Mezzo soprano Tanja Baumgartner: We all watch opera with our ears

Named as one of the leading dramatic mezzo-sopranos of today, Tanja Ariane Baumgartner has an international standing, performing in Bayreuth Festival, Edinburgh Festival, London Royal Opera House, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Komische Oper Berlin, Hamburg State Opera, etc. Being a member of the Frankfurt Opera since 2009 she gifted the world roles that doesn’t fade – Cassandre (Les Troyens), Eboli (Don Carlo), Maddalena (Rigoletto), Carmen and Brangäne (Tristan und Isolde). Her debut in Salzburg festival was in 2010 as Countess Geschwitz in A. Berg’s opera Lulu. Today she completes the triangle of R. Strauss Elektra, alongside Lithuanians Asmik Grigorian and Aušrinė Stundytė. In the interview she discusses Klytämnestra in Warlikowski’s staging, how she is dealing with quarantine and what is the most important for her teaching the new generation of opera singers.

There is so much pressure around this staging of Elektra – because of pandemic, live-broadcast, challenging role. How do you cope with everything?

The situation was intense – I was trying to give my best and bring full energy at the premiere. In order to focus on my performance, I had to just ignore the broadcast and microphones. Thoughts of them would only distract me. Also I knew the festival had prerecorded two rehearsals, so in case something would happen, they could change the material. After the premiere I felt exhausted and did nothing for two days! Then in the future performances I felt more ease, freedom, and trust in myself, but also the same energy and adrenaline as in the premiere.

Was something in Krzysztof Warlikowski’s staging that surprised you?

I was expecting Warlikowski to stage Elektra in a different way, so there wasn’t much of surprise. I liked that he gave me a chance to defend the character of Klytämnestra. It is difficult to approach Klytämnestra and even more from a place where you want to defend her. Of course, she is a murderer. Every time I delve in these deep negative emotions. But I do want to make her more human. Warlikowski’s monologue at the beginning of the opera was quite a challenge for my voice, with all the yelling and screaming. But it was important and brought a lot to the character and to the story.

The director would encourage soloists to find their own way to the characters – at the beginning we would internalize the emotions, singing and acting more subtly. Later we brought the expression back, but it came from a very real place inside, so this process completely changed the performance.

What helped you to find your own Klytämnestra?

My inspiration was a book of an Irish author about her daughter Iphigenia’s wedding. It was telling how the family was preparing for it, all the joy and the anticipation they felt. And, of course, as it known from the myth, the wedding didn’t happen. I feel like this is the story that defines Klytämnestra and brings her overall motivation to the story. For me she is a hurt woman and the beast comes out of her vulnerability and desperation. And Greek tragedy is exactly about these human conflicts that exist in families and relationships – I think fundamentally it is not about murder. Greek mythology depicted something eternal and universal, which permeates all mankind’s experience. Of course I am glad I didn’t experience the story of Elektra, but, in a way, we have all experienced it.

How did you approach the role vocally?

It was very interesting to explore the leitmotivs and real intentions that they hide with conductor Franz Welser-Möst. In this opera you need both vocal beauty and stage expression. Vocally role of Klytämnestra sits really low, sometimes even as it is almost spoken. A lot of mezzo soprano singers, who couldn’t sing high notes, took this character and portrayed it marvelously. I am standing in awe before all the previous interpretations of Klytämnestra. My favorite – Brigitte Fassbaender’s. She has unique approach to the character and very expressive eyes, always looking around for who is going to kill her or whom she is going to kill.

How would you describe the collaboration with other singers?

I was lucky to have two amazing women around me. I admire Aušrinė Stundytė – from the beginning of the rehearsal process, she’s the character. She would look at you with those eyes and you would realize that she is Elektra. Asmik Grigorian approaches her role differently and still brings such empowerment to Chrysothemis.

Other characters on stage are mostly children of Klytämnestra and her relationship with each of them is complicated. In monologue you can feel her love for Iphigenia, who was sacrificed. I think she would like Elektra to understand her and not only put her father on a pedestal. It such a terrible struggle and I feel so sorry for Klytämnestra. She had to be so strong to survive up to that point.

Do you read the reviews for operas?

Yes, when I was younger it really helped me to figure out whether the staging and performance was convincing enough for the audience. But sometimes you just have to admit that journalists didn’t understand the staging, because they went in a different direction than the performance. Sometimes people come to Opera Theater with certain expectations for a staging and if what they see doesn’t match that, they will reject it. I would say this is a natural reaction when you are confronted something unexpected or new.

As a singer you also have expectations. For me as a dramatic mezzo soprano is difficult to sing female roles in repertoire of Wagner and Strauss, because these characters are so strong, but using all their power to serve men. And then the characters that don’t follow that, are evil – just like Klytämnestra! I would really like to break this expectation. Luckily, Krzysztof Warlikowski likes portraying strong women on stage.

Even though operas are filled with stereotypes and expectations that come with it, music gives us a lot of different approaches to the situation and people in it. Therefore music is more important and we all fundamentally experience opera with our ears. Sound allows us to live out emotions on a different level. I want to give audience a platform where they can experience and read in something unique. Sometimes public surprises me with reaction when they discover something I never thought about.

When I go to opera I like to experience deep emotions and they are purifying in some way. Although it is hard to completely let go and enjoy the performance when your vocal coach antenna is up analyzing the performances of soloists. Sometimes it hits you unexpected – tears are running down your face and you can’t understand why.

I imagine that when performing in opera like Elektra, where emotions are so overwhelming, it’s scary to lose control.

It is, because you link yourself to the character. At some point they are a part of you – you give them your body and voice. Therefore during the performance I have a lot of energy, coming from within, and every movement is really felt. My body is even more convincing when I am still and can focus all my energy on voice.

What is the experience of this opera staging for you?

After the monologue I have 15 minutes to change costume and wig. Because the dressing room in the building is very far – five minutes to walk to – we change the costumes under the stage. I can’t sing there, only hum a little bit. That is my warm up and I during this time I try to concentrate on the role. Before going on stage I have to remind myself that Klytämnestra has to take energy. She lost all of her own energy; she cannot give after all she has been through. So the key point to remember for me is that she is a taker. I even have a physical exercise, like pulling a rope on myself, so I do that. And then I go on stage. In the dying scene, I am careful with my voice, so we hired an extra actress to scream. And then during the last part of the opera I am dead, so I lay on the stage with my eyes closed and I listen to the orchestra and beautiful singing of Aušrinė Stundytė and Asmik Grigorian. That is a moment for me to enjoy. After the premiere performance the musicians just stood in a restaurant with a huge distance one from another and raised a glass. That was our social distancing celebration. We all were happy that everything went well.

You were a professional violinist before you started your singing career. Does it impact how you approach music today?

I think my years of violin playing are a big advantage for me as a singer. Even today I use the same practice techniques when I sing – back and forth, up down, variations in different rhythms. You train your voice muscles in a very instrumental way. It also helps me with intonation and I have a more detailed hearing. While being a violinist I suddenly got very inspired by German oratorio and started my way as a soprano. My career path was not straight, but somehow it all made sense in the end and I gained so much experience. Today it is fulfilling to share it all with my students, watching them grow.

What is it the most important thing for you to teach young singers?

I teach the old bel canto technique, which I think is the base for singing. You go from there and see what student’s voice needs. Since everybody is different, I try to find a common language and work individually. I find it crucial to use the right approach to the person.

What meaning this year has for you professionally?

This year we all struggled somehow, and I had a lot of cancelations. I still teach during the pandemic, so, no matter what, I was always surrounded by music, even though not being on stage. I tried to enjoy and stay positive about having quiet and rest in my life. There were fewer distractions and it helped me to concentrate on the future roles. I hope that later on I still can take more time between the projects to really focus on the performance. And there is deeper gratitude and joy to be working after quarantine.

In March, when the quarantine started, it was too stressful to practice for Elektra – all I could sing was Mozart and Schubert’s Lieder. But then in April I started to look at this role of Klytämnestra. I was not sure whether the performance in Salzburg Festival will take place, but I will have another staging of this opera next season, so I still had to practice. And in May I contacted festival organizers to know the situation. Helga Rabl-Stadler then said: “listen, we try.” I believe in her management, because she didn’t made any rash decisions – she decided to take each day as it is and see how the situation is changing. I trust in that. And then few weeks later they announced that there will be a Salzburg festival this year and it truly felt unbelievable. I know they put themselves in a risky situation and things can really go wrong, but it is all for the sake of culture and I admire that. I also feel very safe with their security system – everyone wears mask and keeps distance, we are all regularly tested. But I guess singers are in general very careful with their health – as much as you can’t catch coronavirus, you can’t catch flue, allergies, and many other things.

Thank you for a conversation!

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