The relationship between the operas of Strauss and Mozart is well known, if sometimes over exaggerated, and The Royal Opera's current season brings together perhaps the most obvious pair: Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier and Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro.
Appropriately, the same singer will play both the Marschallin in the former, which opens on 7 December, and the Countess in the latter, which returns to Covent Garden in 2010. The Finnish soprano Soile Isokoski is world-famous for her portrayals of the leading lyric soprano roles, and having previously played Mozart's Countess to great acclaim in David McVicar's exquisite production of Figaro, she's now back to play the Marschallin in John Schlesinger's classic staging of Rosenkavalier.
A popular interpreter of Strauss' Four Last Songs as well as Mozart's Fiordiligi and Pamina, Isokoski's career nonetheless includes a wide repertoire such as Britten's Ellen Orford, Tchaikovsky's Tatyana and Verdi's Desdemona. Still, the soprano's connection with Strauss is particularly special, so I caught up with her during rehearsals for Rosenkavalier to ask her about her life and career.
'You tell me! I haven't a clue', she answers when I ask her why the music of Strauss suits her so well. 'All I know is that the songs and the roles I've been chosen to sing were written by Strauss for a lyric soprano like me. It just feels good in the throat. It feels like I don't have to think about technique at all. He knew how to write for different kinds of voices – there are also dramatic roles, for instance, which my colleagues tell me sit very well for them.
'And of course, I love the music,' she continues. 'But I'm the kind of person who's enthusiastic about whatever I'm doing. I did Hindemith's Das Marienleben in the Wigmore Hall two weeks ago, and I just love Hindemith. When I did it, it was the best music I've ever sung. The same goes for Rosenkavalier now. There aren't many composers I don't like; I'm not fond of anything too modern or contemporary. Modern is OK, but it takes time to learn.'
Isokoski becomes almost wistful when we start to talk about the Marschallin. 'I associate with her very much. It had a very strong effect on me: when I sang it for the first time, I quit Pamina and Fiordiligi. They're nice stories, but they're like fairytales. I can still sing them, and I love Mozart, but I feel their stories are too light for me now. Getting a bit older, it's like you need depth to the librettos; it can't just be about lovely music or lovely words.
'What the Marschallin says about time, and her decisions about being reasonable and giving up the man who she knows she probably couldn't keep anyway, is very wise and human. But it's also very sad. So I very much agree with what she does, and the part appeals to me because of that.'
The role of the Marschallin has an unusual aspect, because she appears for most of the first act but not at all in the second, and then comes on for the great trio in the third act. 'It's difficult,' Isokoski confesses. 'It's the same with Carmen – I've been doing Michaela, and you have to pop out for important sections with big gaps in between. Usually, I go and stand on the side of the stage to watch what's happening and listen to colleagues. I don't go out and have dinner between acts, like some of my colleagues!' she jokes. 'But it's hard. It's like you've got warmed up and then cool down again – and then you have to wake up again! Normally with Rosenkavalier I'll listen to the second act through the loud speakers, and then get my costume on and stand in the wings for the third act until my entrance.'
Interestingly, Isokoski's preparation for a role rarely involves studying the performances of others, and she tries to derive her interpretation from the score and libretto rather than from listening to recordings of her predecessors. 'I do it my way. I'm ashamed to say that I didn't listen to Lisa della Casa or Kiri Te Kanawa or Elisabeth Schwarzkopf doing this role. I have no idea, but I assume they do something similar to me. In fact, in my early student years I got the DVD of the Covent Garden production of Rosenkavalier but I never watched it! I very much do it my way. If I don't know the music for a role at all, I do try and get a CD of the opera to get an impression of the tempos and orchestral climaxes and so on, but then I get to work and go through the score on my own and with a coach. I just try and make it alive.'
As for the production, Isokoski says, with considerable warmth: 'I love it. I have done both traditional and modern stagings, and of course the music is gorgeous and is always the same. As a principle, when I sign the contract I meet the director and he explains his ideas, and I accept what's happening. I'm not for or against a particular approach; if there's a good reason for doing a piece in a different way, I'm genuinely glad to know about it. I did a very modern Rosenkavalier with a huge dress, and I had the same dress all the way through. There was no bed, and when Octavian hides in the first act, he concealed himself under the Marschallin's dress.'
We move on to discuss Isokoski's next appearance at Covent Garden, as the Countess in Figaro. She sang the role in this same production here in 2006 and enjoyed enormous success, with The Times commenting that she 'provides the best singing I've heard this season at Covent Garden'; when quizzed about her triumph, the soprano is modest and says 'If you say so! I was part of the ensemble, and I thought they were all great.
'The Figaro Contessa was one of my first roles, and is still a favourite of mine.' She won't be giving it up anytime soon, she says, in spite of having relinquished Pamina and Fiordiligi.
'The Countess is the same kind of figure as the Marschallin. She's getting bored in her marriage, which is not only her fault, and she has an affair with a young boy. And then at the end, she's wise. Those lines as the end – 'Contessa, perdono' – are remarkable: it's both a request for forgiveness, and then forgiveness itself, which is something that we all have to do. It's on both sides. It's hard, but we all have to learn how to do it.'
Isokoski has an extraordinarily wide repertoire, with composers including Mozart, Gounod, Wagner, Verdi, Strauss and Tchaikovsky. Why so wide a range? 'Maybe it's because I love championing music so much in general,' she replies. 'And I love to do Lieder as well. It's like a voyage: you have all these different composers, and you want to get inside all these different styles. I want to get on the right wavelength with each piece. Every piece of music is different. But having said that, I think all the roles I do are written for lyric soprano.
'However, I think it would be very boring to sing the same thing all the time. In the opera world, there's this concept of the Fach, where you're put into a small box and classified as a 'Mozart singer' or a 'Wagner singer'. I don't like that. I'm trying to fight against it!'
One example of this is Isokoski's triumphant debut as Tatyana in Eugene Onegin, which she played at the Helsinki Opera in a co-production with Covent Garden. 'It's a great challenge, because it's very dramatic at the end during the duet with Onegin. But what quite often bothers me with Tatyana is that there surely has to be a child's voice in the beginning, because she's just a teenager. It's not believable if you do it with a wobbly vibrato. Of course, physically I'm not the youngest Tatyana in the world, but I can still sing it and make it sound like a young girl. That's why I like the role. And using the experience of singing Eva in Meistersinger, I learnt how to produce more voice to battle with the orchestra. So it's more voice rather than a raw sound.' She's doing the part again in Helsinki and would love to do it abroad too, but notes, ruefully, that 'they usually hire Russian sopranos'.
Language was an added challenge with Onegin, since Isokoski doesn't speak Russian, and there was a similar issue when taking on the role of Ellen Orford in Peter Grimes in Dresden. 'It was difficult because the story is amazing – it's ravishing – and if you go through it word by word, it's a complete tragedy. But the Dresden production added new elements; for instance, the apprentice was sitting in a wheelchair. So it was hard for me to deal with that, and the people in Dresden struggled with it too. I'd love to do it in a traditional production, because I love the part, and indeed the whole opera.'
Isokoski's big new role is Madame Lidoine in Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmelites, which she'll do for the first time in April 2010 in Munich. 'What a story!' the soprano declares about the opera, which she's looking forward to immensely. As for ambitions for new roles, she says: 'I would love to try more Italian repertoire. I'd love to do Butterfly particularly – I don't know how it would work, but it would be wonderful!'
Music was always a primary interest of Isokoski, 'and still is', she assures me, but she didn't particularly start off as a stage animal as a child. 'I read poetry a lot, and in my youth I even believed what I read!' she laughs. 'I wrote poems of my own, too. Maybe that's why I'm still doing Lieder recitals so much – I love poetry so much, and Lieder combine music and poems so fantastically. Beautiful words are combined with beautiful music. I'm like Madeleine in Capriccio: I can't decide if the music or the words is more important.
'I always sang, and my educational goal was to be a church musician. I succeeded, and even worked for two years in my father's church – he was a vicar. But I think my debut concert in Helsinki made me feel “This is it: I can show whatever I want, and I can hide whatever I want, and I can play with the music, and nobody will interrupt me until the end!”'
Her musical training was excellent, it seems, and she also learned how to play the organ. 'I never thought about singing in an operatic way or like a church chorister. It was just instinctive.' Isokoski won a singing competition in Finland, and then represented her country at the Cardiff Singer of the World. This led to major international engagements, and the soprano never became a member of a single company, which she's glad about. 'But I didn't have a clue what to do: I didn't even know how to stand on stage, so I had to learn as I went along.'
Isokoski still has a home in Finland, and continues to perform there, though she says that her country men accuse her of not spending any time there at all. 'I did Tatyana there, and I'm doing it again. One reason for singing in Helsinki is that with my family circumstances, I feel I have to spend more time at home, rather than spend long periods in America.' As for the music of Finland, she says that 'in the beginning I didn't do very much Finnish repertoire, and I don't feel I'm an ambassador of Finland, but now that I do two recitals per season at the Wigmore Hall, for instance, I need to find repertoire to sing. German singers bring German repertoire, so why shouldn't I bring Finnish repertoire? And if the audiences aren't lying, they like this music. So it's great to do it, especially since it's in my own language.'
And as for ambitions, Isokoski declares that she'd like to coach singers of the future. 'I did lots of it in the beginning, but now I don't have the time for it. In the end, though, I'd love to become known as a great teacher.'
Soile Isokoski appears in Der Rosenkavalier from 7 December and returns later in the season for Figaro.
Photos: Heikki Tuuli
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