Glamorous and down-to-earth at the same time, Diana Damrau is one of the most beloved divas of her generation. Vocal acrobatics and sparkling performances are distinctive traits of her style: her Zerbinetta and her Queen of the Night are already legendary.
But a desire for research and new challenges are also a characteristic of Damrau's personality: she is enthusiastic about her work, and nobody can stop her. After exploring a broad new repertoire last season, in the next few months she will take on a series of new roles – among them Donna Anna in Don Giovanni in Geneva and the title role in Manon at the Wiener Staatsoper.
In May, in an interview with Dominic McHugh, Damrau talked about her L'elisir d'amore at Covent Garden. This time I caught up with her on the day after the dress rehearsal of Laurent Pelly's famous production La fille du régiment in San Francisco in a cast including Juan Diego Flórez and Bruno Praticó.
This opera marks a double debut for Damrau: it's her first Marie, and her first role at the San Francisco Opera. 'Yes, it's true, it's all new for me', she explains, starting with a confession about her fascination for the West Coast. 'I've never been to the West Coast of America, not even for a holiday. And I love San Francisco – it's a beautiful town. I couldn't see much of it, but now that rehearsals are finished I can experience more. And the Redwood Trees: amazing. And the sea... and the Opera House! The Opera is wonderful, people are very, very nice, I have perfect colleagues. It's really a great atmosphere for working. The rehearsal period was quite short because the production existested already but we had fun!'
Then she jokingly refers to her role as the young orphan adopted by a French regiment and working as a vivandière. 'For me, you know, it was a bit difficult because I have not been cooking much lately and can't peel potatoes! I don't have a lot of experience in that – or in the ironing! My clothes are ready for travelling, I just wash them and hang them, and that's it! This was actually a big challenge!' She laughs, and then she develops her ideas on the character she will portray: 'It's very difficult, but I like roles which involve the body and a lot of energy. Now is the right time – I can still move! And I still have the high notes – you can go a little bit crazy in the cadenzas in the "Lesson scene" for instance. This role is just a big joy!'
Another factor that enlivens the production is the presence of Juan Diego Flórez as Tonio – a young Tyrolean and Marie's beloved. Flórez has made Tonio a real signature role: audiences and critics in the major opera houses have raved about his fearless interpretation. When I ask if it she gets along with her colleague, the answer could not be more definite: 'Sure! It's our third production together – we did Barbiere at the Met, and Rigoletto in Dresden, and now here we are. And he can sing this role backwards at three o'clock in the morning!', she laughs. 'He's helping me with the role. It's fun: and he's a great partner on stage!'
Donizetti seems to be one of Damrau's favourites. She took the title role in last run of Lucia di Lammermoor at the Met, replacing the pregnant Anna Netrebko. Her Lucia was a penetrating, intense, manic character – and vocally flawless. Is she thinking of exploring more Donizetti? 'I want to explore the light Donizetti repertoire, than later maybe the Donizetti Queens [Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux]. But I'll give myself time for this. Lucia was a big step into Donizetti's series of dramatic works'.
Donizetti holds a special place in Damrau's memory: 'The first Italian aria I studied was Norina's in Don Pasquale, and I did a lot of auditions singing that role. I sang it later in Brussels at the Opera House. And in Würzburg, the first opera house where I had a fixed engagement, they asked me if I wanted to sing a one act opera. I had spent the summer before in Italy, in Florence, at the Ricordi store. I looked at all those beautiful books, those vocal scores... they're like real books, they're not paperback – but they were quite affordable for students as well. I kept buying Donizetti scores, my suitcase almost exploded! And I bought Rita. I read the score, I played the music for myself, and I said to myself: "I love the story". I suggested it to the opera house, and they did for me! That was wonderful! It was in a very small theatre, not in the main stage. We made a Kammerspiel out of it. We didn't have a full orchestra – they arranged the score for a chamber ensemble with piano, clarinet, bassoon, doublebassoon... It was four or five instruments, and the sound was wonderful. We had so much fun! Donizetti's music is like champagne. You can compare it in some sense with Rossini; and he also has these beautiful lines, these lyrical moments, like for instance in La fille du régiment'.
Damrau becomes really enthusiastic as she starts talking about La fille. She explains why she thinks it's one of Donizetti's most accomplished works: 'I think this opera has it all: it's a very "young" kind of music, very "coloratura music". But it's very balanced: there are also depths, and the music carries the most beautiful meaning and feeling. In this Laurent Pelly production you really believe that Marie is 16 years old. She's not a wild child – she is a girl growing up with 1500 men in the regiment. She feels she is one of them! They treat her like their little princess, but she keeps saying "No, no, I'm working hard!", she does laundry and everything. And when someone orders "Tenez-vous droite!" she stands up like a soldier! She enjoys that life. Well, there's not that much education – they try too late to teach her! It's a bit of a My Fair Lady story! She has to live up to her family: she has to become a lady somehow, and she tries, but she just can't forget and neglect her rules. And the rules she follows are the regiment's'.
But there are other reasons why this opera makes for such a compelling work: 'Besides this little love story and besides this awakening of feelings, there's another beautiful story: the trust in friends and family. Tonio makes promises and he keeps them; and he tries everything to get her back – he even joins the regiment. And when Marie has to leave, it's because of the Marquise and therefore because of her family. And he goes there later, but he's not allowed to hear what she says in her aria: "Lui seul, il ne doit pas me voir", you're not allowed to see me. But he finds her: they stand up for their love. And at the end Marie gives in because the Marquise is her real family – it's her mother. These are the most important things – family and friends. And at the end they're all together, they're helping each other, and Tonio has kept his promise. And he even comes on with the tank on stage in the end!', she comments referring to a prominent feature of Pelly's production. 'I love this image, this strong, strong image that Laurent Pelly has found. Besides all the comedy, this opera has a really beautiful content, and it comes across without getting melodramatic. It's so beautiful!'
Damrau's international career is opening up more and more, and she now works regularly with the most prestigious opera houses. She is happy to be able to work with such professional and friendly people, but she demonstrates concern also about reaching a wider public: for her, opera is a form of art that should communicate intense emotions to everyone: 'The opera houses at this level all work perfectly, they're perfectly organized. We have everything we need in order to have good base for great work. We have wonderful colleagues, wonderful orchestras. And I've not sung much in America, I only know the Metropolitan Opera audience. What I feel is that people here are really not afraid to laugh, to react. They're very open, while sometimes in Germany there's a little bit of distance. But what I also really, really love, and what I think we should do in Germany as well, is surtitles'.
'This is important because some people will be going to see the opera for the first time, and there are so many impressions, and as we all know they are sometimes very long. And sometimes when the voice goes very high you don't understand the words completely. And so if you have surtitles – even if they're in the language in which the opera is sung – it really helps understanding and connecting more to the work. What I see here is that surtitles are sometimes quite funny', she smiles and explains: 'Yesterday, in the general rehearsal, there was a big laugh – we were not at the point of the joke yet, but the audience was already laughing because they had read the surtitles! Well, they enjoyed it! It's a good idea to have something like that. Everyone can enjoy opera! Educated, not educated, people who don't speak the language in which the opera is sung... there's nothing difficult. It's the language of emotions'.
And what about Damrau's forthcoming adventure, the album "COLORaturaS"? The idea behind the title is an interesting one: 'I already have on CD the classical repertoire – Mozart, Salieri… But this time we're doing beautiful coloratura roles of the romantic repertoire. "COLORaturaS", the album, is about colours; and I gave the CD that name because some people still don't know what a coloratura soprano is, what this word means... that what we do is precisely to colour: we colour the phrases, we put feelings into the phrases. And then I thought that this might seem a very wild mix, because the arias I wanted to record are in German, Italian, English and French... some critics will say "Oh, here's another insalata mista – who needs that!". Now... I think this is colours! And also, we stay in the romantic repertoire – this was also the idea behind the album: to record works like Glitter and be gay, and Zerbinetta... people know these roles of mine from stage but not so many recordings exist, so I did that! And I also put in Anne Trulove from from The Rake's Progress, because I love that aria – sometimes I sing it in concerts. All these arias are a part of me!'
The release of the recording is only one of the many highlights from Damrau's present career. She is about to start on several important projects: 'This year is going to be very hard, I have five debut roles. I'm here with three vocal scores: La fille du régiment, from yesterday, as I'm working on what I want to change for the first night. Than I have Donna Anna from Don Giovanni that is coming up in Geneva; it's my first Donna Anna. And, after that, in January there's my Manon at the Wienerstaatsoper, with less than one week of rehearsal, so that's going to be tough. Once I survive that, I can breathe a little bit! Then I have La fille at the Met, again! But it'll be good that I'll have done that already. And in January there's also going to be a concert at the Carnegie Hall with James Levine and the Metropolitan Orchestra including only Strauss – Zerbinetta [from Ariadne auf Naxos] and other works for orchestra. I'm very much looking forward to that!'
With this busy life, is there any place where Diana Damrau finds herself at home? 'The moment I unplug my brain is when I'm in natural surroundings... I need to go on a walk , or sit on a horse – or dance flamenco! These are the places in which I really become myself, this is just Diana, with no studying, no pressure. And the place I call now my base is Geneva. That's where my things are; that's the place for when I really have to stop – when I can't move, can't ride, can't dance, or when I'm ill. So, when I want to have a cosy home I go to Geneva – among my things, the things which belong to me, that I've collected over the years. And my family! My brother is coming to visit me for two weeks in San Francisco, which is wonderful, and friends are going to come and see me, so home is always around me. You have to find home in yourself and in the people you are surrounded by'.
Photos: Copyright by John Palmer (first two) and Ken Howard (last two).
Interview Diana Damrau on returning to Covent Garden for L'elisir d'amore
CD Review Diana Damrau's 'Arie di bravura' (Virgin)
Review of L'elisir d'amore at Covent Garden with Damrau
Review of Hansel und Gretel at Covent Garden with Damrau
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