Interview: Petra Lang on singing Kundry in the Royal Opera's revival of Parsifal

'I connect with her totally, both psychologically and emotionally.'

22 November 2007

Petra Lang - interview

One of the world's leading Wagnerians, mezzo-soprano Petra Lang is a firm favourite with London audiences. We've seen her play the Prima Donna in Ariadne auf Naxos, Judit in Duke Bluebeard's Castle, Brangäne in Tristan und Isolde, Sieglinde and Brünnhilde in excerpts from Die Walküre at the Barbican and Cassandra in Berlioz's Les troyens with Colin Davis at the Proms.

She also sang Kundry in Parsifal at the Proms in a concert performance a number of years ago with Sir Simon Rattle, a role to which she's returning next week at Covent Garden under a very different conductor, Bernard Haitink. I talked to her as she was about to go into rehearsals with Haitink to ask her about her current repertoire, her love of Wagner's music and how she hopes to become medically qualified in the future to help singers to cope with the strains of the modern opera circuit.

It turns out that Petra Lang first heard Parsifal at a very early age. 'I wasn't even going to school at the time', she says. 'I must have been five or six, something like that. My father was working at the Frankfurt Opera and I had the chance to see it. They'd been taking me to see children's performances round Christmas time from the age of three, then I discovered my family's record collection. I wasn't interested in listening to fairy-tales - I used to play my mother's operetta recordings! I loved Die Fledermaus and The Merry Widow, things like that, and the old singers such as Julius Patzak. There was also a Flying Dutchman recording, which really interested me at the age of four, and I hadn't even been in school when they took me to see Parsifal. It was an old Wieland Wagner production. Just to hear the music and see all the miracles of the light was amazing.

'I had no clue about the story, though, and I didn't like the woman screaming in Act II!' she laughs. 'I went to see the production many times during my childhood.'

The composer's music is a life-long interest for Lang. 'I was a big Wagnerian fan from the very beginning. I have no idea what brought me to it; in the beginning it wasn't the story, just the music. I remember my father had a recording of Tannhäuser from Bayreuth with Grace Bumbry and Anja Silja. I just kept playing it over and over! The Frankfurt theatre they had a very good repertory system and during the school holidays I went every other evening when my father was on duty. He just put me in the lighting box if he couldn't get me a ticket! For my first Lohengrin, he asked Hildegard Behrens if I could have her complimentary ticket because he couldn't get one. She said "Yes, but she has to come and pick it up by herself". I have visions of me standing in my white Communion dress on a Sunday afternoon, very excited going to meet Miss Behrens and picking up the ticket!'

As for Parsifal, Lang thinks it has a special feel to it. 'I think it's not so aggressive as some of the other pieces. It has a lot of inner wisdom. It probably made a difference that some of the problems in his life were solved and he had a different outlook. For instance, he brings redemption without having one of the characters dying as you do in the earlier operas. And there's no father-daughter, incestuous relationship like you have in the Ring Cycle. Musically, it's very epic. For me, although you can obviously represent a lot of things in a staged version, it's a piece you can do full justice to in concert, and in fact my first Kundry was at the Proms with Simon Rattle.'

Kundry is a role which Petra Lang has sung on many of the world's stages, and it's one of which she has a rounded view. 'I connect with her totally, both psychologically and emotionally. When I started looking at the role in 1996, I wasn't booked to sing it. I was engaged in Braunschweig to sing the Alto solo and Flower Maiden in the opera for the thirtieth anniversary of René Kollo's stage debut. My teacher said I should have a look at Kundry so I did, but I had no idea how to go about learning it.

Petra Lang - interview

'Then I started talking to people who'd sung the role, and I read a lot about it. Willy Decker's assistant told me to read Marion Zimmer Bradley's book The Mists of Avalon to get an idea of time travel. I then talked to Giuseppe Sinopoli, with whom I'd done Mahler's Third Symphony, and said that I was up to do Kundry in two years' time but didn't know how to approach it. He said "Oh, I've written a book on Parsifal [Parsifal in Venedig], maybe it would be interesting for you" and we sat together on a flight to Turin while he told me all kinds of interesting things about Kundry, the character's development and reincarnation.

'I think Kundry as a role is about reincarnation. This helped me to understand what's going on with her. I think it's relatively simple: she laughed at Christ and a curse was put on her that means she now has to laugh at every man she sees who is not strong enough to resist her. The fate of her life is that every man she seduces can't resist falling in love with her; if they could, the curse would be broken. So she has to wait for the one who can resist her to get rid of this karma. That means that in every new life in which she is reborn or reincarnated, she will have to solve this problem. This explains what Klingsor says about Kundry having been reborn as Gundryggia - she must have travelled through perhaps a thousand years and maybe twenty, forty, fifty lives in an attempt to get rid of this karma, this fate. Klingsor is the only one who has power over her because he is immune to women and she can't seduce him. So I think this is a relatively simple approach to the part.

'When we see her in the first act, she goes to sleep and then Klingsor awakens her. But she doesn't want to be awakened; she wants to have eternal sleep and not be reincarnated again. The other thing is that she tries to work her karma off by helping other people. This is her 'helper syndrome'. But that won't be the solution for her problems.

'I think that when I started to think about her in terms of incarnation, then Kundry was very easy. It's clear what happened to this woman. You see her as all different kinds of characters. In Act I, she is a wild beast, very harsh and not very friendly. In the scene with Klingsor, he is totally controlling her. The only thing she can do to get further away from him for a few seconds is to laugh at him, but it doesn't last with him because he can resist her. Then when you look at the big scene in Act II, Kundry always knows how to deal with the men she seduces. With Amfortas, it was easy, for instance, and Klingsor could come along and put him under his power. But with Parsifal, she knows she has to approach him through his mother. She knows from Act I that he has sorry feelings for his mother and she decides to play the game that way, and it works - until the kiss. But that makes Parsifal understand Amfortas' pain, and she loses control over a man for the very first time. She thinks she might not have pushed the right button with him, and tries to use sex to regain it by saying "If you want to help him, first help me, I'm the poor victim - I waited for you my whole life". I think she does it in a relatively seductive way. She loses control more and more. At the end she really gets mad and she has no more wisdom left to use. She doesn't know how to get control over Parsifal and has to call on Klingsor for help. That's why there's the screaming at the end of Act II! Her world breaks down when Parsifal breaks the spear. I don't know if she knows what's going to happen to her, but then she can sleep. That's the thing, really: the fact that Parsifal resists her brings her relief and release. She has to wake up one last time to live one more life and to serve. Act III is years later; Gurnemanz is an old man and Parsifal has wandered through the world for perhaps twenty years. Kundry wakes up and is different; she's changed. All the anger, all the wild beast and aggression of the first act, all the active control of the second act has gone. Astrid Varnay, with whom I worked on this role, told me that in Act III she is like a zombie. You have the body, but the soul is already gone. For me, this journey makes it the most exciting role I have in my repertoire. It's great fun singing it!'

Petra Lang - interview

Klaus Michael Grüber's production of the opera is returning to Covent Garden after a six-year absence. 'I think it's very static and tries to show the inner feelings of the characters', says Lang. 'It's nearly like a concert version in some ways: you sit there and listen to the music and let your imagination work through the story. That's the thrust of it.' She's also looking forward to working with Bernard Haitink again: 'I'm very excited', she says.

It's long been rumoured that Petra Lang will be returning to The Royal Opera in the near future to sing Ortrud in a revival of Elijah Moshinsky's production of Lohengrin, and although she won't be drawn on the truth of the rumour, Lang happily elaborates on her view of Ortrud as another of her key roles. 'She's quite different to Kundry. This is another role which I've worked on with Astrid Varnay - I've had the great pleasure and good fortune to work with her on all three of my major Wagner roles, Kundry, Ortrud and Sieglinde. We worked more on the drama, the acting and thinking about the character, which really helped me. I knew her from 1989 and we worked on other things, too, like Cosí fan tutte. She always said "You have to live through the role, you have to do it as if it were your life".

'With Ortrud, I was very, very aggressive when I first did it, and Astrid Varnay helped me to change it. OK, Varnay had a very different type of voice - a 'hochdramatische' soprano - and she was a very strong and demanding lady! Even in her old age, it was just amazing: she would sit in her chair and you felt like you'd been thrown across the room just by a glance from her! I've never had that before with anybody.

'Ortrud is about two different religions, two different reigns, the old religion of the old gods - Ortrud's ancestors, the old figures like Odin and Wotan - versus the new Christian God. First of all, I have to point out that she's just a normal woman. She has education, for instance. You might say she is a witch but a lot of women in those days knew about herbs and energy and how to use the moon, when to grow things, and so on. It's not that she's a sorceress: I think she's just able to use the power of the Universe. In contrast, you have this very white and pure Elsa, who is very dull in my opinion. I think she's very stupid and simple - and very young and naïve in her thinking. She hasn't studied or anything, which is why she reacts the way she does. She was just raised to make a man happy. She's just about sheer beauty: it's a beautiful outfit but there's nothing inside it. That was my key starting point for doing Ortrud, that she's not a bitch. She's a well-rounded character with motivations and there's a development in her character.

Petra Lang - interview

'She knows how to deal with Telramund - how to manipulate him and how to make him act in the way she wants. We find this in many marriages and relationships: one manipulates the other, but you wouldn't label the lady as a bitch. They are just trying to make the best of their relationship. I think the biggest thing which happened to Ortrud is that people no longer believe in the old gods. This is her main problem. She's not a killer or a murderer - she didn't kill Gottfried, she only bewitched him and turned him into a swan. This is why she can still keep her head up, and it was common at the time to have these powers - there were women, especially of the higher classes, who could do these things. So she's justified in her behaviour.

'Her real problems start the moment this guy Lohengrin appears. OK, with a swan; good. But Telramund is a very strong guy and Lohengrin manages to knock him out, which has never happened before. She hadn't realised that that could happen and it starts her thinking - "I have to make Elsa ask for his name". In the second scene in Act II she tries to manipulate Elsa in a really nice, seductive way. It only starts working when she gets aggressive in front of the Münster. But it's not a bitchy thing: she's still behaving in a reasonable way, and we're meant to ask ourselves "My God, why is she talking that loudly to Elsa when Elsa's going to church, what's her problem?". To me, that's how it should be. But mostly it's a case of "there's the mezzo bitch trying to behaving badly and screaming". I don't think that's right because they would have sent her away or arrested her long ago, which doesn't happen. And I think that she goes mad at the end, saying [she adopts a maniacal voice]: "Haha! He is gone, I'm the winner! The old gods will be back in Brabant". So it's a totally interesting character.'

Wagner is the staple composer of Petra Lang's repertoire now, but she says she has no idea why she loves his music so much. 'I started as a lyric mezzo, doing all the Mozart and Rossini roles, things like that. It was real fun putting myself onstage and learning about staging and acting. But I must say that the moment I sang my first Waltraute, which I don't sing any longer because it's too low for me now, it was like freedom. I thought, "This is the real me". I can put my emotions into this music, I can think these characters. I like very much thinking about what I do and doing psychological research. I love trying to find solutions to questions - that's why I love Judit in Bluebeard's Castle or Marie in Wozzeck. It really helps to do these things onstage and not experience them in real life! That's why I have a normal life - thank God for it!'

She says it's largely a coincidence that London has seen her perform so many of her major roles. 'It was really Bernard Haitink and Peter Katona giving me the right roles at the right moment. They really offered them to me when I needed them. It was a happy coincidence, though - I love working here.' Following on from her Wigmore Hall recital last May (reviewed here), she's doing another one next October, and future opera dates are in the diary though she's not allowed to discuss them.

But she is happy to talk about her appearance as the soloist in Mahler's Third Symphony with the London Philharmonic on 12 December, a work she loves. 'I must say that for me singing songs was very important during my studies at the conservatory at Darmstadt. In the beginning I started off as a violinist, and it wasn't quite clear what Fach my voice was going to be - a high mezzo or a soprano. Because I was in the middle of the two in my mid-twenties, they didn't use me in the main roles in the opera school. They worked through the arias with me and I had very good acting lessons and things like that, but I hadn't had the chance to perform. Singing songs was a great chance to get three or four evenings a year of singing song cycles or recitals. So I started singing songs, and that's why my song repertoire is much bigger than my opera repertoire.

Tristan Und Isolde at Covent Garden: Petra Lang as Brangane and Lisa Gasteen as Isolde Photo: Clive Barda/PAL

'Over time it just happened that I had the chance to sing these bigger pieces, and for me Mahler is my second love. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that my father's family comes from near where Mahler was born, in the Sudetenland. I can really feel the soul of the music, both in terms of where he came from and in terms of the Jewish soul in it. Singing Mahler is like painting with a very fine brush and having the chance to open up your soul. Look at 'O Mensch' in the Third Symphony: a man standing there in the middle of the night and thinking about his life. It's incredibly moving.'

When I ask her what roles she would like to sing in the future, Lang replies with an enormous laugh: 'If I knew that, life would be very easy! At the moment, I'm staying with the repertoire I've been singing. It's the main Wagner roles - Sieglinde, Adriano in Rienzi, Venus, Kundry, Ortrud - plus Marie in Wozzeck, Judit in Bluebeard, Cassandra in Les troyens. I'm now thinking I might do Didon in Les troyens - I thought I'd never be that character but now things have changed. There will be Eglantine in a concert version, there's Erwartung, and what I'd really love to do is sing Alceste but do it properly in the old tradition where it was cast with a dramatic voice rather than a lyric mezzo. The first act is dramatic and the character develops, so I think it will be very interesting. And I'd love to do Iphigénie en Tauride, that sort of repertoire. On the other hand, I could see myself doing Marta in Tiefland. I have to look carefully at what I can sing because the repertoire is not that big for the high mezzo. But I'm happy with the roles I do.'

In the past, Petra Lang has talked about doing Isolde and Brünnhilde, but now she tells me that 'it is off the cards completely now. I'm not a hochdramatische soprano. I have some more Immolation scenes during this next year but I think that will be the end of my Brünnhilde career! I realised where the limits are. Maybe I could do it. But I'm sorry, Isolde is in the same Fach as the Dyer's Wife, Elektra, and all three Brünnhilde operas, not just the first one. It's a tradition and it's a different kind of voice. I think my voice didn't make the development in that direction. People have listened to me sing and thought "This is just the sort of timbre we would like to have for Isolde", but I strongly believe that if you're doing one of the roles, you should do the whole repertoire."

Lang also shows a knowledge of her own abilities when I ask her if she wishes she could do some of the Verdi roles. 'My God, yes. I've done Amneris, but I have to frankly tell you that at the end of the last performance I was lying on the top of the pyramid and thanking God and saying I would never ever touch this role in my life again! I just don't think I have the right colour in my voice to sing the Italian repertoire. The Italian voices just have more spinto, they have more overtones, more mettle. I understand that now, and that's why I say no to the pieces. I would love to sing Amelia, and I was offered the chance to sing Lady Macbeth in Vienna. I would die to do this character! But I don't have the voice to do it. Maybe I could do the arias, and they even said I didn't have to do the D flat, but I said "OK, but everyone is waiting for the D flat! It's not about the D flat, it's about the character of the voice". My voice is different: this is why I can sing Strauss and Mahler. So I see it in a positive way.'

Petra Lang in the title role of the Covent Garden production of 'Ariadne auf Naxos'. Photo © Arena PAL/Royal Opera House

Any ambitions? 'Because of being very sick, I studied a lot about health and found out a few things about how the reactions of the body correspond to the voice. I'm really working on this to find a doctor in a university where they might do research to study it. I think that would be a big help for singers. It's not just as simple as "you're sick, take some antibiotics"; it's about things that happen in the digestive system which correspond with the voice. It's amazing what you can do with simple detox things. I'm not quite sure how I'm going to do this and what kind of development will happen there, but at the moment I have to just keep singing and see what happens. I also have some theories about the effects of ageing and the menopause on the voice, but we'll see. I think then I could imagine doing an exam so that I can say things in that region - even if the doctors won't take it seriously, perhaps the singers will if I get qualified. I'd like to help them.

'The thing I'm really working on is the teaching. I think it's so necessary to help young singers to find the way. There's no miracle, you simply have to find out technically how to do things in the right way. This is something I really like and feel privileged to do.'

What does music mean to her? 'A lot. I was connected to music emotionally from the start. When I was learning the most difficult études on the violin, or concertos, that was hard work. But music was a way to set emotions free or to live with my spirit in a better way. In that way, it has sometimes helped me to do things in real life which haven't been that easy.'

But she says she's not interested in a legacy. 'I never think about being remembered. For me, the only thing which is important is that I can do the things which are right for me. Frankly, I don't care what people say about me. I'm angry for a few minutes if I read a bad review, but then I think there may be something truthful about it. The most important thing for my life is being honest and truthful to myself. If everything in my body, in my brain, in my spirit, in my life is calm, then I have an aura and can bring it to people. I can only try to give good energy and share it with others. It's your decision whether you take it or leave it. This is the lesson I've learned.'

By Dominic McHugh

Petra Lang appears in Wagner's Parsifal at the Royal Opera House from 6 December 2007. The cast includes Sir John Tomlinson and Willard White and the conductor is Bernard Haitink.

Read other recent interviews with singers such as Ann Murray, Ian Bostridge, Rosalind Plowright, Claire Rutter, John Hudson, Susan Graham, Sally Burgess and Marcello Giordani here.