Charismatic, knowledgeable, and self-ironizing: this is how world-class soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek comes across in conversation. She is currently in San Francisco performing one of her signature roles, Sieglinde from Die Walküre, in a stellar cast featuring Nina Stemme, Christopher Ventris, Mark Delevan, and Donald Runnicles on the podium. Westbroek is passionate about her work and she is aware of the cathartic qualities of music, fully conscious that every performance can potentially be a life-changing experience, both for the audience and the singer. Her readings and cultural activities inform her work. One perceives that on stage in the women that she portrays, which are all solid, multi-dimensional characters. For her, music is also a means of social change: she supports the work of organizations such as Musicians Without Borders and she believes that music is a language that allows to bridge divides created by wars and struggles.
Her future engagements include, among many others, Elektra at the Salzburger Festspiele, where she will be Chrysothemis under the baton of Daniele Gatti; Die Walküre at Oper Frankfurt in a production directed by Vera Nemirova; and La forza del destino at the Vienner Staatsoper. The end of 2010 and the first few months of 2011 will be particularly exciting: after her Tannhäuser at Covent Garden in December and January, Westbroek will play for the first time the title role in Anna Nicole, a new opera by Mark Anthony Turnage based on the life of the late model and sex symbol Anna Nicole Smith. Audiences in London are very lucky, as she will also be back in September to perform Giorgetta in Puccini's Il tabarro. Another important engagement is her Walküre at the Met: this is a new production directed by Robert LePage and is part of the new Ring Cycle that will be fully disclosed at the Met in 2012.
We meet at the War Memorial Opera House after one of her long walks around the city – she confesses that she is enamoured of San Francisco. I cannot but start by asking about the opera in which she is currently performing, Die Walküre: a huge success for the company, to which Westbroek has contributed with an unique Sieglinde. She has no doubt about it: "Working in this production is one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. Everything came together. I've been a huge fan of Nina Stemme – since I was born I would say! but that's impossible," she smiles, "Well, since I started singing! It was so wonderful to meet her and stand next to the woman that I worshipped. She's also a fantastic person. To talk about the orchestra, Donald Runnicles is a very special and generous person, and an amazingly inspiring conductor. I'm a total fan. He gives you the feeling that you can fly. It's not often that you meet people like him. I feel so lucky. And then, Francesca [Zambello], who I adore: she makes you think about the whole role anew. I've done it a few times, and for instance, before 'O hehrstes Wunder' in the third act, Brünnhilde always gives the sword to Sieglinde: then, there's a ritual moment that is always done in a certain way. Francesca makes you think why does it have to be this way, why don't we do it a different way. She really makes you go back to the text and think it, and re-think it – and that's wonderful."
"Donald Runnicles is such a special person, too. You know, one thing I found so wonderful, noticeable, and inspiring about him, was that he said 'This is what we call Gesamtkunstwerk.' The trouble is, sometimes, that people have these huge egos that get in the way. But there was none of it in this production. Everyone – the orchestra, the singers – have created a huge buzz about this production, and it's such a honour to be part of it. And everybody in this group has been working and trying to get the best out of it: in these cases, magic happens. For me, this is such a wonderful atmosphere to work in, with a conductor and a director who are human and open. You can talk to them, they're approacheable, and they don't force you to do anything... you are contributing to a Gesamtkunstwerk. That was it's all about, that what music is all about."
"You know, I think art is not about 'Look at me, I'm so clever, my concept is so clever.' It's about being touched in your heart, being moved – for me. To be swept off your feet by your emotions, to be taken in by the story and knocked... and not to sit there and think 'Oh, that's technically very clever'... you have to be drawn in."
Women are very strong characters in this production. How was it, creating this Sieglinde on stage? "What I thought was particularly intriguing was our Hunding. And I thought of him because there's always an interesting relationship with Sieglinde: she is horribly abused by him. And this Hunding by Raymond Aceto is just wonderful because he has modernized the character, who becomes one of those characters that you see in the movies: he's like one of those scary guys who can just flip whenever they want... they're laughing, they're funny, they're like your bowling buddies. All of a sudden, they can take a knife and cut your throat, or beat you up. I thought that was interesting and that could make the character multi-dimensional. And as for Sieglinde, I try to make her a bit different in every different production. The role of Sieglinde in itself is so wonderful. She goes through so much, she has all these changes and these are great to play, from being so oppressed to being totally in love, and happy – exhilarated, basically. Then, she becomes completely mad and fearful, and eventually she goes back being happy again, when she becomes pregnant!"
The chemistry on stage between her Sieglinde and Christopher Ventris' Siegmund was great. How was it working with the British tenor? "I love working with Chris. We worked together in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk a couple of times, in different productions. He's so deeply into his role: when he's on stage we're as if in a movie. Sometimes you have colleagues that, when you sing, you look at their eyes and they look the other way, or they're clearing their throat. With Chris, you're both in it, and that gets me very excited." I comment that their interpretation did come across as very powerful during the first night, and that their voices combined – his delicate tone and her most powerful colour – were beautiful: "Oh, that's great to hear, 'cause you never know when you're on stage!"
And how was to perform Sieglinde at Bayreuth, in 2008? "Oh, that was very special. It's a very beautiful and special place, it was a great experience. And the audience...when you get you're applause it's like being in a football stadium. It was something that I would not want to have missed."
Does she think she will ever take up the role of Brünnhilde? "I have no ambition for Brünnhilde. I love listening to it – I love listening to Nina singing it, and lots of other colleagues that I've heard. But I don't think it's me, I don't think it's my voice. And maybe I'll change my mind, but I don't think so. Moreover, it's a hoch dramatic and I'm not that: I'm a spinto. So I'm happy to be Sieglinde."
I wonder about her approach to performance and how she goes about creating her characters. "I think about it, I read the text, I listen to what people say about it, I get very inspired by good directors that make you think a different way, and I watch a lot of movies to try to find good actresses." That sounds so interesting... "Yes! And I love to do it!". When I ask about which movies she watched to prepare for this Walküre, she first gives me a humorous answer: "Well, yesterday I went to Get Him To The Greek," – we both laugh – "and that was very inspiring for Sieglinde! That was very funny. But yes: there are all these Spanish films that I love, and I watch all of Almodóvar films... I'm such an Almodóvar fan. I can't get over it. There are many layers, and so many things happening. I watch them all the time. I have a couple of favourite films, but one is definitely Todo Sobre Mi Madre. And Dangerous Liaisons, as well: I watched that a hundred times! Glenn Close's acting is great, I love her... and I'm a huge fan of John Malkovich. There must be more that I can't think of now!"
I found it interesting that a theatre performer draws inspiration from cinema acting. Does her performative approach change when she is broadcasted in high definition or recorded on DVD? At this point, Westbroek makes a half-serious, half-playful appeal: "I don't think about the differences in the acting, but I want to say one thing to the world, please: why high definition? Why?? We're all ugly up close! Can't it be with a nice little veil over it so we look a little better! No one looks good in high definition. I don't get it: it takes away so much romance and beauty. You can see everybody's pores, and that really upsets me! I really love it that people can watch it, and it's broadcast, and one can notice all the details in the acting, and also we performers can be more refined. But why the high definition, when one is sweating like a pig? I really don't get it. You can be close, but the high definition make you see every pore on somebody's face and that's not helpful."
We then move to another topic, and I ask her about her favourite roles among the ones she has interpreted so far: "Sieglinde, I have to say! But actually, my number one since I was eighteen is Minnie, in La fanciulla del West! I love that lady! And the music is so romantic, and so human. It's phenomenal." Did she have the chance to see the production of La fanciulla that's currently running at the SF Opera? "Yes! I've seen it, I was so happy."
It's time to ask her about her early experiences: how did she get into opera? "I was very young, and I thought I was going to be a ballet dancer – that was terrible, I gave that dream up very quickly, no way I could be a ballet dancer!," she comments, jokingly. "But I loved music, and the stage. Then, at sixteen, I started taking singing lessons, because I was always singing. I wanted to sing like Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, Billy Holiday... those were my favourites. But I went to this wonderful lady to take singing lessons, and she told me: 'Eva, you have voice for opera'," Westbroek utters in an Eastern European accent and then explains: "She's Bulgarian! So I said, OK...then she gave me all these recordings... and I was sold. I wanted to be an opera singer."
I understand that tenor James McCray was the one who understood her voice and her personality: "Yes, definitely. Our culture in Holland is different: if in Holland you say 'I have a dream: I want to become an opera singer, and I want to reach this goal, and I'm going to do everything to achieve it,' they get mad at you: 'How dare you think that? Who do you think you are?' And I was talking to some Americans, and this girl told me 'Wow... in America you have to have a dream! Something to do with a passion.' I thought this was fascinating, such a difference in the culture. In Holland this mentality is difficult to understand, and it was difficult for me, because I had this dream: it was like a fire within me, every day and every night I was passionate about it. But I started thinking I could never be an opera singer, and that was only for people who are born and it's already decided. And then I met James McCray, who's a tenor who also sang at the San Francisco Opera. He helped me vocally and also mentally – and that's a big thing. And because he was American, he'd say 'Of course! Why wouldn't you be an opera singer?' He has helped me a lot."
And what about her years at Stuttgart, where she had her first professional engagements? "You know, there was a time when I had no work. And then I came to Stuttgart, and I did one of the Valkyries: that was my debut, there. And I remember thinking 'This is too high level for me, this is too much' – and look where I am now. Every day I'm still grateful, amazed and happy. I'm living my dream."
Is she looking forward to LaPage's Walküre at the Met? She does not yet know precisely how the production is going to be because they have not started rehearsing yet, as it will open in April. "But it looks amazing, doesn't it? I've seen that thing on the internet... with that moving thing, I don't know what we're gonna do about that!"
I also wanted to ask her about her Verdian roles. Even if she is more closely associated with Wagner or Shostakovitch's Lady Macbeth, she has performed many Verdian heroines. Does she enjoy singing Verdi? At this question, I get the biggest smile: "I love singing Verdi! I think Verdi is like medicine for your voice... I try to convince people to hire me for Verdi. It's like my doctor... after singing stuff that's very dramatic, and you lose yourself a bit too much, and you go out of your voice a bit, singing Verdi makes you feel like you're in control – and you have to be really technically in control. And it's so beautiful, it's amazing. I'll do La forza del destino next, in Vienna – that's my debut at the Staatsoper!"
At this point, I cannot not but ask her about Anne Nicole. How does she feel about this controversial figure and about the way Turnage's opera depicts her? "I just got the music... I'll tell you how it happened first. It was the first time I worked at Covent Garden, and I sang under Tony Pappano – who I worship, he's a wonderful man – and with Richard Jones, who's a phenomenal director. I remember being in a record shop somewhere in London – my husband collects records – and bumped into Richard! He said: 'We want you for this opera written by Turnage' and I said 'Oh wow, how cool!' because that team is so great. Then they added 'It's on Anne Nicole Smith' and I was surprised and curious. It's a huge risk, I think, but it's such an exciting one to take. So I'm a bit scared, to say the least, because she is a controversial character. But I do think she is very interesting. As a woman, I've been philosophising about this a lot: there's this trap that women fall into, and she's a great example, as is Marilyn Monroe. These women feel that they're allowed to be alive only when they are carrying on in this sort of 'I am sexy, I am attractive' vein. And they get all this attention, which is addictive, but actually is a black whole. And this situation makes them very unhappy, because it's only attention for their outside, and of course your outside goes at a certain point. This aspect of femininity, after all our work to be equal and to be true, it's a trap that lots of women fall into. From this point of view, I find her fascinating and also very tragic because she really went for death. I'm reading this amazing book, Women Who Run With The Wolves by Clarissa Estés – you have to read it. Because it's all about our feminine energy and everything. It's about how women are sometimes cut loose from power – and this woman is so powerless. You think she's powerful because she's rich, and she's beautiful, and she did everything. But in reality she's super-powerless. She's totally self-destructive. So I'm happy to do Anne Nicole – for the team, but also because she's fascinating in that way, she's so self-destructive. Why would you do that to yourself? Where does that come from?"
These topics lead me to ask her about how she feels about opera and the contemporary world: does she think this art-form can make people engage with contemporary issues? "My life is all about opera, and if people say opera is escapism, I say 'What's wrong with that?' I think it's the most powerful art-form, the most cathartic. It's just like therapy, or drugs, sometimes. It's an experience that you'll never forget. My husband [Frank van Aken] is also a singer, and I go to hear him sing. He just did a run of Parsifal and I sat in every show I could. And I felt cleansed after this, it was so beautiful."
"I wish this banner of elitism – that exists in my country, at least – would go away. I wish that would go away because that's not the point. Everybody should be able to sit in a theatre and enjoy these experiences, because they can be life-changing. It gives you a whole new outlook on life: you see things, they stay with you forever, and they give you a whole new outlook on life. It's like therapy. I really think that. This is a bit of a hard story to tell, but when my mother was very ill, she was in a lot of pain, and in those moments of pain, she would listen to a certain music, and she said to me: 'When I listen to this, I feel no pain.' Now, that's what music can do. And that's what opera can do. If you're low, music can make you feel better, or have a good cry and be relieved. That's what makes us human: that we can create these miracles, these wonderful things. And also, you can connect to people that suffer wars and all sorts of hardship. I just met this person who's working for Doctors Without Borders in Holland. Now we also have Musicians Without Borders. It's such a wonderful thing. I want to get in touch with them, and tell them I'd like to be their ambassador or something! They go to countries were there was war, and they start building chorus groups with all these kids, or making musicals together with these people, also from opposite sides, and they build or re-build music schools. That's what music, and also things like sport, can do."
What are her off-stage interests, her passions outside music? "Here in San Francisco there's so much to do, and it's gorgeous... I go for long walks, and I meet up with people I know here. Tonight, I'm going on a sunset cruise with my friends, and Priti Gandhi, one of the Valkyries – she is amazing! I also work out a lot here, I have a trainer – and that's also for Anna Nicole! Normally I'd have my dog with me – I have a wonderful dog, I walk for hours and play with her. She's with my husband now, they're in Germany because he's singing there." Does she manage to go to the opera a lot? "I do, actually! And my husband is a collector, so we have a house full of voices – especially old voices. And we even had to move – well, we were going to move – because our house was collapsing under records!," she laughs.
Is she planning to do any recordings? "You know what? I jumped in for a recording of Jonas Kaufmann for his verismo album with Tony Pappano, and we sang the Andrea Chénier duet. And I thought it was fascinating, such an amazing experience. It was nothing like I expected it to be. It's so difficult, and you have super-short time where you have to put fifty layers of emotion in one note. And it's not like you have time to get into it. We only did two sessions and I was exhausted," she laughs. "So fascinating. A totally different way of singing as well... they told me: 'It's fine if you don't sing too loud: don't try and reach the last seat of the house.' And you have to learn this new technique in five minutes. It was very exciting! But I've not been asked to do recordings...there are singers who do recordings, and singers who don't. I'd love to, it would be fun, but it's fine! If it doesn't happen I won't be depressed!"
At the end of our conversation, I ask her if there is a 'dream role' she would love to perform: "I have to say it's always been Minnie in Fanciulla. I got the chance to do it in concert first, and then I got this wonderful opportunity to sing it in London in the old production by Piero Faggioni at Covent Garden. I had always watched this production on film, and I didn't know it still existed... and they asked me to do that one! That was the biggest dream come true ever. I remember walking into the set and crying 'Oh my god, my saloon, my tables!'... it was amazing. I'm still recovering from it! But now I'm going to do Isolde, which is a very exciting, and also very scary thing... that music is so phenomenal! I'm so excited."
Photo Credits: San Francisco Opera; Cory Weaver (Die Walküre at the SFO); Catherine Ashmore (La Fanciulla del West at the ROH); The Netherlands Opera (Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk); Andrea Kremper.
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