Interview: Soprano Malin Byström’s Dream Comes True
The Swedish Soprano On Her First ‘Tosca’ & Her Expanding Strauss RepertoireBy Francisco Salazar
The title role in Puccini’s “Tosca” is quite possibly the biggest diva in all of opera. The role requires stamina, vocal prowess and an incredible singing actress who can convey all the complex emotions the character faces throughout the evening. It’s a role that every soprano dreams of and one that can elevate a career to stardom. It’s a role that has been sung by legends, many of which have put their own personal stamp on the role, adding another challenge for new interpreters to overcome. No one will forget what Maria Callas did in the role; not even the people that never saw her can overlook her indelible ties to the opera. Ditto for other singers such as Renata Tebaldi or Leontyne Price, to name a few.
That’s the kind of challenge that sopranos like Malin Byström have to deal with, but one that they relish. In the case of Byström, singing “Tosca” is a literal dream come true.
“I felt that my voice was coping well and my technique is quite stable at this time and I thought, of course, I want to do ‘Tosca’ especially because I haven’t done much verismo,” the Swedish soprano said in a recent interview with OperaWire.
In Need Of More Italian
Over the years, Byström has built her career singing Mozart and Strauss as well as other important composers. The result is that she has rarely been considered as an Italian singer, her acclaim in the Italian repertoire limited at best. She has sung some Verdi and recently took on “Fedora,” but she admits that she isn’t used to getting phone calls for Italian repertoire.
“It’s essential to sing not only the German repertoire because Italian gives my voice elasticity and I think even if I’m a Nordic singer and people think about the German repertoire for us, I just hope people will like to hear the Italian repertoire in my voice. I love singing it and it would be sad those roles didn’t keep coming to me,” she admitted.
So it is no surprise that the moment she was given the chance to take on “Tosca,” she jumped at the opportunity.
“I haven’t sung much Puccini so that is very new to me,” she revealed. “It is so nice to be able to indulge in the Italian repertoire where the voice is in the center and not so much in the orchestra and that is wonderful. To have these type of phrases where you don’t have to be so exact, like in Mozart and Strauss, is refreshing.”
Byström noted that her experience in said repertoire of Strauss and Mozart has facilitated her being able to step into such a tantamount project like the leading diva of Puccini’s operatic output. Singing so much difficult repertoire had allowed her to get a better sense of her instrument, its strengths and its limitations.
“This is where I think its good not to be too young and inexperienced,” she noted. “You know you can put on a show as if you’re very much into the show but actually, you’re very much in control of what you’re doing. That’s exactly what I will be doing. I know exactly where to move about the stage and to make it look like I’m aggressive and angry and everything it requires. But I will always keep the voice in control. This is what so much training and experience are for. It requires skills and I’m hoping for the best.”
And her experience has also taught her how to use her intuition, which has brought her so much acclaim as an actress.
“I try to go into rehearsals as open as possible to create something at the moment. As I sit down and study the music vocally, some thoughts are born but mainly I focus on the technical parts because I know that will make me feel comfortable when I go to the staging. It will help me be open to what I have to do when I go to rehearsals. So I try not have a fixed picture. But stage-wise, I work very much with intuition and it usually leads to the right direction.”
With little experience in the verismo repertoire, Byström noted that it was important to listen to recordings when preparing the role. One such recording was the iconic Maria Callas performance on DVD.
“I watched a lot of Maria Callas.It is great to have an amazing role model where every gesture means something, but I’m not going to try to do what she does.”
She also admitted that Renata Tebaldi and Leontyne Price were inspirations while she was preparing the role. But there was one that she paid close attention to – Kiri Te Kanawa.
“I listened to Kiri Te Kanawa and I know she wasn’t well-known for it,” Byström explained. “But she was a lyric soprano like me and I wanted to listen to how she negotiated the role.”
For her preparations listening was not just inspiring but also educative as she was able to figure out why certain phrases are done a specific way. This in turn allowed her to get a greater sense of the traditional aspects of interpretation associated with the role.
“In this role, there are so many places where in certain places they just scream it or in others they just say it. And to hear what different people are doing helped me make a decision on what I want to do. For example, as you go along you want to sing all the low notes, but as you study it, you realize why all those sopranos just scream it. It’s all about being heard because it’s not comfortable in the voice,” she explained.
So what excites Byström most about taking on this role? What famed musical passages has she dream of singing in her head, but will finally get to sing with her voice?
“I love singing in the first act. I love how the role is, in fact, dramatic at the beginning but you have the love duet,” she revealed. “I love how that is built and then you come to the dramatic parts. Of course, Act two is amazing but the first act of music, I love singing it. The first act is softer for the voice while the second act is a lot of drama. It’s not so much Bel canto. You have to go up step by step and that is really a big challenge.”
Once the soprano finishes her run of “Tosca,” she has a few months to prepare her next Strauss role. After years of singing such iconic Strauss roles as the Marschallin, Arabella, and Salome, she will take on the Countess in “Capriccio” at the Teatro Real in Madrid.
“The one who talked me into singing ‘Capriccio’ didn’t really have to do much because it’s with Christof Loy, who I admire and love working with,” the soprano explained. “A piece like ‘Capriccio’ is not so easy to pull off and I am excited to do that with him.”
Ever since taking on her first Strauss roles, Byström’s career has gone in numerous directions and her undertaking of “Salome” was something of a revelation for audiences and for her voice. She admits that when she said she was taking on the role there were many who doubted her succeeding. As Byström notes, peopled expected “Der Rosenkavalier” from her lyric soprano but were suspicious about her ability to navigate something far heavier in “Salome.”
“I had people who doubted but that is what makes it exciting. It makes people excited and interested when they don’t believe. You have to take challenges and the question is when you do it and when you go too far.”
After a role like it, the soprano now believes that her stamina as a performer is much stronger and she is up for the unexpected.
“Psychologically I am stronger and glad I did that. My first ‘Salome’ I had a choreographer and we did quite a difficult dance and I was doubting several times I would not be able to sing the end after doing this much dancing,” she revealed. “But in the end, when I did it and did it, I was able to relax and better prepare myself for the end.”
As she prepares “Capriccio,” Byström noted that there are still challenges that come with every Strauss work.
“To learn a Strauss role takes a lot of time regardless and I am so grateful I had those two years in Germany because I speak German. I would die if I had to learn that without speaking the language because it’s so based on the text.”
But what Byström finds the biggest challenge is the vocal line.
“The vocal line doesn’t go up and down as much as I find in Italian music. It stays in a tessitura which is hard and you have to continue to work on that to be able to do it. That is difficult.”
Keeping It Home
Those hoping to catch Byström perform outside of her native Stockholm, might find themselves frustrated. The soprano has decided that family is a major priority in her life and has decided to limit performances outside her home city. She even turned down a few U.S. engagements as a result.
This emphasis on family also influenced Byström’s decision to go with a smaller representative so she could have the freedom to work her schedule around her families.
“I don’t travel all the time like many of my colleagues. I travel half the year so I can be with my family. That is why its good to have my Swedish agency and she allows me to come and sing in Sweden all the time. She respects what I want.”
Her home company, the Royal Swedish Opera has also been instrumental in supporting this career decision.
“I don’t have anything this season at the Royal Swedish Opera. The season after I have something coming up. They have been very good to me because I am a mother and it is essential to be at home for half of the year.”
However, that doesn’t mean Byström doesn’t have performances coming up. In fact, she has a number of concerts, one of which will include a piece dedicated to her by Swedish composer Britta Byström.
The soprano also noted that being home will allow her time to be able to record a CD as well as look ahead to other future roles after “Capriccio.”
Among those future roles she hopes to take on are roles in some of Verdi’s great masterpieces, emphasizing her desire to step deeper into the pool of Italian opera.
“I want to sing Elisabetta in ‘Don Carlo’ and I would love to sing more Desdemona in ‘Otello,’ which I did in Stockholm and I loved it. I would love to show that to other houses.
“And yes, I keep coming back to Verdi because it does great things for my voice,” she added.
But Byström still remains ambitious when it comes to the German repertoire that has nurtured her for so long. In fact, she wants to take some major risks with heavier roles.
“I also want to sing Elizabeth in ‘Tannhauser’ and Elsa in ‘Lohengrin’ as well as a staged ‘Fidelio.’ That would be wonderful,” she concluded.