “She should be a shining, radiant focus point of the entire opera. She needs to lift all the other characters that rotate around her in the piece.”

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Sieglinde to Peter Seiffert’s Siegmund at the 2017 Salzburg Easter Festival
© OFS/Forster
 

•••  

A WEEK AFTER OUR INTERVIEW, the Bavarian State Opera’s new season is announced. The November premiere will be a new Otello, starring Harteros and Jonas Kaufmann. It will be the latest in a long line of collaborations with the German tenor in Munich that includes Forza, Don Carlo, Tosca, Il Trovatore and Andrea Chénier. While American opera-lovers are happy to get just one of these opera luminaries at a time, there’s a higher chance of seeing them together in Munich than anywhere else.

“Most of the Jonas–Anja projects that have taken place—and there are many more that have not—have happened here, because he’s a Münchner and I love coming here,” Harteros says. “Whenever we have the chance to sing together, I am extremely glad. We’re very happy every time we meet. 

“But it’s not like the chemistry is always immediately there. Sometimes when we start on a new production, there can be some initial friction. But we are both fine with letting that happen, and we eventually find each other. And there’s this incredible joy of being together onstage. That’s really something special. And I feel it from his side as well.”

Harteros has been such a delight to interview that I’m only slightly disappointed when she declines to discuss what roles may lie in store for her. “There are one or two or three still to come. Maybe here in Munich, maybe elsewhere,” she says tantalizingly. “But in any event, I’m not going to be a routine Maschinensängerin. That’s not going to happen.”  

She is much more forthcoming about what not to expect. “Janáček would be an absolute dream, but it won’t happen, because I don’t speak Czech,” she says. “I feel the same way about Russian. It won’t happen, because I would need to learn these roles purely phonetically, and no matter how many notes I made for myself, I would never be able to really feel the music. That’s something I notice, for instance, when I sing German lieder—how this entire cosmos expands. I can only do that in German. I can’t ever do that in any foreign language. But at least with French and Italian I feel I can establish enough of a connection to those languages,” she concludes with a small sigh. 

Then she smiles wryly as if amused by a thought taking shape. “In my next life, I would like to be blond, petite and have a gift for languages!” spacer 

A. J. Goldmann writes about arts and culture for The Wall Street Journal and The Forward. 



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