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Beata i Michał Olszewscy
opera.info.pl - 11/05/2015

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"I'm not a prima donna" - interview with Nina Stemme

Polish version Flaga polska


Interview with Nina Stemme took place in Vienna on October 15 this year. With outstanding soprano talked Beata and Michal Olszewscy.

Nina Stemme photo (c) Tanja Niemann published by opera.info.pl by courtesy of Nina Stemme
Kliknij zdjęcie, aby powiększyć... / Click to magnify...

Madam, first of all, we would like to say “thank you very much” for yesterday’s performance of “La Fanciulla del West”, which for us and the audience of Wiener Staatsoper was a wonderful and touching experience. This Puccini’s masterpiece seems to be very demanding for singers. Playing and singing a pure heart and lyrical Minnie in the first act of the opera and then, in next scenes, taking dramatic fight to save the life of the beloved person looks to be a very difficult task both from vocal and emotional point of view.

That is true. I called this role my Puccini’s Brünnhilde. It’s not even Isolde, it’s Brünnhilde, because it’s very dramatic. Also as Brünnhilde you don’t need to be as girlish and as pure as Minnie. Because it is worth noticing that Minnie has a very pure side, while at the same time she is very tough.  And when she is threatened in the second act, she is throwing her pure side overboard. 

Being Minnie is also a very difficult task because all the time my singing is geared and monitored by my emotions. So, I have to have my emotions there, but at the same time I also have to know technically how do I get from here to there, how I will show the emotional transformation of Minnie.

Nina Stemme (Minnie) "La Fanciulla del West" photo (c) Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pohn published by opera.info.pl by courtesy of the Wiener Staatsoper 
 Kliknij zdjęcie, aby powiększyć... / Click to magnify...

When you are on stage during such dramatically demanding scenes, what do you feel? Apart of the fact that you have to think about the music, the text and all technical issues,  there is at the same time a lot of interactions between you and the stage partners, an interaction between you and the audience, that is watching and listening to you closely. Do you feel the presence of the audience, this sort of a “tension in the air”?

Of course, I do! Especially here, in Vienna. But this is something I think of before I go on stage. This is a moment, when I analyze deeply: “how do I feel today?”, ”where is my voice?”, “where is my technique?”, “how can I get this together with the emotions”, because all these elements have to happen at once. During the performance nobody should see, that all the time I think technically. That’s why the rehearsals’ period is so important. During this time I register what I have to do in individual moments of the performance and how I have to manage my singing.

Have you decided to sing in Puccini’s “La Fanciulla…”because of its beauty or because you would like to sing also Italian repertoire apart of Wagnerian roles? It seems to us that Italian and Wagnerian styles of singing are slightly different. Looking from this perspective we would like to ask you whether it is easy to sing both Puccini and Wagnerian heroines, to “mix” these two repertoires?

I  develop my technique so I could sing both repertoires. I think, it’s actually the same type of singing, but Puccini’s Italian is just a different language, so it is placed slightly differently in the mouth. Also phrasing is totally different. You don’t have time to create deep, middle range. If you try to do this, you would not be able to reach the top. But it’s still the same instrument. Of course, I can’t sing Puccini with the same attitude as I sing Wagner. But it all happens in my head. It is like “switching gear in a car”. I would not sing Brünnhilde today, having sung in “La Fanciulla…” yesterday. However, I still think it’s all about the music and I want to create roles and to keep Italian repertoire as long as possible.

Nina Stemme "Tristan und Isolde" photo (c) Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pohn published by opera.info.pl by courtesy of the Wiener Staatsoper
Kliknij zdjęcie, aby powiększyć... / Click to magnify... 

Some time ago you mentioned, in one of your interviews, that it is very important when being a Wagnerian singer to maintain Italian roles in your repertoire, because there is a risk of losing flexibility in singing. Is it a real threat?

I think that Wagner has to be sung legato and with the starting point in belcanto. I believe also this is a way Wagner wanted it. At his time there weren’t any Wagnerian singers. They simply sung music and that was it. This is something I want to keep or go back to when performing Wagnerian roles. I also think, that there is no difference really between Italian and Wagnerian singing. Of course, it takes much more stamina and a different kind of training, while you have to sustain each note and keep each note alive in Wagner. In Verdi and Puccini you have the phrasing, which you, as a singer, have to have in mind from the beginning. You have to phrase it in a certain way with the orchestra. In Wagner you have actually each syllable to work with, which I find very beautiful. You are much closer to the text. That’s why “La Fanciulla…” is more often sung by Wagnerian singers, because for the first time Puccini really describes the drama and the text in the orchestra. It’s not just musical phrases.

Could you tell us about your way of preparing for a new role?

I’m listening to the music, read the text and try to go to the sources, what means to the score and original play, if I have a play. For example, it was hard to find a play, when I started to prepare for “La Fanciulla…”, but there is a little novel, a book that was written and was very popular at that time. So, when I was reading it, I tried to find out what inspired Puccini and what were his intentions. I looked what David Belasco wrote and then, what Puccini chose and how does it influence the role of Minnie. I asked myself the question: “does she become tougher or less tough in her relationship to the men?”. Because sometimes Puccini made her more sentimental, than I would like to. Then I  listen to the music, I learn it and I try to feel always the subtext, so called “the meaning behind the lines”.

Nina Stemme photo (c) Tanja Niemann published by opera.info.pl by courtesy of Nina Stemme
 Kliknij zdjęcie, aby powiększyć... / Click to magnify...

Do you listen to old recordings? We are asking this question, because some other singers told us that they tried to avoid it. They believed, that there is a risk of being influenced by the performance of other singers.  What is your opinion on this issue?

I almost always listen to old performances. We have an access to so many good recordings, so why to avoid them? For me it would be like trying to “invent a wheel again”. I’m inspired by them, but I can never imitate them. I listen to five different recording at least, if there are so many. Then I forget it. When I’ve completed my own studies, then I can’t listen anymore, because at that moment I have usually  got my own picture of the role. Maybe it’s not a verbal picture, it’s more like an idea or a vision. There are also some secrets about the character that I want to keep from the director or my colleagues. These are things very clear only to me and  I want to show them later on stage.

You’ve said once, that you always want to be a part of the team of artists, when rehearsing and preparing for the opera. You’ve also declared that you love to cooperate with the director and other singers in finding the best artistic way to perform your role. However, sometimes directors thinks of you as “a star” and  give you a freedom to create your role by yourself. In such cases do you have to struggle for let’s say “equal” position in a team?

Yes, I do. In this production of “La Fanciulla…” we had a very nice team, but still it happened sometimes, that the director said to me: “this I leave entirely to you”. So, I had to answer like: “No, I’m not a “primadonna”.”  As an artist you always need to have an eye and ear from outside to feel free on stage. I have to get all these remarks like: “You can do this” or “You can go this far, but not further”. Otherwise, without such support, I risk to behave wrong on stage. This is a real danger for an artist.

During the rehearsals period, we had a unique occasion to observe you and Tomasz Konieczny in the very dramatic and difficult poker scene from the second act of “La Fanciulla…”. We noticed how tired both of you were after this rehearsal. It looked like a very exhausting work to put together singing, playing on stage as well as showing emotions.

Yes, it was. When for the first time you are doing such demanding scene like this, there are so many components you have to think about. Obviously, there is a music, which you have to take into consideration. But as the conductor was not present at this rehearsal, you have also to count all the time. You have to think, what would happen, if the conductor beats up a tempo in this part or he gives us more time. Such situation required, that later on we had to talk to the conductor, Franz Welser-Möst, to make sure, that he would give us enough time when we needed it, to be able to sing and play in a credible way.

proms die walkure2
Kliknij zdjęcie, aby powiększyć... / Click to magnify... 

We would like to come back for a moment to your Wagner repertoire. Your last season was full of Wagner. In May and June you sung Brünnhilde in “The Ring Cycle” as well as Isolde at the Wiener Staatsoper, whereas in July you took a part of Brünnhilde in concert version of “The Ring Cycle” under Mr. Daniel Barenboim on BBC Proms. We saw most of these unforgettable and touching performances. The atmosphere at the Royal Albert Hall, in which more than eight thousands people were listening to you in absolute concentration and silence, was something exceptional. We had a feeling that we participate in something special. How is it to sing in such unique circumstances?

At the beginning it was hard. For me that was quite a new experience to sing this long role for the first time with Staatskapelle Berlin. Earlier, I have only sung under Daniel Barenboim in “Die Walküre” in Milan, at La Scala.

During “Die Walküre” on BBC Proms there was a moment, when I reacted for example too fast. Then, the conductor stopped me and I thought “oh dear I’m in troubles…” and in this very moment I forgot words. It was the first time in my career, when it happened and it triggered me to be even more concentrated during the rest of “The Ring Cycle”.

But I felt very honored that Daniel Barenboim has trusted me. Daniel Barenboim has been working for twenty two years with this orchestra and I could feel this being on stage. For the first time I heard conductor, who was not trying to cover the singers. You have probably noticed that the orchestra was all the time at the same level as singers, for the whole concert!

Yes, it is true. After “The Ring Cycle” on BBC Proms we wrote that we had never heard in Wagner repertoire the singers, who were able to whisper and the orchestra did not disturb them. But singing in the concert version of “The Ring Cycle”, without a prompter, it had to be a very difficult task.

Of course, it was, but I tried to transform it into something positive. I knew that you and everybody in the audience wanted to have a nice and incredible experience. And so did I, of course. So, I tried to change that nervousness into concentration and focusing.

In London, during “Götterdämmerung”, when you sung your part, we noticed stunned people shaking their heads, like not believing that someone may sing this role in such  beautiful way, with such voice stability. Also, this May after “Die Walküre” in Vienna it was written, that from the times of Birgit Nilsson the audience of the Wiener Staatsoper had again the opportunity to hear a great performance of Brünnhilde.  How have you achieved such level of comfort in singing Wagner repertoire?

Nina Stemme "Die Walkurie" photo (c) Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pohn published by opera.info.pl by courtesy of the Wiener Staatsoper 
 Kliknij zdjęcie, aby powiększyć... / Click to magnify...

Of course, it takes time. Before I sang my first Isolde, which was the first step into this heavy repertoire, I had sung only the Wagner “lights”. I learnt Wagner step by step. I tried to learn something from each performance and also to collect experience. I was trying to make a few concerts before singing the whole “Ring”, because that helped me to realize how much effort must be paid. You have also to tell yourself, what it is like singing this piece with the fresh voice. It’s like with the sportsman telling your muscular memory and your emotions that “this is the state I want to reach” at the end of the night. And, if you are lucky, you are there.

I have trained to sing Wagner at least twenty years. And then, I have trained into hoch dramatische repertoire since eight or even ten years. Because I think that one can sing Isolde with the lyric dramatic voice as well, but Brünhilde forget it! And I do not really know what it is. Maybe because it is so saturated and low, and then so extremely high.

We would like to ask: have you ever met Birgit Nilsson? Have you had any opportunities to talk to her on Wagnerian roles and to learn something from her?

Yes, once I have asked her a question and she said: “Oh, I don't know, but maybe it’s this or this”. This was a time, when I have had a range, where the stability was very insecure in the voice in one transition and when I was still singing quite light repertoire.

I regret that I did not take the chance further, because she really trusted me and trusted in me. When I had got a scholarship in 1996, after I had sung my first “Madame Butterfly”, I was about to sing “Tosca”. At that moment, I felt that I should keep in touch with her, so I sent her a fax and she always answered me. There were three or four more letters that I sent. Once, I said to her: “I am singing Senta now and this is really my limit” and then she answered me: “I don't think it is your limit and I already  know you would be singing Isolde and I wish you luck with it”. She did not say: “Oh no, you should not do this”.  So, I realized that I really had to prepare to this, as it is all in preparation. I think there is a technique to sing this repertoire, but it’s all in preparation. Of course, you have to have your own fantasy of what you would like to sound like. There are also many other elements helping you to create it: luck, good health and wonderful family that supports you.

One has to be also matured to sing well dramatic and challenging repertoire.

Yes, that’s what I believe.

Nina Stemme and Jonas Kaufmann "La Fanciulla del West" photo (c) Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pohn published by opera.info.pl by courtesy of the Wiener Staatsoper
Kliknij zdjęcie, aby powiększyć... / Click to magnify... 

There are some roles of young girls and women in the operas, like in “La Fanciulla …”, that it is hard to imagine, that they may be performed by a young singer, who does not have an adequate amount of life experience.

Exactly. The only exception I can think of is Astrid Varnay.  If you hear her first Brünnhilde at the MET, when she was twenty three years old! First, she sang Sieglinde. It was her debut at the MET. And then, three weeks after, she made her Brünnhilde debut. I’ve got goose bumps already when I recall it. When you listen to it, you think it’s not possible. But she was so well prepared and she was so well taken care of. If you read her memoires, she was not allowed to sing more than twelve performances per year at the MET. The rest was preparation. And this is, what we lack today. At that time, it was the conductors, who prepared the singers. I’ve tried this today, and there are some very good conductors, that can really prepare you. Others have lost perspective of the singers’ point of view. They can play the piano, they know what happens in the orchestra, but they have to step out of that role and just teach the singers. That would be very helpful for us and for sustained career.

The similar issue was underlined by Mariusz Kwiecień, with whom we talked after his „Don Carlo” debut at the Royal Opera House. He told us that one of the persons, from whom he learned the most was Mr Antonio Pappano.

Antonio Pappano is one of those conductors.

If we ask you what is your beloved Wagnerian role, what would be your answer? Is it Isolde?

It is hard to tell now. Isolde, yes. That’s the role that I do not sing too often, but I want to keep it because it’s so long and so beautiful. But “Götterdämmerung”’s Brünhilde is also very beautiful. That’s about changing the world, there I feel like I reach out to people’s hearts. That’s almost like creating peace on earth. And then Isolde is more a personal story about our relationship to love or to longing actually. It’s more about longing.

Some time ago you also said that you would like to sing  Mélisande, is it still the role you dream of? What other roles would you like to sing in the future?

If you talk about dreams yes, but this is not a dream I am going to fulfil, as this is a role that young mezzo or soprano should sing. With the years my voice tells more about myself than I want to admit, and this is not what I would like to hear from Mélisande. But it is still one of my favourite operas and if  you talk about things I miss not having sung, that would be one of them.

Talking about my future role, I am starting to work on Elektra, which I am very much looking forward to. Despite the fact that many people are  saying “be careful”!

Nina Stemme photo (c) Tanja Niemann published by opera.info.pl by courtesy of Nina Stemme
 Kliknij zdjęcie, aby powiększyć... / Click to magnify...

Why “be careful”?

Because it is a very orchestrated piece. But actually, I think that Strauss also wanted the colours from the instrumentation, not the force. This opera needs a very good conductor, who can “mould like a piece of clay”, “needle and mould” the orchestra and the singers. It also has a fantastic text from Hofmannsthal, but because the women’s parts are so high, it is actually very difficult to project the text.

We have read that in the past you studied business administration and accounting. It seems to be very far from your current profession. Does it mean that you have doubts about becoming the opera singer?

At the beginning I wasn’t sure at all of going to opera. I come from sort of an academic family, my mother studied sociology, my father architecture and city planning. Music was a normal, amateur part of our life and I loved music, I could not live without it, but it took me many years until I had the courage to go in this direction. I played the viola for years and I realized, that I am not getting good enough. Moreover, I did not think I was the person, although I feel like an ensemble person, to be able to sit in the orchestra, which would be the highest achievement. So, then I started to take voice lessons, just to explore my voice and see what happens. It was like a journey that you are on. When you start to pull the thread and then more and more comes. And I was over twenty, twenty seven really, when I decided to go for it.

When did you start to believe that this is your way of life? Did you get such confidence because you won Operalia… ?

That was before. We have the public music school in Stockholm in Sweden and there, I was able to play piano and viola, so I had the opportunity to learn a lot for almost no money. That is why I always preach, that we need public music and cultural schools. In that school I had one key experience, which was singing in front of adult group of people, mostly our parents. There was one person accompanied me on guitar, while I sang songs, quite newly written in very simple style, but with beautiful texts written by Swedish and Finnish poets. And then, for the first time I felt I could really reach and have a dialog with the audience, because these texts meant much to me. Of course, when you have the experience that you have this dialog, you are very excited and very curious what that might lead you to. Then after that, what I went through it was heaven and hell, because I had to change my technique. I was about twenty, when this experience happened and I had to change my voice teachers quite a few times.

You started as a mezzo…?

I sang mezzo repertoire, however  I was never a mezzo really.

But someone told you that you are a mezzo ?

Yes, because they heard my speaking voice, which was not so low at that time, however many people thought that if you had a low voice you had to be a mezzo singer. But that was not true. So, I had to rebuild my voice from the scratch. Somehow I made it. It was in the opera school at the university. During this time I stopped singing in public for almost a year to rebuild my voice. I did it because every time you have to prove something, you must take one step back, just to feel secure, instead of going with everything you have learnt new.

It had to be a hard task to rebuild the voice, to change repertoire?

Actually, my middle range got better after I started with the soprano repertoire. Most difficult was the pressure you got from outside. The board of the school wanted to “kick me out”, because I wasn’t singing in public. I wasn’t able to give them a proof that I’m developing, but at that moment, I couldn’t.

Who offered you a decisive support at that time?

The principal Kerstin Meyer, Swedish mezzo-soprano. I went aside and sang Pamina arias just for her, just to say: “this is what I’m working on and this is what it sounds like”. And then she said: “ok, this is fine, keep on working”.

It seems that for a young singer, the good teacher is very important. Some singers say that they met teachers, who nearly ruined their voices because they forced them to sing a repertoire, for which they were not ready.

Exactly. I could hear so many voice teachers and others saying: “oh, that’s the potential for Brünnhilde” or “that’s the dramatic soprano”. That is why I have promised once to myself that I would be always happy with the repertoire I sing and make the best of it. And then for every new dramatic role my voice grew and got bigger.  It’s an endless progress. 

If we ask you about people that have the biggest impact on you in your singing life or in other words, if you think about the people, who caused that now “you are where you are”, whom you would like to mention?

Well, of course Plácido Domingo and his Operalia, because he really supported the singers,  sometimes giving us even the work opportunity. He is also very caring, as much as he can considering his busy schedule. I should also mention my voice teachers, who taught me professionality and that you have always to do better.

We would like to ask you about the Metropolitan Opera in New York. You are the rare guest there. Why?

Well, they have to offer me the right projects.

Is it true then, that in the fall in 2016 we will have a chance to see you in “Tristan und Isolde” there?

Yes, it is true.

This is a very good news! We hope that this performance will be in “MET Live HD” transmissions and the Polish opera audience will have the chance to see and hear you in it, as you have a lot of fans in Poland.

That is wonderful. Thank you very much !

Thank you so much for the interview and the time you devoted to us. We wish you all the best.


Interview for opera.info.pl Beata i Michał Olszewscy

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Polish version Flaga polska
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