German mezzo-soprano Bettina Ranch is a member of the ensemble at the Aalto Musiktheater Essen since the year 2016. With the opportunities to perform in Berlin Staatsoper Unter den Linden, the Deutsche Oper Berlin, the Komische Oper Berlin, and Salzburg Festival she claims to wish nothing more because so much has already become reality. Berlin based vocalist was dreaming about the singer career since childhood, but first, she studied violin before switching to the private vocal studies that lead her where she is today – an internationally working opera soloist in demand. She had worked with such orchestras as the Hamburg Philharmonic, the Stuttgart Bachakademie, the Kammerakademie Potsdam, the Dresden Philharmonic etc. Her wide opera repertoire such as u.a. Giulio Cesare (Giulio Cesare / Handel), Sesto (Titus / Mozart), Dorabella (Così / Mozart), Adalgisa (Norma / Bellini), Fricka (Valkyrie / Wagner) and Carmen (Carmen / Bizet). Musicologist Ona Jarmalavičiūtė has conducted an interview with the soloist about her career twists, life lessons from teachers and daily struggles and joys of the life of the opera singer.
As I know you have a concert in the evening. I wanted to ask how was the rehearsal process for you and how could you describe such experience?
We did rehearsals with the orchestra from Stuttgart. This is the orchestra of Teodor Currentzis. We met in Stuttgart the day before yesterday. Then yesterday we came here, today we had the general rehearsal and in the evening the concert awaits. This is the first time I will be singing on such a stage at this festival. Now I am a little bit of rest time before the concert.
How is your impression from the Salzburg?
Wonderful. I was already once in Salzburg and visited the concerts. But this is the first time of me performing here. It gives the whole different mood of the experience. It is like a little musical world with all the music stars that you know from classic magazines. I don’t know how to describe it, because it is nothing quite the same. Everyone is warm; there is huge interest and love for the music. The place itself sounds well; you can almost feel the music everywhere you go. Every rehearsal and every performance is important to people and it shows. It is a beautiful city with strong history and culture. It is special to be here as a musician, so I am sad to leave tomorrow morning.
Did you have any expectations before performing in Salzburg festival?
This place is a bit like from a magazine for me, I have read about these events and about the soloists in the press, I feel like I knew a lot about this event before I came here. And I always wanted to perform here, of course. It is a beautiful place; people are full of life and well dressed; everybody is somehow relaxed, open to new creative thoughts and ideas. It’s great to see all these famous singers you were reading about in magazines, being so normal in person. It gives a sweet feeling and I have huge amount of respect for everyone I am working with here.
You are constantly traveling with your work. Is such lifestyle stressful?
It comes down to the organization. When everything is clear – the trains drive and the plains fly – then there is no stress. But too often things don’t go according to plan and that is tiring. In general, I feel good while traveling; every day is a new experience. For instance, few days earlier I visited Ljubljana for the first time and it was beautiful. You get in touch with new cultures, different lifestyles and you always take something for yourself. Of course there is discipline, there is work. But nevertheless it is so exciting to share the music with the whole world.
You are based from Berlin. Maybe you could describe the music culture of your origin city?
Berlin is full of culture. We have three world-famous opera houses there, many internationally known orchestras and smaller theaters. Sometimes it feels that culture scene Berlin is already too full, too busy. Now I live in Dusseldorf, but every time I come to Berlin I feel like this – when reading the program you see that you can’t go to every concert that you want, because there are too many of them. But it’s great, of course. Every person can find something for themselves there. So Berlin classic music scene is busy every day, probably similar to Vienna.
You also work in Amsterdam, Bologna, and other cities. How different are the music cultures in Europe?
The main difference between Berlin and music centers of other Europe countries is that in Germany each opera house has permanent ensembles of singers. As an opera soloist, you commit to one opera house for few years. In other countries they don’t have such system – they commission new artists for every performance. You are usually asked to perform the same roles you performed well before, so there are not that many possibilities for growth. While working on different productions in one opera house you can broaden your repertoire and challenge yourself with new roles. And you grow to start your residence with smaller roles and later on performing as a lead vocalist in an opera production. That is the main difference.
Which work model do you prefer?
They both have their advantages and disadvantages, really. Before working in Essen I was freelancing and I enjoyed the possibilities to travel, work in Italy and the Netherlands. Now as I work in Aalto Theater I can still do that, but not as often. You can experiment more and try new things, it’s okay to perform new repertoire and don’t feel so sure about what you are bringing to the stage. Often things change during the process and suddenly you start to feel that you don’t like the role anymore, or the opposite – you thought it would be terrible, but actually you are feeling very comfortable performing it. You learn a lot.
You have also started your career as a violinist. How did you change your career to singing?
I always wanted to sing, as long as I remember myself. I would say to my parents that I will be a singer and I was singing every day, even when I felt sick. My father was a violinist though; he was the first chair in the orchestra so violin always had a role in the family. Playing the violin was fun for me as well, I enjoyed it and I’m sure I had talent. Also, I always felt too lazy for this profession although I played for a long time and I was studying in Berlin academy. I knew I will not make to be the first chair in the orchestra and I wanted no other chair. Then I made my decision to go back to singing. Actually I started relatively late to professionally learn to sing, but it was not too difficult, because I knew I always had singing in me. To this day there is just no alternative of what I could do in my life. After quitting violin I started to take private lessons and made my soloist my solo debut in concert with the Bachakademie Stuttgart under Helmuth Rilling and on the opera stage with the title role in Handel’s Giulio Cesare at the Staatstheater Kassel. I always wanted this.
Did the violin studies give you some knowledge in regards to singing?
Yes. There are so many singers that have prior played the violin because it is a very melodic bel canto instrument. Still, the violin sings, I always had this impression. Not like a piano that has percussive qualities. So since childhood, I could express myself with violin, learning about phrasing, dynamics, and dramaturgy of the sound. It was important for my singing career. It’s a big advantage to have such musical training.
What musical values have you received from your teachers?
My singing teacher is the most important for me in my work. We don’t meet every day, but she is like my voice-mother, to which I can call and ask for advice. During the years she has taught me a lot. Of course, many things about vocal technique and interpretation. She herself was a very fine singer and she had sung in many opera houses worldwide, she has lots of experience. I like that she is honest with me, and often says – “yes, what you think is correct, but unfortunately things do not work in this way.” She reminds me about the emotional origins of music and singing, you have to understand the reality of the situation. Only she can give me that.
How did you transition from the concert repertoire to opera?
Opportunities to work in Opera Theater always come through an agency. Before coming to agency I was performing only in concerts and later on, my agency started to suggest me to opera houses and send me to different auditions. It is a complex process.
It would be difficult to say whether I prefer singing in opera or a concert. There are things that bring me so much joy in both of these areas of activity. The main difference is that in opera you have to learn and perform everything in other languages from memory, there is just simply way more work than performing in the concert. There you always have sheets of notes with you, you feel safer at the stage. Also when performing opera you hear orchestra worse, because it is in front of you and in the orchestra pit. There is a bigger distance and you have to adapt to that. And there is more movement in opera; you have to sing in different positions. At the concert, you stand still and can concentrate on your posture, your singing. In opera, there is not that much concentration, because while singing you have to lay, run and act. you have to really control your body in opera and in this case singing reminds me of a sport. Many people compare opera singers with athletes because one move, talks, acts and sings at the same time and this requires a lot physically.
Do you have daily routines such as sports athletes have?
I exercise my body and my voice every day. I go to the fitness studio, try to keep myself fit. I am also in contact with my vocal teacher in Berlin. For me as a singer, it is important to have someone that would give some feedback because it is difficult to hear yourself. Maybe it sounds absurd, but human ears are pointed to the sides so we never really hear ourselves in the way we truly sound.
How from your point of you the experience for being a mezzo soprano differs from other voice types?
When you sing mezzo-soprano you have a broad range – you can sing roles that goes very high and that are also low. As a mezzo-soprano, I always enjoy singing Mozart, because I love to sing coloratura. I like bel canto as well – Bellini – Adalgisa / Norma, the whole role is very high, but as a mezzo-soprano, you can perform it. I also started to sing Wagner. Also the voice develops in this way – you start with Mozart, and then go to the Italian repertoire and later to Wagner. At concerts, I usually sing Verdi, Beethoven or Bach. I also like the Lied a lot.
Are there differences between interpreting baroque music or, for example, Wagner, or even contemporary music?
Yes. Baroque music is very much ornamental; you have a little more artistic freedom for improvisation than in pieces of the romantic repertoire. While performing Wagner you have to be more accurate and focused. I also like performing contemporary music. It is more difficult for intonation and I usually struggle learning it, it takes time. I have colleagues that can perform contemporary music easily, but this is not my experience. But I love it, it’s beautiful, I just need to learn still.
How did you imagine the profession of a singer in your childhood and how close was it to the reality?
As a kid, I was going a lot to the operas in Berlin. I was visiting Berlin Staatsoper Unter den Linden, the Komische Oper Berlin and it kind of felt like at home. I was listening to how singers then were talking about rehearsals and their work. I used to think that they were very cool. So the theater world and its air was a familiar place to me. I really grew up listening to opera. And the reality is not that far away from my idea of it. Of course, when you experience yourself, you understand that not everything in this profession is just glitz and glamor. It’s lonely, it requires hard work. Of course, I wouldn’t think about that when I was the kid. But the emotional payoff is as real and strong as I imagined it.
What is your relationship with music outside of your professional work?
I work in Opera Theater for 11 months a year, so I don’t listen to opera in my free time. During my summer holidays, I go to Greece and try to forget everything that has to do anything with my professional life. Maybe I listen to only Sirtaki music. Classical singing and opera are just not on my head at that time. Of course, after the vacation I can’t go straight to work, I have to start exercising my voice somewhat a week prior. Again, like sports athletes. Human voice works just like any other muscle and it has to be trained. For my voice I can stop singing for three days and be okay, but if I stay silent for long, I have to train and warm up again. Now after the summer holidays I will have a week to go back to my daily professional regime. Others try to sing every day, but I think it is very important to take breaks – to relax your voice and nourish your body and soul. Even the athletes go on vacation. In order to be good at your job, you have to be well-rested and healthy. There is just no other way around. After the holiday I always feel so fresh, as if I would be born again.
Could you tell me a little more about the rehearsal process with the directors and conductors?
In the beginning, you must prepare your repertoire or your role alone or with a pianist. The interpretation usually comes from within me at this period. Sometimes it works out – you go to the conductor with your idea and he thinks it’s great. He also has a similar approach to music as you do. Of course, that’s a dream, it happens, but rarely. Usually, another scenario plays out – you come to rehearsal and the conductor has his own idea about the piece that is different from your interpretation. Then you have to work that no one would have to give up on their interpretation and find a compromise that would more or less satisfy everybody. Same goes in staging the opera. You rehearse for six weeks and you are looking for compromises with conductor every day. You try to understand each other and to come up with the solution. Sometimes it is important to say, that one or another idea would not work because of the limitations of your voice or of your physical abilities. As a singer, you always know your voice better and some compromises just can’t be made, because that would compromise the quality of the performance. You have more time, though. Rehearsing for a concert you have a day or a few, so you have to make compromises quicker, all the process is just faster. But for a concert it is enough. Of course, prior to orchestra rehearsals, you work alone and know every detail of how do you want to perform this music.
What is your process of creating the new interpretation of music?
It depends on the role and on the repertoire. Some roles feel close to me, I can understand them immediately and therefore the interpretation comes with ease. Sometimes I have to bring male roles to life. This is not so easy, but it is very interesting and you have to watch men a lot and depict the way they walk and stand, how do they carry themselves. This can take a long time for me. Sometimes it happens that I fully form an interpretation only after the premiere of the opera. You try one thing, you try another, you think you understand what the performance is about, but after the premiere, everything falls into its place.
When creating a character I usually start with getting familiar with their story and trying to understand the lines they say. I try to understand why he or she is behaving in this way? What are they reacting to the most? I look at the past and the future of their story. Then, when I get a grasp of what kind of person they are, I try to connect to these qualities in myself.
Are there any rituals before you go on stage?
I try to avoid stress. I try to relax, take a walk, and meet people. If the weather is nice, I stay outdoors. Usually, I take a short nap and after that, I feel like it is a beginning of a new day – you wake up at afternoon, you take a shower, you eat something, you go to work, they get you in a costume and you go on stage. I take my time before the performance; I need to find my voice, to make sure people around me are okay.
My usual fear is that I will forget the text at the opera performance. Then I read everything again, make sure I remember the entire libretto. But that doesn’t happen at the concert, so then I just try to stay healthy and happy. Of course, you are disciplined on a day of the performance, but I try to avoid stress and keep myself relaxed as much as possible.
How do you want to impact your audiences?
I try to express with my voice everything that music and text are trying to say. It is also important to me to perform through my heart. Through the interpretation, I also try to express my voice, my individuality. Some like the performance some don’t, but it is important to bring quality on stage. I also think people should come to opera to relax and forget the stress. It’s a pity when people are stressed about watching the opera, then they usually criticize it and leave unsatisfied. One time it was a performance of the second Mahler symphony and I notice that two people in the audience were crying. I thought that was amazing. I like that people are allowing themselves to really relax. There is too much stress already. I also genuinely enjoy when people are satisfied with the performance, that it had reached their hearts in some way. That is important to me.
I think it is getting difficult for singers today because there are so many music recordings and people are choosing less to go to concerts. I think that is a shame. Of course, you can’t compare life performance and voice from the edited CD recording. At concerts sometimes there are very difficult conditions, you have to sing in the very hot or very cold temperature, maybe you have some allergies going on, sickness, and your voice is being affected. Of course, it is easier to stay at home with your headphones. But going to a concert is an entirely different collective experience. You are giving yourself time to relax after work; the singers also stay disciplined in order to bring others a nice moment in the evening. It is a shame that now we consume everything so fast – one entertainment, then the next.
What do you think is the future of vocal music?
I hope that people will still be interested in operas and concerts. Organizations like Wiener Staatsoper or Salzburger Festspiele in Austria are very successful and popular amongst people. I think that proves that we still need these types of cultural events and organizations. I hope the ticket prices will be lower in the future because it is still very expensive to go visit opera and it is a shame. I believe there are people that love opera but can’t afford the ticket. So my biggest wish for the future is that concerts and opera performances would be more affordable and that the recording industry would not take away the moment of live singing and playing instruments. It is a different connection to music when you hear it live. I also wish more children and young people would be educated about classical music, I believe it is important. That is still a long way to go.
I am worried about the future of church vocal music. Germany has a beautiful tradition of church concerts. When I perform there I see only elderly people in the audience. Then you start to think about whether anyone would go to such concerts a few decades later. Church music has long traditions it is in many ways a foundation of contemporary music. It is important to keep such traditions alive, I think.
What is your future dream or goal?
I think it is important to have at least a direction of where do you want to go in the future. Of course, things always go not in the way that we plan, but it gives you a bigger sense of purpose and inner drive, that is important for every person. Especially today, when we have way more possibilities than previous generations.
For me personally, I would like to broaden my repertoire and in the future still on other Wagner parts and e.g. the Eboli work. And for else – I don’t know if I would dare to ask for more because so many dreams have become the reality in my life. To have performed in many major opera and concert halls and the Salzburg Festival – this was not a concrete dream of mine, but I am happy for what I have achieved and I look forward to what the life will bring to me. I would like to stay healthy; I would like to keep my voice healthy so I could continue doing what I am doing. And of course, I would like to stay happy. Work-life balance – yes, this is a dream of mine.
I am crazy grateful for my career. To dream of becoming a singer in childhood and actually becoming it – this is the biggest dream come true moment of my life. How many children dream of professions and then move on to do something different, probably more fitting to them? I had a desire to sing and it didn’t abandon me throughout my life. Now people want me to sing and opera houses hire me. I am happy because of it. Maybe my desire for singing will end; I also can lose my voice at any moment. But I know that the world is full of beautiful things to do, anyways. I know it would be just fine and this is very relaxing.
Thank you for the conversation!