Written by: Colin Anderson
Interview with Camilla Nylund
16 February 2012 – Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
Well, dear reader, I am in what is colloquially known as “the glass room” (it lives up to its name) – somewhere in The Royal Opera House (through many corridors and up several floors). I’m sitting with the Finnish soprano Camilla Nylund. Just a few minutes earlier I had been in the waiting area at the Stage Door, where a live piping of Rusalka, then at its sitzprobe phase (a seated rehearsal where singers and orchestra, having prepared independently, come together for the first time to integrate their efforts), was clear to anyone in the vicinity. The festive music (for the Wedding Scene) of Act Two of Dvořák’s Rusalka had been reached at that point; and very impressive it sounded, too. (I find out later that conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin was so pleased with the way things were going that a later rehearsal is cancelled – when he announced this it cued a big cheer from the performers!)
And so to Camilla, recognisable as a Scandinavian lady, it’s reasonable to say. “I have a Swedish name, that’s my first language, but I was born in Finland. Finland belonged to Sweden at one time.” Camilla wasn’t born into a musical family though. “No, but singing was a part of my life since I was born. My grandmother sang a lot, including solos and in church. My mother sang with me a lot and when I was very young I sang in a choir.”
However, the inklings of a professional career were in Camilla’s mind from an early age. “I wanted to become a singer when I was about nine years old. A pop singer; I had all those ABBA records. When I was twelve I wanted singing lessons to develop my voice. I lived in the country, but I went to the Music Institute in Vaasa when I was fourteen, and then I went on a singing course in Rome. I travelled there by myself, if with other singers; it was very exciting! Then there were three summers in Austria. But I didn’t know what it was to be an opera singer. There was a small opera group in Vaasa. My first role was Orlofsky in Die Fledermaus. But I didn’t know anything. The first classical record that I got was Kathleen Battle singing Mozart, which I thought fantastic and beautiful.”
A disappointment followed, for Camilla was turned down to study singing at the Sibelius Academy in Helsinki – “they felt I was not developed enough. I was very sad and annoyed, so I went to Turku (Southwest Finland) to study musicology and take further singing lessons. In 1988 I went to Salzburg and got a place at the Mozarteum and stayed there for seven years. My teacher was very strong – oh I cried a lot of times! She was a Hungarian soprano, dead now, but for me she was very good. It was a very good schooling. I was very happy because I became well-prepared vocally. During my studies I went to Vienna to see performances, but Hannover, where I secured a contract, was my first exposure to real opera.” Followers of Cardiff Singer of the World may recall Camilla singing there in 1997, if not progressing too far – “I didn’t have a good programme. But it was a wonderful time.”
I ask Camilla about how she goes about learning a role. Is it the notes first, or an engagement with the character? “I have been very busy lately learning new roles. First I meet with my pianist in Dresden, where I live. I am quite a fast learner, but it takes time to settle. Then I go to my singing teacher, also in Dresden. It takes time to learn everything by heart. That’s the most difficult part.” Maybe the more so in the case of Rusalka given that its Czech language is outside of the usual opera languages of French, German and Italian and is also complex, and needed to be mastered for Rusalka? “I started with the language, not with the music, although I knew the aria ‘Song to the Moon’ very well. Fortunately my neighbour in Dresden was Czech, so I asked for her help.
I started with her. Then I went to San Diego, to sing Elisabeth in Tannhäuser, and there was a wonderful lady who was also Czech, so I worked with her and then a wonderful coach in Salzburg. It paid out: when I sang Rusalka in Salzburg I had mail from Czech people who thought my Czech was quite good!”
Those Salzburg performances, in 2008, marked Camilla’s first assumption of the role of Rusalka, which was conducted by Franz Welser-Möst. “It’s fantastic music.” How did Camilla land the role? “I don’t really know! I was singing Mozart in Zurich and Franz was there and I got the offer. I didn’t audition and I didn’t know the opera. It was a surprise. But the opera is so much more than just the ‘Song to the Moon’. It’s a fantastic role to sing: so lyrical and dramatic. It’s also a very tragic role.
“The directors (Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito) have made this a very touching story. We are very far away from water!” The water reference is made towards my comment that Glyndebourne’s production (revived last year) is nicely naturalistic with trees and water, and the illusion of swimming – after all, Rusalka herself is water-nymph. And the production coming to Covent Garden is ‘modern’ – urban – maybe then it’s ‘against’ Dvořák’s wonderful music (in which he is his Bohemian self, with some Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov and Puccini mixed in)? “Yes, Dvořák knew what was happening in the opera world at the time he wrote Rusalka; and, no, the production fits how I am moving and acting; and it goes with the music. That’s most important. We have a community that is far away from nature; it is indeed an urban production. Rusalka wants to know more about the human world and to get to know the prince that she has seen. The story is tragic and shows how cruel humans can be, how they destroy. Rusalka is like an innocent child.”
Having first encountered Rusalka with Franz Welser-Möst’s conducting of it, how is Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s view of the piece in comparison? (He too is making his Covent Garden debut.) “Yannick does things differently, but it’s over three years since the Salzburg performances. Yannick’s so inspiring and the orchestra is fantastic. It’s the most wonderful thing when you are performing that you don’t have to worry: you can just sing and enjoy. There are many very nice things in the opera, not least for the tenor. And it’s so well written for the voice. It’s very nice to sing.”
One wishes Camilla all the very best for her Covent Garden debut (“people here are very friendly and helpful”) and – to complete a hat-trick of debutants – Rusalka is also a Royal Opera first (but not to London; English National Opera mounted a staging some years ago, and Glyndebourne’s impressive production has many honours to its name). However, to anyone not familiar with Rusalka, but surely with interest fired through knowing the raptly beautiful ‘Song to the Moon’, what’s in store? “Musically they will find a new world opening (that’s a nice pun on Dvořák’s most-popular symphony!) – and we really are telling a story, putting a mirror in front of the audience to see themselves in the people playing onstage.”