When Eva-Maria Westbroek learnt that she was going to play Minnie the heroine of Puccini’s opera La fanciulla del West she cracked open at least one bottle of champagne! That may sound like extravagant behaviour, but you could hardly accuse her of that for this was the moment when a dream came true and in a very special way. Just how special emerges when she talks about how her career has developed. It’s a success story that already includes two acclaimed appearances at Covent Garden, both under the baton of Antonio Pappano, first Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk and then as Sieglinde in Wagner’s Ring Cycle.
But let’s start at the beginning and a time when she would never have guessed the role that opera would come to play in her life. “We weren’t really into opera in my house, although we had the odd record – Kathleen Ferrier, for example. Nevertheless I did develop an ear for classical music because my dad was an amateur pianist with a great love of the instrument and we always had music on. But in my own little room it was Mahalia Jackson that I listened to. I’ve recently listened to her again and, my God, what a woman! She was phenomenal. I heard Billie Holiday too and really wanted to sing, so my dad suggested that I go and have lessons. The teacher I found was a fantastic, inspiring lady. She was Bulgarian and, despite being an older woman, she was flamboyant and beautiful with it and I went to her because her teaching extended to jazz. But as soon as she heard me she said: ‘Oh, no! You have to sing opera’. It seems appropriate to ask Eva-Maria if this surprised her: “Very much!”
The conversion was swift, however. “The teacher gave me a recording that I remember to this day: Sutherland and Pavarotti in Traviata. I heard it and I was smitten: it was like ‘This is it! This is it!’. At that moment I felt this fire ignite within me and knew that it was what I wanted to do. My mother bought me a boxed set of recordings of opera arias including some by Callas, but the one I played over and over was by Renata Tebaldi. Every evening after listening to it I went to sleep dreaming of singing that music.” Tebaldi was herself a famous Minnie and Eva-Maria was nineteen when she first encountered this La fanciulla del West. “It immediately became my absolute number one, my favourite of all operas, so it was one of the roles I dreamed of singing one day and I bought this DVD of it which I watched a trillion times. What’s so amazing is that it was a DVD of this very Covent Garden production. It featured Carol Neblett and Plácido Domingo who were in its first staging here in 1977 and again later. So I’m over the moon to be doing the role in this particular production. When Covent Garden called me and said ‘Would you be interested?’ I just thought I was going to die because it really was a dream come true. It still took a couple of months to decide if it was indeed going to happen and when it was confirmed I was so happy that I just had to reach for the champagne.”
Before talking about this particular opera, we discuss other aspects of her career to date. It emerges that her very first operatic role was at Aldeburgh in 1994 when she appeared in Poulenc’s The Dialogue of the Carmelites, but when she found work with the Stuttgart Opera in 2001 it marked the end of a rather difficult period for her. “It is sometimes hard for singers in the beginning, and I had the sort of dramatic voice that people didn’t expect in someone who was 26 or 27. I kept being told that I was too young for my voice, and being accepted by Stuttgart meant so much to me not just because it got me back into work but because it supplied the experience that I so obviously needed. I went to audition because they were looking for a Gutrune and not only did I get that but they offered me the role of Gerhilde, one of the Valkyries in Die Walküre”.
Eva-Maria’s success at Stuttgart was such that she remained there on a fixed contract until 2006 ultimately earning the House’ special award of Kammersängerin. “It was a beautiful theatre with a fabulous group of people and in that atmosphere everyone works really hard because there’s this interest in you and in trying to get the best out of you. Someone would attend every show to see how you were doing and to give advice. So I welcomed it for that, and also for teaching me so much about getting on to a stage, learning how to be yourself there, controlling your fear and enjoying it, and also teaching you how to collaborate with the conductor.”
On occasion the repertoire at Stuttgart would take Eva-Maria into unfamiliar areas. “When that happens it’s a different experience. We did Franz Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten and I thought that the music was stunningly beautiful which made it fun at first and it was remarkable production. But the story of that opera is horrible, very perverted, and that made it hard to do night after night. Being in it meant that I got offers of other stuff that seemed similar – I did Martinů’s Julietta in Bregenz and elsewhere a concert version of Die Bakchantinnen by Egon Wellesz. Consequently, a man came up to me, a man from Salzburg, and he said: ‘You are really doing the interesting repertoire’. But I said ‘No, what I want to sing is Manon Lescaut and Leonora in La forza del destino. I wasn’t happy when it looked as though I might be pigeon-holed in that other repertoire because, interesting as they are, those operas don’t give me the same vocal satisfaction that I get from composers like Puccini, Strauss or Verdi.”
Eva-Maria has performed in the concert hall in works such as Verdi’s Requiem, Dvořák’s Stabat Mater and Beethoven’s Choral Symphony but has never had the drive to attempt recitals. “I just love opera so much”, she says, thus confirming that she is very much a stage animal. It’s clear too that the stage roles that she favours – they are not merely the ones that happen to come her way – are dramatic parts marked by their intensity. It could be that this preference is linked to her early enthusiasm for Jackson and Holiday and, indeed, Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel. “I find it really difficult to just stand there and sing, whereas with a dramatic role I can throw myself into it and lose myself in the process. That’s what I love, and I guess I have always been drawn to the melancholy side of life and to music that expresses that. I’ve always liked songs that made me cry instead of being into happy dance songs. I don’t know why: maybe I should see a therapist!” She laughs.
On paper La fanciulla del West, otherwise known as The Girl of the Golden West, might not seem to fit the bill since it is one of the few Italian dramatic operas in which the lovers go off together at the end. Yet such is the depth of this work that this is no simplistic happy ending but one that also expresses the sadness of farewell in moving away to an uncertain future. That it is very much an Italian opera despite being located in California in the 1850s is something about which Eva-Maria is adamant. “Puccini may have used an American setting, but the music is very Italianate and being set during the Gold Rush it’s in no way like the America we know now. It’s the beginning of the Americas, and what is significant is that it’s a far-off place. What I love about it is the people. They are so far from home in their quest for gold and one of them even has a nervous breakdown because he is away from his mother and can’t deal with it any more.”
If the characters in this opera appeal to her on a broad basis, it is Minnie herself who has won Eva-Maria’s heart. “What makes me love her so much is that she’s so honest and truthful. She flourishes in this setting, but she’s not tough as such. The fact is that she is very spiritual and talks about the divine light that in her eyes exists in everyone. The Bible-reading scene is very important. She feels this God-love and she is spreading that around in a way that makes people love her, which is why nobody takes advantage of her because they wouldn’t want to hurt her. She has strength, certainly, but what counts most is the fact that she is pure of heart.”
However, there is no risk of the character appearing impossibly saint-like, especially in the light of the various developments that occur in the Second Act. Early on here Minnie prepares herself to entertain the stranger with whom she has fallen in love on sight, this being Dick Johnson who, unknown to her, is the bandit Ramerrez. Already in the closing moments of Act One Minnie has shown her insecurity by referring to herself as being of no value to anyone. Eva-Maria believes that this is emotional insecurity in the face of a man for whom she feels not only love but also intense admiration. “I think a lot of people feel like that on coming across someone they fancy. She is so overwhelmed by it that her preparations for him in the Second Act are excessive. I can identify with that: I did it myself on occasion when going out with someone, dressing up way too much and putting on layers of make-up!”
As the Second Act proceeds, the drama intensifies with Minnie hiding Johnson after he has been wounded (a scene in which falling drops of blood revealing his presence strikes one as Hitchcockian). Next she confronts the sheriff Jack Rance who also loves her and who, having discovered Johnson’s presence, is prepared to risk losing his man if he can win Minnie by making the outcome turn on the result of a poker game. “It’s all so dramatic and the director, Piero Faggioni, is a superstar in the way he handles every little move, every gesture. This Act transforms Minnie into an amazing woman: she becomes a tigress in her determination to save the man she loves. She has never played at cards before but she is prepared to gamble on a game in the course of which she will cheat to win. It’s all wonderfully portrayed and I think that if people listen to this opera and really get to know it they will come to love it just as much as they love Tosca”. Paying tribute to Antonio Pappano, the Royal Opera’s Music Director, she adds that she is delighted to be working with him again because, apart from his other qualities, he knows so much about the voice and gives such helpful tips (“Everything is easier when you sing with Tony”). It may be significant that whereas revivals often bring a change of conductor, this fanciulla is being conducted by him just like the last revival in 2005. There is another Pappano involvement too: “His wife, Pam, is playing for the rehearsals as our pianist so I’m guessing that they are both big fans of La fanciulla del West.”
Finally, one point relevant not just to this but to every occasion when Eva-Maria Westbroek appears in a performance: what matters most to her, the realisation of the music as the composer wanted it or the projection of a character in a way that conveys all the emotion to the audience? “Doing the former helps towards the latter, but the real goal undoubtedly is to aim for both.”
- The opening night of La fanciulla del West is 16 September 2008 at 7.00 and runs until 29 September
- Box office: 020 7304 4000
- Royal Opera