Mastering German Repertoire – Anne Schwanewilms On Strauss, Wagner & Preferring Recitals To OperasBy Francisco Salazar
Anne Schwanewilms is no stranger to the opera world. She is one of the most in-demand sopranos in the lieder repertoire and she has specialized in the challenging work of Richard Strauss, performing in every major theater around the world.
However, she has rarely appeared in the United States and since her debut at the Bayreuth, she has not returned.
This season some of that will change. While she is changing many aspects of her career, this year marks her return to some of the most important cultural centers in the world.
Back in 2013, Schwanewilms made her Metropolitan Opera House debut as the Kaiserin in Strauss’ “Die Frau Ohne Schatten.” It was a fairly new role for her as the only production she had sung in Salzburg diverged from the original libretto.
“The stage director made the decision to tell a story within a story. So, the ‘Frau Ohne Schatten’ wasn’t told the way it should be. He put another story over it. Nowadays we want to see everything and how can you show a woman without a shadow. That is what he said to us. And I agreed to it,” she told OperaWire in an exclusive interview.
The experience made her her think that perhaps it was the only way to do the opera. However, Schwanewilms was in for a surprise when she arrived in New York and saw Herbert Wernicke’s 2003 production. The production is regarded as one of the greatest accomplishments at the Metropolitan Opera despite only being revived once.
“When I came to New York, it was breathtaking. I couldn’t believe it. The stage in New York is so huge and Wernicke used the whole thing,” she enthused. “It was three dimensional. In Europe that does not exist. In New York, it’s three times as big. It was a miracle. It worked perfectly and the story was told perfectly by this staging.”
Schwanewilms obtained great reviews for her work in the production but more engagements did not follow.
Instead, New York audiences have had to wait four years to finally see the soprano again.
On Easter Sunday, Schwanewilms returned to Lincoln Center for her recital debut to perform works from Strauss and Wolf.
In many ways, this debut was simpler for her. While it was not in grand opera, the recital hall is where she feels most comfortable because it is where she can get the most out music.
“It’s different from the opera stage. You can’t put them together. On stage, you are part of a big production. The orchestra, the conductor, the stage director, colleagues and it’s all important. And it comes together for one performance,” she noted. “In recitals, it’s my vocal home. It’s only between me and the piano player. You go through pictures, feelings, temperatures, everything to make the music alive. From song to song you are the painter. I love it.”
The soprano will also give a recital in Washington, where she returns for the second time.
The Opera Stage
While she prefers recitals, Schwanewilms does love singing opera and she continues to perform it around the world. Over the years, she has become recognized for her Strauss interpretations in “Der Rosenkavalier,” “Arabella” and “Ariadne Auf Naxos.” And Schwanewilms credits the vocal writing.
“Strauss wrote for voices who could sing high and long phrases and I can do that. Wagnerian singers are different. They have a wide voice in the middle part and power,” she explained. “I have some power but not as much as they usually do for big houses. I can sing Elisabeth [in ‘Tannhauser’] and Elsa [in ‘Lohengrin’] because they don’t have so much but for instance, Isolde or Elektra, they are big stuff and they are always in the middle range and you must come over the orchestra. My voice gets its quality in the high range and Strauss offers me many possibilities to sing in long ways. I have air for more than four or five bars.”
“For example, Die Kaiserin I can show my full range. It has a deep range but at the same time high notes.”
But Schwanewilns loves more than just Strauss’ music. She is also madly in love with his characters.
“I like to act and find colors for these kinds of characters. Ariadne is lovely. She is strange and a little bit all over the world. She is flying somewhere but not on earth. Arabella is lovely to play and to act. I can’t say I won’t sing this anymore. I would be sad to give up one of those roles. In every role, there is something I can play which is not only my character. I can find different colors.”
But singing too much of this repertoire is not always healthy. The orchestras are huge and the operas are often long. Many singers who over-sing Strauss can easily burn out quickly.
Schwanewilms, who has been singing it for years, knows that pacing and knowing your voice is key.
“You need special vocal training to clear the voice. You never have to do it after a recital because I am never pushed to give too much. The piano is always with me. It’s never too loud. With a big orchestra, you have to come over the orchestra. It’s different every time and it’s a different exercise. You have to train your voice differently.”
Rest is also important. For example, Schwanewilms is adamant about not going to performances on her days off. She prefers going outdoors and exploring the cities she’s visiting.
“I go to the park. I like to see museums or do nothing or learn a new role or prepare other stuff. I always have something to do but privacy means also privacy for my eyes and ears. It’s important for me. To enjoy life means to calm down. Then you can grow again.”
Taking Things Easier
In recent years, Schwanewilms has started to scale back on the number of operas she sings. One of the driving reasons for this shift in her career? Spending more time with her husband.
“I enjoy my private life now more than years ago because nowadays my husband travels with me. I didn’t get the feeling that I missed it but after a while, my husband asked when I would come back. So I scaled back. Time is passing too fast and I want to live now. I try to pull it all together. Sometimes it’s not possible but it’s not impossible.”
And scaling back means singing closer to home, as is the case this summer when she returns to Bayreuth for the first time since 1998.
“In Bayreuth, I start my first day of rehearsals on June 6 and the last performance will be at the beginning of August. It’s a long time but Bayreuth is not far from my home. So, there are no difficulties there. But New York or transatlantic countries, you are far away from home. And two months, it gets lonely. Of course, this has been a big change in the last years because my husband is always coming with me.”
The return to Bayreuth also marks her first time singing a major role at the legendary house. She will perform Eva in “Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg,” a role she refers to as lyrical for Wagner.
When she first sang in the theater in 1996 to 1998, it was only minor roles and it was the start of her career.
Now the challenge is different but the soprano is excited to return to the iconic theater.
“To sing there is a special experience and the acoustic is brilliant,” she enthused. “You can scoop with your fingers and you’ll hear it. Every corner is fantastic. Wagner had this idea. He always used this big orchestra because he wanted to have this possibility of a big sound but he knew he could not use it all the time. I think in other theaters where the orchestra is in the pit and not covered the acoustics can be very loud.
“And Wagner knew that. He always planned to build his house and he did. When you are on stage you know what he wanted to create. It’s like driving a Maserati where you have so much power but you don’t use it. But you can still use it. And it’s a sexy feeling. You hear everything. You feel it in your body and you feel the orchestra even though you can’t see the orchestra. In fact, you can only see the head of the orchestra, which can be funny sometimes.”
When Schwanewilms prepares a role, she always assesses each aspect of it. For example, she knows that Eva is a lighter Wagner role and that means she has more freedom.
“There are lighter Wagnerian roles like Elsa and Elizabeth, which I sing. But I don’t sing the dramatic roles. For those, you must use your chest voice which I rarely use because then you lose your nice high range, which, of course, I don’t want to lose. “
When learning a new work, the soprano immerses herself in the world of the story she is portraying, with reading at the forefront of everything.
“It’s not only singing. I am reading books. History books about the composer, about the history of the time and plays. It’s not only learning a role, it’s about understanding the time.”
The soprano creates an ample period of time to learn a role to avoid one thing she absolutely abhors.
“I started Eva already because I had so much to do and in the beginning of the year, I knew I had to start much earlier with less stress. I hate stress.”
She also dislikes listening to recordings when she’s learning a new role.
“Sometimes I’m interested. Sometimes not. Sometimes I can find answers. For instance, some songs when I have difficulties polishing them, I need some examples from colleagues to see how they did it. It gives me help. It’s like a discussion to see what the colleague thinks about the song. It can be a big help but sometimes not.”
Looking back at her career, Schwanewilms doesn’t regret anything but she does wish she could have been able to sing more Italian.
“At the beginning, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a singer. I didn’t know what an opera singer was. So, I grew in this job. I felt after a short while that it’s not a job but a profession. It gave me the possibility to open my soul and find myself. So, it’s a gift. I feel a responsibility for it. But my name is Schwanewilms and I look German so I look like Elsa. It’s different to sing in Italian. I would have liked in the past to sing more Italian repertoire. But I sang Desdemona, so I’m lucky.”
And despite having a lengthy trajectory, Schwanewilms is not done exploring. “Elektra” is out of the question, but there is still one role she is dying to take on: Isolde in Wagner’s “Tristan Und Isolde.”
“I do want to sing Isolde. This is the dream and the first act is filled with so much sad music that in the end is released. This development is amazing and to play it is a gift. It will be for the future.”