Following Your Voice: Anja Kampe and The Flying Dutchman [The Royal Opera’s Der fliegende Holländer – 18 October-4 November 2011]

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

The German soprano acclaimed in Wagner returns to Covent Garden to reprise the role of Senta…

Anja Kampe. ©Alexander Vasiljev

Tim Albery’s production of Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) was first seen at Covent Garden in February 2009. At the time I did an interview for The Classical Source with Bryn Terfel who was appearing in the title role. Playing Senta in that production was a singer not previously known to him and he went out of his way to say that she had such a beautiful voice that he was asking himself where she had been hiding. The singer was Anja Kampe who now becomes my latest interviewee as the production returns for its first revival. That Anja should appear again is entirely appropriate, since last time around her performance, which marked her debut with The Royal Opera, was, like the production itself, nominated in the Olivier Awards.

But none of this might have come about had the 9-year-old Anja succeeded in her ambition to learn the guitar at music school. “It was because there was no place for me to do that that a teacher asked me if I wanted to sing. Even as a little girl I would sing, but I might never have taken it up seriously had I been able to study the guitar. So now I’m quite glad that it worked out like that!” Anja expresses amusement and no less so about other aspects of her life. There was no tradition of music in her family. Did her parents support her over her choice of career? “They were always behind me, but they probably had no idea what it really entails to be a singer and who knows what their reaction would have been had they had that awareness!”.

Anja Kampe as Senta (Der fliegende Holländer, The Royal Opera, October 2011). Photograph: Mike Hoban

In her birthplace in Thuringia, Anja had one singing teacher from the age of nine to eighteen before studying for two-and-a-half-years in Dresden. After that she went to Italy to continue her studies. It was there in 1991 that she made her professional debut – in Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel – singing that German-language work in Italian! “Having spent twenty years based in Italy, it’s not altogether surprising that I’ve on occasion been described as Italian although both my parents were German. However, in a certain sense I feel half and half. As for your roots, I don’t really feel that they are so important: I’m free to be just who I am. What is important is that you have good people around you and that you like the way of life.”

Both before and after her debut Anja took part in competitions. “I was never a first-prize winner. I would often get to the Final but, for whatever reason, it would be some Special Prize or an Audience Prize that would come my way. But that doesn’t matter now!” Once again Anja says this with an engaging laugh, and it’s obviously true when you consider how she has become an international name. But her career has not been straightforward, for Anja eventually realised that she needed to change direction. Leaving aside for the moment the Wagner roles for which she has become famous, I ask her about how her repertoire altered. Early on she would sing Mozart roles such as Zerlina and Marcellina and favoured works like Rossini’s Il turco in Italia and Weber’s Der Freischütz, whereas in recent times the non-Wagnerian roles most prominent have been Leonore in Fidelio, the title roles in Jenůfa and in Ariadne auf Naxos and Lisa in Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame (The Queen of Spades). How and why this change came about is crucial to her career.

“I altered my repertoire because at a certain point I found that my voice was changing completely. The lower notes were developing and it was no longer so easy to do the lighter repertoire, Rossini and stuff like that. Because I started to feel a little bit uncomfortable I sought out a teacher with whom I could start on a totally new technique thus enabling me to sing a new repertoire. I took that step on my own initiative, but it was this teacher, an American who lives in Italy, Alessandra Althoff, who guided me and brought me to the German repertoire. It was she who prepared me for a competition for Wagner Voices whereas earlier I had never expected that I would eventually sing in his operas – and even with Alessandra it was not immediately apparent. You never know how your voice is developing and what repertoire will be right for it, but you always have to follow your voice. When the two of us were seeking an appropriate repertoire for me early Verdi came up and I did both Un giorno di regno and Oberto at La Scala and things like Marschner’s Hans Heiling.” Anja is delighted when less-familiar operas are offered to her, such as Franz Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten for Los Angeles Opera. “It’s not that I’m getting bored with Wagner roles and with Leonore, not at all, but it’s good for the voice to sing things of a different kind too. Furthermore, I’m happy that earlier I had the experience of doing lighter repertoire because even in a work like Fidelio you need at certain points to keep your voice lighter. I’m always looking to retain that element because being light and lyrical keeps your voice younger and fresher.”

Just where her change of repertoire was leading became clear in 2002 when in addition to appearing as one of the Valkyries in Die Walküre Anja took the role of Freia in Das Rheingold at Bayreuth. “That was incredible because it was my first Wagner and also my debut in Germany! It came from that international competition for Wagner Voices, the third. It took place in Saarbrücken and as the winner of the Audience Prize I took part in a concert for the winners. It was there that the Wagners – Gudrun and Wolfgang – heard me and as a result I was invited to audition at Bayreuth. Then after my first year there I went to do an audition for Plácido Domingo who was working in Munich. I chose to do some of Sieglinde’s music without being aware that he was looking for a Sieglinde for Washington. But he was, and he immediately asked me to do it.”

Before moving on to Dutchman, I ask Anja if the current balance of her work with so much emphasis on Wagner – she recently added Kundry in Parsifal to her repertoire – is her ideal. “I have to say that despite my love of Wagner I would like to do much more of the Italian repertory. I did do Giorgetta in Puccini’s Il tabarro, but I’ve never done his Manon Lescaut which I would love to do and there’s so much Verdi. Amelia in Un ballo in maschera might head my list, but then there’s Forza and Tosca too. Theatre people are not always very imaginative and it seems that because I am German and look it they can’t imagine me in the Italian repertoire. Sometimes that drives me crazy because I’ve lived in Italy for so long and studied there and it was in Italy that I learnt my style. As for Wagner, I feel that I’m now close to the end in finding new roles because I’m not a real dramatic soprano. In time some of the heavier things may prove possible for me, but I don’t know yet. Again it depends on where my voice takes me.”

Anja has appeared in Der fliegende Holländer many times. But, despite it bringing her to Covent Garden, it was not her British debut. She had previously done Fidelio at Glyndebourne. “That was my first time as Leonore and it was also there that I made my debut as Isolde. I find that in this country more consistently than elsewhere you have people who do a good job and pull together. As a singer you are nothing unless you have good people around you: technicians, musicians, colleagues – everybody.” She is certainly happy to find herself back at Covent Garden. Furthermore a last-minute casting change – the indisposed Falk Struckmann replaced by the Latvian Egils Silins as the Dutchman – means that Anja will be reunited with the singer who shared the stage with her when she first played Senta. That was in Brussels and the opera has since taken her to Japan, Munich and Madrid. How do those productions compare with this one being directed by Tim Albery. “This production is quite a traditional one and definitely contrasts with some I have been in. Audiences are impressed by what they see, but there’s nothing strange in it and that very normality is something I like very much. On the other hand a different approach can succeed and the staging by Peter Konwitschny in Munich was very good. He set the spinning scene with the maidens in a modern fitness studio with bicycles and, being this figure of legend, the Flying Dutchman entered in a costume from an earlier period altogether and it worked.”

Wagner’s treatment of the legendary tale of the sailor condemned to roam the seas until the Day of Judgment – a fate only to be avoided if he wins the love of a woman faithful unto death – is a work that is in some senses Janus-faced. Lasting in total around two-and-a-half hours, it is a work that can readily be recommended to those deterred by the length of the composer’s later operas and it contains music for the steersman and for Erik, the young man in love with Senta, which please without being in any way innovative. Yet Wagner’s direct experience of a storm at sea resulted in passages where in power the orchestral sound is less akin to Mendelssohn’s The Hebrides than to Debussy’s La mer, which lay over sixty years ahead. Even more relevantly, Wagner as his own librettist was choosing to present a myth-like figure and, just like the sailors’ opening cries which seem to anticipate the cries of the Valkyries, the central presence of a character with more than normal human dimensions to some extent prefigures the Gods of The Ring Cycle.

Anja readily agrees that the music for the Dutchman and Senta has a character of its own, but she’s aware that this must not be taken too far. “Definitely there is in their music a sense of things changing, but as a development in Wagner’s work it is no more than a pointer. Throughout this last summer I have been singing Isolde and that’s even more developed than Sieglinde. Performing these roles is quite different from singing Senta. After all the complexities of Tristan und Isolde, it took me a little time to adjust, to find again the beauty in the comparative simplicity. You have to rediscover that beauty and the way in which to express it.”

One other thing to be considered about Die fliegende Holländer is how Senta should be characterised and that in itself brings into focus the issue of which of two intertwined elements is the more important in this work. Although Senta has always been obsessed by a portrait of The Flying Dutchman, as the daughter of a Norwegian seaman she has responded to the love of Erik, a poor huntsman. But when the Dutchman arrives as a living presence she is so overwhelmed that she turns away from Erik and sees herself as the Dutchman’s saviour. When she tells Erik of this she declares not that she loves another but that “a noble duty decrees it”. So is love the first essence or is it the recognition of a holy crusade to redeem the Dutchman, and just how honest is Senta in her dealings with Erik?

“I call Senta a borderline personality, only a little short of craziness. She’s a young girl, but she virtually falls in love with this figure she has heard of almost as a person in a fairy tale. That’s not very normal but, even if it’s only in her imagination, he is like a prince who could come and take her away. Her problem, I think, is that she doesn’t like the life she is supposed to accept with her father and the other girls. She probably chose Erik not just because she liked him but because, being a hunter, he was different from the others and might get her away from the world she is in. But she leaves him behind when something better comes to her, and it does when the Dutchman unexpectedly arrives in person. So what she is trying to tell Erik is that she has found something on a completely different level from her relationship with him. She has always wanted to be someone who was not just a girl living in a village but someone more significant. If she can redeem the Dutchman that would indeed mean that she has found something to do with her life: it would make it different from those of others. In that way she would become important for herself but also for other people.”

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