The Art of Vocal Longevity – Adrianne Pieczonka On Tackling Two of Her Most Difficult Operas, ‘Fidelio’ & ‘Elektra’By Francisco Salazar
How do you maintain a dramatic soprano voice fresh?
The answer isn’t always obvious for a singer of that voice type. These voices, prized for their sheer power and weight, often face the most difficult repertoire in the operatic canon, many of which can be damaging if sung too often.
But for acclaimed Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka, who sings Beethoven’s ‘Fidelio’ starting this Thursday at the Metropolitan Opera, the answer isn’t very complicated.
“Hearing the bel canto writing, that is the basis of a good technique for whatever you’re doing. You have to be able to sing a beautiful legato line and be able to sing piano and build from piano to a forte and back to piano,” she stated during a recent interview with OperaWire. “That is what I come back to no matter what I sing, Beethoven, Strauss or Puccini. It’s that beautiful old school line.”
And for Pieczonka, who will be celebrating her 30-year career anniversary this season, that seems to be working, the signs of vocal wear-and-tear essentially non-existent.
A Career in Strauss and Wagner
It can sometimes be difficult to be a dramatic soprano as many singers of this voice type usually get boxed into a specific repertoire that does not allow them to explore diverse roles, leading to short careers.
But Pieczonka has always made it a mission to explore and mix her repertoire. For example, after her run of Beethoven’s “Fidelio” at the Metropolitan Opera, she will be taking on Puccini’s “Tosca,” which are two different animals. She has been especially careful to do this when taking on the most difficult operas she sings – those fo Wagner and Strauss.
“I kind of mixed them. If I could get a graph I did the small maid role [in ‘Elektra’] and then went to Freia, a small lyric role in ‘Das Rheingold.’ I think my next role of the two was Eva in ‘Meistersinger,’ which is a beautiful lyric and wonderful role. It was a key role for me and I did it a lot. Then I did Arabella and then ‘Der Rosenkavalier’ and then Elsa in ‘Lohengrin,'” she revealed. “I went from one to the other. I think it has to be. You find your way and every singer is different. I am happy with my longevity.”
Wagner and Strauss have always been bunched together because they are the pinnacle of German opera but Pieczonka thinks they are two very different composers that don’t necessarily match.
“It’s like comparing apples to oranges. I think we think of it as Germanic writing. There are subtleties in roles like the Marschallin or Arabella,” she explained. “Richard Wagner does not really write for the soprano in those delicate ways. We might get moments in Eva [from ‘Meistersingers’] or sometimes in Elsa [from ‘Lohengrin’]. Or moments of the prayer in ‘Tannhauser,’ which is more lyric.
“But I almost find that there is more of a connection from Mozart into Beethoven into the Strauss versus Wagner who is linked to the Italian,” she added. “He was so influenced by Verdi. Many great Italian sopranos sang those roles of Elsa and they sang it in Italian. When we get into the Ring he got into his Gesamtkunstwerk but those early ones were more Italian. You can sing it bel canto.”
Bel Canto. That’s the keyword when it comes to the soprano. Ironically, Pieczonka has never actually done a single role by either Donizetti or Bellini, the pillars, alongside Rossini, or bel canto repertoire.
“I thought about Norma but that ship sailed. I performed parts in concert and maybe if I had a different path I could have sung something. Maybe there could have been. But not anymore. I think it was part of the fact that I lived in Vienna where it was a natural path to do the Germanic root.”
That said, she did ensure that Verdi remained in her repertoire, a direct descendant of the bel canto school.
Pieczonka notes that one of the keys to longevity is constant adjustment. Her voice never stops changing, so she can never stop learning about how to get the best out of it.
“I’m learning some new technical things which are giving me a bit more confidence sort of flexibility,” she revealed. “Before doing a role like ‘Fidelio,’ I might have been more fatigued but now with a few adjustments I got a bit more ease and freshness.”
One of the major adjustments she has worked on is efficiency, a crucial consideration as the voice ages and the singer becomes less flexible.
“I’m still finding ways to sing things ‘Better’ or more efficiently. As a result, the voice has sort of matured and gotten more full,” she added. “And yet with this technical stuff I’m trying to figure out, I got to keep that lyricism and keep that very kind economical and beautifully resonant sound throughout the ranges.”
And while learning new techniques is essential, there is a key ingredient that is not directly related to the voice – spending quality time with her Fitbit.
“I have a Fitbit to get my 10,000 steps to keep active and I talk with my family who is in Toronto and they give me love and support. I do lots of writing emails with friends and check in. It’s a fine balance being dedicated and being devoted and also enjoying life. You can not be a hermit, “she emphasized. ” Of course you have to make sure that you’re eating the right things and that you’re getting enough sleep. You’re not going out to loud noisy places, you have to have some enjoyment in life.”
Beethoven’s Musical Language
This month when Pieczonka takes on Beethoven’s complex heroine Leonore in “Fidelio,” she will be thinking of how she can implement that bel canto and lyrical sound into the music.
Pieczonka first performed the work in 2009 in Toronto and later brought it to Madrid and Salzburg. It is not a role she has done often and she notes that Beethoven isn’t a composer she has performed often.
She noted that his vocal writing can sometimes be considered very orchestral, presenting a massive, though insightful, challenge.
“I’ve performed Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which I think a lot of sopranos have. That’s not an easy sing nor is it the most enjoyable gig because its right at the end of the symphony and the vocal writing sits uncomfortable in the passagio,” she explained. “It’s similar to the finale of ‘Fidelio.’ It’s sort of like Es and Gs constantly. It’s almost as if the voice is a trumpet and I sort of often say that someone like Verdi or Wagner or Strauss would take you up in that area and would then take you down. But Beethoven just leaves you up there. So it’s sort of exposed and challenging.”
Fortunately, taking on and mastering those precarious aspects of the work come with a major reward.
“There are moments of great beauty in the score. You know sometimes in my music, the overture and the other casts moments,” she expressed. “It’s a score of great beauty and great depth. I always hear new things and my appreciation deepens with every time I perform the role.”
Her performances this season at the Metropolitan Opera will be a complete change from last season’s work in Strauss’ “Elektra” and that will allow audiences a chance to see her in a spotlight.
“The last time I was here I did Chrysothemis and the orchestra is so huge. The amount of sound, particularity in my role, is huge. So it’s nice to be able to sing these trios and duets on a more lyric basis. Is it easier? No! Nothing is easier. It has its own type of challenges. I enjoy singing lyrically and being able to sing in the heroic moments which are big sings. But there are a lot of beautiful transparent singing that is required. A singer has to adapt and switch quickly.”
In “Fidelio” the cast is required to not only sing but also speak throughout the night, something that an operatic talent is not used to. Both require differing techniques to execute, which adds another wrinkle in taking on the complex Beethoven role.
“For any singer to have to do dialogue is always a bit scary,” she iterated. “We’re singers. We like to sing. So when we have to do spoken lines we all freeze and there is a tendency to do it very operatically.”
However, for this revival of Fidelio, the cast is working with Jürgen Flimm, who staged the production back in 2000.
“We’re spending a lot of time on actually doing the text very simply and ‘flat,’ if you will, without this very operatic thing that I’m kind of used to. It’s challenging but I think it’s going to be very effective. And he is getting all of us to do it. And so we’ll start and he’ll be like, ‘No no. This is old fashioned.’
“So we restart and that’s fun. It’s an interesting direction,” she added. “He’s so skilled and he does everything with a lovely humor which is great.”
Flimm is also allowing the cast to explore their character’s in ways that diverge from the original staging.
“What I like about him is that he is changing some things. It’s not like he says ‘This is the way [Karita] Mattila did it. This is the way it must be.’ He’s looking at me and we’re changing things. Also with tenor Klaus Florian Vogt, it’s quite a bit different.”
In the opera, Leonore disguises herself as a man to liberate her husband, Florestan. While this current production does not present the challenge of physical transformation because Leonore is always in a Military uniform, Beethoven’s music gives the character a distinction.
“In the aria in act one where we see Leonore alone, I do think there are moments of softening and sensuality and more womanly moments. Hopefully, that comes through in the voice. I certainly don’t think I have to sing with a more masculine way. There are moments with Rocco where she does play in the trio where she is very heroic. And I think that comes from the writing. I don’t I have to do anything different vocally. I just have to sing that music with as much passion and if I can, I think it’s going to be clear the moments of womanliness and the moments that is Fidelio being very heroic.”
One would be remiss to not dig a bit deeper into one of Pieczonka’s great achievement in recent years and which has already been alluded to – Chrysothemis in Strauss’ “Elektra.”
She always knew she wanted to take on the opera, but bided her time to ensure that she was completely ready for the monstrous challenge that this “short” but significant role would present.
“I have three scenes but during those scenes, the orchestra is at a volume and intensity that even Elektra does not have to compete with. And I am not wanting to attempt the role of Elektra but I do think Elektra, although it’s a huge mammoth role, has moments where she can let the voice gain some lyricism whereas when I come on it’s like Formula One with all cylinders firing and that can be a bit tiring and dangerous.”
Chrysothemis is a role that many singers like Cheryl Studer and Karita Mattila attempted when they were younger and received great acclaim. However, a teacher of Pieczonka’s warned her about doing the role too early.
“‘Watch it. It’s a very difficult and dangerous role.’ And I think I know what she meant was that Chrysothemis is short but intense.”
Pieczonka prefers the lyric roles like “Der Rosenkavalier,” “Arabella” and “Ariadne Auf Naxos.” However, none of these roles brought the acclaimed singer as much attention in recent years as Chrysothemis.
That is in part due to the Patrice Chéreau production that premiered in 2013 at the Aix-en-Provence festival. The production toured the whole world throughout four years and it was an incredible experience for her.
“We did it first in Aix-en-Provence in 2013 and that was with Patrice Chéreau who died in September. We had him for the rehearsals and it was a wonderful, careful, slow, intense time period.”
The director would pass away a short while after the performances, a huge shock for everyone involved.
“We were faced with doing it the next year in La Scala and it was revived by Van Sant Huguette, his assistant, a wonderful French director. But we were there under a veil of sadness. That was pretty much the same cast and we tried our best.”
The prospect of bringing the production to the Met was something that Pieczonka cherished not only because it was the North American premiere but there was a new singer in the lead role.
“Nina Stemme had come to Aix, she met Patrice. So here in New York, it was exciting to do it with Nina and there were some other changes to the cast. We had Eric Owens and many of the maids were different. But we had Esa Pekka [Salonen]. It was so great to feel the New York reception and it was so well received.”
“Well received” is possibly the understatement of the opera world this past year. Not only did the production receive raves, but it was presented Live in HD.
Pieczonka took a break from the production when it was showcased in Helsinki, Finland but she returned for two more revivals. These final two productions presented a reunion but new musical experiences.
“I did Berlin and Barcelona. Berlin was with [Daniel] Barenboim which was quite different. He shook things up from a musical standpoint. We were back to nearly the original cast with Evelyn [Herlitzius as Elektra] and in Barcelona, we had a Spanish conductor.”
The long wait to singing this opera has not only paid off but changed Pieczonka’s life.
“I made some key friendships. One with Roberta Alexander who played the fifth maid. She became a dear friend and I’ve sung with Waltraud [Meier] and Evelyn [Herlitzius] other times and they’re wonderful colleagues and friends of mine. We all felt this angel of Patrice looking down. It was a wonderful journey that we all felt blessed to be involved in.”
After four years doing the production, it will finally get a revival at the Metropolitan Opera in the 2017-18 season with a completely different cast. As expected, Pieczonka has mixed feelings.
“I know it’s coming back to the Met without me and I’m kind of happy. It’s okay. We had four years of it and it was a great run. And I feel like I did it and its time to pass on the torch and it will be great with whoever. There will be, however, a bittersweet thing knowing that it’s on.”