A Conversation with Berit Lindholm

Written by: Alexander Campbell

On 20 March 2009 Alexander Campbell met Berit Lindholm in Stockholm to talk about her career, her voice and her recordings, quickly discovering a generous and unpretentious lady with a wry sense of humour, able to look back on her career philosophically and with a disarming perception of what she had achieved and also what not…

Berit Lindholm as Brünnhilde at the Royal Opera House

Visitors to Royal Opera’s Ring cycles in the autumn of 2007 and in the months that followed may have noticed some of the costumes from the 1970s’ Ring productions by Götz Friedrich (conducted by Sir Colin Davis) in some of the display-cases in the Floral Hall and in the entrance foyers. One such was the Brünnhilde costume worn by Swedish soprano Berit Lindholm who, along with Gwyneth Jones, sang Brünnhilde in many of the performances at that time. What struck one about that particular costume was that it must have been designed for a performer both tall and svelte – making one conjure an image of a singer far from the comic-book depictions of a heavyweight, armour-clad, helmeted Wagnerian diva.

Lindholm was one of the generation of singers, including Jones and fellow-Swede Catarina Ligendza, who immediately followed the great Birgit Nilsson in that exacting leading role, as well as in some of her other Wagnerian and Straussian parts. Yet she made few recordings of her major roles commercially, and only recently have some of her performances from private or radio tapes started to emerge. One such is a compilation of Weber, Beethoven, Puccini and Wagner arias on the Bluebell label recorded in the 1960s and 1970s, many of which originate from her private collection.

We started off talking about that Covent Garden Ring under Davis and those costumes. The costumes and designs were a strong feature of that production and Berit Lindholm proudly displays some of the original costume-design drawings on the walls of her sitting room as well as a collection of photographs of her wearing them. The designer was also Swedish (Ingrid Rosell) and they had evidently been close colleagues. Berit explained that the main costumes were rather heavy and also hot to wear as they were made largely of leather, and made heavier still by the cloaks, wings and helmet that had to be worn. Those who recall the staging will also recall that the dominating moving platforms, often suspended many feet above the stage, on which it was sometimes rather hard to move.

Berit Lindholm as Turandot

Laughingly, she described how the singers were often left standing and singing right on the edges of these moving platforms high above, faced by huge drops and with no safety net to catch any fallers: “At one point I was singing a duet in rehearsal with Donald McIntyre [Wotan] and I was standing with my back to the auditorium with a huge drop behind me when he asked me to move even closer to the edge so he could project better into the theatre space – it was so dangerous!” She also recalled how there was often a lack of space backstage where to stand with spear and shield without being visible, and that she and the other singers often had to crouch uncomfortably behind the platforms and then gradually unfold (spear tip showing first) so it looked as if they were appearing over the crest of a hill.
Very difficult!

Berit recalls much about this strikingly original production though – from the “marvellous moment” when a now feminine Brünnhilde emerges from sleep in Act Three of Siegfried from a capsule that resembled the Brünnhilde costume, to the huge magnifying lenses that dominated in Götterdämmerung. They were specially made for the production and very expensive. The sheer expense of the undertaking at a time of economic hardship was something she remembers vividly: “It must have been so costly to [put on] this cycle – as they had to completely rebuild the stage to support the machinery that moved the platforms, and this meant that no other operas or ballets could be [performed] at the same time.” She has a lot of praise for the seriousness of the Covent Garden approach to things, though.

In rehearsals Götz Friedrich and Colin Davis were always present, as was Jeffrey Tate, who at that time was acting as répétiteur. There was also a language coach (Hilde Beal) who, along with Davis, would correct any slight mispronunciation of any word, vowel sound or syllable. At the time of these Rings Lindholm had already sung several Bayreuth cycles over several summers and when Colin Davis once asked if she would “like to have some extra language coaching with Hilde?” she remembers collapsing with laughter and asking him if her performances were really that bad! Later she sang Isolde with the company, under both Davis and Zubin Mehta and discovered that this attention to linguistic detail was very much “the Covent Garden way.” She very much liked singing for Davis and recalls how his genial and flexible approach to the music always allowed the singers to feel supported and relaxed and to give of their best, and to feel confident even when things went awry.

Lindholm went on to explain that the triangle of conductor, singer and prompter was vital and how all three had to be well attuned to each other – particularly over the extended performances of the Ring operas. In her early years, certainly at the time of her Covent Garden debut, Lindholm suffered from extreme short-sightedness and that had made life difficult since she often had to memorise the number of steps and paces to find her way to the right places. The advent of good contact lenses was a great boon and by the time of the Rings she had the “vision of an eagle.”

I asked if she ever encountered Reginald Goodall, to which the reply was that he was certainly present in the House at rehearsal and performance, although their collaboration was minimal. She did recall he was very much involved with Wagner “up the road at the other house” at the time.

Berit Lindholm

We discussed her extremely speedy rise to the top of her profession. She made her debut with the Royal Opera in Stockholm in 1963, whilst in her 30s, in what sounds like a rather unlikely role for her, the Countess in Le nozze di Figaro. She went no further in Mozart – not even to Donna Anna. “My voice was big from the start” she told me, and then offered her considered explanation as to why big voices are not commonplace: “Many of the female singers of today perhaps start singing too young, and often to get experience they will sing in choirs and choruses where the young girls in particular are encouraged to keep their voices light and high – even when speaking.”

Lindholm explained that when adolescents are going through puberty it is important to allow their voices to develop and adapt to resonating naturally. Forcing, or, indeed, confining them during this period will often mean that natural development of a voice can be impaired or delayed, however well-meaning the intention. And, trying to constantly lighten and brighten the sound can also be detrimental to vocal development, particularly for bigger voices. Later on in the discussion she also contrasted singing with playing instruments: “You can have a Stradivarius violin to play, but until you have learnt to master the technical aspects of playing you will never produce a beautiful sound from it. With the voice it is even harder. You use it all the time but you cannot start from scratch – you have to learn how to use this natural instrument that you use from an early age, and try to adapt it and refine your technique constantly to allow it and you to perform at their best. It is very hard to unlearn bad technique.”

Although studying to be a teacher in her student days she sang in operas such as Gluck’s Iphigenia in Aulis (in Drottningholm) and even in Monteverdi’s Coronation of Poppea. When at the Swedish Opera School she very much valued the advice and encouragement of the head coach Kurt Bendix because he always seemed to know what was best for each singer’s development in terms of repertoire and somehow to advise on technique without introducing anxieties about the difficulties of the music.

Anxieties of this kind can really affect performance. Lindholm went on to give an example of this type of problem when describing the difficulties inherent in an aria like Leonore’s ‘Abscheulicher… …Komm, Hoffnung’ in the first act of Fidelio. For her the declamatory first passage of the aria was far less of a problem than the long and sustained lines of the ‘Komm Hoffnung’ passage in which Bendix encouraged her to sing in one long breath even when the music accelerates in the final section. On the Bluebell disc Lindholm sings it from 1965 and the evidence of this free-and-long-breathed approach is evident – even the singer seems now rather impressed with it: “I suppose I did it that way because nobody told me that was rather hard to do!” Lindholm remarked that Bendix continued to be an adviser for her and many other singers for years after they left the school; so much did they value his sage counsel.

Berit Lindholm in Tosca

The reason her Figaro debut did not herald a period of moving into the heavier Mozart, as perhaps might have been anticipated, was largely because within months of it she stood in once-again for an indisposed singer – this time as Helmwige in Die Walküre, immediately making an impression in this dramatic repertory. Her career took off rapidly. She sang Tosca and was Venus in Tannhäuser in 1964 and, in the following year, she sang Chrysothemis in Elektra at the Royal Opera in Stockholm with a cast headed by Nilsson. This caused something of a sensation and international debuts quickly followed on – Chrysothemis at Covent Garden in 1966 and Venus at Bayreuth in 1967 in the final year of a Wieland Wagner production conducted by Berislav Klobucar.

Klobucar was another conductor she sang with often and with whom, as with Davis, she found an easy collaboration. Although her early experiences of auditioning at Bayreuth for Wieland Wagner were not the easiest – she found him oddly dismissive of her at audition – the Festival committee must have realised that it had struck gold; the following year she took on the mantle of Nilsson and assumed the role of Brünnhilde in Die Walküre and Siegfried, adding the Götterdämmerung in 1970.

I asked her about Bayreuth of that time. In retrospect she does not feel she perhaps relished singing in the famous Festspielhaus acoustic as much as she should have, as she considered she was there “too early and too scared” and still very much learning her craft. This hint of a strong vein of critical self-awareness featured in the conversation many times. She was also torn, as she needed to return home to see her daughters whenever the chance arose.

She described her Wotans of the Bayreuth production with some humour. She recalled how Theo Adam, who was “not such a tall man in fact”, used to launch into their first scene of Die Walküre together by spitting out all the consonants of ‘Nun zäume dein Ross, reisige Maid’ with such an explosive force that she was always concerned he would never get through the performance with his voice intact – but he always did. And, the thrill of how “Donald McIntyre used to sweep onto the stage at his entrance in the final act with such speed and energy that it quite used to take the breath of all us Valkyries, and probably the audience, right away.” I asked about the rumours that she was a Valkyrie who eschewed diva transport and rode about the town on a bicycle called Grane? “Well, yes, I did prefer to cycle around Bayreuth – but it was Theo Adam who named the bicycle!”

Berit Lindholm as Isolde

Bayreuth remains exceptional, Berit says, as the only theatre that seems capable of mounting a full new Ring cycle in one year, when most other theatres build them up over several. She remained singing there until 1973, only missing one year in 1972 whilst recovering slowly and fully from bleeding vocal cords. After that she did not appear at the Festival again although she later became an Isolde of renown and demand; she sang the role at Covent Garden in 1973 and in 1980. In Bayreuth, as elsewhere, she often found in her early Ring cycles that she was always following Birgit Nilsson, and usually in productions that had very much been built around her particular talents: “That was quite a lot to live up to.” Nilsson was, she says, “a fun and generous colleague” and often used to jokingly refer to Berit as “die Nachfolgerin” (the one who follows on). Lindholm, smilingly, acknowledges it was meant in a friendly way but perhaps put her under pressure to emulate her famous predecessor, when in fact she had a very different voice, physique, personality and style.

Lindholm and Nilsson did sing together on many occasions, and not only in Elektra. Nilsson did one enormous favour to Lindholm’s career by referring her to a teacher called Daniel Ferro in New York, from whom she learnt a new breathing technique that stood her in good stead for the rest of her career. Indeed, she says that this incredibly deep and low breathing always meant that singing the music of composers such as Wagner and Puccini always felt very natural and comfortable as they wrote long lines that responded well to this technique. Their musical pace always felt attuned to her own physiology and she could relax. Verdi she found less sympathetic vocally although she did sing Aida, Amelia in Un ballo in maschera and Abigaille in Nabucco.

Like many powerful Brünnhildes the Puccini role she was perhaps destined to play was that of Turandot, and the Bluebell compilation includes a recording of a richly imperious ‘In questa reggia’ (sung in Swedish). She recalled how when she had been engaged to sing a new production in Cologne under Nello Santi the whole event nearly turned into a disaster when the chorus decided to go on strike just before the first night. Lindholm related how she asked Santi how he could be so ostensibly relaxed about this when everyone else was so agitated and anxious – particularly when they had to resort to a concert performance at the last minute with no rehearsal. The contrast with his anger at the chorus the next day when they all met was something else!

Strangely, for a soprano with a rather rich voice, she sang almost no Mahler. Indeed, she recalls singing in a Mahler symphony [she could not recall which] only once, leaning the part very quickly, singing it and never looking at the music again. Lindholm is very candid about the fact that her repertoire of roles was rather small; she attributes this in no small part to intendants of many opera houses who did not have the vision to think of singers in roles beyond those of their recognised fach.

Berit certainly feels that in many of the German opera houses, managements could only ever think of her in Wagner and Strauss roles and were dismissive when she suggested that she might like to sing the odd Tosca or perhaps some Verdi roles, even when she had sung such parts with good notices in Stockholm. She also described how several of these managers were, like everyone, perhaps, more interested in the latest “vocal phenomenon” rather than a singer’s long-term vocal and career development; at certain stages in her career several houses suddenly terminated contacts and that was that.

Tentatively, I asked if she had ever had the need to say “no” to any directors or conductors. About stage directors she was engagingly frank. She was never in her career asked to do anything she felt uncomfortable performing to the extent that she felt the need to withdraw. The directors she worked with were generally highly practised and dedicated to the operas. She felt that as they had been booked to do their productions as professionals then it was her job to do the same as a singer!

Not all conductors met with such unqualified approbation. She had said no to a few famous conductors including Herbert von Karajan. She had declined to take part in his recording of Die Walküre as he requested her to learn one of the other Valkyrie roles when she was already quite familiar with Helmwige, having sung it on the Decca/Solti Ring and was already established singing other, bigger Wagnerian roles. So, despite the offer of a summer in Salzburg with the promise of a more prominent role, she declined and spent a summer in Sweden with her family. She also recalled saying no to Karajan in audition when he requested Leonore’s aria from Fidelio; she did not feel she had rehearsed it well enough for audition. Karajan pointed out that she was due to open in a production some weeks later, but to absolutely no avail.

Berit Lindholm

Whilst discussing the fact that she became very much identified with certain parts in a narrow repertoire we also discussed recordings – of which very few commercial ones were made. Lindholm’s explanation of this was that although many offers were made as her career started to take off she declined them as she felt she had needed to learn her craft and her roles to fully do them justice in recording. When she reached her peak the offers were not forthcoming.

There were some missed opportunities – such as the Chrysothemis she was to have recorded under Solti for Decca (the part was eventually taken by Marie Collier). Karajan also offered the chance to record the Brünnhildes of Siegfried and Götterdämmerung but the answer was “no”. Again this was more a matter of timing and not because she had anything against him – as she remarks: “I didn’t know him.”

The most justly famous of her recordings is her intense, baleful and doom-laden Cassandra in Colin Davis’s first recording of Berlioz’s Les Troyens. She recalls how she was asked to learn the part specially for the recording, and how Davis spent much time with her and many of the singers trying to get them to sing and resonate their voices in a truly authentic French style, which she found rather difficult as it was so different to her way of singing other repertoire. She had extensive language coaching of the role too, in that “Covent Garden way”. She never sang this nor any other French role in performance, although she was offered the chance to sing in Les Troyens at the Metropolitan Opera by Goran Gentele as he was planning his early seasons there before his untimely death intervened. She thinks it would have been a hard role for her to sustain in a production for her type of voice, as the role is rather long and low and therefore difficult to perform. I asked her if she had ever been tempted by other dramatic French roles — the Old Prioress in Poulenc’s Dialogue des Carmelites – but she responds that no offer was ever forthcoming.

Doe she like to listen to her recordings? The question was considered momentarily before she described how when commercial recordings were then made one had to listen repeatedly to various versions that were taped, often before repeating them again, and then somehow these were spliced into the best version for release. It was not always the most satisfying of experiences. I asked about some of the more recently released live recordings that have lain dormant in archives that were now seeing the light of day. “The arias on the [Bluebell] disc I listened too quite closely as we chose them for it and I think they are quite good. I recently heard of a recording of a Tristan und Isolde from Amsterdam. I had to steel myself to listen to it and would not do so for many weeks but I did eventually hear it.”

In addition to her dramatic Wagner roles to which she later added Sieglinde (once only – in San Francisco to Nilsson’s Brünnhilde), Kundry and Ortrud, Lindholm also was a much-in-demand Salome; a part that she performed in Stockholm, Munich and in several other German and French opera houses. This was a role she found rewarding to play, both vocally and dramatically: “marvellous music!” Her dramatic interpretation of the role was never that Salome was in some way deranged or neurotic: “Salome and Jokanaan are really the only two normal people in the opera and the tragedy is that Salome sees in Jokanaan perhaps her sole means of escape from the stifling world of Herod’s court. She becomes fixated on this and his aloofness is really the catalyst for the disaster that then follows.”

The same problem of sanity amidst madness afflicts Chrysothemis in Elektra. When discussing this opera, which was really the launch-pad of Berit Lindholm’s career, she points out that she really enjoyed playing all the leading female parts in this opera at the various stages of her career. There are many reports that the feat of having sung all three roles in a career has only been achieved by Leonie Rysanek. In fact, Rysanek never sang the title role in a performance but only under Karl Böhm in the Götz Friedrich film. Lindholm performed all three on the stage.

Berit then surprised me by saying that she found the role of Klytemnestra to be “fun” after all those stronger Wagnerian parts. I asked what she meant: “well, she is a particularly rewarding character as she has so many problems and anxieties. She is feeling the passage of time, she is covered with jewels to try and remain youthful. She cannot sleep. She is probably alcoholic, and maybe takes drugs. She is desperately anxious about the return of her son and terrified about it as she knows what will happen if he does return. These many aspects are her all combined brilliantly in the text and these facets of her personal tragedy do bring a comic aspect to the part!”

Berit Lindholm in Die Frau ohne Schatten

She then recalls how when learning Klytemnestra she would take solitary walks on the waterfronts of the islands of Stockholm’s archipelago wearing necklaces and just trying to get herself into the mindset of being slightly mad and how she might physically portray this woman with various maniacal gestures and facial contortions. With a big smile she then said that after a while she stopped as she repeatedly got funny looks from passers-by and began to wonder if it might actually be bad for her own mental health! To judge by reports of those who saw her in the part it was one of her most successful portrayals. She also later sang the Dyer’s Wife in Die Frau ohne Schatten to acclaim.

I asked about contemporary opera. Lindholm did not venture much into new repertoire, though she did participate in the world premiere of Alexander Goehr’s Behold the Sun at Deutsche Oper am Rhein in 1985, an experience she seems to have taken in her stride, although she says the production requirements (crucifixion) in the final scenes made it very hard to sing. She remarked that like many contemporary works the opera did not really seem to have stood the test of time and then commented that often it can be difficult, and even demoralising, to devote energy to works that fail to capture the hearts of audiences.

On the discussion of audiences, Berit Lindholm was most enthusiastic about the responses to her performances at the Bolshoi. She appeared there twice; in 1971 as Isolde with the Vienna company with Wolfgang Windgassen and Jess Thomas playing Tristan, and again in 1975 with the Stockholm company in the Ring: “This was before ‘The Wall’ came down, and it was marvellous to sing in this theatre where anyone, anyone, whatever their status or wealth, could get a ticket. These wonderful people just loved the Wagner performances – operas rarely played in Russia at the time – and the bouquets that were thrown at the end were tiny, tiny bunches of little flowers – hundreds of them! I recall a gentleman with tears in his eyes telling me in Russian how much the performance meant to him and I was moved to tears myself long before he finished.”

Since retiring in 1995 Lindholm has undertaken some coaching of young singers, which she describes as a good way for her to get over the inner drive of needing to continue to perform herself. She advises singers of today: “you have to have a beautiful sound and allow it to develop naturally. You have to learn how to breathe deeply and support properly as this is the only way you can ensure your vocal cords will never get tired. You have to be musical and true to the music and you should take the opportunities that arise if they seem right to you.”

Throughout the conversation there were many passing moments where Berit Lindholm mentioned the difficulties of combining the demands of a successful international singing career with those of having a family, and with her two daughters and laryngologist husband at home she would seek to fly back to Sweden at every possible opportunity. The impression remained that this balancing act was successfully achieved for the most part, not least because Berit’s mother was there as “the rock in our lives, looking after the children when the parents were away.”

When the time came for my final question I asked how she would wish to be remembered. The response from this witty, down-to-earth (ex?)-diva was immediate and unexpected: “I’d like to be remembered as a good grandmother by some nice adults who are growing up and living happily in a peaceful world.” That she surely will, but just as surely her art and artistry will be remembered too.

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