Q & A: Soprano Gabriela Scherer on Singing Mozart, Strauss & Wagner & The Challenges of Her Career

By Francisco Salazar

Swiss soprano Gabriela Scherer is in high demand for her lyric German roles with her Arabella and her Senta in “Der fliegende Holländer” among her most popular warhorses. But she isn’t letting anyone put her in a box.

The soprano is leading her career on her own terms and performing roles that speak to her. This season she made her role debut as Leonore in “Fidelio” followed by her role debut as Chrysothemis in “Elektra.” She quickly switched to Mozart for her role debut as Donna Elvira in “Don Giovanni” and this summer she makes the leap to Bayreuth where she will sing the role of Gutrune in “Götterdämmerung.” She will also sing her signature role of Senta.

But then Scherer is making sure to continue expanding her repertoire by singing more Mozart and Verdi.

OperaWire had the chance to speak with the soprano on her career path, the challenges she has faced to get to where she is and how she keeps her voice healthy singing so many dramatic roles.

OperaWire: Tell me about your debut as Chrysothemis in “Elektra” which you just did at the Semperoper Dresden?

Gabriela Scherer: Yes, that’s right. I sang it at Semperoper Dresden. But I have to be honest, I prefer to sing the Strauss roles that have lyric parts. Chrysothemis has some lyric lines but the orchestra is always full. So it’s different than “Arabella.”

I love to use my piano and I also think it shows the beauty of my voice because I like the piano and the pianissimo in my voice. I’m not a typical dramatic voice and it’s not what I like. It’s very easy to sing loud and very difficult to have a nice piano.

I really like to sing and to try to keep my voice focused. I don’t like to open up too early and I don’t like singing too big or too loud all the time. I don’t like that as much and that is why in the beginning this was really a challenge for me.

But now that I have done it, I really love to sing this role. I was happy that it came very easily afterall, because I am singing lighter roles usually, at least compared to Chrysothemis. And it was amazing how much fun it was to delve into this part. It is quite a dramatic Strauss role and it suited me very well, much better than I thought originally.

OW: “Elektra’s” orchestra is one of the biggest in opera. How do you pace yourself when singing against it?

GS: There is no break.

This piece feels like there is one tsunami after another, musically and dramatically. And every tsunami gets bigger. This is the biggest challenge.

I had one orchestra rehearsal on stage, so I didn’t have much time to prepare for that. First, you have to learn it really precisely. You have to know this role from the rhythm and the notes very precisely 150 percent. And then when you come on stage and you have one rehearsal, you have to use full sound and then you just have to calm down and try not to fight against the orchestra. You have to try and focus the voice.

OW: Strauss has a wide range. What do you think of the term “Strauss” soprano especially since many of his orchestras and operas are so different?

GS: There is a big difference between “Arabella,” “Der Rosenkavalier” and “Die Frau ohne Schatten.” There are crazy things happening in the orchestra. The question, “What is the Strauss voice?” is always very interesting but difficult to answer.

What I can say is that I feel comfortable with Strauss. Strauss suits me and my voice a lot and my voice really feels comfortable with it.

You also hear it in Wagner: “this is a Wagner voice and this isn’t.”

For example, when I sang Senta, I heard she’s not a typical Wagner voice. What does it mean? He writes pianissimo very often. She’s a young woman so it makes sense.

So if we go back to Strauss, you can find a huge range in his operas. For example, Arabella is more lyric but then you have some points that are really dramatic, and also the orchestra is heavy even if it’s not a full sound like “Elektra.” But it can grow and it can be bigger.

I think Strauss loves the soprano because he writes so beautifully for sopranos and it’s so easy to sing.

OW: You recently debuted Elvira in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.” Tell me about that switch from Chrysothemis to Donn Elvira and the challenges of doing Mozart.

GS: The production was conducted by Marc Minkowski. We are in midst of this “Don Giovanni” run now and what I can say is that this has for sure been the most inspiring collaboration of my career. I have been admiring Marc Minkowski since I was a student, and working with him is a dream come true. Only two weeks after singing Chrysothemis, I had the first musical rehearsal with Minkowski. I was very nervous, but it worked very well right from the beginning. I have learned so much from him and working with him is such a huge inspiration. 

The tempi are very fast, but so full of life and I just love his immense energy. I’m very grateful for this experience.

I try to sing everything with the same technique and with the same voice. I never have to open and go to my limits with Donna Elvira. I try to sing with a healthy, and and young, focused voice and technique.

I would say the perfect way for me to find this technique is with Verdi. If you can sing Verdi’s Requiem and at the end sing a pianissimo High B, then you have a healthy technique. With this kind of technique, I’m trying to sing Chrysothemis. Of course, I turn the volume on, but it has to be in the same place and the same goes with Mozart.

This December I will make my debut as Pamina. When I got this offer, I was laughing and I said to my agent, “If I do this, everyone will say she’s going crazy. And then I said, I want to do it because I think in a bigger house, you can sing it with a healthy Verdi voice. It doesn’t have to be a tiny voice.”

And he said, “If you do that and if you try to sing it as healthy as you can, it will give you two or three more years of a career because it keeps your voice healthy. So I’m trying to do it with with one technique and with one voice.

OW: Do you think singing Mozart is healthy for your voice?

GS: Absolutely. 100 percent.

Mozart and Verdi are healthy for my voice. I would love to sing more Verdi, and I think, for my voice, the best is Verdi. When I got to sing Elisabeta, people were surprised that I could sing it. And I think it’s because I have a German name and that’s why people don’t offer it. But it’s a question of the technique and of the voice.

And for Mozart, I sing this Donna Elvira as authentically as I can and I can’t be someone else. I am doing it with my voice, my temperament, and my character.

OW: What are the challenges of Donna Elvira?

GS: One is the very short baroque aria “Ah fuggi il traditor.” There are two bars of coloratura and to be honest, when rehearsals started, I was nervous about the coloratura. But with the first rehearsal, it was a pure joy thanks to Marc Minkowski’s energy. He approaches everything with lightness and energy. In the beginning, I thought the coloratura could be a challenge, but with keeping the voice light it worked very well. The wonderful Marc Minkowski helped a lot. Singing Donna Elvira is pure joy, and there are not as many challenges as I originally thought.

When I was a mezzo, I never sang Rosina or Cenerentola. It’s the opposite of what you do when you sing Strauss because you have these lines and you have a long legato and you open your voice and you start piano and then you slowly open up and grow.

This is why I thought that Donna Elvira and the coloratura could be a big challenge before starting rehearsals.

And of course, the Italian has to be perfect.

OW: I know you were preparing Lady Macbeth. Did you ever get to sing the role?

GS: No, I had a contract, and then COVID came, and then it was canceled later. I really learned it and prepared myself for two years. But I have to say, it’s good that I didn’t sing it because if you start with Lady Macbeth, you will never get roles like Desdemona.

I really want to sing Desdemona and I have no problem waiting for Lady Macbeth. I think it’s much better.

OW: You talked about the coloratura in Donna Elvira and Lady Macbeth has coloratura, especially in the first aria. What did you find to be different?

GS: Lady Macbeth was much easier for me, and I don’t know why.

The coloratura in Verdi’s operas is different compared to Mozart and I liked preparing Lady Macbeth and the spicy coloratura. In a year and a half, I will sing Alicia Ford and I am very much looking forward to this inspiring experience

OW: You’re making your Bayreuth debut this summer. What excites you most about this debut?

GS: Yes, I’m doing Gutrune. Singing in Bayreuth is another universe and a huge honor. I hope it’s a new era for me and I hope I will do more in Bayreuth.

I’m looking forward to working with all the people because everyone that is in Bayreuth is because they love it. They’re the best musicians from all over Germany. Everyone loves to be there and it’s a great atmosphere.

And I am very happy I will work again with Klaus Florian Vogt because I really love working with him.

OW: You have been to Bayreuth as an audience member and you have experienced the atmosphere. What excites you about being on the other side and about experiencing the audience from the stage?

GS: I think there are different things. I have no idea how it will be, how the acoustic will be because the orchestra is under the stage. So that will be really interesting and maybe very difficult. I have great colleagues and a fantastic orchestra and there is a huge tradition with the Wagner audience. I think it’s a tradition and it’s just a very great atmosphere. I think everyone who is there loves Wagner, so they freak out.

It’s a little bit like in Dresden. We were in the annual Strauss days and I had never heard such a reaction from the audience. They freaked out.

And Bayreuth is the same. I think it’s very special.

OW: You have done Senta on many occasions. How has your interpretation evolved throughout the years?

GS: I’ve done very different kinds of Sentas from the productions. The one in Dusseldorf by Vasily Barkhatov shows her as a very crazy young girl. So it was very different from my first one in Wiesbaden. Every debut is always a challenge because you don’t know how your voice reacts if you’re singing it the first time. You have this duet and it goes up with this chromatic and then you go up. And you have to sing and sing even if it’s not a very long opera. The duet in the opera is big and I was very happy after singing my first Senta successfully.

When I sing this opera, I try to sing this role as young and as focused as I can. I try to sing this duet like I am singing Verdi and it has shown me that I can sing it again. A lot of times, I hear sopranos very often that start to scream during the duet. And it may be because they have louder voices and that it is what people are used to hearing.

I try to sing it as technically well as I can to get through the opera without my voice dying out. But I’m still working on it because when I hear recordings of myself, I’m very critical. When I heard my Senta from Dusseldorf, I wasn’t very happy. And I changed a lot for my Hamburg Senta because we have to learn to get better. And I think musically, my Senta in Hamburg was much better than in Dusseldorf. So I still have a way to go to make it better.

OW: This summer you will sing Senta again with Michael Volle. Tell me about singing with your life partner, especially in this opera.

GS: We try to avoid singing together although it’s fun and we like to work together.

The last years were hard for me because I have gotten a lot of comments that say “She’s just there because of her husband.”

Even just now with Chrysothemis. But it’s not true. It’s the contrary.

Very often I didn’t get auditions because they said, “Well, it’s his wife. Oh, no, we don’t want to hear her.”

So, it shuts doors. It never opened the door. And in the end, when I’m on stage, it is me who has to sing. He cannot help me. So after so many comments, we decided to try not to work so often together. But this was a very old contract.

And I know it will be fun and I’m looking forward to it. But we are very professional when we work together and I love to sing it like 100 percent the same way with James Rutherford, who is fantastic.

And that is why I don’t judge anyone who has this kind of idea that I am on stage just because of my husband. I have the same issue as Yusif. I even thought “he’s just having a big career because of Anna.”

And then I heard him for the first time in “Tosca” at the Met, and I felt so ashamed. I said, “oh, my God, he’s fantastic. What? Why did I think that?” I was doing the same and that’s why I never say anything about anyone who thinks like that. But that’s not how it works.

At the beginning of my career as a soprano, I got all of my contracts through auditions. And now I am happy that most theatres where I sing are inviting me back because apparently, they were happy with my work.

So these are the reasons why very often when I get offers with Michael, I say, no.

Apart from this “Holländer” in Düsseldorf, there is just one upcoming opera production together in the 2025-26 season and a couple of concerts.

OW: How do you manage between studying opera and your life? How do you relax?

GS: The truth is, there’s no time to relax. After my performances in Dresden, I drove back home listening to “Don Giovanni.”

I wake up at 6:30 to bring the kids to school. I go to the forest with the dog. And that’s the moment when I relax. When I go with my dog to the forest, that’s where I can breathe and where I do some meditation in the forest. That really helps me.

But then immediately I have a lot to do at home because I’m a 100 percent mom and housewife. I do a lot at home. And I know, the next year will be really crazy.


InterviewsStage Spotlight