Q & A: Jacquelyn Wagner on ‘Euryanthe,’ the Pandemic, & ‘Home Music Berlin’

By Francisco Salazar

Jacquelyn Wagner has become synonymous with the works of Mozart, Wagner, Strauss, and Weber.

She has been hailed for her “lovely clean and focused sound” and for her  “vocal command.” A leading soprano in the world, Wagner has performed at some of the leading opera houses including the Paris Opera, the Teatro alla Scala, the Zurich Opera House, the Gran Teatre del Liceu of Barcelona, the Deutsche Oper Berlin, and the Salzburg Festival.

While Wagner has not performed in months due to the pandemic, the soprano recently worked on a concert series entitled Home Music Berlin and a DVD of her recent performance of “Euryanthe” was released.

Wagner spoke with OperaWire about the recent release of “Euryanthe,” the concert series, and her hopes for what happens next in the opera world after the pandemic.

OperaWire: How are you doing in these challenging times?

Jacquelyn Wagner: The pandemic affected me the way it affected all opera singers. All my jobs were canceled from the middle of March to the middle of October. I have a concert in October and the next production I have is not until December. So I have a good nine months off, which is very strange. I understand all the precautions they have to take but it is such a shame that it has to affect our industry so severely. Other industries have also been affected tremendously like the restaurant business. The economy is also affected. But I hope our opera world and culture can actually survive this.

OW: In speaking with many other artists, some have expressed an inability to sing during the lockdown for several reasons. Were you affected in a similar way or did you manage to maintain your normal routine despite the lack of performances?

JW: It has affected me on the negative side because I have lost the motivation. I really like to have a goal and you practice because you have a goal. In the beginning, I was doing great because I knew I needed to learn my first “Eugene Onegin” in Barcelona for the fall but as soon as that was canceled, I questioned whether to continue to learn it. But as time has gone on I have been more motivated because I do need to learn it eventually and it is a complicated role.

But definitely there have been many days where I have not sung a peak which is not normal.

OW: Recently there was a DVD released of Weber’s “Euryanthe.” Tell me about the experience of performing that rare work that is said to be unsingable?

JW: This production was a Christof Loy staging and he went in with a clear idea of what he wanted to do with the piece. I am a big fan of Weber’s work so for me, the language of the music was not unsingable. Maybe they say its unsingable because she has a big range and style. She starts off very lyrical and very quiet and really light. And then as the opera goes on, it gets heavier and heavier until the middle of the opera she has this very dramatic aria that is very big singing. Then she goes back to this very intimate singing. I guess that is why they say that and to be able to sing that very dramatic part, it’s a challenge. Maybe some can do the light part but not the dramatic part and vice versa.

But for me, it fit perfectly because the orchestration is large but not Wagner large. For me, the emotion was really interesting to take that journey with her. I loved how she starts off thinking her life is great and then she goes into such a whirlwind of emotions and loses her love. She is supposed to die at the end but not in this staging. I find it very rewarding to do this piece and just to explore it.

You normally come into an opera and it’s always done a specific way. It was nice to lay a little bit of creative flooring for this opera so maybe for the future, it can be presented and we can show that it is not unsingable. There are so many emotions in it and they say that the text for the libretto is weak. But we all discovered that yes there are some weak moments but there are a lot of weak moments in a lot of librettos. While the story is a bit strange at some points, look at the repertoire and a lot of the works have strange turns. So we got through it really well and we had an amazing time.

OW: You have done “Der Freischütz,” which is Weber’s most popular opera. Can you talk about the similarities and differences between both works?

JW: The difference is that “Der Freischütz” has spoken dialogue. This one is through-composed. There are recitatives and that flow made it different. There was no reason to stop me and that happens a lot with “Der Freischütz.” You have to stop between the numbers and with “Euryanthe” I felt like he had a lot more lyrical feeling. “Der Freischütz” sometimes has a folksy feel to it and that is part of why they like it.

With “Euryanthe” he made it feel like a normal opera. He used different colors. “Der Freischütz” has a lot of darker qualities and he really adds dramatic elements. But for me, he really understood the deeper moments in “Euranythe.”

OW: Weber is rarely performed in the United States. What is his music similar to in terms of repertory pieces audiences are used to hearing?

JW: It’s more directed toward Beethoven and sometimes Brahms. I think it has a “Fidelio” feeling and if you look at “Der Freischütz,” it has a very traditional German feeling. Even the lieder composers have that type of feeling. “Euryanthe” has some of the Schumann style and the musical language he explores is a bit more complex. “Der Freischütz”  is much more straightforward almost like Schubert’s music.

OW: What do you hope people get out of watching the DVD and how do you feel about having this historical document available?

JW: I have to admit that we were all really proud of what we were doing and we made a really big step for Weber and for this piece. We knew that it was going to come out on CD but I felt this shame that you couldn’t see it because the piece is so unknown so to only hear what was going on wouldn’t be as interesting.

But when I heard about the DVD, I was excited. I was excited about the fact that people could actually see and understand the emotions we were going through. Hopefully, we will inspire someone else to do another production because I felt there was so much to explore and I really hope that someone else wants to undertake that piece or even take the Loy production, which is such a masterpiece.

OW: What was your experience of working at the famed Theater an der Wien?

JW: The Theater an der Wien is a phenomenal theater and it is very unique because it is not a fest theater like the Wiener Staatsoper or any other German houses I have worked in. In this case, there is a small number of people that are fixed at the house and they have a yearly contract. Most of them including pianists and the choir are on a freelance basis. That differs because they have a level of dedication and the feeling of how they work. Many times there are fixed ensembles and they love their jobs. But sometimes the danger is that people have this attitude that they have to go to their 8 to 5 and it builds a routine.

At the Theater an der Wien, you have so many people excited to be there and they would sing their hearts out every day. It was very refreshing and different from other places. You really wanted to appreciate every moment of it. It was special.

OW: During the Lockdown, you were part of the “Home Music Berlin” series. Tell me about your experience working on this series?

JW: The person who organized it was Jan Schmidt-Garre, who is a very well known film producer and he produces various documentaries. I met him when I was still in school at Manhattan School of Music because he was attempting to make a film version of “Così fan tutte” and unfortunately they did not get the funding they needed but we stayed in contact through the years.

I did my first “Fidelio” with him in St. Gallen a few years ago. He now lives in Berlin and he contacted me and said, “I’ve been very disappointed of people setting up iPhones and trying to give music to the public. I find it good but such a shame that their material is such poor quality.” He said that being a film person, he had access to good quality cameras and microphones so he found sponsors through Naxos, the production company, and found a space through a friend of his and it is a place where they have art exhibitions in the middle of Berlin. There he set up his space and found a few cameramen that wanted to take the risk and that is how he started a series of concerts and gave artists a chance to show what they could really do as opposed to relying on iPhones and iPads.

It was nervewracking because you generally sing for an audience and you get a feeling for them. In this case, we did not have one and there were only two or three people who were there to watch us besides the cameramen so that feeling was nervewracking. You know there are people on the other side of the camera who are listening but you don’t know if they are liking or enjoying it or what is going on. But as we got into it we got a little more into the recording and I found it very rewarding by the end of it. It is such a strange and unique moment in history and this is something we will talk about for the next 100 years. To be part of this project was really wonderful and he is trying to make a DVD to preserve this moment in time.

OW: You sang the Wesenedock lieder and the Mahler’s “Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen.” Why did you select those specific works?

JW: Jan programmed the music and he is quite clever in the way he does that. He found a great movement from a Mahler symphony that was arranged for piano and he thought it would be good to program the Mahler and Wagner with it. He had heard me sing it before with Chamber orchestra so he knew I had it in my repertoire and it wasn’t something new. He loved it then and he wanted me to do it with piano.

He finds that Mahler and Wagner go well hand in hand and I think they compliment each other nicely. He also wanted two pieces about love and hope. Hope within death of a relationship or someone. It is appropriate within the time we are living in.

OW: You spoke about the nerves you got while filming the pieces. Does singing for a camera differ from singing for an audience?

JW: For me it did. You are used to getting on stage and there is a way you can just focus on what you doing or the stage. And there are those times when you know there is a huge audience and you know they want to be there and listen to you, so it’s really exciting to share what you can give to them.

But when you don’t have anyone except for four guys standing behind a camera and going I don’t know how this is coming across, you always ask yourself “if it is working.” That part of not feeling the audience is nervewracking. I don’t communicate through cameras. I communicate with human beings and that makes a huge difference. I didn’t expect to have nerves but after we got through it, I realized those differences.

OW: Have you seen the performance?

JW: I have not. I don’t really like to do that unless I need to critique it. Next time I touch the Wesendock, I will go back to see what I can do better because it is a good learning tool. But we were able to go back and do a few little corrections because like I said, he wants to make it into a film eventually so anything we didn’t feel was great, we rerecorded.

OW: This year was also the first time you did a baroque opera. Tell me about that experience and what you learned from doing “Alcina?”

JW: At the beginning, I was unsure about how I had to approach it because I don’t sing that much Italian. I would love to sing more Italian but I always get cast into the German repertoire, which is fine and which I love. So when I first started, I figured I had to approach it as a real Mozart feel or heavier feel. But when I kept going, I realized that I was allowed to take more risks doing more pianos. I was also able to continue to sing the way I usually do. The difference is that in this music, you don’t need to use as much power. We also had a baroque orchestra which meant their volume level was not the same.

As we continued through the rehearsal period singing this work got so liberating. You could do different ornamentations here and there and I am used to singing what’s on the page. That freedom and knowing you could take a lot of risks with the dynamics was so amazing. It was also Axel Kober’s first experience with baroque music and that was a lot of fun and he was also excited to take those risks.

OW: Alcina is such an iconic role and there are many arias. How did you feel doing so many solos in one show?

JW: It was kind of exciting because in most Mozart operas we do, we only get one to two arias or solos. In this case, there were no ensembles and just arias. It took a little to realize that all the responsibility was on me. I found it so wonderful because each aria was so different and it communicated in showing who she was and that she wasn’t exactly this manipulative witch of a woman but a very a vulnerable and hurt woman. She is evil but you find out the reasons in each of her arias and I thought it was so fun and something that I don’t get to do every day.

OW: After having this experience, would you be interested in more baroque operas?

JW: I would love to do “Alcina” again and maybe one or two other Handel operas. That would be fun but I do not think it will become my big repertoire. Having it once in a while and doing something totally different would be amazing. I love to do Italian work when I get a chance. I love singing Puccini and Verdi and it’s quite different from Handel. The Italian language is always fun to sing but to have that Handel in my repertoire would be very rewarding.

OW: Your repertoire is centered on German works. Was that something you always knew you would do or did you discover it along the way?

JW: I studied with the same teacher throughout my high school and college years and she was a dramatic voice and knew a lot of the dramatic German repertoire. She was always about singing with your natural voice and not manipulating it or trying to make it smaller or bigger. She wanted to form the voice as purely as possible. I remember when I got into college, she said that she thought my voice was going to handle the German repertoire best. She encouraged me to do it and in a way, the German repertoire fits my personality and my voice really well. Now that I speak the language, I enjoy the music and really understand everything I sing much more. It didn’t come from one day to the next but it just worked.

OW: With so much uncertainty in the coming months, what are you looking forward to once the pandemic passes?

JW: The thing I am looking forward to is what the relationship between the people on stage and the audience will be like. I think there is going to be renewed excitement for people to want to be there. It’s not going to be about getting back to our daily grinds. I am looking forward to a new experience and I think people are missing the theater. If it was a month or two, it wouldn’t be such a big deal. But its been months and I think we won’t take it for granted I hope.

I hope people are excited about live performance and find a new reason for singing. I am really excited to get back on the stage.


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