Elsa Dreisig: I don‘t want to be entertained by opera – I want to be changed

French soprano Elsa Dreisig today is a member of the Ensemble at the Staatsoper Berlin. In 2015 she won first price at Neue Stimmen competition and Operalia and since then singer can often be found performing at song recitals and concerts. Her Fiordiligi debut in Berlin was abruptly canceled due to the pandemic restrictions this spring. Eager to get back to work, Elsa Dreisig is offered to bring this role on stage in the 100th Salzburg festival this summer. W. A. Mozart‘s Cosi Fan Tutte staged by Christof Loy was an unexpected new project, uniting such singers as Marianne Crebassa, Andre Schuen, Bogdan Volkov, Lea Desandre and Johannes Martin Kränzle. In the interview soprano Elsa Dreising elaborates on the rehearsing process of Cosi Fan Tutte during the times of pandemic, her approach to Fiordiligi, and her take on opera singer‘s life today.

Even few months ago Cosi Fan Tutte project didn’t existed. How did you become a part of it?

For me it was, of course, a huge surprise – like a sun in the sky after a rainy day. I had many cancelations and I was supposed to do my debut of Fiordiligi in Staatsiooper Berlin that was canceled. We were in the middle of rehearsal in March, when everything suddenly stopped. But I wanted to play the role very much, so when I got the call from Salzburg festival it felt unreal. I was offered a chance to debut the role I was already prepared, but have never sung on stage. They suggested the role in the middle of June and then from the beginning of July we were rehearsing. And what a nice way to make my opera debut in the festival with Fiordiligi!

I imagine it had to be very stressful, to refresh the role in two weeks.

Yes, but I felt way more joy and enthusiasm than stress. I was happy to take a break in spring, but now I feel that it‘s enough and I really want to be back on the stage. So the joy overshadows all fears.

Whats was the experience rehearsing the opera in quarantine conditions?

The safety plan of the festival works really well. There are three groups. Soloists, conductor, orchestra, choir, director – we are all in the same red group. This group during rehearsals is acting – touching, speaking to each other closely – so there are no restrictions. But, of course, outside of the rehearsals these people have to be even more careful and they are being tested regularly. Then in orange group people wear masks and are not close to each other. If they are, they have to write it down in a notebook. And lastly there is a yellow group where people are not having direct contact with people as much as possible. So the system is clear and it makes me feel safe. I am only stressing about the cancellation of production that can happen in case of virus. That would be terrible for me and other singers, since it is such a wonderful production and we all are so happy to be a part of it.

Ive heard that the same system will be applied to other theaters so they could start working earlier?

I think it’s really important that Salzburg had the courage to run the festival this year. In this way they‘ve showed the example that it is possible and it is a must to have cultural life at this time. The theaters, opera houses, concerts, has to go on without waiting a moment when the virus will be completely under control, because it might be a problem we are going to deal with again in the future.

And at the time the culture is dying so it‘s important that Salzburg is showing what is possible. Of course everyone is taking it really responsibly – putting a mask when grocery shopping, avoiding crowded places, etc.

Would you say that the relationship with the audience changes due to all the restrictions?

No, of course not. It is twice less audience, maybe people are more shy and distant, the energy then could be a bit different. But for us, singers it is all the same – we will not be performing in any other way that we would have if there was no virus.

What is the most important for you in the environment while rehearsing and performing?

For me the most important thing is to have colleagues, director and conductor who feel as motivated as you are and they are challenging themselves. I don’t like the environment of mediocrity, where people come with low energy as to a job to earn money. Then I feel diminished and I have less energy myself. So I put myself completely in every performance, because I want to feel that I have improved myself in some way.

Do you feel like this was a challenge for you – to sing Mozart in Salzburg, where everyone knows it by heart?

Of course Cosi Fan Tutte is challenging. From the moment you are on stage, you are naked. You are in position where everyone can criticize you, and you need to prove who you are. It doesn’t matter, if it is Puccini, Strauss, Mozart, Vivaldi or Rossini – the pressure is all the same. But it is truly beautiful that I am making my debut in Salzburg festival with the music of Mozart.

I am not that much stressed about the public, because I think that the public wants to love you. They want to see something true on stage, so my role is to care not about whether I will be liked, but how can I present the most truthful version of Fiordiligi with my voice.

How do you see Fiordiligi and what do you want to bring into the character?

I am very lucky to work with the wonderful director Christof Loy – he has a very intelligent mind and we share a similar view of Fiordiligi. I can only respect a character I play when I know she is clever. She can be bad, do horrible things – it has nothing to do with her morality. But I have to know that she is not dumb. And so I respect Fiordiligi as a real woman – not just a capriciousness girl. She changes during the opera, because of what happens to her – her lover leaves, a new guy arrives, she is pressured from other people, etc. She is not superficial and I can go through changes on stage with her – I can be loving, annoyed, proud, brokenhearted, shocked and so on. So she is for me an exciting and very complete character.

It seems that there is a lot to discover before performing a role. Do you feel like during this process you learn more about yourself or in contrary – run away from yourself?

I learn a lot about myself artistically. Right now playing and singing Fiordiligi, I learn how to stay present on stage – to observe and listen what is happening. In this opera the interaction between the different characters is the most important element. It is a group opera rather than an opera with head roles and second roles. Everyone is as important. So I am always listening and learning from others. Music makes me grow, but it is more about an artistic search than about escaping or discovering myself.

Joana Mallwitz will be the first female conductor to be conducting in the festival. Have you already started working with her?

Yes, she is here from the beginning – every day together with us in the rehearsal. That is crucially important, because some conductors only show up a few days before stage rehearsal and you have no real connection with them. She is here from the very beginning – she know precisely what she wants and she knows the score really well, so it’s inspiring to work with her.

You come to singing from the theater. How much attention do you put to acting now in opera?

Acting and singing complements each other. When I am expressing myself on stage, I am the character I’m playing. When everything’s good, my voice just follows it organically. And When I don’t know what to do on stage, you can hear the uncertainty in my singing. So generally, with some technical exceptions, of course, acting really helps singing. It gives you energy – instead of being empty, you feel full of emotion.

I imagine that acting in the opera is different from theater. Are there moments when the music and what you want to express is not aligned?

When the director is good, it is aligned. That’s why I also like working with Christof Loy, because he never goes against the music. You have to remember that the composer wrote the music thinking about the libretto thoughtfully. He wrote such music for the story, because it has a meaning. The director has to be honest with the music and the libretto. You can challenge it, but you should listen to it. A good composer is precise in how he understands the characters and the story and, after you understand it also, you have a power to interpret that in different ways.

How much importance do you put on previous interpretations of the character and do you have an interpretation that you aspire to as Fiordiligi?

I am still searching for my favorite interpretation. Of course there are a lot of great singers who sang her – I admire and respect them. I like their singing or acting, but usually not both, so I don’t feel close to their interpretations. But right now I am more finding inspiration in movies, books and also singers that haven’t even done the role.

Which performances from Salzburg festivals history of 100 years had the most inspired you? Is there a performance you would like to go back to and maybe be a part of?

That is difficult to answer. Of course I’ve seen Traviata with Anna Netrebko. She did something unique there – a very beautiful and powerful woman with so much energy on stage. At that moment what she did was very inspiring. Of course, there are so many Mozart operas productions in Salzburg that I admire. Also one of my dreams would be to do the Salome of last year. This role with the staging of Castellucci  was incredible.

You mentioned that there is no link between a person’s popularity and their artistic excellence. How do you handle your own popularity?

I know everybody is trying to do their best, but there are so many singers that are working much harder to be popular and have a great image. Popularity is their priority, but not mine. Social media is a must now. After my first recording my recording label told me that I can’t make a career without it – also to sell an album nowadays you need to be on social media. Reality is that if you are not visible enough, you have less chance of professional success. Since I want to have a career, I take this reality. But sometimes I do nothing on social media for weeks! My first concern is always singing – preparing for roles, working on voice technique. I think I will never feel that I am done learning. Every time I have to sing a role, it‘s new, I am naked again – every performance is stressful and demanding. But I will never feel that I have reached my goal even if I am now an established singer. The learning process is never ending and I still have so many questions on the singing technique, and acting.

Do you have mentors that you trust with all your questions?

I have a vocal teacher and also a dramaturg/ comedian who helps me with acting and interpretation. We read libretto together and find all the details I would have never found by myself. So she is really important for my growth as an artist. I also have friends and colleagues that I go to for advice and inspiration. I learn a lot from other artists I admire – singers, painters, writers, etc. I love reading biographies. I feel lucky to be surrounded with the right people who support me and that I can also be independent and count on myself.

It seems that profession of opera singer in 21st century is evolving into something new. How do you see it from your perspective?

I don’t have any perspective, because I am in it – living the life of opera singer. The woman behind all the characters is the same Elsa. I am in love with singing and stage – opera, concerts, Lieder. I would love to do theater sometime to feel what it is like without singing. That’s why I have no idea what singer’s life is, because actually it is just my life.

There is an element that I feel has changed though. Today people can approach us directly via social media. There is a direct contact and I do take time to respond to personal messages and answer questions people have. Before you couldn’t just have a conversation with Callas – you had to be either a friend or journalist or work in an opera house. Now singers are more accessible and people trust themselves enough to write to us. Sometimes it makes a false impression that opera is easy like a hobby. When in reality it’s a very demanding profession that requires a lot. It’s a lifestyle and with the open accessibility that social media gives this profession is not that protected anymore.

I’ve heard an opinion that musician shouldn’t go to explain to the audience the opera, but that the audience have to put the effort to better themselves in order to understand opera. Do you agree?

Yes in a way. I think today the society wants us to believe that everything should be easy, fast, understandable without any effort, not too complicated etc. People today make their opinions from two sentences that they read! And they believe in their opinion without any critical thinking. And sometimes, when going to the opera, listeners want to understand it without an effort. I am against that. I don’t mean that culture is only for educated people, you can definitely come to Cosi Fan Tutte even if it is your first opera. But in the mindset you have to be curious, make an effort to stay concentrated for a few hours, to be open and sensitive, allowing opera to take you to places that you have never been before or that you were not expecting. Allow opera to change you. It is not an intellectual effort, but a human requirement that is so important in my opinion.

But the audience is not the problem really. Sometimes I understand why not many people want to go to the opera. The musicians are usually good, but the staging is either too intellectual or too vulgar. So either you can’t follow the story or you get sugar and crème like you are a baby!

I don’t want to be entertained in opera – I want to be changed. You have to trust yourself if you feel it’s boring or not good. I myself get bored sometimes when I am in the public and I leave in the break. I know sometimes people think that if opera is boring it is probably because they are not clever enough to understand it! That is definitely not the case. Normally if you are in a good performance, you should feel something at some point!

I think it is important to know that opera is a difficult art; people are singing in foreign language, there  is a story to follow, listen to the music, sometimes a huge orchestra and a choir, a scenography, a staging,  etc. Of course it is not something that is easy to understand from the first experience. Opera is a process and sometimes you have to listen to it a few times before you start feeling its magic. When I first heard Cosi Fan Tutte I thought it was good, but today I know it’s extraordinary! And that is because I have listened to it many times. It takes an effort even for a singer to understand opera! So I think it is completely okay if sitting in the audience you don’t understand it 100%. But it’s important to stay curious and don’t wait only for an entertainment. And to trust your emotions!

You also grew up in opera with musician parents. Were there elements that surprised you once you started working as an opera singer?

No, I knew precisely what it is going to be like (laughs – O.J.). I know what is stress is before a concert, because I was there, helping my mother to prepare herself – I did her hair and helped her to get dress before going on stage. She told me not to pursue this career, because it is too difficult and dangerous. But I didn’t care, because I knew I couldn’t live in a different way. Of course, life is full of surprises, but I never go: “wow, is this the life I am living?” I know what it is. I know that this is a harsh world, that women are having a hard time, and that after 40, if you don’t continue to evolve, you can be forgotten in one day. Still I feel that I have made the right decision to become a singer, because now I am engaged for the next years and I am not stressed about my future. And I love challenges so I think I am prepare for everything.

What helps you to succeed in this lifestyle?

Intelligence and curiosity. I think it is important to work on yourself to become a complete human being. I am in psychotherapy for five or six years now and it gives me a lot of strengths and helps me to express myself as freely as possible on stage, with colleagues, in interviews and in everyday life. I think it is dangerous for a musician to focus only on the singing. We meet different people and experiment all sorts of situations. There is so much unknown! And when we don’t work on yourself we are more likely to repeat the same mistakes or repeat things we have been told without thinking « is it the right thing for me to do? ». Working on yourself is very important so you can be aware of who you are, where you come from, and who you want to be. Thanks to this work I feel like I am growing every day.

What do you value the most in your career?

I would say joy. I am working with amazing people that helps me to become better. Of course I have my lazy days off, but mostly I am on a daily adventure. That is making my life very interesting and joyful. I am very grateful for the life I have.

Thank you for the conversation!

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