One seldom meets as versatile a singer as Katarina Karnéus. Her repertoire is widely varied, and she has miraculously resisted being cast into any one fach: roles by Handel, Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti, Bizet, Mahler, Strauss, and Wagner are all in her back pocket, so to speak. It is Mozart (and da Ponte), however, that will be of particular interest, as Karnéus makes her debut as Donna Elvira in the Royal Opera's revival of Francesca Zambello's production of Don Giovanni. As we make our way to Covent Garden's interview room, I notice that she does not exude that cocky, arrogant swagger so many singers of her stature seem to air; rather, she walks in a complacent, smooth manner, yet still maintains the class necessary to legitimately lay claim to the title Diva (though I'm not entirely sure she would, given the chance). Karnéus is stylishly dressed, elegant, and when we begin speaking, eloquent and exuberantly passionate.
She starts with a quick précis ("that's my story," she says at the end of it) of her life: study, feelings about music, freelance singing, child, divorce, and overall passion for dramatic music. We begin with her influences, ("super")heroes, and musical background, but throughout the conversation, I am struck immediately by her short digressions, which almost always concern artistry: the role of singer as communicator, actress, and icon are subjects that continually surface in our conversation. Karnéus names—besides Nilsson—Renata Tebaldi, Janet Baker, and Franco Corelli as some of her favorites, all for both their "pingy" voices and dramatic finesse. (I mention Baker's recordings of chanson and we lament together their marginality.)
Karnéus comes from a "slight musical background" and loved music from a young age. "I remember being very young, probably five or four, and watching [on television] Birgit Nilsson singing on stage in a beautiful big dress, and she looked so amazing and sounded so amazing…I used to think that was fascinating, so I used to imitate opera singers…my poor parents must've thought I was crazy [she laughs]." Luckily for the rest of us, her parents eventually nurtured her "fascination" with music, theatre and performance, and she began her musical career by playing the clarinet, after which she took singing lessons at twelve or thirteen.
Karnéus eventually studied with Ulla Blom (at eighteen) and, indeed, cites Blom as one of her most influential teachers: her organic method of singing was incredibly influential on the young Karnéus; enough to carry her to the Trinity College of Music, the National Opera Studio, and, in 1995, to a winning position in the Cardiff Singer of the World competition. Her eyes become nostalgic, and have a slight glint as she remembers, "… [the competition] was amazing; it was kind of a shock, but so exciting, I mean, my whole life changed from then on."
Since winning the prestigious competition, she has free-lanced around the world in all the major houses. When I mention her curious ability to remain above silly fach classifications, she is ready with an idealistic riposte. "It's a funny world we live in because you go somewhere and sing something and they think, ‘oh, she's that,' and then you go somewhere else and they think, ‘oh, she's that.' I would like to think that I have the [ability] to sing many different things, for example, something that I am extremely close to is Mahler; it's something I do, a lot [Karnéus just recorded a wonderful disc of Mahler's orchestral songs]. But I also love the French repertoire: the role I haven't done yet is Charlotte [Massenet's Werther]." She is set to sing Romeo (Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi) at the Gothenberg Opera, another role that she has wanted to do for quite some time. Karnéus prefers concert work to opera, but for practical reasons only, since she successfully balances her life as a single mother with her performance life. She is quick to remark, however, that she "misses the stage, big time."
When we turn the conversation to Don Giovanni, she is quick to describe her Donna Elvira in detail. "In this production—it's quite a strong feminist production—Elvira is probably pregnant. She loves him blindly, but is also quite desperate to forgive [Don Giovanni] for anything if he just cleaned himself up. [Elvira] is a very touching character, in a way. As a woman, I relate to that fascination, when you fall in love for the first time and you are absolutely blinded; people think that's an old fashioned thing, unrequited love, but I don't. I think most, not everyone, but most will go through that sort of painful love." Karnéus continues, "[Elivra] has so many different colors, and she is very temperamental, and very angry, so you can have a lot of fun with the character."
Playing devil's advocate, I ask how does Elvira compares to the seria character, Donna Anna. "I don't think Elvira is vindictive, I think she is desperate. She can't get rid of the passion for Don Giovanni; she tries, in any way, to make him understand that he should be with her [she laughs]; I think that makes her vulnerable though: often, men or women, are very angry, there is often a desperation, a need somewhere for acknowledgement, a feeling that you are not getting what you need."
Elvira is surely the best character in the opera. After all, she is the mezzo carattere, the character that is the closest to being already three-dimensional on paper. Perhaps one of Elvira's best qualities is her knack for storming in at just the right moments. When I mention that, in some productions, Elvira's tenacity can come across quite humorously, she agrees. Karnéus loves her first entrance, she thinks it's "so funny." But Karnéus does not let this humor depreciate her overall presentation of the character. "In this production she can be quite temperamental, but there are moments when she melts."
I ask her about her perspective on operatic acting, and she confesses to being as close to a method actor as an opera singer can be: "Absolutely…we always look into our own lives and our own situations; there are moments in life when you go through very difficult things…we all carry a backpack, and it's burdened with heavy stones but sometimes, we pick one out and throw it out because it's gone; other times we pick one of these stones out and say we can add this to our character's [backpack]."
On one hand, Karnéus is identifying with the emotion and, on the other, recognizing the emotion represented in the text and music to effectively create a vivid character for the audience. "I find the emotion and connect that with the part." She searches for, as she says, "what it is true." She continues, "her love and passion for the Don is true, her pain is true, her temper...she wants him for herself." "I think that Donna Elvira...he may have been forceful with her but she wanted it; she is a passionate woman."
And what does Karnéus think of this production at Covent Garden? "The productions that are the very best are the ones where everyone has an idea of what the piece is and where it's going...and what it means...for me the most satisfying opera is one that is organic, where everyone is true to their parts, that's what makes it all interesting...you must commit yourself to exactly what you're doing and present something that is really true. [One] can't just grab the money and run. That is our responsibility as artists." She continues, "you must use your own artistic intentions to make the part work for you...somewhere along the line, with the [conceptual] direction, with the [stage] direction given to you, you must produce the part, and that comes from the text, though it takes a while before everything gels, before everything becomes organic together."
Karnéus ends our interview with some philosophical musings on the general message of the piece; she speaks through a faint smile, yet there is a hint of sadness in her voice: "…over-consuming women, over-consuming alcohol, over-consuming everything, we have people like that today; a lot of them die of overdose…[Don Giovanni] changed a lot of our lives, but it goes on."
Katarina Karneus is currently appearing at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in Mozart's Don Giovanni.
Join the debate: if you have any comments on this or any of our articles, visit our forum