Q & A: Julia Sophie Wagner On Creating ‘Du Bist Die Ruh’ Film & Why Opera Is a Miracle

By Francisco Salazar
(Credit: Cristopher Santos)

Dead branches bend in the wind as the first notes of Schubert’s “Du bist die Ruh” palpitate softly. Suddenly a gentle soprano materializes as we get a birds eye view of soprano Julia Sophie Wagner, in a vibrant red dress, lying in the dark dirt around her, arms outstretched and moving gently up and down.

This is how Wagner’s passion project of the last two years, a film of “Du bist die Ruh” commences. From there it takes the viewer on a similarly gentle and introspective journey that features the soprano in a wide range of environments, the camera and editing subtle and seamless.

The soprano, who is set to appear in major opera houses in 2019-20, including the Oper Leipzig, recently spoke to OperaWire about the journey that was creating this unique work of art.

OperaWire: Tell me about creating this video and why this piece was important?

Julia Sophie Wagner: This video was a joint effort with Marina Matter (a wonderful director), her great team and myself. We’d put our hearts and minds into this and over the course of two years it was completed. “Du bist die Ruh (You are repose)” is, of course, a major beacon of the repertoire and holds significant meaning to most lieder singers – our attempt was to complement visually the many layers of Friedrich Rückert’s poetry and Schubert’s beautiful and fragile composition.

Starting from the line “Treib’ ANDERN Schmerz aus meiner Brust” (drive OTHER pain from my chest), we translated this visually in a dark and sorrowful way – on first glance, the piece can easily be seen as a pure and beautiful love song.

We focused on telling a story of loss; the loss of ones own personality in a toxic relationship, the loss of a loved person or an idealized one. We chose careful visuals, strong enough to convey this message, but not too much as to overpower Schubert’s masterful score. Beautiful, but not turning the song into something saccharine sweet – open enough in interpretation as to give the viewer/listener room for their own thoughts.

OW: What were the challenges of making this video and what did you learn about yourself doing it?

JSW: When we started filming I had only once been part of a film (this is where I met Marina), and my part was basically singing in a concert-like situation. This film gave me the opportunity to explore my acting on camera and to really experiment with closeup emotions, etc.

The experience taught me something about myself – it awakened another artistic expression within me. I really love the medium – it is extremely focused and brings out daring qualities in me. For example, the frozen swamp in the scenes shot with a drone was not safe to walk on. I crawled into my position and then melted a dent into the ice with the back of my head while shooting…

The challenges, while tough, were exhilarating to overcome: the whole team worked equally creatively, there was no hierarchy. We came up with great things that way, but there was also a lot of discussion, especially in the post-production…

OW: You’re performing at the Oregon Bach Festival. What excites you about this festival? What is different about it?

JSW: The Oregon Bach Festival (OBF) holds a special place in my heart, not only because there are first-rate artists to collaborate with and feed off of, but also because it was founded by my mentor, Helmuth Rilling (stepping down in 2012). Rilling is my strongest musical influence, having sung over a hundred concerts with him. This marks my third appearance at OBF – such a beautiful little city and a wonderful festival.

OW: Tell me about the differences in the pieces you are performing and how do you switch so quickly in such a short period?

JSW: The musical diversity of singing music from early baroque to great romantic repertoire and contemporary classical music is what I enjoy most, vocally, emotionally and intellectually. From my early university days, I have always been interested in trying all kinds of different musical styles and I am truly grateful that I’ve managed to stay out of certain boxes over the course of my career. Of course, I sing Bach in a very different way than I sing works by Dvorak or Bruckner or Beethoven, but it seems that finding the right tone and style for each helps me to keep my voice healthy and fresh. The voice is a paintbrush and the exploration and expression of colors is a driving force for me in my career.

I am also driven, unsurprisingly, by artistically interesting programs – this next season, for example, will start with Brahms Requiem (at Rheingau Musikfestival), going on to Honneger “Jeanne d’Arc”, Bach Cantatas, a CD production of Songs by Charles Ives, Peri in Schumann “Paradies und die Peri”, and a program with Bach Arias and commissioned works – all in one month!

OW: You’ll be performing at Oper Leipzig this season. What excites you about working with this company?

JSW: I have been given the incredible honor of debuting a role in a new production by the exciting young director Barbara Horáková Joly – really a singer couldn’t ask for more. While working working on Pamina with Horáková Joly’s vision will be a new experience, I have had the pleasure of working with the Gewandhaus Orchestra many times in concerts with the Thomanerchor and in chamber music concerts, So I am looking forward to working with these wonderful colleagues in the pit (it’s the biggest orchestra in the world with 185 musicians, they play both at the Gewandhaus and at the Opera).

Also, I am very much looking forward to working with the Intendant and chief conductor Prof. Ulf Schirmer – he was the chief conductor of the orchestra that my childhood cello teacher played in, in my hometown of Munich.

OW: In particular, you’ll be doing Pamina. What are the biggest challenges of “The Magic Flute” and what excites you about bringing this character to life?

JSW: Debuting a role as well-known and heard as Pamina is a lifelong dream for me. It is definitely, by far, the role I practiced, studied and thought about the most throughout my singing life.

OW: How do you view the character and what makes her such a complex character in your eyes? How do you view her relationship with the Queen of the Night?

JSW: This is a tough one. Can I write a thesis? In short: one take on the Magic flute in general – the one that I find very plausible – is, that the realm of the QotN is the world of (religious) superstition, and the world of Sarastro is one of intellect and enlightenment. It can, of course, be seen quite critically that there are and are not supposed to be any women in that world, but leaving that issue aside, Pamina is an extremely brave and courageous young woman, who is consciously leaving behind everything that she knows and is familiar with, to follow Tamino and be by his side, fully aware that there will be no possibility to return – once she has gained knowledge, it will be impossible for her to forget what she knows.

The purity of her heart and beauty of her soul, with all her feelings directed towards her mother at first, does not weaken, even after being told to kill Sarastro. She manages to stay just as open and loving, even when she understands the need to turn away from her own mother, entering the world of Sarastro.

OW: You do a lot of lieder and oratorio singing. How does it differ from opera and what do you prefer? Is the transition easy or do you have to adjust when singing opera?

JSW: Choosing one of the three over the other is too much to ask for. Lieder performance provides the ingredients needed for a direct conversation – the intimacy of the voice and piano relationship can translate into an intense bond between performers and audience. Oratorio, especially those by Bach and Mendelssohn, have been what I grew up with from my earliest childhood. Coming back to those works on a regular basis is nourishing for me as an artist and as a human.

Opera, of course, is one great miracle. To have so many people working together from all these different angles, providing their artistry, knowledge, creativity, and skills to create and execute a director’s vision is a marvel. Ultimately though, it all comes back to the voice and remembering that that is the tool to get my message across on all three stages – if I internalize that, then I can communicate my art fluently.


InterviewsStage Spotlight