Q & A: Soprano Regula Mühlemann on Her Passion for Mozart & Baroque, Making Recordings, the COVID LockdownBy Ramon Jacques
(Credit: Guido Werner Photography)
Young Swiss soprano Regula Mühlemann currently has one of the most recognized and celebrated voices for Mozart’s operas, as well as Baroque repertoire.
Already in her short career, she has performed at important international theatres such as La Scala in Milan, La Fenice Theater in Venice, and the opera houses of Zurich, Berlin, and the Salzburg Festival, to name a few. She is also one of the few artists who remain active in recording CDs.
Mühlemann recently spoke to OperaWire about her career, her interests in music, and her recordings.
OperaWire: What made you want to become a singer? Can you talk a little about the beginning of your days as a singer?
Regula Mühlemann: I think a key moment was when I saw Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro” with my godmother at the Zurich Opera House. When I saw the scene in which Barbarina stands all alone on stage with her picnic basket and sings the beautiful Cavatina, I imagined myself on the stage performing the role and knew this was a job I would love to do. I was in the Lucerne Kantorei (Luzerner Kantorei), a choir in the city where I grew up. While in the choir, I often sang solo-parts. I was still a teenager and my teacher at that time motivated me to make more of my singing “hobby” and formally study voice.
OW: Who are the singers from the past or present, conductors, or stage directors who have inspired you?
RM: I had different idols. A different singer for each discipline. I listened to many recordings. For coloratura arias, I always found Edita Gruberova to be the best. For lyrical arias and legato lines I preferred Kiri te Kanawa. For song recitals, I listened to Barbara Bonney. I also liked Kathleen Battle and Edith Mathis, the latter of whom is a great idol of mine and, like me, comes from Lucerne.
OW: What are some important milestones, experiences, and achievements in your career?
RM: My first big step into a career was performing the role Ännchen in the Opera “Der Freischütz” from Carl Maria von Weber. I sang it in a movie with René Pape, Michael Volle, Juliane Banse. Daniel Harding conducted the London Symphony Orchestra for the film. Interestingly, the first classical CD I received (also from my godmother) was “Der Freischütz“ and Edith Mathis was singing the part of Ännchen.
The “Freischütz” movie was my first big job. I was still studying and had this unique chance. This production was a great reference and opened many doors for me. Another important thing was a competition in Switzerland, which I hadn’t won at the time, but a member of the jury was the assistant of the director of the Zurich Opera House. He was so enthusiastic and invited me to Zurich. When the director became the Intendant of the Salzburg Festival, he engaged me there as well six months later.
That was the beginning. The career achievements I am most proud of begin with my contract with Sony Classical. I have recorded four CD’s so far. “Mozart Arias,” “Cleopatra” (an album with baroque arias from Händel and others), “Songs from Home” (Swiss composers and Schubert), and “Mozart Arias II,” which was just released on September 4, 2020. It’s so amazing to have the opportunity to do a recording of whatever you like most at that time.
Singing in all the wonderful opera houses I have been able to perform in is another career achievement for which I am so grateful. One of my first jobs was in a production in Teatro la Fenice in Venice. You can feel the spirit of the ancient days there. I love Italy for that. I sang in San Carlo in Naples, La Scala in Milan, a production in Turin. I have sung in all the beautiful stages in Berlin State Opera, Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, Salzburg, Theater an der Wien, and last February I debuted at the Vienna State Opera as Adina in Donizetti’s “Elisir d’amore.” What a stage!
I have made beautiful concert tours in Barcelona (Plau de la musica), Paris (Philharmonie), the Lucerne Festival, and the Wiener Konzerthaus with Les Arts Florissants and William Christie. The South America tour I did with the Lucerne Festival strings was truly memorable. I remember there was the most amazing concert hall in the south of Chile (Frutillar). In America, I have had concerts in Chicago and Philadelphia. My performance of Haydn’s “The Seasons” in Philadelphia was conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the current musical director of the Metropolitan Opera.
OW: Your voice is your instrument. How do you keep it fit?
RM: Singing is the only way I train my voice. The better I sing, the more precisely I work, the better I become technically. I have not spent many hours in my life with singing exercises, but when I learn new music I try to sing with correct technique from the beginning. Half a year ago, there was a period when I had many concerts. During that time, I sang a lot and noticed that my voice really strengthened. Singing well is my vocal hygiene.
OW: Your repertoire is mostly comprised of roles from Mozart operas and the baroque period. When did you first discover both of these repertoires, and how did they become close to your heart? What was your initial reaction to the music?
RM: I have a very natural approach to Mozart. I don’t think any other composer manages to create such a fitting personality profile as he does. Of course, he worked with excellent librettists, but he put so much into the music. It is clear through the music that there was a true connoisseur of human nature at work.
Every opera role by Mozart (no matter how small) has a clearly defined personality. I find that incredible. This accuracy helps me to imagine situations, relationships, and emotions. I can visualize the role clearly in my mind. It can be experienced. Thus, the musical interpretation is very easy to find. Mozart is “easy“, natural, honest, and I think that’s the reason why Mozart is incredibly hard to sing. If you cheat (in any way—technically, vocally, musically, mentally), everyone can hear it. It’s a wonderful challenge, no matter how many times you have sung an aria. And, it’s fun!
Baroque music is more like Jazz. I find it almost more modern than the classical and romantic periods. It’s a lot of improvisation, the scores are less precise in terms of interpretation, so you have more freedom. Sometimes only a few instruments play along, and it feels like playing with a band. Anyone who gets involved with baroque music knows that it rocks.
OW: Recently you have taken on several new roles—Adina in “Elixir of Love” which you debuted at the Wiener Staatsoper. Which roles do you find most challenging and what kinds of roles give you the most satisfaction?
RM: When I compare the roles I’ve sung so far, I can say that every part has its difficulties and that comedy is easier for me than tragedy. Juliette in Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette” was very challenging because of all the sadness and drama going on. To dive into a sad story without being involved too much is not easy. But with every opera I do, it gets a bit better. Juliette’s “mad scene“ with the poison aria was particularly challenging. Sadness is easier to sing than rage. When performing with rage, you have to take care that you don’t get overwhelmed by your emotions. You have to keep the technical aspect under control.
Adina was fun. But even with Adina there is a tricky aria at the very end. The greatest satisfaction for me comes from performing a variety of repertoire, composers, and roles.
OW: What do you love most about your job? What would you change about your job?
RM: I love the music. I love to make music with others. It’s magic when everything comes together in concerts or opera performances—the process and then the performance with the audience, the exchange of energies and what we create with it. I love traveling—not the travel itself, but I’m very interested in discovering the destinations. It’s a privilege to see all these beautiful places with their concert venues and opera houses.
I don’t like the traveling by itself—the hours you spend on planes and trains. I also don’t like the hotels very much and the fact that in order to travel you have to be away from home and your loved ones. But, to be able to do my job, I have to travel and I have to be away from my home. It’s how it is.
OW: How do you balance your career, managing all the genres of singing that interest you, as well as concerts and recitals that also interest you?
RM: I need to do both concerts and operas, not only for my musical satisfaction but also for my private life. When I do opera, a new production can take up to two months. That means I’m away from home for a long time. When I do a concert, I prepare at home and go to a place for just a couple of days. That makes it much easier to leave. But, I love opera (the acting, costumes, stage), so a combination is perfect for me.
OW: Where do you see yourself professionally in the future? Do you have any dream roles that are not in your repertoire yet?
I have never made plans for my future. I have just worked very hard on my voice, taken every opportunity to perform, and done auditions and competitions. All the rest happened to me as a result of this work. I take what I get and get amazing opportunities nowadays. I can’t wait to see what the future brings.
In terms of roles, I don’t really have a dream role. My dream role is always the one I’m currently singing. I love the intense work on the music, the character, the constellation between the characters, the staging, and the stories. If I had to pick something, I guess I would like to try out more romantic repertory. I will do Gilda in “Rigoletto” in two years. I would like to do more Donizetti and Rossini, but I’ll always be faithful to beloved Mozart.
OW: In your experience, what are the challenges of producing, marketing, and releasing a CD when the industry has become more digital and CDs tend to disappear?
RM: As I just mentioned, I didn’t have dreams about roles or stages on which I wanted to sing. But I always dreamed of having my own CD. I used to be a nerd, listening to all the records and thinking that it would be the very best thing if I could do my own CD one day. And this dream came true.
I choose my CD programs with great care and prepare myself well for the recordings. There’s a lot of personality in a CD. For “Mozart Arias,” I made a playlist with all the soprano arias that exist from Mozart. That was about 23 hours of music. From this, I selected the highlights and made a list of arias I wanted to record when I had a more mature voice than I did in 2015. These arias have now made it to the 2020 “Mozart Aria II” CD recording.
For my album “Cleopatra,” I read countless hours of handwritten notes from the manuscript and tried to find the highlights for my first recording. I did the same amount of work with “Songs from Home.” That CD includes Schubert and songs from Swiss composers that had never been performed or recorded. We discovered and recorded them.
In a time when people are no longer willing to pay for music, it’s getting difficult on all sides. The labels (even the big ones) are dependent on the orchestras bringing along sponsors, because they cannot cover the whole cost of a big production. The orchestras also have difficulties financing themselves. But somehow it always works, because, fortunately, there are also people who have the financial means and support culture. The best thing is that there is a great interest in classical music. That makes me confident that there will always be solutions in the future for such projects. The expensive thing is not the CD, but the production and the recording. Let’s hope that an understanding of the value of recorded music comes back.
OW: How did you spend your time during the COVID-19 lockdown?
RM: I was very busy right before the lockdown. I think it was even the most hard-working time of my life. And then, nothing. That was very good in the beginning. I could spend days of doing nothing at all. And then I started to clean my apartment, every single corner. I organized my scores and everything.
But I didn‘t feel like singing. I learned how to bake sourdough bread. That was hard! But when you succeed, the result is incredibly yummy. I cooked a lot. I felt a bit like a pensioner who has worked a lot and then suddenly has too much time and needs to find a new hobby.
Now, since we in Switzerland are allowed to meet small numbers of people again, I see all my friends who I neglected a bit in the months before. It‘s wonderful. But the other part of me still didn‘t feel like working for hours on the piano. That was scary—why didn‘t I feel like I wanted to practice?
I know now: Because I don‘t really like practicing. It‘s hard work and not always fun. But what I miss so much is making music with others—singers, conductors, pianists, orchestras. That‘s what I love and what I miss and what I’m looking forward to.
OW: What is your expectation or outlook on the world of classical music and opera?
RM: I’m optimistic about the future. I really think people miss going to concerts and opera. When it comes back, people will appreciate it even more. Maybe it’s naive, but it feels good to think this way.
OW: Would you mind sharing an anecdote about something unusual or funny that has happened to you on the stage?
RM: My story is was not particularly funny—more stupid. It was at the Berlin State Opera. I ate an apple. The apple was a prop in the opening scene and after that not used anymore. My mouth was very dry so I asked if I could eat it. After I ate it, I had an allergic reaction. I didn‘t know I had this allergy. Suddenly my throat was swollen and I could hardly breathe. The doctor came and I had to inhale something like cortisone throughout the performance.
Thankfully, they have a doctor in the house during every performance. Right before my second appearance on stage with my second aria, the swelling in my throat started to reduce. It wasn’t quite back to normal, but I was able to sing–although it was a pianiss-issimo version of the aria. What did I learn? Never eat props.