Interview: Diana Damrau on returning to Covent Garden for L'elisir d'amore

'We are in a terrible economic situation, but opera will survive. Music is the motor in our lives.'

8 May 2009

Diana Damrau

Amongst the most popular singers of her generation, Diana Damrau's career continues to fascinate opera lovers. Having dazzled the world in over a dozen productions of The Magic Flute as the Queen of the Night, she made history at the Metropolitan Opera last year by singing both her final performances as the Queen and her first as Pamina within the same run (though not on the same nights). She's since gone on to sing the title role in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, while at Covent Garden we've seen her in roles as diverse as the Drunken Woman in the world premiere of Lorin Maazel's 1984, Zerbinetta in Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos and Gretel in Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel.

Continuing this broad repertoire, Damrau is back in London next week as Adina in a revival of L'elisir d'amore, Donizetti's perennially appealing comedy. It's a role as charming as the soprano herself, who is both sweet-natured and down-to-earth as we chat about her already noteworthy career. As the press assistant brings in a can of Diet Coke for Damrau to drink, she giggles with enthusiasm and says, 'I need this – I'm addicted!'

The soprano's British public should clearly hasten to the Royal Opera House for this revival: Damrau confirms during our conversation that it will be three years before she returns, for a new production of Meyerbeer's rarely-staged Robert le Diable. So this Elisir is a great opportunity to catch up with her here for the last time this decade and to ask her about her career, her future plans and her new album.

Damrau loves the role of Adina. 'The opera reminds me of my teens,' she says. 'I think this role would remind everybody of their early youth, and their first love. It's about getting to know your own feelings, the voice inside yourself. That voice tells you the right thing to do, but you do the contrary!

'It's a very youthful opera in general and the music is like champagne. Every song is a hit. Every number makes you think "That's my favourite bit!" It's a wonderful piece.

'I also think Adina is the character in L'elisir d'amore who goes through the biggest changes. At the beginning, she knows she's desired by lots of boys. She has her "old love" in Nemorino – not that it was love necessarily, but they probably had some kisses and went out for a couple of weeks. Then Nemorino declares, "This is the love of my life!" but she says, "No, actually, I'm a little bit too young for that!" So she keeps him at a distance because he's so easy to have.

'But she doesn't see inside herself the fact that this is her true love. She can't stop teasing him. She's naughty, though there's a danger sometimes that she can seem cruel and too hard. I always have in my mind that she's a young girl, and in this beautiful production at Covent Garden you can see that Adina and Nemorino really are very close. They're also physically close: they fight each other, and there's a sense that they grew up on the same playground. They've smoked cigarettes together and been to their first parties together, and they know each other very well.

'She plays this game until she gets caught in her own trap by promising marriage to the horrible Belcore, who she knows has a wife in another village. When the notario comes and Nemorino's not there, she realises that this may be a major mistake!'

Diana DamrauLaurent Pelly's production did not have the instant impact of his other Donizetti work at Covent Garden, La fille du régiment, but Damrau is clearly an admirer of the staging. 'It has its surreal moments,' she admits, 'but I think that the stylisation in the choreography, for instance, is very successful.

'It's a comedy, and I think it works completely. I love that it's set in an Italian village, detached from the rest of the world. It's played at a time when everyone had a TV at home, or a radio at least, so there was a sense of the big world outside. Everyone had to work, and travelling was not that possible. So when this Dulcamara – who has been everywhere and done everything and knows everything – comes along, it's quite exciting, and absolutely believable. I love how youthful it is: there's a gang of boys with bikes driving across the stage, and you see Adina with her girlfriends, waiting for the bus to go into the next town. It stays with the heart: it's nice.'

I mention how different Damrau's two recent Donizetti roles (Lucia di Lammermoor at the Met, and now Adina) are, and she agrees that 'You can't compare them. That's the beautiful thing about our job: you can get into all different kinds of characters. The last role I sang here was Gretel! And then there's the Queen of the Night. I just love becoming different people and exploring what they do. Lucia is something really, really special. Adina is the lighter bel canto, but Lucia is the next step to the real serious bel canto.

'I adore the mad scene in Lucia. It was great that although it was a revival, the Met allowed me to work with the original director, Mary Zimmerman. So I could directly ask her various questions that I had, and I could make the production work for me, for my body, for my voice, and for what I wanted to express. It was a wonderful job. One day, the set for the mad scene wouldn't work, so we had to improvise without the stairs. That was very interesting, because bel canto lets you express things in quite different ways, thanks to free passages such as the cadenzas, yet it still works.'

Damrau is also looking forward to appearing in La fille du régiment in San Francisco in the autumn, continuing her exploration of Donizetti roles. 'I've done Adina and Norina before, and I think that Donizetti is the Italian composer whose music fits me best. I'm not a Verdi soprano – Traviata is the outer edge of what I'm able to do – but Donizetti is like Strauss, it just fits me well. I've not yet done Bellini, but I have Puritani and Sonnambula coming up on my schedule, so I'm going to go on exploring. With Donizetti, there are some truly great moments, as well as the virtuosity. I did Rosina at the Met, and I have Count Ory planned there too, but Rossini is all about virtuosity. For me, I think my heart beats stronger for Donizetti. But maybe that will change in the future!'

The mention of La traviata causes Damrau to become excited, though she reiterates that Violetta represents the outer limit of her Verdi repertoire. 'I have three contracts already for it but there's no more Verdi planned beyond that, though perhaps Simon Boccanegra would be possible. We just have to see where my voice is going to go!'

Massenet's Manon is another big role set in the soprano's future diary. 'That's planned for January next year in Vienna, and I'm also preparing Die schweigsame Frau and Donna Anna at the moment.

Diana Damrau'I want to keep my high notes,' she continues. 'I see my voice becoming more and more lyrical, but the high notes are still there. I'm sticking with coloratura and lyric roles at the moment. I don't think it will become much more dramatic, but I have to wait and see. I would love to do a little bit of Wagner later on – Eva and Elizabeth would be dream roles for me. I love them! But those are dreams for the future.'

Given Damrau's reputation for playing feisty characters, it's perhaps a little surprising that she's chosen to play Donna Anna in Don Giovanni as her only Mozart role for the current year. What's the attraction? 'I think I can do Donna Elvira later, but you need the lyric coloratura with Donna Anna and that's what my voice can do now.

'She is interesting: I think something serious happened between her and Don Giovanni, and she tries to hide it. So many things have happened to her: her father died, she had this experience with Don Giovanni. She tells Don Ottavio that when Don Giovanni came to her room to seduce her, she thought it was Ottavio. Well, I don't believe her!' she laughs. 'Every director sees it differently, but I want to do a young Donna Anna. She keeps Ottavio at a distance because she needs to sort out lots of things within herself. She's not honest.'

Damrau's two first recordings for the Virgin Classics label consisted of an album of Mozart and Salieri arias, and then an all-Mozart collection. But, she says, 'I've done enough Mozart now! Actually, it was planned that the second album, the pure Mozart one, would be released later. It was recorded, and I also started to record a portrait album, with roles from my whole repertoire. I did the classics, with Mozart and Salieri next to each other to show that Salieri wasn't a loser, but then I fell ill during the recording of the second album and the Mozart one jumped in.

'My schedule was quite full when I got the recording contract, and it wasn't easy to balance things. So I had to redo it, and there was no chance to record the rest of it until this year. It's great – it has German, English, French and Italian opera on it. There's Anne Trulove from The Rake's Progress and 'Glitter and be Gay' from Candide. Then there's Zerbinetta, Juliette's songs, Orphelia's mad scene, Rosina, Gilda – roles which people have seen me do onstage. It's quite a mixture, but why not?'

Damrau freely admits that she was blessed with a musical upbringing. 'I first heard music before I was born!' she declares. 'But the first classical music I reacted to was Peer Gynt. My mum's cousin's husband was a ballet dancer. He gave us a recording of Peer Gynt, and I was lost. I started dancing round the room, and sang along with the music. I was three or four at the time.

'I then fell in love with opera when I was twelve years old. My parents were out at dinner, and I started going through the television channels. I got stuck on one where there was beautiful music playing and beautiful people appearing – and then they started singing! I couldn't believe it. It was the Zeffirelli production of La traviata with Placido Domingo and Teresa Stratas. For me, this was like The Red Shoes.

'I watched the whole opera, and afterwards I cried. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard. It's so complete: it contains everything, and it goes straight to the heart. I prayed to God that I had the talent and the voice to learn how to do it. My singing teacher was a Romanian opera singer, and she said to me, "You can do this, but you must study and get a diploma". It was like having my shoulders tapped with an ancient sword, like a knight.'

Diana DamrauHow difficult was the training? 'It is such a complex thing, learning how to sing, especially as a young person. It's like Adina: yes, you're there, the energy's there, you want to do it, but first you have to learn how your body works. We have to open the voice: it sounds completely different, and is very unusual for the body. We also have the problem that we can't see it: everybody can see the postural problems of a pianist, but with singing you can't see what your vocal cords and larynx are doing. Then you need a good teacher, who can push you in the right direction.

'And finally, I always say that as a singer, you have to be your own psychotherapist. Just when you're thinking "Oh my God, it's the difficult phrase now, and it's high!", you have to actually tell yourself "That's very interesting, and it's not high at all!", otherwise you won't be able to do it. You constantly have to fight against your own fears.'

Damrau finds it difficult to name her favourite project to date, but several stand out so far. 'I must say, I really enjoyed the Queen of the Night here in Covent Garden. That was my dream Queen, and I've now done seventeen different productions of The Magic Flute! That was the one where I really thought, she is like this. Also, Lucia was really amazing. My first Gilda was in Mannheim with a wonderful baritone colleague. The first death on stage was absolutely incredible. It was also an honour to perform during the reopening of La Scala.

'And then, sometimes it's not just the singing that makes for a great experience: I had a wonderful time in Madrid with Ariadne auf Naxos, and I'm still in contact with a lot of my colleagues from that production.'

One of Damrau's most memorable Covent Garden appearances was in the world premiere of Lorin Maazel's opera, 1984. Though the production was critically panned, Damrau herself was acclaimed for her double role of the Drunken Woman and the Gym Instructress, and she's enthusiastic about contemporary music. 'I work with modern composers quite a lot,' she confirms. 'I did Pintscher's Herodiade-Fragmente, which is a twenty-minute piece for soprano and big orchestra; it was horrendously difficult to learn. I did Der Riese con Steinfeld by Cerha, who completed Lulu, which was another interesting experience. In some phrases I had to speak in the absolute stratosphere of my voice, so we needed to discuss how to do it.

'With Lorin Maazel though, there was nothing to discuss because he wrote it perfectly. I got the impression that he wanted to sing the part of the Drunken Woman! The Gym Instructress was a role for high dramatic soprano, and that was a fun challenge too. We had so much fun. Somehow, I understood exactly what he wanted. I loved the piece, and I also loved the production. It was very smart, composition-wise, how he used music. The violence of the twelve-tone music for the torture scene was superb, and the whole thing was full of very strong moments.'

And there's more to come, apparently. 'An opera is being written for me by a young British composer, Iain Bell. I've sung his orchestral song cycle, which we're going to record with the ORF in Vienna in July, and in the Wigmore Hall last year I sang his Daughters of Britannia. This is the composer with whom I have the closest contact. I'm involved, and he asks me for ideas. I can't say we create it together, but I really feel part of it, and I know that he knows my voice – almost better than anyone else. He writes lyrically, but with a bit of acid in it. He doesn't do orchestral music: he specialises in the voice. So he's writing an opera for me, and it's going to be staged at the Theater an der Wien in 2013.'

I remark that in very month this year she's singing a different role by a different composer in a different country. How does she cope with such a schedule?

Diana Damrau'The travelling is sometimes a little bit tricky. I don't have a partner at the moment, and I don't have children. It's difficult in this profession, and it's hard to trust people. It's hard to get to know each other with all the travelling. But this job is what I have to do. I don't have a child who has to go to school, otherwise I would have had to change my life. I just keep doing what I do: I love exploring, and it's actually getting easier because I keep coming back to places I've already been, so there are lots of the same colleagues and I know where I am. It's a bit like zapping channels: "OK, now I'm in London and I'm in my London life!"

'And I have my close friends, with whom I always stay in contact. You have to find a balance in all that. If it all becomes too much for me, I go horse riding and get back to nature, without people and without opera. Getting the confidence of the animal and getting in touch with it gives you a sense of power over it. You know it's listening to you and waiting for your sign, and then you finally say "OK, let's go!" It's complete teamwork, and it's fantastic.'

Damrau's ambitions are more personal than professional. 'I would love to have a family,' she says ruefully. 'I'd love to dance more, but I have no time! I'd also love to teach, and to help. We need to help art, and to tell everybody how wonderful music is. It's essential for everybody's life.

'We are in a terrible economic situation, and everyone knows what happened to the Met. It is a difficult time, but opera will survive. Music is the motor in our lives. What are people doing when they get onto the tube? They're all listening to music through their earphones. Music is nutrition for our soul. It helps us to get rid of tension. It gives us energy back. It makes us think. And it makes us cry, but crying sometimes is really good. It puts us in touch with our feelings in the same way as poetry. That's why I love opera so much: vocal music gives us the complete thing.'

By Dominic McHugh

L'elisir d'amore opens at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, on 12 May 2009. Diana Damrau's Arie di bravura and Mozart arias discs are available on Virgin Classics now.

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DamrauRelated articles:

Review: Diana Damrau's Arie di Bravura CD (Feb 08)
Review: Diana Damrau's Mozart: Donna CD (Jan 09)
Review: Diana Damrau in Der Rosenkavalier with Renee Fleming (Jan 09)
Interview: An interview with Anthony Michaels-Moore, who plays Belcore in Elisir

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