Written by: Mansel Stimpson
Most singers who arrive at London’s Royal Opera House are impressed by what they find there and Michaela Schuster, from Bavaria, is no exception. I meet her as she prepares for the second of two roles in its autumn schedule, but in passing she looks back to her debut there, in 2008 in Salome. “I have never found an opera house like this. It’s so well organised and all the departments – those dealing with costumes, wigs and so forth – are very, very good. I like the atmosphere here very much and nowhere else at all do you get a plan for the week, a schedule which enables you to know in advance when you have a free day to do other things.”
Her only reservation about that debut concerns the role that she had then, that of Herodias. “I said ‘yes’ because I find the characters in that opera interesting, but there’s not a lot of singing to be done as Herodias and it was not really the best part for me.” My meeting with Michaela took place just as she was completing her appearances as the Princess of Bouillon in Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur prior to yielding that role to Olga Borodina in order to concentrate on preparing her role as Venus in a new production of Wagner’s Tannhäuser.
Comparisons of these two roles came up in the course of our conversation but I start by seeking to discover how she, coming from a family without a musical background, found a career as a singer. “It was a teacher whose subject was music who felt that I had sufficient interest and talent to profit from going to the Conservatory in Nuremberg. That was where I started, but what I studied there was the oboe. That continued for some years and eventually I got a place in a little orchestra. But within six months of that I came to feel that it was not after all right for me. The prospect of doing that every day for a lifetime was something that I just could not imagine. It was at this point – and only at this point – that I suddenly saw that singing might fit me perfectly. Earlier at school I had enjoyed acting in plays so I liked the idea of theatre and in addition I had joined a choir as a hobby. Since I was beginning to feel the need to do something more of a solo nature I found myself returning to Salzburg, no longer as an oboist but as someone who was saying to them ‘Now I want to sing’. And they said, ‘okay we know that you are a good musician, so let’s try it’. That’s how I started out in a fresh direction.”
Although Michaela’s decision would prove to be the right one, things were not easy for her. “The fact is that I was coming late to singing being then 23 or 24. If you are a mezzo what usually happens is that you begin as a lyrical singer and slowly, slowly, you become more dramatic. But because of my age my voice was already dramatic. Consequently when I finished my studies I had big problems in finding a job. For two years I did auditions – many of them – and it seemed that every time I got the same response: ‘that’s a big voice, but it’s too early, try some other little theatre first and then come back’. But I was already auditioning in little theatres and after three years of this I grew tired of it. It seemed crazy because I had followed up my studies by winning three prizes and yet I could get no work. I turned to teaching in Berlin, something I liked very much and was on the point of settling for that when Pamela Rosenberg who was planning a new Ring Cycle in Stuttgart heard me and took an interest. She asked me to learn the role of Fricka and then to come back, receive some coaching and make an audition to do the part. That led to my first appearance in Wagner – it followed a few small roles such as Auntie in Peter Grimes and Florence Pike in Albert Herring and there had also been Monteverdi’s Penelope.”
After the Stuttgart Ring the problems which had beset Michaela disappeared. From 1999 to 2002 she was a member of the ensemble at Darmstadt’s Staatstheater and she describes those as being the most important years of her life. Her enthusiasm for that period is linked to the fact that much as she loves Wagner (and had done so ever since encountering Parsifal at a time when she could never have imagined that one day she would appear in it as Kundry) she is also anxious to be heard in music by other composers. “I don’t know any singer who feels that they have got the balance exactly right. Most of them say to me ‘I sing too much Verdi’ whereas I say ‘Too much Wagner’! Actually whenever somebody asks me to sing Wagner, I agree, but I despair of casting directors who type-cast you and for five or six years I have been fighting that. It’s fine if they ask me to sing Wagner, but can’t they offer me Italian or French parts also? For that we come back to Darmstadt because there they would ask me what I wanted to sing, so I did Charlotte in Werther, Carmen, Santuzza in Cavalleria rusticana and Giulietta in Les Contes d’Hoffmann as well as Tristan und Isolde and Lohengrin. I would love to do Charlotte again but when I am approached because somebody needs a singer it is always because they require a guest artiste for the Wagner repertoire not for Charlotte. But my concert work helps a lot because there I sing a great deal of Mahler. I like too later music, that of Schoenberg and Berg. In the last few years when I have done recitals people who hear me say that they never realised that I could do this material which is so pianissimo and so lyrical. To have variety in what you sing is so important for the voice and all of that is working better now but that’s because I’ve stood out for it. That was one reason why I was so happy to be offered Adriana Lecouvreur which was new to me as well as reuniting me with David McVicar with whom I did Salome and Don Carlo in Frankfurt.”
The invitation to sing in Tim Albery’s new production of Tannhäuser came ahead of that to appear in Adriana Lecouvreur. More Wagner for Michaela! But Tannhäuser has not been done by the Royal Opera for over twenty years and despite its fame it can be considered something of a rarity. I ask Michaela why this should be. “First of all, I think it’s because it is so hard to find a Tannhäuser: that role is so special with the extra difficulty that the opera was written as early as 1845 and, although with experience Wagner overcame the problem, he was at that time writing music that was not very good for the voice. The tenor – and here it’s Johan Botha – has to be lyrical, but there is some very, very high tessitura for a Wagner singer: compare it to Siegmund and every time you find that that is lower. Secondly, you have to find a Venus, a role that requires a mezzo colour but incorporates high notes not least in her short appearance just before the end of Act Three. I don’t know any Venus who although willing to take on the role is not fearful over that ending.
It’s hardly surprising then that despite the number of Wagner operas in which Michaela has appeared it is only within the last year or two that she has done Tannhäuser. She performed the original Dresden version in Vienna but much prefers the re-working which Wagner undertook in 1860 for Paris. “When they asked me to come here to sing Venus, my first question was this: ‘Will it be the Paris version?’ Frankly I never want to do the Dresden version again because one finds there that the role of Venus is very difficult and very high but also very short. It was expanded for Paris and that enables you to show so much more of her character. Furthermore, the music is far more interesting, more akin to Parsifal or Tristan und Isolde. Admittedly that means that for some conductors it becomes a problem in that the first Act has a more modern tone that can seem inconsistent with what follows but even so there is no question as to which version is the more satisfying. I did this Paris version once before but that was not a new production. This time it is, and I’ve never really worked on it like this before.”
Experienced being directed by David McVicar, this staging of Tannhäuser marks Michaela Schuster’s first familiarity of Tim Albery. I ask her if their ways of working are very different. “Yes. I think that David works very much from the inside, through feelings. He knows singers very well and their problems and is always very helpful in that respect, but for him it is really important that you are giving a lot of emotion to it. Tim, I would say, is more intellectual in his approach and arrived here with everything carefully planned. David is well organised too, but spontaneity plays a large part in what he does. With Tim it is wonderful how well he understands the relationship between the characters: what is working and what is not working, what feels right or looks right and what does not. He works more through details and for my scene in Act One we have touched on all kinds of little, little things and that has been really good.”
Quite apart from the vocal demands, the role of Venus presents a problem for the singer because the character disappears after a scene in Act One only to re-emerge two hours later for s short but crucial episode just before the end of the opera. “That’s the most difficult aspect of all because in that first scene you use up a lot of adrenaline. You are ready to get fully and emotionally into that role but after that scene you come down completely which leaves you with the question of how to be ready to handle that ending. If I have another scene to play albeit with no singing, there is no problem, but not to be seen until you come on again so much later is something else. For me, the only way to manage it is to let go, not to fight back trying to sustain something that cannot in fact be held but to relax. Then half-an-hour before I go back on I warm up again from the beginning by exercising the voice and sometimes taking a little fresh air to help get me up for that ending which is so high for a mezzo.”
To conclude we talk about the character of Venus, partly comparing it with the Princess of Bouillon, and about the themes to be found in Tannhäuser. Since Venus is a goddess and the princess a woman who through jealousy kills her rival, the roles may seem to be poles apart but, as we know from The Ring, Wagner’s gods and goddesses display human weaknesses. “The two roles are not so far apart: both are very strong but I think that the princess is the more calculating of the two, has more of an agenda. Venus is calculating when she is sure that Tannhäuser is hers and that he loves her, but although she is a goddess with a lot of pride, she is really in love and when it becomes clear that Tannhäuser intends to go away she becomes more and more insecure in a human way. I think that in Wagner it’s really important that such characters become human and not just goddesses because that makes them all the more interesting.”
Covent Garden’s publicity describes Tannhäuser as Wagner’s great battle between the sensual and the spiritual and that could suggest that Venus represents the former while Tannhäuser’s earthly love, Elisabeth, the woman whose death ultimately leads to his redemption, stands for its opposite. But the relationships are arguably more complex than that. “I think that both women are in love with Tannhäuser and are not so different. As Venus, I feel that my scene with Tannhäuser is very emotional and not only sexual. And while Elisabeth has to live in her own society, that of Wartburg, I don’t think that she is satisfied by that. She too longs for sensual love but that life is not permitted to her. Being a goddess in Venusberg, Venus can be free about it, but Elisabeth inhabits a world completely closed in that respect. However, Elisabeth does possess a purity that is emphasised when Tannhäuser having failed to obtain forgiveness from the Pope evokes the name of his late lamented love with the words ‘Holy Elisabeth, pray for me’. She is a redemptive figure whose intercession and death make it possible to draw some kind of parallel with Christ. Furthermore, as the miracle which comes at the close of the opera makes clear, the Church itself may be criticised here but God has the last word.”
- Tannhäuser – Seven performances at various times (first-night at 6 p.m.) from Saturday 11 December to Sunday 2 January 2011
- Box office: 020 7304 4000
- Royal Opera