Interview: Soprano Kathryn Lewek, The Queen Who Refused To Sing
The Reigning Queen of the Night on Her Unlikely Coronation, Motherhood, and Return to the StageBy Chris Ruel
Coloratura Soprano Kathryn Lewek never set out to be opera’s reigning Queen of the Night, Mozart’s show-stealing villainess of “Die Zauberflöte” (“The Magic Flute”).
But fate had other ideas. In this case, fate was personified by a casting director.
Refusing the Call
During a competition for the Opera Foundation in New York, the Deutsche Oper’s Casting Director, Christoph Seuferle asked Lewek to sing the famed aria, “Der Hölle Rache.” But Lewek had prepared Zerbinetta as her German aria. To Lewek, Seuferle’s request was simply out of the question.
“I said, ‘I’m sorry, that’s not on my rep list,’ but he asked me to do it anyway because apparently, they were looking for someone to sing Queen. I was a newly minted coloratura soprano, just out of school, and a very famous singer told me I was a lyric coloratura. She also said never to touch Queen of the Night with a 10-foot pole,” Lewek told OperaWire in a recent interview. “I had it in my head the Queen wasn’t for me, but Christoph is yelling from the back of the hall, ‘Let me get this straight; you’re a coloratura soprano, and you don’t know Queen of the Night?!’”
Seuferle, in a huff and annoyed by Lewek’s refusals, settled for Zerbinetta as the soprano’s coloratura showcase, but told the singer in no uncertain terms to learn Queen of the Night. The casting director had decided on the spot Lewek had the makings of a good Queen without ever hearing the extremely difficult aria. Despite irritating the Deutsche Oper casting director, Lewek won the competition. With it came a year-long festival contract at the Deutsche Oper Berlin.
To this day, Seuferle tells the story of how the reigning Queen refused to sing Queen of the Night for him.
Crossing the Threshold
But she couldn’t avoid the coronation much longer.
“A few months later, I’m in Berlin, I’d learned the part, but I’d never sung it with orchestra, or performed it onstage. I had an hour rehearsal where they gave me the blocking, and then they shoved me out there to sing. It was terrifying.”
After the show, Seuferle praised Lewek for having nerves of steel and for her stellar performance. Immediately, he was on the phone with Jonathan Friend—the artistic director at the Met Opera—asking him to come to Berlin at his earliest convenience. Seuferle had discovered the next Queen.
“If a coloratura can sing Queen of the Night, everybody wants you. Queen is one of those roles that if you can do it people eat you up.”
Friend promptly cast Lewek as the Met’s Queen, and her debut on the big stage was set almost two-years in advance. She was in her mid-20s at the time.
“Young singers dream of performing at the Met, so talk about a surreal experience. Many people make their debut because they’re covering. I was lucky I could tell everybody when I was scheduled to perform,” she explained. “All my friends and family came down from Connecticut—in a snowstorm—saw my debut, and then we had a big party afterward. It was like having a wedding, stressful but fun and the time flew by; it was over in a flash.”
And, that’s how the Queen who refused to sing ascended the throne.
It’s Good to Be the Queen, But Also A Bit Dangerous
In spite of having performed the role nearly 200 times, in 22 different productions, with 30 (as of this writing) at the Met, the character hasn’t grown stale for the soprano. Lewek’s big entrance in the first act, singing “O zittre nicht” still thrills her.
“I’m up on a platform, and it rotates around, the orchestra’s playing, there’s thunder, it’s dark; I can see the flags beginning to flutter in the wind, and it’s exhilarating. It always reminds me of my Met debut.”
The Queen of the Night is difficult to cast. The first aria, “O zittre nicht,” is vastly different from the second, more well-known “Der Hölle Rache.” The recitative portion of “O zittre nicht” is full of legato lines with lots of room for a singer to play with dynamics and to shape phrases. Additionally, the recitative is sung using the middle voice, a comfortable tessitura for Lewek who at one time was a mezzo.
But moving into the aria portion, Mozart runs the singer up the staff, and if one listens carefully, there’s a quick high F hinting at what’s to come in the breathtaking second aria.
“Der Hölle Rache,” on the other hand, is a rage aria requiring a singer to go full-throttle making big leaps, bouncing across repeated series of staccato notes and navigating a string tuplets—a coloratura’s bravura paradise. The two arias are so diverse, the role almost requires two distinct types of sopranos, and few singers can do the role justice. As such, once cast as the Queen, it’s hard to escape her grip.
“You get pigeonholed,” Lewek said. “I told my agent from the very beginning that I didn’t want to get trapped. I will continue to sing Queen of the Night at the greatest opera houses in the world where it remains to be an exciting role for me to do, but I’m not going to sing it just anywhere. What’s the fun in doing that? I need to make time in my schedule to do other work.”
The Queen Becomes A Mother
When “The Magic Flute” opens on Dec. 19, 2018 at the Met Opera, the throne of the Sun, Moon, and Stars will once again be occupied by Lewek. But things, are a bit different this time when the soprano returns to the stage: she gave birth to a daughter in late-October.
Lewek, after a two-month break from singing, and knowing the role’s emphasis on coloratura acrobatics, worried about having the requisite strength to play the Queen, especially now that her daily routine includes running from stage rehearsal to feeding the baby to a costume fitting to feeding the baby once more. Meanwhile, Lewek’s very supportive husband, tenor Zach Borichevsky, cares for the baby in his wife’s dressing room.
“Even before having a C-section delivery, I was concerned about singing Queen of the Night. Had it been any other role, I’d have been less anxious, but Queen is so demanding—it’s incredibly difficult to do on a good day. Honestly, I’ve worried a lot lately, but over the past few days, it’s been a totally different story,” she laughed.
Lewek related how she’d been treated extremely well during and after her pregnancy. While quite pregnant she was scheduled to perform in Director Francesca Zambello’s rigorous production of “Candide” at the Washington National Opera. Zambello, concerned for the soprano’s well-being, decided Lewek shouldn’t be taking unnecessary physical risks in the name of art.
“Francesca said, ‘This is not you standing on a platform singing Queen of the Night, this is you running up and down stairs; I’m nervous.’ She paid my contract and let me go. Talk about treating a pregnant lady nicely. There’s a lot of horror stories out there, and Francesca is extremely family-oriented. I’m trying to broadcast that. She deserves for the world to know how well she treats her people.”
In addition to having her husband as a bulwark of support, Lewek has fellow soprano Erin Morley, also a new mom, starring as Pamina in the Met production. The two cast mates encourage one another through the hectic, non-stop days of rehearsals.
“Neither of us feel as though we’re alone. I was late for my costume fitting because I was feeding the baby, but I said to myself, ‘They’ll understand. Other people have done this, other people have gotten pregnant and had babies; this isn’t anything new.’”
Having a baby daughter has impacted how Lewek views the Queen of the Night, a character who is surely the “Mommy Dearest” of opera. While the music is gorgeous, the Queen’s words and actions are quite terrifying.
“I started considering how the Queen behaved once I knew I was having a girl,” Lewek said, taking a deep breath. “I probably shouldn’t think about it too much—’Magic Flute’ is a fairy tale—but it’s hard to imagine treating my daughter so horribly; she’s the sweetest baby. I know at some point during the terrible-twos, or teen years we’ll have words, but I can’t ever imagine ordering her to kill a foe.”
Resuming her light-heartedness, Lewek joked that she hoped the baby didn’t understand German, having sung the Queen numerous times while pregnant.
The Villainess Audiences Love
Malevolent as the Queen of the Night may be to Pamina, her onstage daughter, audiences love the Queen. The best villains connect with people by modeling behaviors and traits common to humanity, thus drawing three-dimensional baddies.
“I can’t think of Queen as all evil. If she were, then it wouldn’t be fun to keep doing the role. The Queen needs a reason for the rage. What she shows is inside of us all, except, she doesn’t hide it. I’m not a rage-filled person, but if someone’s done wrong to me or to someone I love, I want them to stub their toe as hard as possible, but I’ve never wished somebody to die,” Lewek said with all seriousness, but then added with a chuckle, “The Queen and I differ there.”
To channel the Queen’s anger, Lewek taps into the emotions she felt as a new artist trying to break into the business.
“I can understand feeling passed over. As a young person, I was a difficult singer to cast. I was transitioning from mezzo to soprano, and I had a particular color in my voice that was hard to place. People told me I was everything from a Wagnerian soprano to a lyric coloratura while I’m singing mezzo roles. I felt so confused because I knew I had much to offer the opera world.
“That’s why I see becoming the Queen as a positive while some see it as a negative. The Queen for me has been a wonderful ticket to success.”
More Than The Queen
Lewek has avoided the Queen trap. She is fan of sacred music having sung Mozart’s “Mass in C-minor” and “Requiem,” along with Verdi’s “Requiem,” Bach’s “Christmas Oratorio,” and the “B-minor Mass” For the past six years she has sung Handel’s “Messiah” at Carnegie Hall with the Oratorio Society of New York; however, this year she is taking a break.
“I’m a sucker for sacred music and thought that was the music for me having done a lot of it at Eastman,” she revealed. “I’ve worked a great deal with Kent Tritle (the director of professional choirs Musica Sacra and the Oratorio Society of New York) who’s wonderful. Last week, I wrote a note to Kent saying I was so sad that I’m not doing ‘Messiah.’ But with ‘The Magic Flute’ final dress the morning of ‘Messiah’ at Carnegie Hall, I just couldn’t do both.”
Between the evil Queen and the sacred, there’s more opera and a particular role toward which Lewek is working. Having sung Lucia, (“Lucia di Lammermoor”), she sees “La Traviata’s” Violetta as the next logical step, musically and vocally.
“Lucia fit me like a glove. As for Violetta, I’ve not sung the entire role, but I’ve done a lot of it. ‘Sempre libera,’ sits perfectly in my voice, and as with the Queen, Violetta’s singing in the second act of ‘La Traviata’ is entirely different than in the first and even more different in the third act.
“I’ve been offered the role five times, and I’ve turned them down because, for the most part, it’s too early for me. I believe the longer I wait, the better I’ll be. If I sing the part at the right time and the right people are listening, I’m confident they will say, ‘We’ve discovered the next great Violetta.’”
If the past is any predictor of the future, that just might happen. After all, it wouldn’t be the first time a ruling Queen of the Night progressed through all three roles.