Q & A: Tanja Ariane Baumgartner on Klytämnestra at Salzburg, the ‘New Normal’ After COVID-19By Dejan Vukosavljevic
(Credit: Dario Acosta NY)
German mezzo-soprano Tanja Ariane Baumgartner is one of the most sought-after opera singers of our time.
Baumgartner has been a member of the ensemble at Oper Frankfurt since the 2009-10 season. During her time in Frankfurt, Tanja Baumgartner made appearances in numerous operas including “Carmen,” “Giulio Cesare in Egitto,” “Don Carlo,” “Medea,” “Die Frau ohne Schatten,” “Rusalka,” “Edgar,” “Werther,” “Daphne,” and “Penthesilea.” Baumgartner is also a specialist in the Wagnerian repertoire, appearing in the role of Fricka in the Ring cycle, Kundry in “Parsifal,” Ortrud in “Lohengrin,” and Brängane in “Tristan und Isolde,” among others.
She has sung at the major opera houses, including The Wiener Staatsoper, Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Teatro Municipal de Santiago, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Opera Vlaanderen, Opernhaus Zürich, Komische Oper Berlin, Staatsoper Hamburg, among others.
The mezzo recently returned to the stage after the COVID-19 crisis to take on the role of Klytämnestra in Strauss’ “Elektra” at the Salzburg Festival. OperaWire spoke to Baumgartner about her passion for opera, the lockdown, and returning to the stage.
OperaWire: How did you discover your taste for classical music?
Tanja Baumgartner: In our house, classical music was always present. My mom was listening to classical music a lot when she was pregnant with me. My father was singing in a choir, more of an oratorio choir. As I child I had the opportunity to hear all the Beethoven’s symphonies and many other symphonic works and oratorios by different composers. My father introduced me to Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, “the Pastoral,” in greater detail. The very first opera that I saw as a child was “Zar und Zimmermann,” a comic opera in three acts, by Albert Lortzing. I found it funny.
Next, we went to “The Bartered Bride” by Smetana, and I found it much better for me, it suited my taste even more. And then, my parents took me to “Tosca,” and that was the magical moment. And you know, I was singing all day, loud, in the courtyard, hopefully to the pleasure of my neighbors. In that way, classical music was always there with me – and a part of me.
OW: How did you know that you wanted to become an opera singer? Can you remember that specific breaking point?
TB: Oh yes, I can vividly remember that moment. I always wanted to have voice lessons, since I was nine-years-old. My father advised me to be careful, as I had not yet gone through the natural process of a voice mutation. So instead of voice lessons, I took violin lessons. I took that musical path, but then something happened. Each and every time I heard the singers something in my heart was really hurting, as I wanted to sing as well. It was a powerful emotion.
In addition, I was always a bit nervous when I was playing the violin. It was a bit more of a stage fear than that was really needed. In that way, I discovered that the violin was not the right path for me.
At the University, it became even more prominent, as I saw what opera singers were doing, and I really wanted to do the same. I heard them doing a production of “Die Zauberflöte,“ and also few other productions. And I just wanted to be there with them. I already had the voice lessons, after the violin lessons. That was that breaking, runaway point for me.
OW: You have struck a fruitful collaboration with the famed Italian-American tenor Jack LiVigni during your ongoing professional education. Tell us more about your educational trajectory.
TB: After graduating at the University, I went to Vienna, where I worked with the Polish singer and teacher Helena Łazarska. I worked with her for five years, and there I switched from soprano to the mezzo-soprano. It was a very big influence that was coming from her.
After Vienna I went to Bulgaria, to work with the famed soprano Alexandrina Milcheva, and she turned me to a dramatic mezzo-soprano. Milcheva really had a huge impact on my further professional development, as she found my real voice. It was a very tight and very lengthy collaboration. She told me that my dramatic mezzo voice was especially suited for the Italian repertoire, like roles of Eboli in “Don Carlo,” Amneris in “Aida,” and Santuzza in “Cavalleria Rusticana.”
And then something miraculous happened – I met the famed Italian-American tenor Jack LiVigni, and I started working with him. His father was also a famed tenor, and in their house in Sicily all the big voices, like Carlo Bergonzi, were coming for dinner, or lunch, so Jack grew up with that sound in his ear. I engaged in even more Italian repertoire working with him. He taught me much about harmonics, and how to tune a voice. That makes much difference in the beauty of sound. As I was working with him, I started to get even more big roles, so my international career went the really right way.
And I worked through all kinds of repertoire with Jack LiVigni, not just the Italian repertoire, but also German, including the Wagnerian roles. When I sing Wagner or Verdi, the only difference is the language. The technique is there, as the developed tool. I only switch between languages, syntax, and color of the wovels. And that’s it.
What is also important, I can switch between languages really fast. For example, at the beginning of this year, I sang Eboli in “Don Carlo” on January 1 and January 5, and on January 3 I sang Ortrud in “Lohengrin.” That wouldn’t be possible with two different techniques.
OW: What is your learning process when you prepare for new operas? And how is that process different from doing revivals?
TB: When it comes to the preparation of new operas, I deal with the language first. I put language and the rhythm together, and on the other hand, I put melody and the rhythm together, so only vocal lines. I try to feel those vocal lines and understand what the composer wanted to describe with them, with the harmonics underneath. From the other angle, I put text and syntax together. Finally, I merge those two layers into one layer. Then I go into minutiae of the staging and try to understand the vision of the director and the conductor.
When it comes to revivals – the roles I have already done before, the process is greatly simplified. I always go first to rehearsing with the pianist. I usually get the video of the production, and I just imagine myself going through the staging which I see on the video. In that way, I can revive a role in a very short period of time, no more than three days.
OW: Until the end of 2019-20 season you have been a member of the ensemble of Oper Frankfurt. How would you describe your experience there?
TB: Well, I think that every singer should try the fest at some point in the career. Being a member of the ensemble gives you the opportunity to discover even more roles comparing to the status of a freelancer. Because being a freelancer essentially means being specialized in a fach. For me it is fine at the moment – it is Wagner, Strauss, Verdi, and contemporary operas.
At Oper Frankfurt, I sang many roles, ranging from Handel, baroque works to contemporary operas. I did all of my Italian roles there as well, Charlotte in “Werther,” and also Strauss’ operas. And I sang Carmen, of course. It is good to stay flexible.
Furthermore, it is always great to come home and find friendly, familiar people. Those who know me and whom I could trust. For example, several pianists knew me well, and they were telling me where I should pay attention or act in some way. That was very important and helped very much with my professional development. When you come to a new place, they have to get to know you first. I had a great time in Frankfurt, and my experiences at the Oper Frankfurt are overwhelmingly positive.
OW: The beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic caught you in Chicago, rehearsing for the big role debut as Waltraute in the Ring cycle at the Lyric Opera. How did you feel at that moment, having to take a transatlantic flight back to Europe?
TB: It was a very sad day when the Ring production at the Lyric Opera in Chicago was grounded. And my brain immediately went to the practical side – I had to go home, I had to rebook my flight, which the Lyric Opera House did for me. And I had to pack. I was sad, very sad – but those practical steps helped me to go through all the emotions.
I was not afraid that much, as the airplane was not full, so I had a lot of free space around me. At that time I did not know so much about the virus and ways of the transmission. I thought it was all about spitting, and much less about transmission through aerosols. When I arrived home, I quarantined immediately, and luckily nothing bad happened. I was rather scared to bring it to someone, more than to get infected myself.
OW: How did you keep your spirits up during these challenging times?
TB: I am a vocal professor now at the University of Bern, so I dedicate approximately half of my time to teaching. In the mornings I was practicing, and in the afternoons I was teaching my students over Skype. So I was never bored, and I still had a lot to do. I have also enjoyed more of the time being out of my house, just walking through the forest, for example. My life was very fast until this March, and I have never been at home for so long, in say the last 10 years. So I did more of the basic things of life, like cooking, and taking care of my home. I was also reading a lot.
Of course, this pandemic is draining. I managed to keep my spirits up, but it was still tough. And that fear of coronavirus is always there, that can not be escaped. But I try to stay positive at all times and also think of good ways to protect both others and myself with being responsible in this situation.
OW: A few nights ago you debuted in the role of Klytämnestra in Strauss’ “Elektra” at the Salzburg Festival. What was the feeling of the opening night having all the circumstances in mind?
TB: This year’s Salzburg Festival has really been stringent COVID-19 rules in place. For example, members of the audience have to leave their contact details and are not able to resell their tickets. Every seat is thus associated uniquely with the spectator seating on that particular seat. Also, spectators have to wear facemasks both upon entry and the exit, and have been encouraged to leave them on during the performance as well. Artists get regularly tested, and we need to embrace safe behavioral patterns, in order not to endanger both ourselves and our colleagues.
The opera opens with the monologue being narrated by Klytämnestra, and it is really a very special monologue, a very special moment. I love to do it. Director Warlikowski had certain ideas about how he wanted this piece to look. We also had a small audience at both pre-general and the general rehearsal. And even that small audience gave us so much energy, as it has been greatly missed since mid-March. We are all deeply grateful to be able to be on stage again, and we felt the same emotion in the audience. And yes, some people were shedding tears as they were listening to live music, live opera again. And I was in tears as well, as the emotions were really high.
OW: You have sung so much Strauss, including Die Amme in “Die Frau ohne Schatten,” Clairon in “Capriccio,” and Gaea in “Daphne.” What do you find in the music of Strauss that is so compelling?
TB: Strauss just knew how to compose for voices. There is something very special about the orchestration and vocal lines. Klytämnestra does not have so many lines, for example. But the way that Strauss portrayed all of his characters with the music is unbelievably interesting. Literally every bar has meaning. And then came all the musical motives that Franz Welser-Möst told me to closely pay attention to, in the Salzburg’s production of “Elektra” – like the axe motive, so that needed to look more fearful. Or the Agamemnon motive. Those motives were underneath with the orchestra when I sang my lines.
Thus, the Strauss’ way of composing gave me greater opportunity for more profound dramatical expressions, especially with Klytämnestra. And that also happened in “Die Frau Ohne Schatten,” and role of Die Amme.
OW: In which ways do you relate to the character of Klytämnestra?
TB: That is not very easy to answer, as there are many dimensions to consider. For example, the sacrifice of Klytämnestra’s and Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenia. Agamemnon killed Iphigenia for the sake of the gods, as he was not able to go to the war because of the wind that was not blowing the right way. He decided to offer Iphigenia as a sacrifice. Agamemnon lied to Klytämnestra that he intended to get Iphigenia married, but killed her instead. And only then Klytämnestra decided to kill her husband.
My main task here was to understand Klytämnestra’s motives to act the way she did. All the Greek tragedies are so archaic, and they psychologically apply to some inner conflicts in us. And I believe that any of us would find something that he needed to do, something that was not right and with potentially bad consequences, but still needed to be done. Even something very minor and without great significance. That is the relationship that I can see.
OW: What was the feeling when you were offered the role of Klytämnestra in Salzburg under the baton of Franz Welser-Möst?
TB: I was so happy when I was offered the role. It is a big honor, especially for the Centennial Edition of the Salzburg Festival. I had the opportunity to see Waltraud Meier in 2010 as Klytämnestra, and I basically know all the famous singers that embodied Klytämnestra in the past. I had definitely big shoes to fill.
And you know, in such a role expectations would be high – many spectators did actually see Waltraud Meier doing it, and also other famed singers, so I needed to go really high to fulfill those expectations.
OW: What do you think audiences took away from the opening night performance?
TB: I really think that the performance was musically brilliant, as given by Franz Welser-Möst and the Wiener Philharmoniker. Also, the staging by Krzysztof Warlikowski was absolutely outstanding. Warlikowski paints every character in a deeply special way. In this production, Elektra is not just a steel-voiced singer, but also a very sensitive and a deeply hurt person. Aušrine also focused very much on the lyrical passages of the score, which was refreshing.
I think that audiences took away that unique approach to Elektra, having been born from the collaboration between Franz Welser-Möst and Krzysztof Warlikowski. Finally, I believe they took away the happiness of the live, fully staged opera after such a long hiatus.
OW: When it comes to your projected performances, you will make several high-profile appearances at the Wiener Staatsoper in the new season. How do you feel about new opportunities?
TB: Yes, I was cast for the role of Herodias in Strauss’ “Salome,” and also the role of Ortrud in Wagner’s “Lohengrin.” Obviously we have lots of uncertainty because of the pandemic, but this is fully planned and scheduled. I love Wiener Staatsoper very much. Since I’ve been a student with Helena Łazarska, I have regularly visited the opera house, and at that time I used to purchase standing-room tickets, which were available for as little as two euros. And I literally went to the opera house every evening to see some production.
So, I sincerely hope that we will be able to go ahead with the performances as planned and I am really looking forward. It is always a great pleasure to sing at the Wiener Staatsoper and this makes me very happy.
OW: Speaking of the new circumstances, what do you expect from performances in the future? How do you see the “new normal” in the universe of opera and arts in general?
TB: I really hope that very soon we will find much more about the coronavirus so that we can manage this all situation better. This should give us a better sense of where really the danger is. For example, in the big concert hall, if everyone would wear a mask and with a safe ventilation system, maybe we would be able to have a truly safe performance.
The Wiener Philharmoniker in Salzburg adopted very strict behavioral rules, and they are all very careful. As soon as they leave the orchestral pit, everyone has to wear a facemask. That also applies to us on stage, we have to put the masks on as soon as we exit the stage. We all have an interest to work and get paid for the performances, so we can make a living, besides everything else. For example, if you look at the nations in Asia and their ways of behavior, they have been wearing facemasks regardless of the COVID-19 pandemic. It simply became part of their culture and their way of life. It also points to the politeness in the way that they do not want to share their viruses and hurt other people.
Hopefully, we will find the right balance in order to stay healthy, safe and be able to offer our audiences live opera and concert performances.