Investing in the (Trouser) Role: Sophie Koch and Der Rosenkavalier [The Royal Opera’s Der Rosenkavalier, 7-22 December 2009]

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

Mansel Stimpson talks to mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch as she returns to Covent Garden for the role of Octavian…

Sophie Koch. ©Patrick Nin

First up in the Royal Opera House’s Winter Season is Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. For many it is a work especially memorable for its portrayal of the Marschallin, a woman who faces up to the need to give up her seventeen-year-old lover, Octavian, to somebody else, Sophie, who is nearer his own age. Despite the character not being as old as all that (Strauss had in mind somebody in their early thirties) there is great poignancy in the scene in which the Marschallin reflects on time, on aging and on the transient nature of love and happiness. All of that might appear to be at odds with the description of this work as a ‘romantic comedy’, but it was the critic and musicologist Michael Kennedy who asserted that “like all the best comedies, Der Rosenkavalier, is a serious work”. Indeed, this blend is very much part of the opera’s attraction for Sophie Koch who when discussing her roles shows almost as much interest in their psychological depth as she does in the music. At the same time it may be said that her appreciation of composers is expressed with a special vivacity: when our conversation happens to touch on Ravel she immediately slips in the remark that “Ravel is a genius!”

Talking to Sophie not infrequently leads to moments of laughter on her part, but there’s no mistaking the intense seriousness with which she considers her work, investigating the characters she plays in depth. Sophie was born in Versailles and grew up in that area but she did not come from a musical family and the deep response to music was all her own. It started through piano lessons at the age of seven when she was inspired by her teacher who she describes as being very special in her approach. It was certainly a case of Sophie being made aware of a link with a past age of music, for her teacher had herself been taught by someone who had been the last student of Clara Schumann. This was a memorable introduction to the world of music but not to a career as a pianist. “When I had to play in private concerts I was very scared and it became obvious that the piano was not my right medium to become a musician. But then when I was eleven I was in the school choir and at thirteen that led on to my first experience of opera when we were involved in a modern piece by the Welsh composer Mervyn Burtch [link below]. Even so as a youngster I had other possibilities in mind including journalism, but soon there had been enough music in my life for me to realise that I would miss it. Consequently it became my aim to join the choir in the Sorbonne in Paris, but when I took an audition for it they thought that I was not good enough. That was so disappointing. They suggested that I might come back after I had developed my high notes, but the truth of the matter was that I thought that I was a soprano and I wasn’t. However, that experience caused me to take singing lessons to improve myself. I had to work at it but apparently I did have a gift to be a singer.”

Sophie’s debut took place in France, in 1993. Her repertoire includes relative rarities such as Massenet’s Cendrillon to (Belgian) César Franck’s Les Béatitudes and she expresses concern over the attitude adopted by the French to many of their own artists. “I’m very interested in the French repertoire but I don’t think that we serve it well enough. The French have a problem with their own culture and their own artists and are very suspicious when somebody who is French is successful. It was characteristic that in the case of Pinault’s collection of modern art they didn’t want him to mount it in Paris and so he went to Venice instead. It’s always like that.”

Sophie Koch

London has provided Sophie with some of her most memorable occasions – not least for Covent Garden when she played Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia and Dorabella in Così fan tutte. Sir Colin Davis conducted the latter and he was with her when she triumphed in Dresden as the Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos. Is there a special bond that had led to them working together in this way? “I think it was chance which always plays a big part in anyone’s career. But it’s funny you mention it because just recently I did a concert with him performing (Berlioz’s) Les Nuits d’été both in Paris and in Venice and I think that the best Mozart I’ve ever done musically was Le nozze di Figaro with Sir Colin here. Other visits to Covent Garden that stand out include Ariadne with Antonio Pappano and, earlier, (Pfitzner’s) Palestrina which was when I met Christian Thielemann: that was so fabulous, everything about it was in harmony and the piece is so special.”

Although Sophie’s range is increasingly wide, her CV makes it clear just how many trouser-roles she has undertaken. To Octavian, the Composer and Cherubino one has to add a number of French male characters written for women performers – including Siébel in Faust and Nicklausse in Les Contes d’Hoffmann. Yet a role such as that of Concepcion which she has played in Ravel’s L’Heure espagnole is as far from a trouser-role as you could possibly get. Has Sophie ever felt pigeonholed in these male roles (it was, for example, her success in Vienna as Cherubino that led to her being offered Octavian there). It might even be that bringing more French and German works into her repertoire and embracing Wagner (Fricka in The Ring, Brangäne in Tristan und Isolde) was in part an attempt to escape typecasting?

“These roles came my way and I’m happy to have been asked to do them because they are roles that I’ve loved playing. I would love to keep these parts for as long as possible because they are so close to me, even the psychology of them. But things do change, things evolve, and the fact is that these trouser parts are mainly young characters who are not very mature. Even so, the last time that I did Cherubino I had the impression that because I had got a bit older I understood him better. That performance may have been less spontaneous but more thought went into it. Nevertheless, I decided last December to drop that role which is now, perhaps, too light for me. On the other hand, I don’t think that will ever happen with the role of the Composer because although he’s young he has deep thoughts. As for Octavian, he may not be quite so interesting psychologically but what I love about Rosenkavalier is the way that it brings comedy and tragedy together thereby enabling you to show so many things, so many facets. When I first performed that role I was maybe a bit too involved and got too emotional. There are scenes where you don’t have to sing and only have to stand there, but even so I put so much energy into those scenes, invested so much, that I was exhausted. At that time every second was for me filled with emotion, with tension that was physical and it was very, very tiring. But now that I’ve got used to it I can maybe let it go a little more. Some artists like to be relaxed and others say that nerves help them, and I don’t know if the public even notice the difference. Honestly, I don’t know which is better. In Werther, for example, if you are really in character as Charlotte and play it very dramatically it may make it very intense, but perhaps too much so. I can’t really say because I’m never on the other side: sometimes I do wish that I were there and able to see myself.”

One unusual feature of the role of Octavian is that the plot requires him in disguise – as a chambermaid, Mariandel – a female singer playing a man has to play that man pretending to be a woman! “Yes, to play a man, a youngster, you have to observe a lot and take things from wherever you find them. My own inspiration largely comes from comedy and from the cinema, from Chaplin in particular. Parts of Act One of Rosenkavalier could be a Chaplin film, and much of Act Three also. Because of the distance from the public it’s not the same as cinema. But at times it’s akin to a cinematic dumb-show because especially in a comedy like this you have to be very, very expressive with your eyes.”

From time to time something more out of the way turns up, as it did when Sophie was invited to record songs by Ernest Bloch and Egon Wellesz. An even more unexpected event was when she was asked to replace another singer in Messiaen’s Poèmes pour Mi. “It was such hard work, but it’s a fascinating process when you get to understand the thinking of the composer, the system of writing. At first, you are completely lost, you don’t understand. But then you begin to see the structure and the mode and after a while I enjoy it very, very much.” That experience may not be too dissimilar from Sophie’s ever-increasing awareness of what is required in Rosenkavalier, although her affinity with Richard Strauss is so strong that in an opera influenced in part by Le nozze di Figaro she has never felt the need to draw on the fact that she has also played Cherubino. “Strauss is so clear: you read the score and everything is there so you don’t need to think about what inspired it. But the more you do it the more you discover things about the orchestration and the colouring of words and feelings. You never know these operas of Strauss well enough: you can never know all there is to know.”

Finally we touch on each Act of Rosenkavalier in turn which is interesting to do because each one is so distinctive. “In the first Act you find everything: there’s the opening with the Marschallin and Octavian which has humour but is very sensual followed by the section with Baron Ochs, the man who has been picked by the newly-ennobled Faninal as a suitable bridegroom for his daughter Sophie, and that’s very much comedy. But then at the close of that Act there’s that famous scene with the Marschallin which shows such depth of human feeling. Just everything is there that art can achieve and that’s fascinating.”

Act Two contains the most famous of the opera’s many waltzes, yet one could see it as no-less-ironic than Ravel’s La valse because what sounds nostalgic sits against a view of the period that relentlessly exposes a society that encourages arranged marriages and the subjugation of women. “Sophie is forced and mocked and it could be terrible for her. However, some of the characters including Octavian behave in an absurd way in this Act and Ochs emerges very strongly here. The music makes it light but what lies underneath is bitter. In contrast the early part of this Act features the scene of the Presentation of the Rose and that has to be played in a very honest way. It has to be a pure moment.”

With Ochs getting his comeuppance, Act Three can for much of the time offer comedy pure and simple, but that has to evolve into a contrasted lyrical conclusion. “After all the comedy and the confusion you have this change of mood which can perhaps be compared with the end of Mozart’s Figaro. Although earlier he has been ridiculous, by the end I think that you even feel pity for Ochs, and certainly as the conclusion approaches you sense the music going note by note into the great Trio. Finding all these balances is very fine, very delicate. Strauss wanted the audience to laugh at the comedy of Act Three but the difficulty is to be funny yet not to be ridiculous, not to cross that borderline. Much of this can be a question of interpretation and there are directors who think that at the close Octavian goes back to the Marschallin instead of staying with Sophie. But personally I think that that is over: he’s had this experience with the Marschallin who has loved him a lot and taught him much, but she knows that he is a young man and that she has to let him go. This is a piece about the conventions of the day and, whereas some operas can be updated effectively, I don’t feel that that is the case here so this Covent Garden production (originally directed by John Schlesinger) suits me well. The text is so clear and so of the period that you must respect it. In a sense you are trapped by it – but very happily trapped, oh yes!”

  • Six performances from Monday 7 December (at 6 p.m.) until Tuesday 22 December; start-times vary
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera
  • Mervyn Burtch

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