Matthäus Schmidlechner: While rehearsing in Salzburg I plan my next hike in mountains

Born and raised in Salzburg, tenor Matthäus Schmidlechner was brought to Linz by his career. While working as an ensemble of the state opera theater of Linz, each year he also makes appearances in his birth town, performing on stage of Salzburg Festival. In years 2018 and 2019 he performed the role of the first Jew in R. Castellucci’s worldly acclaimed “Salome” and this year to the 100th festival he was invited again to portray in the K. Warlikowski’s staging of R. Strauss’s “Elektra”. In the interview Austrian tenor Matthäus Schmidlechner discuss his career in Linz, security system developed in the festival, and the return of opera after quarantine.

How is it for you to be in the 100th anniversary of the Salzburg festival?

It feels like a new start after months of doing nothing. I am proud to be here in such occasion and perform, even if it is a small part. At the beginning I was really worried about the pandemic and I thought the organizers of the festival should cancel it – as all other theaters and summer music festivals has done. But then I figured that sooner or later on or another even will have to start working again. The start has to be made – sooner or later. And it is important to a very big and visible festival to do this as a statement. So it does feel like a beginning of something new and I hope that this successful period will go on to the autumn and next season.

How was it for you being in quarantine and not knowing whether the festival will take place?

All February I was in Milano and we were rehearsing “Salome” for La Scala. I can say now that I sang once in La Scala, but it was only during a single stage rehearsal, because the opera did not take place and the whole staging was canceled. During quarantine I really had nothing to do, but I feel that I was still in a very good position having a contract with Linz Opera Theater and being able to live without severe financial problems. I was thinking that “Elekra” could be the one opera that makes it to the stage this year, because it is relatively short and with only small choir. I was happy it worked out and I could get back to work after the lockdown. I desperately wanted to work – it didn’t matter to me whether the staging was good or not, what kind of character I will get, whether I am angry about the ideas of director or I am not. The Salzburg Festival answered my prayers! Also the staging was brilliant and I got to work with fantastic colleagues.

Two years ago you were Aegisth in staging of “Elektra” in Linz. How do these stagings differ?

The previous production helped me understand this opera better and this understanding was even more deepened this year while working with K. Warlikowski in Salzburg. I had one idea in my imagination and now I realize that the same story has so many different approaches and unlimited potential.

You have a short role. What are the main challenges of it?

I sing on stage for somewhat thirty seconds. The challenge is to come on stage and be immediately ready, there is no time to warm up. I use some singing techniques to center my voice deep in the belly. That really helps me to have the needed energy even before I go on stage. And actually some time ago I had very negative experiences when I wouldn’t prepare for small roles and then made mistakes while singing. That taught me a lesson to prepare all the time. In “Elektra” it helps me to go in contact with other people on stage – I tried to have contact with Chrysothemis, Elektra and, of course, old servant. That helps to feel the situation and your character – then you also mean what you sing on stage.

Was it important for you to understand the myth of Elektra for this performance?

We really prepared well when staging “Elektra” in Linz and then I read the mythology and felt like it was crucial to understand what happens before and after the action that takes place on the opera theater stage. The myth of Elektra, for me, is based on revenge. Orest manages to end the cursed chain of revenge that kills so many members of his family. After the death of Elektra it all stops. Because Elekra seems like a child that can‘t grow up becuase of the continuous intense hate that she feels. These feelings block her development and when Chrysothemis speaks about having a normal life – being a wife, having babies – and Elektra can‘t understand that. After revenge, she has no life left for her. It works also as a lesson on how destructive to oneself hatred can be and how much it limits us.

You sang Herodes, Jude, Aegist, young servant. What is your relationship with the music of R. Strauss?

I think when you listen for the music of R. Strauss for the first time; you cannot completely understand what is going on. But when you start to practice, you realize how genius it is – there is not a note that wouldn’t fit into the bigger meaning of the piece. I really liked to be working with conductor Franz Welser-Möst and listening to the orchestra rehearsals with him. It felt as if he would guide the musicians and singers through this opera. Every time he would stop orchestra, I would wait for his comments and learned a lot about the piece. Also the way he would work on the characters that were brilliantly portrayed by my colleagues Aušrinė Stundytė, Asmik Grigorian ir Tanja Baumgartner. I find that both Stundytė and Grigorian have intense personalities and characters, they are always focused. Me and other singers with smaller roles, can really have more fun during all the rehearsal process. It’s true that R. Strauss in his operas had made some really good characters for tenors and other voices. You can study them all you want, but each time you will always discover something new in the music of R. Strauss.

How do you find roles that are right for you?

I guess every young tenor wants to be a lyric tenor, and I was no exception. Once I even sang Fernando – one of my favorite operas. I survived it, but I realized that I was a character tenor – so my repertoire had changed. Now I  realize how exciting it is to portray very complex broken characters – they are full of experiences, emotion. Therefore I like working with pieces of R. Wagner and R. Strauss. They know how to work with text and they use such poetic language in their operas.

How do you find connection with the characters you portray?

I think of how much of me is in the character – some of them are very close and some of them are the very opposites of my own character. One times I use my own experiences to connect with characters and other times I have fun becoming someone else, finding inspiration in books or movies. Directors also give hints and try to inspire. In this staging what direction inspired me by K. Warlikowski was when he noted that I represent the new order in the house of Aegisth and the old servant represents the new order, leaded by Agamemnon. It really helped me.

How do you deal with stress and pressure before performances?

I am always nervous, but for me it is important to accept and feel all the stress before going on the stage, because then, when you are singing, you can really let go. Every time I don’t go through the emotions and stress, I am less present on stage. One time I gave interviews before premiere and then on stage I couldn’t understand and feel what is happening around – it was difficult to really focus on being here and now.  Before I prepare to go on stage in “Elektra” I rehearse the phrase, but never sing the last note of it. I want to make sure everything before it works, then I know that the last note will also work.

What meaning Salzburg has for you?

Every time working in Salzburg feels like coming home. I was born twenty kilometers from here, I went to music school here and now I am here every summer – rehearsing, performing, hiking to the mountains, being in nature. I do enjoy this city, I think everybody does. Even during the rehearsals I am thinking about which mountain I am going to hike to tomorrow! I find hiking empowering – when you are going up to the hill, you feel as if this whole trip was a mistake. But once you find yourself at the top – it all becomes worth it. Compared with Linz, cultural life in Salzburg is more historical and traditional. Linz is an industrial city – since they had money, they put effort in creating a rich cultural life. But it is more contemporary and therefore in some ways – more lively.

What makes working experience in Salzburg festival special?

Here you have a lot of people around who support you, your performance, the staging. It is of course very inspiring to work with world class singers, directors, orchestras, conductors. The people around are really motivated and they have faith in you. They create the same amount of production in month as the opera theater would do in one year. Especially today, when they decided to organize festival in the middle of pandemic – the motivation of Salzburg festival seems phenomenal.

What was it for you to work with pandemic restrictions?

It takes a lot of discipline – you always have to ask yourself – should or shouldn’t you do various things. For example, I really wanted to meet my friends here, but I had to meet them one by one, just to be careful about the virus. But overall all the restrictions are only small details. I would do even more, so that I could be working at this time. I think at this time we don’t know how everything will turn out, but it is important to put efforts and make decisions and try our best. My home opera theater in Linz will open in September and my first performance is due to the middle of October. It is difficult to say about what kind of restrictions will be added, but I imagine that the situation will be similar – every singer will have his or her own responsibility to try their best and stay safe and healthy.

Thank you for the conversation!

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