Q & A: Sara-Maria Saalmann on Her Love of Singing & Managing a Successful Career in the Competitive World Of OperaBy Alan Neilson
(Photo: Frank Wartenberg)
Last December OperaWire reviewed an impressive production of Vivaldi’s “La Fida Ninfa” at the repertory theatre in Regensburg. In the central role of Morastro was the young German-Spanish soprano Sara-Maria Saalmann, whose performance was dramatically intense, but beautifully sung.
Working for a repertory company often means a heavy and varied schedule, yet Saalmann is still keen to supplement her work with other concerts and performances. In December alone she sang in productions of “La Fida Ninfa, ” Handel’s “Messiah,” Weber’s “Der Freishutz,” Hummels’s “Ludwig II” and a Christmas Concert, along with numerous rehearsals.
January continued at the same pace, kicking off with four concerts of zarzuela arias. All of which puts her onto a fast learning curve, one of which she is determined to take full advantage. And the rewards are starting to come with increasing rapidity. In 2017 she reached the finals of the prestigious Cesti competition in Innsbruck, as a result of which she was asked to return the following year to perform the title role in Cavalli’s opera “Gli Amori d’Apollo e di Dafne, and then more recently she received the Bayerischer Kunstförderpreis, awarded by the Bavarian State to artists who have displayed outstanding potential. The future appears to be bright for the versatile Saalmann.
OperaWire spoke to Saalmann about a wide range of topics, with her commitment and enthusiasm for opera and for her love of singing dominating the conversation.
OperaWire: What was it that made you want to become an opera singer, and how did you find your way into the profession?
Sara-Maria Saalmann: For almost as long as I can remember I always wanted to be an opera singer. My parents loved music and they used to encourage me to listen to all kinds of music, but opera was the one I got most excited about. We went to concerts together and watched opera on TV. When I was six years old, I started singing and was soon performing on stage. At the age of nine, I joined the children’s choir at the Hamburg State Opera. Later, I became a member of the Young Artists Opera Academy, where I had lessons every week, and spent most of my time there, when I was not at school. It was something I wanted to do, my parents did not push me into it, but they were very supportive, and have remained so ever since.
When I was ten years old the Hamburg State Opera founded “Opera Piccola,” in which talented children took the main roles in operas, with adult singers helping out in minor roles. I performed an opera there every one or two years. So, from a young age I have been used to performing in operas. The teachers were great, they showed us how to behave on stage, how to work together with other singers and actors. I became familiar with professional singers, who gave us a lot of advice. It was so inspiring. My first adult role came ten years later in Valtinoni‘s ”Snowqueen.”
This May I will be performing the role of Maria in “The Sound of Music,” which will be a great opportunity for me to share my experience and knowledge with the seven children playing the Von Trapp children. I am really looking forward to it, I really hope I can inspire them in the same way I was inspired.
OW: What formal teaching did you receive?
SMS: I began my studies at the conservatory in Hamburg with Turid Karlsen. At that time, she was perfect for me, so when she moved to the conservatory in Stuttgart I decided to follow her. She was an amazing singer and I really wanted to learn, everything I could from her. Although I now work with new teachers, I still see her from time to time to check on my progress. At the moment I work mainly with Maarten Koningsberger in Amsterdam. He is a singer with great technique, and he is able to fix things in an hour which I have been working on alone for weeks. I’m also working with Efrat Ben-Nun, who was recommended to me by the great coach Jeffrey Francis. She lives in Tel Aviv and her influence has been essential to my development. As I started singing when I was very young I have had to alter my technique because my body and my voice have changed. I don’t want to lose the natural quality of my voice, but of course I need to sing with a different technique now, to cope with the change to my voice. I have different teachers to develop and improve different aspects of my vocal and technical skills.
OW: How would you describe your relationship with your voice?
SMS: I have a two-way relationship with my voice. Sometimes, it tells me to do certain things. When my voice is happy, I’m happy too. If I try to do something which is not good for my voice, it lets me know immediately. My voice is a part of me, it is related to the flow of air through my body. It is not something, I can force. It must be related to what I am doing. It must have freedom, but with a purpose. It is connected for example to the reality of the role, the situation of a scene or to the musical movement. The voice responds to a purpose. It is a natural relationship.
For a soprano, I have a good lower and middle register, which I think has to do with the Spanish side of my origins and the Spanish language, and it is something I want to keep. My voice is flexible, I can do many things without any problems. The very high register still is developing and needs some more work, which I think is natural for my kind of voice, but I don’t want to force it. I want it to develop naturally.
OW: You have had a lot of success in singing baroque roles. Would you classify yourself as a baroque specialist?
SMS: Actually, I made my debut on the main stage of the Hamburg State Opera in Händel’s “Almira” in the role of Tabarco. The conductor was Alessandro De Marchi. It was absolutely great to work with him, he was always available to answer my questions on how to do this, or do to that; he was immensely helpful, and I loved the experience to work with him.
I find, that I am able connect to baroque music instantly. My heart is there. There is a certain way of performing and listening to baroque opera, and if it is done right, the public are also able to connect to it. It addresses something that is bigger than the singer or the music or the performance. I love singing baroque; it grounds me and it’s very healthy for my voice. I already have some knowledge and experience with baroque music, but I wouldn’t classify myself as a baroque specialist yet. I’m adding two more roles to my baroque repertoire, so maybe I’m on the way to becoming a baroque specialist.
But being a member of the ensemble here in Regensburg, I sing many different styles, such as contemporary opera, operetta and musicals, and it is actually difficult to choose my favorite genre or style. I’m simply happy to sing any good music, which suits my voice, although I admit that I love Zarzuela. I have just sung a few zarzuela songs at the New Year Concert, as well as at a benefit concert for the José Carreras Foundation, alongside KS Peter Seiffert, violinist Lidia Baich and the wonderful Kirstin Okerlund on piano. I really love Zarzuela, and would love to talk to Plácido Domingo about Zarzuelas, and to learn about it from him.
OW: You mentioned contemporary opera, and recently you sang in the world premiere of “Die Banalität der Liebe” by Ella Sheriff in which you played the young Hannah Arendt. How was that experience?
SMS: Absolutely stunning! Because Ella Sheriff’s music was perfect for my voice and also, because she was very happy with me: she said, that when composing the piece, she had a voice in her head, that sounded like mine. It was a perfect fit.
It is a very intense piece, in which the music is intimately connected to the drama, and I like that. Director Itay Tiran is an actor, and it was great to work with him. He wasn’t interested in scratching the surface, we had to delve deeply into our parts and situations. The plot was about Hannah Arendt’s relationship with the philosopher Martin Heidegger, who supported Nazi ideas. Hannah, who was Jewish, was addicted to Heidegger and their relationship became toxic. The music was so sensitively written, and it opened up so many thoughts. I would love to perform this part again. Also, I want to perform more contemporary opera, which I will do for sure, because Theater Regensburg schedules a contemporary opera every season.
OW: Regensburg is a provincial repertory theater. What made you want to base yourself here, away from the main centers?
SMS: It was fate. A couple of years ago I visited my uncle, who lives in Regensburg and I instantly fell in love with the city. Then, a few weeks later my agent Jolanta Nicolai asked me if I could jump in for a production of Bach’s “Mass in B minor” in Regensburg. I went for an audition and luckily they liked me so much that besides the Bach, they offered me the part of Hannah Arendt and then a few days later a resident contract. Obviously, I jumped at the chance and I am really happy living here and performing in the theater, which may be provincial, but the quality of its productions are excellent and the programming is so interesting, and includes so many rare operas like “Una Cosa Rara” by Martin y Soler, which catches a lot of press attention.
The theater is very supportive, and tries to find suitable parts for me, and genuinely interested in my development, so if an opportunity for a concert or a part in another theater comes along, they try to make it possible.
OW: You have just been awarded the Bayerischer Kunstförderpreis. What does this mean to you?
SMS: The Bavarian State gives bursary to young artists in many different fields of the arts, such as music, drama, dance and singing who have shown potential. It was a great honor to receive the award and it was great to feel appreciated, especially since the Bavarian minister of culture Bernd Sibler came to Regensburg to present it personally, because I was unable to attend the award ceremony in Munich. The award also raises my profile, so more people now take notice of me, which is not unimportant in this business. Financially, the bursary is a great help in paying for my singing and coaching lessons.
OW: You are currently singing the role of Morasto in Vivaldi’s “La Fida Ninfa.” What challenges does the role present?
SMS: Although I have sung a lot of baroque, I have not sung a lot of Vivaldi. His music is very different from the repertoire I have sung so far, especially Händel and the early baroque of the 17th century, for example Monteverdi and Cavalli. Vivaldi requires a totally different approach; I have to attack the notes in a totally different way. The coloratura of the earlier baroque is more flexible. Vivaldi’s music is more frenetic. When I sang Dafne in Cavalli’s “Gli Amori d’Apollo e di Dafne” at the Innsbrucker Festwochen it was a much calmer experience and more relaxing for the voice. Vivaldi is so different, it is a very demanding challenge for the body. The aria “Destin avaro” is very difficult, almost unsingable, but I’ve worked on it a lot and now I’m quite happy with it.
The role has everything, it has many different colors, really sad, lonely colors, and lots of anger. I always live my parts, my mind and body identifies 100% with the role, so after a performance of Morasto, I’m always very tired, and very hungry!
OW: “La Fida Ninfa” is also a pastoral opera. In what ways does it relate to a modern audience?
SMS: There is a classical way of describing the story, and then there is our production. We don’t actually change the story, just re-interpret it. We have two worlds: the real world, which is dark and violent, and a picture book world, possibly a product of the imagination, which is a place of escape. We do not know if the characters’ memories are real or if they are from the story book. The director Johannes Pölzgutter was interested in questions about child soldiers and the trafficking of women, things that are going on in the real world today. To do this he had to play with ideas about reality. It is a very imaginative interpretation, which leaves the audience with a lot of open unanswered questions.
My role is that of a child soldier. I am very weak, a loser. I have been abused. But in my fantasy world, which I share with the other characters, I am stronger, violent and angry. I take a gun into the fantasy world, which destroys everything. Of course, we don’t know if any of this is real, or just my imagination. The end is not a happy one, unlike in the libretto, because we are forced to return to the real world of violence.
OW: You think you should do more singing competitions. Why is that?
SMS: Because they are important for a career. In the big competitions, important casting directors are in the jury, and if they like you, it can help your career. There are so many singers around, so competitions can be a great platform to show people what you can do. The only competition I have taken part in as a professional singer was the 2017 Cesti Competition, and many great things came out of it, including being offered the main role of Dafne in the 2018 Innsbrucker Festwochen.
Also, you can learn so much from competitions. As you are being judged on every note, it is necessary to control your technique, while still focusing on the art. To do this it is important to let go of the ego so that you can actually deliver what you have to offer, in what is a very stressful environment, although I do realize that it is also actually a very un-artistic situation
I want to challenge myself in competitions, and obviously I want important people to hear me, and winning a prize is, of course, great, but it’s not the only, nor the main goal: being heard is!
OW: What are your ambitions over the longer term?
SMS: Of course, I want to continue to learn and to develop. I have a light lyrical voice and I want to explore its possibilities. I want to perform roles that are challenging, that will develop my voice in a healthy way and widen my experience. I don’t have a dream-role at the moment, but there are many different roles I want to do. Right now I would love to sing Oscar from “Un Ballo in Maschera.” And I would like to sing more Händel, as I love his music, Cleopatra would be fantastic! Also, I think I will move further into the Mozart repertoire, so after Zerlina, Susanna and Pamina would be interesting, and I really would love to sing Ilia. I am open to most things, but I want the roles to be interesting. I want to work with great conductors and great orchestras, so that I can develop my potential. And I would love to sing in Spain, to sing Zarzuela, as it is part of my heritage. Obviously, it would be great to perform at the main international opera houses and famous festivals, especially the important Baroque-festivals or the Salzburger Festspiele. My dream, however, is to return in a major role to the Hamburg State Opera, where everything started for me.