Q & A: Elsa Dreisig on ‘Così Fan Tutte,’ COVID-19, the Salzburg Festival & Her Rising Star StatusBy Ona Jarmalavičiūtė
Earlier this season, rising star soprano Elsa Dreisig was set to make her role debut as Fiordiligi in “Cosi Fan Tutte” in Berlin. However, as was the case with most plans in 2020, COVID-19 canceled out that possibility.
For the time being, it seemed that that auspicious debut would have to wait.
But as fate would have it, Dreisig, a first prize winner of the 2016 Operalia Competition, would get the opportunity to sing her first Fioridiligi in 2020 after all.
The catalyst for this opportunity was the Salzburg Festival, which had decided to move forward with a revised 2020 edition that featured the famed Mozart and Da Ponte opera.
Dreisig, who is also a beneficiary of the Liz Mohn Culture and Music Foundation at the Staatsoper Berlin’s International Opera Studio, recently spoke with OperaWire about her rehearsal process for “Così Fan Tutte,” the pandemic, her approach to Fiordiligi, and her career as an opera singer.
OperaWire: A few months ago the “Cosi Fan Tutte” production didn‘t exist. How did you become part of it?
Elsa Dreisig: For me, it was a huge surprise. It was “like the sun in the sky after a rainy day.” I had many cancelations and I was supposed to make my debut as Fiordiligi at the Staatsoper Berlin. But it was canceled. We were in the middle of rehearsals in March when everything suddenly stopped. I wanted to sing the role, so when I got the call from the Salzburg Festival, it felt unreal. I was offered a chance to debut the role that I had already prepared but had never sung on stage. They called me in the middle of June and then from the beginning of July, we were rehearsing. And what a nice way to make my opera debut at the festival with Fiordiligi!
OW: Was it stressful to refresh the role in two weeks?
ED: Yes, but I felt way more joy and enthusiasm than stress. I was happy to take a break in the spring and now I want to be back on stage. So the joy overshadows all fears.
OW: What was it like to rehearse the opera in quarantine conditions?
ED: The festival’s safety plan works well. There are three groups; soloists, conductor, orchestra, choir, and director – we are all in the same red group. During rehearsals, this group is acting, touching, speaking to each other closely and there are no restrictions. But, outside of rehearsals, we have to be even more careful and we are being tested regularly. Then there is the orange group that wears masks and does not get close to each other. If they do, they have to write it down in a notebook. And lastly, there is a yellow group of people that do not have direct contact with people as much as possible. So the system is clear and it makes me feel safe. My only stress is that they do not cancel the production due to the virus. That would be terrible for me and the other singers since it is such a wonderful production and we are so happy to be a part of it.
OW: I’ve heard that the same system will be applied to other theaters so they can start working earlier. Do you know if that will happen?
ED: I think it’s really important that Salzburg had the courage to run the festival this year. They‘ve shown that it is possible and that culture is necessary at this time. Theaters, opera houses, and concerts have to go on without waiting for the virus to be completely under control. This might be a problem we are going to deal with again in the future. During this time culture is dying and Salzburg is showing us what is possible. Of course, everyone is being responsible, wearing masks when in a grocery store, and avoiding crowded places. I hope it will work.
OW: Would you say that the relationship with the audience changes due to all the restrictions?
ED: No, of course not. There will be fewer audience members and people will be more shy and distant. The energy could be a bit different but for us, singers, it will be the same.
OW: What is most important for you in the environment while rehearsing and performing?
ED: For me, the most important thing is to have colleagues, a director, and a conductor who feel as motivated as you are. I also want to be challenged because I don’t like a mediocre environment where people come with low energy and only care about earning money. Then I feel diminished and I have less energy. So I put my all in every performance because I want to feel that I have bettered myself in some way.
OW: Do you feel like it was a challenge for you to sing Mozart in Salzburg?
ED: Of course “Cosi Fan Tutte” is challenging. From the moment you are on stage, you are naked. You are in a position where everyone can criticize you, and you need to prove who you are. It doesn‘t matter if it is Puccini, Strauss, Mozart, Vivaldi, or Rossini, the pressure is all the same. But it is truly beautiful that I am making my opera debut in Salzburg in Mozart’s music.
I am not stressed about the audience because I think they want to love you. They want to see something true on stage, so my role isn’t to care about whether I will be liked but how I can present the most truthful version of Fiordiligi.
OW: How do you see Fiordiligi and what do you want to bring to the character?
ED: I am very lucky to be working with Christof Loy. He has a very intelligent mind and we share a similar view of Fiordiligi. I can only respect the character I play when I know she is clever. She can be bad, do horrible things but it has nothing to do with her morality. I have to know that she is not dumb and I respect Fiordiligi as a real woman. She is not just a capricious girl. She changes during the opera, because of what happens to her. Her lover leaves, a new guy arrives, and she is pressured by other people. She is not superficial and I can go through changes on stage with her. I can be loving, annoying, proud, heartbroken, shocked, and many other things. She is simply an exciting and very complete character.
OW: It seems that there is a lot to discover before performing a role. Do you feel that during this process you learn more about yourself?
ED: I learn a lot about myself artistically. Playing Fiordiligi, I am learning how to act like this woman and trying to stay present on stage. I observe and listen to what is happening. In this opera, the interactions between different characters are the most important element. So I am always listening and learning from others. Music makes me grow, but it is more about an artistic search than about escaping or discovering myself.
OW: Joana Mallwitz is the first female conductor to be conducting at the festival. What was it like to work with her?
ED: She was here from the beginning of every rehearsal. That is important because some conductors only show up a few days before stage rehearsals and you have no real connection with them. She is so precise in what she wants and she knows the score well, so it’s inspiring to work with her.
OW: You come to singing from the theater. How much attention do you put on acting in opera?
ED: Acting and singing complement each other. When I am expressing myself on stage, I am the character I’m playing. I am usually inspired and act the way I feel is right. Then my voice just follows. And when I don’t know what to do on stage, you can hear the uncertainty in my singing. So generally, with some technical exceptions, acting helps singing. It gives you energy and you feel full of emotion.
OW: I imagine that acting in opera is different from theater. Are there moments when the music and what you want to express are not aligned?
ED: When the director is good, it aways aligns. That’s why I like working with Christof Loy. He never goes against the music. You have to remember that the composer wrote the music thoughtfully. Mozart wrote the music to the story and the director has to be honest with the music and libretto. You can challenge it but you should listen to it. For example, when you know the character is angry, but Mozart wrote piano, that means it has to be quiet, but still intense. The composer was precise in how he wrote the characters and the story and after you understand it, you have the power to interpret it in different ways. I will try to do Fiordiligi differently, but for a start, I can say that she is clever.
OW: How much importance do you put on previous interpretations of the character and do you have an interpretation that you aspire to as Fiordiligi?
OW: I am still searching for my favorite interpretation. There are a lot of great singers who sang her and I admire and respect them. I like their singing or acting, but usually not both. So I don’t feel close to their interpretations. Right now I am finding more inspiration in movies and books. I also find it in singers who haven’t even done the role.
OW: Which performances from Salzburg’s 100-year history have most inspired you? Is there a performance you would like to go back to and be a part of?
ED: That is difficult to answer. Of course, I’ve seen “La Traviata” with Anna Netrebko. She did something unique there. She is a very beautiful powerful woman with so much energy on stage. At that moment what she did was very inspiring. Of course, there are so many Mozart operas productions in Salzburg that I admire. One of my dreams would be to the 2019 “Salome.” That role in that staging is incredible.
OW: You mentioned that there is no link between a person’s popularity and artistic excellence. How do you handle your popularity?
ED: I know everybody is trying to do their best, but some singers are working much harder to be popular. They post great pictures, videos, and masterclasses. Popularity is their priority, but not mine.
Social media is a must now. After my first recording, the label told me that I couldn’t make a career without it. The reality is that if you are not visible enough, you have fewer chances of professional success. Since I want to have a career, I take this seriously. But sometimes, I don’t share anything on social media for weeks! My first concern is singing, preparing roles, and working on my technique. I think I will never feel that I am finished learning and that I am ready for something professionally. Every time, it‘s new and I am naked again. Every performance is stressful and demanding. But I will never feel that I have reached my goal even if I am now an established singer. The learning process is neverending and I still have so many questions about technique, acting, and new roles. I never feel sure about what I am doing.
OW: Do you have mentors that you trust with all your questions?
ED: I have a vocal teacher and a dramaturg who help me with acting and interpretation. We read the librettos together and find all the details I would have never found by myself. So she is really important to my growth as an artist. I also have friends and colleagues that I go to for advice and inspiration. I learn a lot from other artists I admire, singers, painters, and writers. I love reading their biographies. So I feel lucky to be surrounded by the right people who support me and I can also be independent and count on myself.
OW: It seems that being an opera singer in the 21st century is evolving into something new. How do you see it from your perspective?
ED: I don’t have a perspective because I am in it and I am living the life of an opera singer. The woman behind all the characters is the same, Elsa. I am in love with singing and being on stage. I love singing opera, concerts, and Lieder. I would love to do theater at some point. That’s why I have no idea what a singer’s life is because it’s my life.
There is an element in the 21st century that I feel has changed. People can approach us directly via social media. There is direct contact and I do take my time to respond to personal messages and answer questions they have. Before you couldn’t just have a conversation with Maria Callas. You had to be a friend or a journalist or work in opera. Now singers are more accessible. Sometimes it creates a false impression that opera is for everyone. But in reality, it’s a very demanding profession that requires you to give your all. It’s a lifestyle and with the open accessibility, that is not protected.
OW: Do you believe singers should explain operas to audiences?
ED: I think today everyone wants everything to be easy, fast, understandable, and not complicated. People form their opinions from two sentences that they read and sometimes when they go to the opera, audiences want to understand it without making an effort. I am against that. Culture is not only for educated people. “Cosi Fan Tutte” can be your first opera. But you have to be curious, make an effort, and stay connected for a few hours. You have to be open and sensitive and allow opera to take you to places that you have never been before or that you were not expecting to. You need to allow opera to change you.
But the audience is not the problem. Sometimes I understand why people don’t want to go to the opera. The musicians are usually good, but the stagings sometimes don’t respect the works. Opera directors feel that they have to entertain audiences like a TV show. They feel like they have to make people laugh or applaud every five minutes. I don’t want to be entertained by opera, I want to be changed. So you have to trust yourself that if it’s boring, it is not good. I get bored in operas and I leave after the first act. I know sometimes people think that if opera is boring, it is clever and they just don’t understand it. That is not the case.
I think it is important to know that opera is a difficult artform. People sing foreign languages and there is a lot to follow. It is not always easy to understand from the first experience. Opera is a process and sometimes you have to listen to it a few times before you start feeling its magic. When I first heard “Cosi Fan Tutte,” I thought it was good, but today I know it’s extraordinary! And that is because I have listened to it many times. It takes effort even for a singer to understand opera! So I think it is completely understandable for an audience member not to comprehend at the beginning. But it’s important to stay curious.
OW: You grew up in a Musical family. Were there elements that surprised you once you started working as an opera singer?
ED: No, I knew precisely what it was going to be like. I know what it was to be stressed before a concert, because I was there, helping my mother prepare. I did her hair and held her dress before going on stage. She told me not to pursue this career because it is too difficult and dangerous. But I didn’t care, because I knew I couldn’t live differently. Of course, life is full of surprises, but I’ve never said, “wow, is this the life I am living?” I know what it is. I know that this is a harsh world, that women have a hard time, and that after 40, you are too old for your job. Still, I feel that I made the right decision in becoming a singer. I have work for the next years and I am not stressed about future jobs. I will take on that challenge and I already know what I will be doing at 40, so that theaters and audiences will still want to see me.
OW: What would you say is the key element that helps you succeed in this lifestyle?
ED: Intelligence. I think it is important to work on yourself and become a complete human being. I have been in psychotherapy for five to six years now and it gives me a lot of strength and helps me express myself on stage, with colleagues, in interviews, and everyday life. I think it is dangerous for a musician to focus solely on singing. We meet different people and experience all sorts of situations. There is so much that we have no power over. We will make mistakes but working on ourselves is very important. You have to be aware of who you are, where you came from, and who you want to be. I feel like I am growing every day.
I am also very joyful because I have the life I always dreamt of. I work with amazing people that help me better myself. I have my lazy days, but I know my life is an adventure filled with new challenges. That truly makes my life very interesting and joyful.