Sibling rivalry can prove very productive and a case in point, or so it would seem, is the effect that it had on the Swedish soprano Agneta Eichenholz. When we meet at Covent Garden, where Agneta is about to make her debut there as Lulu in Alban Berg’s opera, I ask if she comes from a musical family whose interests shaped her own, but her reply reveals a very different story.
“My family have always supported me very much, but my parents were not musical at all. The fact is that I was vying with my bigger brother: he was the one who was good at sports and in school, but he didn’t like to play the piano or to sing. So that was what I turned to, and it was also, I think, a way of getting my parents’ attention. I would sing in churches and at some concerts, but with my family not being involved in music I didn’t know anything about making a living from it. What I did was just for fun, but, having been born in Malmö, I developed this ambition to sing on the big stage there and I went along for an audition. They asked me to sing two opera arias, but I knew only one: so I performed that and then I did a song, and I got the job. That was how I started out and it was in a musical Kristina Från Duvemåla by the Abba people Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus. After that I started to sing a little bit more opera and it was around then that I met my husband. That was in Malmö, but he came from Stockholm and that was really why I moved there. It led to my taking a job in the chorus at the Royal Opera for a couple of years – at which point I thought that having reached the age of twenty-eight I had to see whether or not a solo career was possible for me.”
Training at Stockholm’s University College of Opera confirmed Agneta’s potential and, while it is Berg’s Lulu that brings her to London, the repertoire in which she established herself was very different. “I know for sure that Mozart and Verdi feel quite natural to me, so it’s by design that they feature strongly in my work. I will go back to them after Lulu, and I know already that I will be returning next to the role of Konstanze in Die Entführung. You need Mozart just to stay healthy in your voice, and I start every morning by singing some Mozart. That’s especially the case now that I’m preparing the role of Lulu because it’s the only way to know that my voice is in good shape. I always go back to Mozart.”
It is indeed the case that several Mozart roles have come Agneta’s way, but her repertoire also extends to a number of French works and to Italian pieces other than those by Verdi. It’s true that her most recent stage appearance in Stockholm was in Rigoletto but roles such as Norina in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale and Eurydice in Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld make it less surprising that, like Angelika Kirchschlager and Simon Keenlyside, she has also chosen to tour with a programme of operetta.
“Doing that and singing Mozart are not so different: in both you have to keep the lightness. So it’s not really easier to sing something from operetta than to do a big Mozart aria – it’s just that it should look like it’s easier! It’s not quite so difficult with Verdi because there you find the expression in the acting and the singing going more in the same direction and consequently you can rely even more on the acting. And that’s yet more so in the case of Lulu. At this stage I don’t really think about the singing – I just go for the acting, and hopefully I catch something through that!”
At first sight Lulu is so far removed from Agneta’s main repertoire that I find myself wondering if her performances in less familiar pieces are any kind of precursor. I note, for example, that she appeared in a work which dates from 1943, Lycksalighetens ö (The Isle of Bliss) and composed by a Swedish composer who has been described as a modernist. Is that a pointer? “I must say that Hilding Rosenberg is very much a composer in the romantic idiom, much more that than modern. There’s some really good music in that piece, but it’s not often done even in Sweden.” If that doesn’t fit the bill, what about another work that she has performed in the concert hall, Förklädd Gud (God in Disguise)? After all Lars-Erik Larsson, who composed it in 1940, did study with Berg. “That’s a really, really famous piece back home, and typically Swedish. It too is very romantic with a bit of folk-music in it also, and it’s a piece that seems to belong to an earlier era. I had no idea that he studied with Berg.” In the circumstances, in terms of modern drama it’s probably true to say that her nearest previous approach to a work as dramatic as Lulu is Udo Zimmermann’s opera The White Rose in which she appeared as Sophie Scholl who died at the hands of the Nazis. “It’s very hard to do because it concentrates on her last hours in jail prior to her execution, but it’s a really interesting piece and probably of all recent operas the one most often staged, certainly in Germany.”
The present production of Lulu will in due course travel to Madrid when Agneta will be one of the artists reprising her role there. The director is Christof Loy and, as it turns out, Agneta’s connection with him is more relevant to how she came to do this role than any consideration of her previous work. “The first time I met Christof was in Copenhagen when doing Lucio Silla and he then asked me to come with him to Frankfurt to sing Fiordiligi. It was while rehearsing that that he asked me if I had ever looked at the role of Lulu. I said that I hadn’t, but we didn’t really discuss it much. However he brought me the score and I found that the role was not quite as high as I had assumed. So I learnt a bit of it, and about six weeks later I met Tony Pappano who is conducting this London staging in order to see what he would think about my taking the part. At that meeting he asked me what I thought about the role and then said ‘Why do you want to sing it?’ So I said ‘I don’t know really, but Christof asked me to!’ The fact was that at that stage it was all so new to me, but I had come to trust Christof totally – so much so that I took the view that if he was asking me to do this role then he knew what he was talking about. So that’s how it happened: we’ve started now and done quite a lot of rehearsals already and we shall see where we end up.”
Of course, some things may change as rehearsals develop, but there’s one aspect already established that may surprise an outsider who knows something of the intense drama of Lulu. It’s the fact that everybody is having fun. This is how Agneta puts it: “When you are doing a really serious piece like this, you have to laugh a lot because otherwise you’d go crazy. It’s when you are doing a lighter opera or an operetta that the rehearsals tend to take a serious tone throughout.”
The need for some relaxation from the tensions of the work is certainly understandable, and especially so for the performer appearing in the title role who bears the challenge of being on the stage almost the whole time. “With other works you can go out and see the part of it that you are not in, and sense something of the production from that; but I cannot do that here and I just have to go by the feelings I have when I am on stage.
Reaching those feelings is, of course, the outcome of much work and a long period of preparation, one that begins well ahead of any rehearsals and then develops through them. First there is the history to consider. In creating his opera just before his death in 1935 Berg was drawing on Frank Wedekind’s play Pandora’s Box written around the turn of the last century, a work which had been filmed quite brilliantly by G. W. Pabst in 1929. Widekind in presenting Lulu had portrayed her as a femme fatale pursued by men to satisfy their lust, an attitude that Lulu had possibly encountered from the age of twelve. Most of her admirers seek to take advantage of her and she, in turn, manipulates those around her, but with one significant difference: unlike those married men who would want her as their mistress and act hypocritically, she is always open about her desires. Two men, one being Doctor Schön who hopes to keep her as his mistress following his marriage, end up dead, and of all those who seek to possess her only one loves her to the extent of being willing to sacrifice themselves for her and that is Countess Geschwitz.
Wedekind, it would seem, spoke of his creation as representing the destructive side of feminine nature, not nurturing but devouring – if that is your view of Lulu, then the fact that she eventually flees scandal in Europe only to end up in London as a street-walker means that she is a victim who deserves her fate. Her last client, Jack the Ripper, no less, kills her. But in Pabst’s film Louise Brooks shows us a Lulu who in a corrupt society is acting on her own terms, embracing more honestly the sexual freedoms allowed to men and even to some extent choosing her own end so that through this interpretation Brooks’s Lulu has become something of a feminist icon. Not least when it comes to the final scene, the opera to Berg’s own libretto is more abrupt, thus leaving open the possibility of differing interpretations. So does Agneta look outside the opera in taking a view of her role?
“I started by reading the play because that way you get a little bit more information about Lulu, and I watched several films that I could connect with it, such as the versions of Lolita, but I was unable to see the Pabst. But it’s before I start to rehearse that I get all the information I can, and from then on I try to take as much as possible from within myself. But it’s not easy with Lulu because there are so many aspects of her. However I do think that in one way she’s just a normal person and what makes her start to take such extreme actions is the way people treat her. Once you understand that you can bring a lot to the part from inside yourself.”
This process of seeing further into Lulu’s character is, of course, being developed through what Christof Loy as director and Antonio Pappano as conductor bring to the work as well as by the contributions of the other singers. “Christof and Tony do whatever is needed to help you and they work so well together. If something seems to be missing, they will solve the problem through the action and the music together. I have never been in a group where all of us are so clearly working towards the same goal. Sometimes Christof just waits to see what is coming from the singers and uses that in the best way possible, and that’s particularly the case regarding Lulu’s relationship with Doctor Schön where he takes account of what we, Michael Volle and I, are bringing to it as persons. I feel that Lulu often acts by instinct and is very natural, so she can behave badly just to survive or when somebody else has treated her in that way. But I think that her love for Schön is very important for her – it becomes her only goal to find a truly great love in him: it’s as though she’s addicted or blinded. In the end she’s quite happy to let go, even to get killed by Jack the Ripper, and in this production with Michael playing both the roles Jack does indeed look like Schön and Lulu thinks of him as Schön.”
Berg’s score (left unfinished and played here in Friedrich Cerha’s three-act completion) might be considered difficult music, but Agneta believes that audiences can respond at whatever stage they are at in appreciating what Berg is doing. For the newcomer, it’s the drama that speaks, and then, as you become more familiar with the score, it is the colours above all that make it meaningful, that rather than anything that derives from a greater understanding of the technique. In talking of the orchestration, she cites as a significant example the sensuous and sexy feeling that a saxophone brings to the score.
“The more you come to know it, the more you get out of it, and I find that every day I am discovering fresh things in it. I am like Lulu herself in that I am going by my instincts and hopefully while discovering more about her I will also sing some right notes too! But the aim is more than that and it lies in the fusion of the music and the text and in the emotions that come from that.”
Enough has been said to stimulate the interest of those unfamiliar with Lulu while for those who know it Agneta reveals that they are in for a surprise at the close. This relates to Countess Geschwitz. “It’s hard for me that Lulu treats her so badly because she is the one character who does not deserve it. But she’s very important to the work because her feelings are so strong that her love can survive the way in which she is treated. In that sense she is stronger than Lulu, and this production ends by emphasising this in a way that differs from other productions. But what’s so wonderful here is to be in this world of music where the acting is not operatic but more of the kind you get in the cinema. Hopefully all this will come together so that we can make of this complex work something that the audience will understand.”
- Six performances – from Thursday 4 June until Saturday 20 June at 6.30 p.m.
- Box office: 020 7304 4000
- Royal Opera