The accidental opera star Anne Sofie von Otter

by Elizabeth Kerr / 22 February, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Opera star Anne Sofie von Otter

Anne Sofie von Otter can perform songs in a range of genres. Photo/Mats Bäcker

Ballet was the first choice of Anne Sofie von Otter, who is coming to Wellington to sing Schubert.

Swedish singer Anne Sofie von Otter will be in her element when she joins the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra for a programme of Schubert.

The New Zealand Festival concert will show off her creamy, rich mezzo-soprano voice and the expressive qualities that have brought her acclaim in a glittering international career.

Schubert’s songs, running the emotional gamut from the lyricism of The Trout to the high drama of the Erl King, will be a perfect vehicle for a singer who revels in theatrical variety.

Von Otter learnt early to use her imagination as a performer. “You have to paint yourself pictures and use different colours in your voice to keep the audience focused – they need something to lure them in. I use expressive singing through the text, the language, the consonants, the vowels, the colours.”

She encourages young singers to explore these areas when she leads a masterclass. “I don’t teach technique; I ask, ‘What can your fantasy, your imagination, do with this song, musically and from the point of view of the text?’ That approach has been refined over the 40 years of my career; it’s something I bring to my art.”

She embarked on her career without a clear plan. “When I was little, I wanted to be a ballerina and had ballet lessons. But when I was 12 it became apparent that ballet was not my calling. Maybe it was the music that attracted me.” She played the piano and sang in choirs and ensembles throughout her teens. “When I was 17, I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll do something with music’, and once I had singing lessons, it became apparent that I had a gift.”

Opera was her agent’s idea; a good way for a singer to make a living. “I had no dreams to become an opera singer; I wanted to sing in a choir and maybe have a little solo. Once I became an opera singer, it was a big surprise – ‘Oh, I can do this!’ – so I’m quite glad that I didn’t dream of that role. It was just doing what I enjoyed.”

An important musical relationship began when baroque conductor John Eliot Gardiner discovered the young von Otter. “I was just starting out and my first important recording was with him, at short notice, recording Monteverdi’s Orfeo. From then on, I was in almost every project he did for 15 years – that was fantastic. We got on very well musically – when it all works you’re in seventh heaven – and of course it meant a lot to my career to be on his recordings.”

In opera, as a lyric mezzo, she was initially popular for her “trouser” roles. “That means you wear trousers on stage and pretend you’re a boy in roles like 13-year-old Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro and 17-year-old Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier.”

She’s glad she was able to move on to “fantastic and amazing – musically speaking and also dramatically speaking – female roles such as Carmen and Mélisande in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. Those boys, they were naive, frustrated adolescents. Carmen, for instance, really knows what she’s doing, in her fateful way – and the music is so rich. I loved doing that – it was a big thrill.”

Now in her early sixties, von Otter is also enjoying this stage of her opera career. “I don’t have to carry the weight of being the title-role figure. That’s exciting and glamorous but also a huge responsibility, so I’m very happy doing really fun and interesting secondary roles like Waltraute in Wagner’s Götterdämmerung or Brangäne in Tristan.”

Does she have to take extra care of her voice? “I need to work it very carefully. The voice starts ageing after about 45. I think carefully about what I should sing and what I shouldn’t; I have to have great focus. As long as I work with this enormous concentration, I can keep going.”

Von Otter’s ability to tackle a range of musical genres may contribute to the longevity of her career. In Salzburg, in 2016, she sang Leonora in the world premiere of Thomas Adès’ acclaimed ensemble opera The Exterminating Angel. She sang it again last year in London at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden.

Her versatility is apparent on her 2008 collection In My Element, which features music from Monteverdi, 19th-century opera, and songs by Abba and Elvis Costello, whom she duetted with on the 2001 album For the Stars.

More recently, in the collection So Many Things, she teamed up with string quartet Brooklyn Rider for music by Kate Bush and Sting, alongside contemporary US composers John Adams and Nico Muhly.

When we talk, she’s staying at the Grand Hotel Wien in wintry Vienna, preparing for a gala event with orchestra. She’s just flown in from Paris, where the night before she sang at Salle Gaveau accompanied by lute and harpsichord. “That was called Barock is pop!,” she tells me. “The first half was baroque music and in the second we did Arvo Pärt and pop music. That’s the kind of thing I really enjoy – using my voice in different ways and styles and putting together a programme with musicians on the same wavelength.”

Anne Sofie von Otter with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, New Zealand Festival, Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington, March 15.

This article was first published in the February 10, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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