Q & A: Soprano Elise Caluwaerts On Her Love For Mozart, Alma Mahler’s Songs and The Future of Opera

By Dejan Vukosavljevic
(Credit: Lalo Gonzalez)

Elise Caluwaerts simultaneously studied at the conservatories of Antwerp with Lucienne Van Deyck (classical singing) and Brussels (early music), followed by the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, where she graduated cum laude with Diane Forlano. She took master classes with Peter Kooij, Elly Ameling, David Wilson Johnson, Jozef De Beenhouwer and Gemma Visser. She also coached in New York with Craig Rutenberg.

Recently, Caluwaerts undertook the great challenge of recording all the songs of Alma Mahler, including the famed “Einsamer Gang” which was published only in 2018 for the first time. The soprano longs to explore the borderlands and expand the boundaries of many of her projects.

OperaWire spoke to Caluwaerts about her love for the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Alma Mahler’s songs, upcoming projects and the future of opera.

OperaWire: Let me begin this conversation by asking: how are you?

Elise Caluwaerts: I’m very well, thank you. Happy that the world is opening up slowly again. It feels like waking up from the hibernation somehow, like we’re alive again and the blood in our veins is running just a little faster: it feels like Spring in Autumn. I’m excited to be singing again, like it’s something new now, and that’s a wonderful feeling to have.

OW: Where did you find your strength to endure the extremely challenging times of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic?

EC: Corona was—and is!—terrible, and it was a huge shock and panic, besides seeing all contracts melt away just a few weeks into the pandemic. I’ve also lost family members to the virus so it was sad on many levels. At the same time, there was a lot of time and space to think: more than ever before. I’ve always worked as a singer, ever since I got out of high school, first in baroque music and later in romantic and also contemporary music. I’m a very active and energetic person, and I tend to fill up any time I have with projects and just work a lot. COVID created a vacuum where the thrill and adrenaline, but also the pressure of performing, were gone for the first time in many, many years.

I was in London in March 2020 when it started, and from there I went to Cornwall, which has some of the most beautiful nature in the world. Besides watching the news in horror and taking long walks on the beach with my dog, I got really concerned about the emotional state of many of my friends and just people out there. I wanted to do something small that could maybe make them feel better. For all the people that felt lonely, isolated and afraid, I wanted to create a sensation of immediate intimacy and lullabies have the magic to do that. I did a lullaby project together with Elenora Pertz, a friend and young collaborative pianist in Berlin. We would simply put out one lullaby a week on YouTube. She played them in Berlin and I would karaoke sing them in London. It was meant as a tiny gesture but reactions to it were overwhelming. People found comfort and solace in them, which was a very sweet surprise. Some press even picked them up, including the classical radio stations in Belgium and the Netherlands.

I thought it was incredibly moving and humbling that I could actually do something, albeit small and tiny and literally from my own couch, that would make a difference for people out there. It was also nice to discover that most composers wrote one or more lullabies at some point, mostly when they had a baby or when they lost someone. It’s always such tender and personal music and songs that are not often sung in a standard recital. It was really great to discover that music. When the world opened up again, I was invited with Elenora to do a recital with all these lullabies and that was very sweet and … very slow. I don’t think I’ll do another exclusively lullabies recital again unless it’s really meant to put the audience to sleep!

I got scouted as a fashion model in my early teens, and I have always dreamed of the fusion of different worlds colliding with opera and also bringing something of the cool, funky, creative process and quest for relevance of other art disciplines into opera. I wanted especially to bring opera and film together, and it was really amazing that a prominent fashion brand like Scapa agreed to produce a first short film of such kind. They made a special capsule collection for the project for which the designer was Tom Eerebout, and we worked around gender fluidity with Mozart’s ‘Deh Per Questo.’ The aria is originally written for a male singer, and what we did was incorporating a very relevant societal theme like gender into an opera film. It turned out to be a huge success.

I was also lucky to have been between London and Belgium and even with quarantining like a hermit, I managed to work in both places whenever the governments’ rules allowed it. It also helped that Belgium decided quite quickly into the pandemic to let the internationally travelling musicians go to work after doing a PCR test. We weren’t allowed to do anything social, but we were allowed to go to rehearsals. I’m still grateful for that. And there I decided to record the complete works of Alma Mahler, whose gorgeous songs are way too unknown. I did the recording in a collaboration with amazing pianist Marianna Shirinyan and it will come out with Fuga Libera/Outhere in May 2022. All in all, I think I’m lucky to have discovered that I’m a person who, even without any outside pressure, has the will and need to create new things, and also does well in crisis.

OW: Did your perception of the repertoire change during the time of the pandemic?

EC: Maybe. There was so much time to think and figure things out. I really like Zwischenfach repertoire as well as the higher repertoire, and it was really nice to go and explore all of that. I was lucky to be asked by OPRL and Gergely Madaras to do Contessa Almaviva in their pandemic concert version of “Le Nozze di Figaro” in September 2020. I could explore the role and feel I’d love to sing it a thousand times more. There’s just something about Mozart that is so human, funny, witty and beautiful. Even though these pieces were written a long time ago, they are timeless and highly pertinent, like they were written for and about us. There is so much beauty and such fun to perform.

I also got to sing a love duets recital with Michael Spyres. The recital had more of a lyric repertoire from the Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette,” and also works by Massenet and Puccini.

OW: Let’s shift gears and talk about your roles. You did a very interesting production of “Marco Polo” at the Guangzhou Opera House. What was so compelling about it?

EC: “Marco Polo” was an incredible experience. First of all it was a world premiere for which we spent eight weeks working at the opera house in Guangzhou. The opera house was designed by the famed Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, and it is architecturally mind-blowing. I was doing the main female role alongside tenor Peter Lodahl, with whom I had an amazing stage chemistry—and who became one of my best friends as well! It was a brilliant production by Kasper Holten and Amy Lane. It was also a special project because it was the first time that the Guangzhou Opera did a production of its own. As we know, historically, the story of Marco Polo is a story about the East meeting the West, so it was another important layer to consider for a successful performance.

I performed Chuan Yun in the opera. She was a Chinese spy sent to seduce Marco Polo but eventually really falls in love with him. She has to make a choice to either betray him or her country and that’s when she kills herself in a very beautiful dying scene. I loved playing and singing her. Both directors Kasper and Amy were amazing and I could just trust Peter completely. We had fighting scenes, love scenes, despair and suicide. What else can a singer wish for?

The production was created for a big choir, big orchestra and ten soloists with music by Enjott Schneider and a libretto in Mandarin. Learning the Mandarin language was a huge challenge, especially because we’d learn the first version of the text and few months before the rehearsals started, the censors changed about 80 percent of the words so we had to learn it twice. That was really very hard and also very frustrating. But it was also a very special and exciting process of discovery and exploration, despite the hardship. I loved doing that production, which was just one big, difficult, and challenging adventure.

OW: You’re doing quite a lot of Mozart’s roles. What connects Contessa Almaviva and Donna Elvira?

EC: Donna Elvira and Contessa Almaviva are the roles that are very similar in tessitura but completely opposite in temperament. As characters they are both noble ladies and romantic souls. They are also abandoned women who are suffering from a heartbreak. Count Almaviva lost interest in his wife and is after Susanna, while Don Giovanni is after every woman you could think of. Both roles are perfect for my voice, and I love singing them but I also love them dramatically. I have such sympathy for them both. I think that anyone who’s ever suffered from a heartbreak knows what they’re going through and can easily identify with the two ladies.

The Count and Countess have a happy ending where they are both marked by what they’ve been through in the opera and find each other again. The ending is not that happy for Donna Elvira, as Don Giovanni cannot repent for all of his sins and ends up in a hellish place. What she does in the face of that fact? She chooses a life as a nun in a monastery. That somehow implies that Don Giovanni was her true love. Who wouldn’t love such dedication?

Regarding other roles in the Mozart’s operas, I would really love to sing Vitellia in “La Clemenza di Tito” and Fiordiligi in “Così fan tutte.” Both roles are vocally very challenging and the music is just fabulous and spectacular. Fiordiligi and Vitellia are dramatically very complex characters. Vitellia definitely has a dark side, with all the plotting and jealousy. On the other hand, Fiordiligi is really fighting with her own values and convictions and is not as strong as she’d like to be. Who wouldn’t love playing that inner conflict? Especially because
she gives in to her passions. Human flows and weaknesses make Mozart’s characters so interesting.

OW: How did the project regarding Alma Mahler’s songs originate?

EC: It originated during the pandemic. I’ve always been an avid reader of both fiction and non-fiction literature and I read lots of diaries when I was a teenager. I was very much impressed by Alma Mahler’s enigmatic and fascinating personality. I met her granddaughter Marina Mahler in London through mutual friends and we spoke about Alma: that’s where the idea emerged. The song ‘Einsamer Gang’ will be included in the recording, so my album will be the first to include all the songs by Alma Mahler.

OW: What did your path of discovery look like regarding the recording of these songs? What did you learn about Alma Mahler and her artistry?

EC: Alma was a child of her time. She was a highly talented woman that put her ambitions aside because of marriage and the noble idea of serving the great artist Gustav Mahler. She was highly intelligent, full of wit and was often called the most beautiful girl in Vienna. Men adored her and feared her at the same time. She was also highly passionate, obsessed with the arts and the act of creation and was constantly searching for freedom. And I can relate to that in many aspects.

Her personality was kaleidoscopic. Every part of her that you discover through stories, letters and diaries breaks into multiple, often-contradictory, parts. That complexity resounds in her music as well. We also decided to use an old Steinway from 1899 for the recording, in order to be as close as possible to the sound that she had in her ears when composing.

OW: How do you prepare for new roles?

EC: Step one is assessing the character’s overall presence: where are they from and where are they going? By doing that I am defining the arc of the character. Step two is to read a lot about the character and do extensive background research. Step three is reading the text as a play and translating it, word after word. Step four is learning the music, sitting by the piano and just get it into your head. Coaching follows naturally as a step five. Step six is memorizing everything by putting things together. I also listen to recordings for inspiration.

OW: What are your future projects?

EC: Future projects include the Arianna Film, the Alma Mahler CD release, and Mozart Experience project in Vienna. I am ambassador for the project together with Rolando Villazón. I will also sing Nedda in Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci.” Castrato Arias concert project with Ensor Baroque and Opera On Brainwaves will be premiering in Spring 2023. Other roles are also coming.

OW: How do you see the future of classical music?

EC: What matters to me personally as a performer is that there remains the magic of the human connection. This can happen through the sheer beauty of opera and classical music but also through telling a story that can resonate with people. The arts articulate the dreams that are dormant in a society. We can see and experience things, but there are also mysteries that lie under the surface, and we are moving towards them. We’re doing that both on the individual level, and as a society.

I also find it important that #metoo, diversity casting, inclusion and BLM are important things and pressing matters in opera and classical music now. It makes me proud and happy to see that opera and classical music are moving in a trailblazing direction of emancipation and empathy. There is no question of relevance: opera is a wonderful, mind blowing, thrilling and highly exciting artform rooted in tradition and evolving with and towards the future.

















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