“To see the elephants. The lights. The action. I was sold. I didn’t understand why I had to go to school because I knew what I wanted right away. I thought it was the most amazing magical night ever.”
That was mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught’s description of her first ever experience at the Arena di Verona as a 13-year-old. The Dundalk, Ireland native had already been singing for years, but her trip to see Verdi’s “Aida” at one of the legendary theaters of the world would change her life forever.
From there she headed to the Royal Irish Academy of Music in Dublin before winning a plethora of major awards, including the Dermott Troy Award for the Best Irish Singer in 2007. Perhaps one of the great distinctions of her career was being signed on as a resident principal artist with the Bayerische Staatsoper in 2010, a post she will hold until this season.
As a part of her final season in that position, she will be getting new opportunities that she has never been afforded her in life. Among them is an opportunity to perform in her first Wagner opera, “Parsifal.” What is unique about this performance is that she is not going to be getting a leading role, but a small one in an opera. But no matter as Erraught sees every experience as valuable.
“There are no small parts. Even if the role is only one line, for you to give the right color and give your colleagues something interesting, you have to know what is going on. And not just five minutes before, but the whole show. You must study everything,” she stated in a recent chat with OperaWire. “And when rehearsals start, you go to concept talk and watch as many rehearsals as possible. The more you know from the outset, the more you can contribute. There is no small role. Even if you have to open the door, if you open it the wrong way or with the wrong mood, you create the wrong atmosphere. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. You’ve got to learn everything.”
A New Home
Aside from an emotional final season as resident principal artist, Erraught’s 2017-18 season will feature a major debut, “a dream come true.”
On Sept. 26, 2017 she will step onto the stage of the Metropolitan Opera for her first-ever performance.
“I still can’t believe it. I have had some singing lessons and have been preparing since March with [mentor and legendary mezzo] Brigitte Fassbender and I sang the role for her. She talked to me about her own debut and how exciting that moment was for her. You get very excited but also nervous,” she noted. “There is also something incredible about being an Irish person in New York because its home away from home. Everyone is from Ireland or knows someone Irish.”
The role in question will be Nicklausse from “Les Contes d’Hoffmann,” a work she hasn’t sung regularly throughout her career. In fact, the last time she took on the opera, she sang a different edition, so Erraught saw her return to Nicklausse as a “role debut, of sorts.”
“I brought it to Brigitte [Fassbender] and we started it act by act instead of doing the whole piece. I did it with her after Componist and there is a similarity in range, but Nicklausse is a lot longer,” Erraught noted before talking about singing at the Met itself. “So we talked about stamina. So, she told me about how everyone gets nervous about the size of the Met, but she noted that there wasn’t anything I needed to do different technically. She said it was a gift to singers, which was a sigh of relief to hear it from her.”
Aside from singing at the Met, the mezzo is excited about taking on the Bartlett Sher production which she believes is very “earthy.” “I saw it in the cinema. I love the bar scene with all the men. I can imagine being in a pub. It is a very real production. It’s all there in front of you.”
An Old Friend
But “Hoffmann” isn’t her only Met project this season. Interestingly, the other opera she will be singing will be one she’s done many times throughout her time at Munich – “Hansel and Gretel.”
The Richard Jones production is not only a fixture at the Met, but also at Munich, so Erraught is excited about bringing a portrayal she has gotten years to develop to a completely new audience.
“I have done 26 performances of that production in German. Richard is a great friend of mine and it is so interesting to sing this production because I can feel his own character in it,” she explained. “It is a great gift to be able to sing it somewhere else. I have done it in Munich every season since it premiere. To sing it in English is fun and to bring it to another audience is wonderful.”
Singing the opera so many times can be a challenge for singers, especially in the same production, but Erraught noted that she has truly enjoyed growing her interpretation over the years.
“I lived in Munich during the economic crisis and when I went to Ireland I saw the poverty. It helped me see a little bit first hand for a child to be in Hansel’s situation,” the mezzo explained. “It became more real for me. And of course, I watched the influx of refugees from Syria. To see these kids in the transition, it added new colors and insight for me.
“What we don’t appreciate is how much children realize. They can’t be sheltered from everything because they are exposed to everything. I wanted to bring that to Hansel. He knows the mother won’t come home with food. He knows he’s lucky to have a roof over his head. The first time I did the role I didn’t think of those things. But to look at the world right now, homelessness is so big all over the world. For me that has really changed.”
The Keys to Success
Still in her 30s, Erraught sees her career is very much a work-in-progress, one that she revels in shaping every single day. One of the major guiding lights in her career is Fassbender, who she has credited with changing her perspective on technique and musical approach.
“I went to her because I was going to do a new ‘Hansel and Gretel’ in Munich and the last time it had been premiered in a new production, she had been Hansel,” Erraught revealed. “So I went to her to study the role and from then on we studied each role that she sang that I will sing.
“She goes into so much detail about the diction or where the orchestra might be heavy.”
She also learned the importance of lieder as the key to success in all singing.
“Lieder is where the voice is most exposed, musically and technically. It’s not just musical colors but also the colors of the poetry,” she noted. “The more you explore that, the better it is for opera also. The more young singers spend with lieder, the more they understand the culture of the language.”
She noted that singing lieder was key to helping her in learning opera roles and that she turns to a composer’s songs before taking on the full-fledged opera.
“I find that this year Componist [from ‘Ariadne auf Naxos’] was so much easier because I did so much Strauss lieder and I understood his style better,” she explained. “It didn’t take much time for me to learn Componist because I had done so many of his songs.
“So from now on when I do a composer’s work, I will look at their songs first. Possibly their orchestral works. When you understand their chord progressions, you understand more about the composer.”
She’s also developed a rather practical approach to training her voice. Her secret?
“Don’t overpractice,” she emphasized. “Even if you feel like you’re on a roll. Take a break and go back. I used to do hours and hours at a time. Now I start at 9 and go until 9:45 and break until 10. And then 10 to 10:45. It works so much better and you feel rested.”
Looking forward, the mezzo-soprano proclaimed a desire to do more Bel Canto operas. She has plenty of experience with such works as “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” and “La Cenerentola,” but still wanted an opportunity to delve deeper into the musical style.
“I would love to do ‘La Donna del Lago’ and Rossini’s ‘Otello,’ Romeo in ‘Capuletti e Montecchi.’ More Rossini, more Bellini, more Donizetti.”
She also wants to do more Strauss, but also noted that she could continue singing the same things over and over if that was necessary.
“I love to explore new repertoire but it is a treat to revisit a role, which is happening for me. Obviously with each day in life, you learn a new color to bring to a role. So when people ask for a new ‘Cenerentola’ I am excited to do it. I have more to add.”
She still has many pages to write in her career. Maybe one day a page will include inspiring a 13-year-old taking in his or her first opera.