Looking Inward: Jane Henschel and Strauss [The Royal Opera’s Elektra, 8-24 November 2008]

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

The American mezzo-soprano talks to Mansel Stimpson about her role in Richard Strauss’s Elektra at Covent Garden…

Jane Henschel. ©Barbara Eichinger An international mezzo-soprano with a wide repertoire yet someone noted especially for her performances in the works of Richards Strauss and Wagner, Jane Henschel can now afford to look back and smile at some of the problems she encountered when setting out as a singer. It was partly a question of possessing the kind of voice that can present difficulties at the outset of a career. “I think that Marilyn Horne had the same experience because if you have a big voice when you are young it can be very unwieldy: the bigger the voice, the bigger the problems. People would tell me that my voice was very dark and that I should brighten it – but then if you try to do that and do it the wrong way it just sounds ugly. It’s all comes down to waiting for the voice to mature but it can be difficult. Through a competition, I won an audition so I went and sung for the intendant: first of all he offered me the world and then he decided that he just couldn’t use me. ‘What am I going to do with a 23-year-old dramatic mezzo?’: that was his line. So there I was having told everybody back in America that I had a contract in Europe for a year-and-a-half and in fact I had nothing.”

Nor was this setback a unique occasion. Born in Wisconsin but growing up in the Los Angeles area Jane studied at the University of Southern California. “My mother had said to me, ‘we will pay for your education but you should be able to support yourself when you get out, so it would be a good idea to study music education as well as voice’. Consequently that was what I aimed to do and I found the education classes wonderful because I played every instrument in the orchestra. Graduation followed from that and then I took a teaching degree. But the other aspect of my time there was more fraught. Early on a voice-teacher had indicated that she thought that I should be a voice major but when I approached the head of the department, someone who had never been on-stage and whose own voice was small and light, she told me that I would never be able to get my voice in shape so as to graduate as a voice major in two years. But in time they did come to realise that I could sing.”

The decision to build a career in Europe came about in part from seeing where the best opportunities lay. “There are now more young artists’ programmes in America, but at that time there were not many openings there, especially for big voices. In Germany, however, you had all these local regional theatres and I really do think that it is good to get a lot of experience in places where you can make your mistakes away from the spotlight and that’s also a chance to learn your trade. I don’t regret any of it. Furthermore, the German system is such that if you are sick you don’t have to worry because you are treated as a city or state employee with a monthly salary guaranteed. In my own case I was lucky because following that initial disappointment I was successful in another audition and after that I was never without work.”

Looking back on her career to date, Jane concedes that dramatic roles predominate and that she even started with them, although that is not a course she would recommend to others. It is not, however, that she disdains other styles. “I still warm up every day with Rossini because it keeps the voice light and I have sung coloratura in concerts and in works such as La Donna del Lago. Indeed I’ve won auditions singing Isabella’s aria from L’Italiana in Algeri and recently I’ve done many performances of The Rake’s Progress.”

Nevertheless, the role that brought Jane to international prominence was that of the Nurse in Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten. “The role of the Amme is actually the longest in the piece although nobody seems to remember that. I did it first in Amsterdam in 1991 and, being engaged then in Dusseldorf and not certain if I would be able to go and do it, I postponed learning the role until it was definite. That August, two or three months before the first rehearsal, I was in America at my sister’s and that was when I started to learn it. What I saw made me immediately go ‘Oh. No!’. So I called a coach, a friend of mine, to ask if we could work together during the coming week, which is what we did. I worked with her day and night and because of that to the conductor’s amazement I was able to turn up for that first rehearsal note-perfect.

“The production was very physical in that it featured a five-storey pyramid made out of Plexiglas and steel and I reckon that I did thirty flights of stairs every day. The next year I did the part here (Covent Garden) under Bernard Haitink, and that production too involved a lot of dancing and movement. The Amme just sort of became my role – I must have done it a hundred times now – and I was lucky because at that time there was a wave of productions of the work and, while others also sing it now, for a while I was in most of them. It’s a wonderful part and one that I’ve loved doing in all kinds of productions. Amazingly you can always learn new things about a role – which is exactly what I’m finding here at Covent Garden with Elektra. Prior to this revival of Charles Edwards’s production, this time conducted by Mark Elder, Jane’s most recent Covent Garden appearance was as Erda in last season’s staging of Wagner’s The Ring. Consequently discussing with Jane the role of Klytemnestra in Elektra provides a fascinating opportunity to sound her out on both the divergences and the similarities to be found when one compares the Strauss of Salome and Elektra with the Wagner of The Ring. Of course, the one-Act Elektra is much shorter than any of the individual works that comprise The Ring Cycle, but both musically and dramatically comparisons are illuminating.

Jane Henschel as Klytämnestra in Elektra. ©Clive Barda We take the musical aspect first. “Wagner certainly knew the human voice better than Strauss did. His writing was more singer-friendly, and definitely so for tenors: one is sometimes tempted to think that Strauss must have hated tenors. Writing earlier Wagner is consequently easier harmonically however far he goes beyond, say, Verdi or Puccini. If you compare Brünnhilde’s role in Die Walküre with the title role in Elektra, I’m not sure which is the longer, but in the Wagner it is all paced. Elektra, however, just goes and goes and goes with scarcely a break for the singer – the Klytemnestra scene being the only sequence that comes even close to providing that. Furthermore the way that it’s written, the way in which Strauss gets into the top and uses the high notes, very often makes it so difficult for the voice. It’s relentless, and I wish I could have spoken to Strauss to ask him why he did this.”

Turning next to a comparison in dramatic terms, both Strauss and Wagner were dealing with characters notable for psychological depth, but once again, a distinction can be made. “The Ring certainly is about Wotan and its other characters but it’s all about the bigger picture: it’s about the ring, about the gods and their lives and what’s going to happen. The problems that everybody has are seen in that huge context. You may get a bigger picture in Salome too, but not in the same way – it’s more about the individual people, about their neuroses and about what Salome, Herod and Herodias want, and that’s true of Elektra as well where both Elektra and Klytemnestra are driven by inner demons, be it the former’s need for revenge against Klytemnestra the mother who killed Agamemnon, Elektra’s father, or the latter’s tormented dreams over what she and her lover Aegisth have done.” It is significant, too, that Elektra premiered in 1909 and belongs to the age of Freud, as does Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle in which Jane has also appeared.

Klytemnestra is heard only in the middle stretches of the opera although in this Covent Garden production we do glimpse her death-scene, a moment which is sometimes allowed to occur out of sight. Even so, the screams we hear at this point are not Jane’s (she may be giving away a trade secret when she tells me that “somebody else screams – I don’t think that any of us singers do screams”). For Jane, however, even when she is appearing in a production where her death is not visible, the drama enwraps her regardless of the fact that her role is to all intents and purposes over when she makes her exit long before the end. Indeed, given the intensity of this piece growing as it does throughout the work’s single Act, I wonder if Jane tries to involve herself in the drama proceeding ahead of her entrance. It’s a question which fascinates her, especially when it comes to comparing those strong feelings of involvement that remain after her actual appearance with what happens beforehand.

“What is very important to me is to see as many of the rehearsals as I can, to know fully what is going on. On any particular night, however, most of us, even if we’re not in a theatre where we’re being made-up just before we go out, would not have the nerves to stand and watch until we go on. It would be great to be there and to listen and then to use that as motivation when we come on, but I don’t think that we do it. I do have the music going, but most of us are more likely to want to sing a few more notes as we wait. Also Klytemnestra’s entry changes everything, so in this case there’s a kind of break from what has gone before. Of course, some singers don’t care what goes on either before or after their time on-stage, but it’s very important for me and that’s exactly why I watch as many rehearsals as possible.”

In this instance what she is coming to learn about Klytemnestra in rehearsal stems from the different approach shared by Charles Edwards and Sir Mark Elder. “They are working very well together both having a similar concept of the opera and, as far as Klytemnestra is concerned, that means making her a bit more vulnerable and pitiable. In most productions that I’ve done she’s very crazy and screaming and yelling. It’s a loud orchestra so you start doing that anyway, but Mark is trying to keep it down and we’re placed very close, almost hanging over the pit, which enables this to be a more intimate production than the ones I am used to.”

That leaves us with one further issue to discuss: whether or not Strauss intends us to revel in the act of vengeance that sees both Klytemnestra and Aegisth slain by Elektra’s brother Orest? “I can’t imagine that anybody in the audience feels that Klytemnestra’s death is not warranted despite the extra vulnerability shown in this production’s view of her. But whatever Sophocles may have thought when writing the original and whatever attitude Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal may have adopted, it’s quite likely that a modern-day audience would feel that the extreme measures taken against Klytemnestra and Aegisth are too much. I wonder what Hofmannsthal in writing the libretto really thought?”

It’s certainly true that the music celebrates fully the savage acts of revenge, but how are we to balance that against the sudden death of Elektra at the very end? In The Turn of the Screw it’s apparent that Miles’s death undercuts what the Governess had thought of as a victory over evil, but the question of how we should respond to the conclusion of Elektra is less clear. “It leaves a lot of questions open, I think, and many interpretations are possible: that triumph is rarely gained without some pain and agony, that triumph is never 100 percent compete or that in striving for success in such a venture some price has to be paid. Certainly with Elektra’s death the world of her siblings Orest and Chrysothemis is totally changed so revenge may be achieved but it is not very sweet.” The debate doubtless continues and it may be touched upon when Jane Henschel is In Conversation in the Clore Studio Upstairs on 20 November. In addition those of you who wish to see her in her role as teacher can attend her National Opera Studio Masterclass in the Linbury Studio Theatre on 7 November. All this and Elektra too!



  • The opening night of Elektra is Saturday 8 November 2008 at 7.30 and runs until Monday 24 November
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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