Bonita Hyman on her ninth production of cathartic Elektra in Salzburg festival

New York-based African American mezzo-contralto Bonita Hyman performed on world’s leading stages at Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Dallas Opera, the Opéra Comique in Paris, the Deutsche Oper am Rhein, and the Leipzig Opera, with a repertoire including Maria (Porgy and Bess), Erda (Der Ring des Nibelungen), Suzuki (Madama Butterfly), Azucena (Il trovatore), Ulrica (Un ballo in maschera), Bradamante (Alcina), and Geneviève (Pelléas et Mélisande). She first approached R. Strauss Elektra and role of the first maid in 2013 with acclaimed Patrice Chéreau’s production that went on having eight revivals at La Scala, Milan (2014 and 2018), the Metropolitan Opera in New York (2016), the Finnish National Opera in Helsinki (2016), the Berlin State Opera (2016 and 2019) and the Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona (2016). Her ninth staging is a new production of Krzysztof Warlikowski presented in this year’s 100th anniversary of the Salzburg Festival. In the interview, she compares the two stagings of Elektra, her collaboration with UNICEF this month and dives deep into the different effects of oppression that lays the basis of this antique opera.

How are you spending your time between the performances of Elektra?

Everybody is trying to rest after they put so much up to the premiere. My concentration this time is on Elektra, but between the last performance and now I was traveling between Salzburg and Filzmoos for the performance in UNICEF Gala. My association with UNICEF is important for me, lasting for twenty years now. This is my tenth time in Filzmoos and the timing worked out extremely well. It is relatively low pressure and so it doesn‘t take away anything from my performance in Elektra. My time in between opera counts as rest, even though I am in Filzmoos in official capacity as an artist, representing UNICEF. For me, when it is official, it’s work – even though there is cake!

Did you felt pressure before premiering Elektra?

I am happy, knowing that we have accomplished something magnificent by making this work. The whole festival is quite an experiment and it paved the way for how the world will be doing future opera in terms of pandemic. Of course this brings responsibility and pressure, but my part, although important, is relatively small. So the weight of the production is not sitting on my shoulders and the pressure is nothing even remotely like what the ladies in three main roles must have dealt with. And, of course, participation in the festival also brings me tremendous personal satisfaction.

You also performed in other staging of Elektra by Patrice Chéreau. How could you compare this production with this year’s staging of Krzysztof Warlikowski?

This is the second production and ninth staging of Elektra I have done in this role. Both directors work in different ways – they have their own ideas about the opera and my job as an artist is to try to fulfill that to the best of my abilities. We put seventy hours of rehearsal in Chéreau’s production – maids were on the stage throughout the entire performance. Maids are a part of household; they each have their own characters and react to everything that is going on stage. It is also very physical – when Klytämnestra enters the stage, we all hit the floor. Warlikowski’s focus is on principles and maids become more of a background characters. He set a framework for us and we filled it with interpretation. When improvising you have to know the people you are working with and our cast was new – everyone in different ages, coming from different countries. My colleagues are very nice ladies, but there hasn‘t been much of a real opportunity for us to really know each other.

Elektra is such an intense story – is it difficult to be a part of it?

The scene with the maids is truly very intense – the words that the women say and the music around it. I am singing about blood and murder – of course during that I take a step back from myself to bring integrity to such words. But after the performance I take a deep breath and I am myself again. The whole story is about trauma. Klytämnestra and Aegisth forms not a love relationship – for them having these three children involves an element of force and Aegisth also sacrifices another Klytämnestra’s child from previous marriage in order to please gods as he goes off to war. Klytämnestranot only does not forgive him for that, when he comes back she chops him to pieces in his bath. It is a traumatizing family story so it can be dangerous to stay in such place for too long. You have to find yourself again.

How do you find connection with such a story?

I am sure we can all find places in real life that can bring us to that space. There is so much going on in the world right now – it’s an intense time. It is not lost on me that in this household of three women trauma runs through misogyny and oppression. This staging in Salzburg festival is particularly telling. The pattern of violence and force against women comes from Aegisth. The sisters are waiting for Orest to rescue them, but he doesn’t – he kills the mother. At the end you have a house filled with dead women. Orest realizes the enormity of what he has done and goes insane. Chéreau and Warlikowski adresses this theme in different ways. Chéreau focuses on the strngth of the women, Elektra doesn’t die and the sisters are left content with their lifes. The Warlikowski leaves a room of dead women. I think the story is tragic and each character is complicated and problematic like most humans.

What helped you to find the expression on stage?

My experience with another Elektra production gave me some tools to work with. Of course, the context in this staging is different and maids have different characters, but I would build the role on my own work. Also musical rehearsals with conductor Franz Welser-Möst helped a lot. It was focused on text and maestro had very specific ideas in terms of what he wanted to hear on stage.

I didn’t looked for inspiration in previous recordings, because the role is not that big. If we would be talking about Klytämnestra – a role I am aspiring to sing in the future – then we would have to talk about the other interpretations that would be inspiration. This role is complex and I observed Waltraud Meier as well as Tanja Ariane Baumgartner dealing with this character. They both are great singers and does a spectacular job. When I watch Tanja’s interpretation I get association that she is the leader of a mysterious cult and I find that such an interesting direction. I respect both of them since they don’t make Klytämnestra into an over the top crazy character, which is often done. Sometimes the extreme interpretations seem unreal like cartoons – you see a raving blood thirsting lunatic on stage and you cannot relate. Even though Elektra is definitely not a cartoon – this woman is complicated, multisided and subtle. Klytämnestra has a reason to be who she is. Her husband had carelessly murdered the child she loved the most. When people are living with such opression, it can manifest itself in a lot of differnt ways. I know intimately for Klytämnestra how challenging it is to retain your wholeness as a human being, when it is constantly being chipped away from you. So I know she is a monster that was created – filled with insecurity and fear. I really admire the job Tanja Ariane Baumgartner is doing with this character.

What was the creative theme behind Elektra?

The director suggested the specific concept, the conductor set dramatic elements through the music, the choreographer, and the assistant director offered suggestions in terms of movement and focusing the character in specific direction. In Chéreau’s production we had two assistant directors, because Chéreau was incurably ill and dying. Therefore one of the assistant directors was there to manage the future productions after his death. Another assistant director was a representative of Metropolitan opera and he had to accurately adapt the staging to different stages as it had many revivals in different theaters.

Would you say the staging and festival was impacted in some ways by the pandemic?

Some things were downsized. This season the festival for its repertoire selected only two operas out of six. Both productions also have relatively small cast ensemble requirements. In Cosi Fan Tutte you only see six people on stage – and basta Cosi! In Elektra there are more people, but they never appear all at once. Felsenreitschule is a massive stage – you have several areas and can sense the distance between the characters spread on the stage. Therefore the staging is still very intimate.

What is your relationship with music of Richard Strauss?

This is the music I live for. When I hear it, I stop everything I am doing, and listen. In case something happens, I am taking this music to the desert island. Elektra is an absolute masterpiece both of opera and theater. There is not a single note wasted and the effect is cathartic. It starts of like a slap in the face, the ending – like a fist bumping. You can feel the constant brooding of emotion and intensity.

At the end of every production I have been a part of the audience loses its mind. They scream and jump out of their seats. Even here in Salzburg where you expect people to be reserved – the audience went crazy! And it happened every time – the original staging of Chéreau’s production the audience was very warm, La Scala was reluctant, but passionate. New York, Barcelona, Helsinki, Berlin – all loved it. Elektra is that piece.

Thank you for the conversation!

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