Written by: Mansel Stimpson
The German soprano takes the title role in David McVicar’s new production of Richard Strauss’s Salome at Covent Garden…
When talking to Nadja Michael the impression that comes across is of someone who is very much in charge of her career. Hers is the attitude of a professional whose sense of what you need to aim for in life has been shaped by her background. When her operatic career first led to substantial roles in 1996 she appeared in two strikingly dissimilar works – playing Amastris in Handel’s Xerxes and the title role in Bizet’s Carmen, a pointer that she seeks a wide repertoire. That diversity is proclaimed by her forthcoming schedule which, including debut performances as Aida and Norma, also incorporates works by Cherubini (Médée), Gluck (Iphigénie en Tauride) and Korngold (Die tote Stadt). “I consciously opt for a wide range because I just love to explore, to get into fresh personalities, fresh music and fresh composers. Also I like to test things, to see how far I can go.”
Other singers might adopt a similar approach but when Nadja tells about the circumstances of her early life I gradually sense how vital this period has been in making her the person she is today. Significantly she was born in Leipzig and grew up in what was East Germany. “I have four siblings and there was music in our house but it was not classical music although my mother introduced me to singing in a choir. Early on I was trained as a swimmer, but I stopped swimming at fourteen and entered a special school for music thinking that I might become a teacher. It was later that I reached the turning point that made me want to train as a classical singer. I can pinpoint the moment. I must have been sixteen and I was in one of the choruses that feature in Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, the Symphony of a Thousand. That was in the Gewandhaus and it was really overwhelming. I decided then and there to take proper singing lessons to see where it might lead me. But at that time I was not into opera as such. I remember going to see Carmen and Aida and I found both of them quite strange. The music was touching but the Carmen was quite big and she couldn’t move well and I thought it would be so much better to do it in a concert version. But once I started those lessons I recognised how beautiful it must be to sing with the kind of voice you hear in music like that and to express your feelings in the music through the voice.”
Before long Nadja was studying music in the Hochschule in Stuttgart. “I quite soon figured out that you have to take responsibility yourself, not to let others make your life for you but to create something for yourself”. It could well be said that she had already put this into practice because her studies in Stuttgart came after she had escaped from East Germany at the age of 19 accompanied by a friend. She was soon applying this principle to her music. “I had this appreciation of music but I had to learn so much because I didn’t have it in my background. Having left East Germany I started right away to take Italian lessons and I went to Italy because so much opera comes from there and I wanted to understand how they do it and how they teach.”
Showing her mettle by entering and winning competitions, Nadja was also helped by winning scholarships and it was one of these that took her to America, the scholarship in question being to Indiana University, Bloomington. “I learnt a lot in Italy but because of my special situation in having come from East Germany what I discovered in the U.S.A. was even more useful. I think that whenever you go abroad you find inspiration because it’s different from what you are used to and that certainly applied in this case. What I had been taught by our system was that people are not special and that it was better not to say what you thought or to assume that you had skills to develop. You were encouraged to see yourself as being grey and suited to some middle range. In the United States, it was the total opposite. The message was to believe in yourself, that everything was possible and that you just had to go for it.”
Taking all this to heart, Nadja went on to build a notable career for herself, partly in the concert hall (her work there still counts for much and as recently as 2005 she received an award in Munich for her performance in Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde) but more and more in the opera house. Those early doubts about opera had been swept aside: “I believe now that we really have to make it work and that it’s music-theatre that can give you the full experience, the full emotion. Absolutely”. In all of her work she has the sense of working towards goals and in 2005 this led to a major change which she embraced in a way that a lesser artist might not have done. “I had started quite early with the dramatic mezzo-soprano roles which have a wide range at the top and which seemed to suit my voice. But then after singing those parts for about two-and-a-half years I began to sense that I could not take them further and that they did not provide the space that I needed if I were to develop and achieve my ultimate goal in terms of what I expect from an artist. When singing Venus in Tannhäuser for the first time I felt that the voice was wanting to go up. I became certain that change was necessary and funnily enough that was after singing Dalila which was a success. When I spoke to people about changing the fach and establishing myself as a soprano, they indicated that my career was going well and that I shouldn’t do it. As it happened that was when my children were born so there was no time to make the change immediately. But once the little one was a year old I had more time and I went to a teacher I trusted and we just went for it. By then I had no doubt at all.”
Nadja Michael’s wisdom in making this decision was quickly confirmed by her success as Tosca and when we meet at Covent Garden she is there to sing the title role in Salome the Richard Strauss opera in which she had a great success at La Scala last year. It’s a role that she will be singing again in San Francisco and it’s an opera that means a lot to her. “It belongs to our time. It’s not like a work from the past and not part of the romantic era: it deals with what moves and concerns us now. Despite being a short work with only one Act it is really dense with so much packed in”. In saying this she is endorsing a view I have heard expressed before that Salome, which appeared in 1905, is a precursor of such works as Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle and Berg’s Wozzeck – those great dramas of psychological and philosophical depth.
I ask Nadja how she sees Salome for in this opera she is a very complex figure and one far removed from the image of the femme fatale that led Hollywood to cast Rita Hayworth in the role when filming the biblical story. “Salome grows up in an environment that is very violent and full of power games. What’s more, she grew up witnessing how her mother Herodias betrayed her father and married his brother and now she is sixteen and aware of all this. It’s a very, very dysfunctional society and one in which there is much plotting, sex and debauchery. What is lacking is any real emotional contact between human beings and Salome’s position through being the daughter of Herodias who is now married to the tetrarch Herod is such that she feels no barriers – and this is a world in which decapitation is commonplace and in which prophets, of whom there are plenty around, may each claim to have the truth yet become part of a court that is like Sodom and Gomorrah. This is her environment and when she becomes determined sees the captive prophet Jochanaan her interest is aroused not by the man as such or by his voice – after all he’s just another prophet – but by the fact that this is the man of whom Herodias is afraid.
“My view of Jochanaan is that he is a fanatic expressing not so much what God says as his version of it. Nevertheless, he is absolutely different from everyone else because he’s willing to go to his death for his beliefs. Salome sees that right away and the tragedy of this sad girl lays in the fact that she is probably looking for love. Not love in a sexual way as such – although that could part of it – but a relationship with a man who will truly see her. She wants Jochanaan to look into her eyes and to relate to the person she is. When denied this, she acts in a way that is part of the culture of the time and demands his head. The music when she gets her wish is so emotional and she is saying ‘if you could have seen me, you would have understood that the secret of love is so much bigger than the secret of death: why didn’t you?’ That is what the piece is about, and it’s touching and very, very sad. I just go into the character and it draws me away. I don’t know any part until now that exhausts me as much as this one. The demands of the part are exceptional and not only from the vocal point of view although you do have that huge orchestra underneath. It takes me a long time after the performance to feel that my feet are back on the ground.”
Nadja is enthusiastic about David McVicar’s new production with its essentially timeless approach to this story. We talk finally about the scene in which most unusually a singer is required to be the centre of attention for some ten minutes without singing a note, the ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ with which Salome entices Herod into the promise that will enable her to ask for the head of Jochanaan. “When I first accepted the role, I was so worried about the dance, but it has ended up by being the highlight for me. I love to be quite natural and I’m somebody who likes to move. In my private life I love to dance so doing this as part of the performance has turned out to be a great pleasure. At La Scala it was ballet-like which made it a challenge that I welcomed. Here with Andrew George as the choreographer it’s completely different and I would say that what David and Andrew have done is unique. That’s so important because it’s a key moment in the opera and very much an expression of character too. I’m not supposed to say anything about it, but it’s very, very touching and it’s not about the seven veils at all – that much I can say. What I’m finding is that this role is so fascinating that I could never grow tired of it and the piece itself is truly a singular and exceptional work.”
- The opening night of Salome is 21 February 2008 at 7.30 with six further performances until 12 March
- Box office: 020 7304 4000
- Royal Opera