I dislike the word “career”: An interview with Cheryl Studer

I dislike the word “career”: An interview with Cheryl Studer – April 2011 (BM)

Cheryl Studer
Courtesy of the Athaeneum Conservatory, Athens

When she was nine, her mother brought an LP home to her. After listening for a few minutes, she ran out of her room declaring, “That’s what I want to be!” The recording was “La Callas à Paris”. This year, Cheryl Studer celebrates her 35th season of professional singing, and is looking forward to her next role debut as Gertrud in Hänsel und Gretel in December 2011 at the Hamburg State Opera.

Since 2003 she has also been a professor at the University of Music in Würzburg, Germany, as well as directing two operas herself (in 2010) and adjudicating international voice competitions, most notably as chairman of the jury at the Maria Callas Grand Prix in Athens, where she recently had this conversation with Bettina Mara.

The public often finds it hard to understand the results of the Maria Callas competition. What do you look for in the candidates who are invited to compete here in Athens?

I would say that it is a combination of various qualities: voice, stage presence, musicality, flexibility of interpretation. Even if the judges don’t agree on the qualities of an individual candidate, our final decision is always a democratic one: once everyone has submitted their score, the highest and lowest are struck out and we calculate the average of the remaining ones. This way I can always be happy with what comes out, even if personally I would have liked to see different candidates in the following round of the competition (there are three all in all).

Why have there been so many successful participants from Asia, and especially from Korea, over the past years? (The first three prizes in both the women’s and men’s categories went to Korean artists this year.)

You can’t generalize when talking about Asian singers, since there some striking differences between Korean and Chinese artists, for example. Most people aren’t aware of the fact that Korea is a Christian country, whose citizens are familiar with “Western” music thanks to the Church. So the Koreans have tonal music in their blood, something which does not go without saying for other Asians. What’s more, they have an excellent bone structure for singing, wide cheekbones and foreheads, which form a natural resonance space. There are also many Korean singers who were trained in Europe and have now returned to their country to teach, and that helps, too! In China things are a little different. Although most singers there usually have stable and very healthy, durable vocal cords, our music is much more ‘alien’ to the Chinese. Unfortunately I was ill this time during the preliminary selection procedure in China, but my husband (the tenor and voice teacher Michalis Doukakis) brought home DVDs, which showed off some wonderful voices and good technique – young artists skilled at using their bodies as an instrument – but what was often missing was the musicality, as well as correct pronunciation and articulation…it made me want to recommend language classes rather than more singing lessons!

It is easy to get the impression that low voices are not in demand these days at the Grand Prix, at least with respect to the women…

Not true at all – low voices are simply rare, and that goes for the men, too. No wonder most voice teachers don’t have any basses as students – the basses are all out there working already! And the same is true of the ladies, because for every real contralto there are hundreds of sopranos, and above all lyrical sopranos. We did have one excellent candidate from Austria this time, who is a mezzo, Stephanie Atanasov. I would have liked very much to see her in the final round, but as I said, our decisions are always democratic. I trust that this contest has nonetheless given her some exposure, and I’m fairly sure she will be offered work as a result. On the other hand, one of the male prize-winners was the Korean baritone Yoontaek Rihm (just like the composer!), which I am especially pleased about because he is a student of mine, although of course no one knew about that until the competition was over.

What was the key to your success, then, as one of so many sopranos?

I would say it was because I had no choice. Singing just happened to me, it was never a profession I chose for myself – it chose me. I have been singing for as long as I can remember, in church, in school, and it always got me recognition and attention. Later on, I never had to build my voice because it was already there. What also helped me professionally is that I am a quick learner, that I am reliable and above all good at jumping in at the last minute when necessary, one of the things that led to my breakthrough in Germany – in Munich in Rienzi in 1983, in the Braunschweig Traviata in 1984 and most importantly in 1985 as Elisabeth in Tannhäuser at the Bayreuth Festival.

What was it like to hit Austria and Germany as a young American singer in the 1980’s?

It was the best thing that could ever have happened to me. After my success at the “Metropolitan Opera Competition for Young Singers”, I auditioned all over the US, but no one wanted me. So I said to myself: enough of this, I’m no masochist, let’s try Lieder! And went to the Franz Schubert Institute for a summer course, where I met Irmgard Seefried, who was a great inspiration to me, as well as Brigitte Fassbaender and Hans Hotter. They all said I had an operatic voice, and wondered why I wanted to focus on songs. Hans Hotter agreed to take me on as his student, and I wrote to my mother immediately asking her to send me some money – and some warm clothes! I didn’t speak a word of German at the time, and had to learn the language on the street, so to speak….I’ll never forget standing by the side of the road in tears because I had to get to a concert and couldn’t call a taxi! Calling from a pay phone in Austria was not easy back then if you couldn’t read the instructions telling you to press a special button as soon the person on the other end replied…

But as you just said, you’re a quick learner! Germany has now become your second home, and you teach at the University of Würzburg.

Yes, I stayed in Germany – first in Starnberg by Munich and then in Würzburg, and I love teaching there. It’s such a joy to accompany students as they develop their skills – especially in our early learning program for young singers. Before, I had never realized how much I actually have to give these students, and now when they make my ideas their own at first, and then later on become independent, it is just so rewarding to watch. I never would have thought it could make me so happy! Besides, I can’t say often enough how much I like being in Würzburg because I love the school and its beautiful buildings. I have seldom seen a faculty of this quality – the wood floors and high ceilings, grand pianos in all of the teaching rooms, a hydraulic orchestra pit and great stage, it is just marvelous and you couldn’t ask for more.

I also teach master classes world-wide, often together with my husband, who specializes in what is called Stimmbildung in German – building voices – and does particularly well with the men, while I like to concentrate on interpretation, which makes us a good team. The moment a student sings a phrase, so many ideas come out, which points to the truth in what my own teacher, Hans Hotter, always liked to say: that there is no one and only correct interpretation, but rather that it has to evolve naturally from a good technique. Both aspects are essential – but of course I’m not telling you anything new there!

Do you have any further directing plans after Ariadne auf Naxos and the Barber of Seville?

Not at present, but I’m sure I soon will, since to me directing is the culmination of everything I’ve done so far. I know only too well that having a clever idea is not enough, and I can probably help singers better than most directors because I am familiar with the human body as an instrument! I have had the privilege to work with so many great directors – Ponnelle, Strehler, Kupfer, Bondy, Herzog, to name just a few – who inspired me greatly and from whom I learned enormously, since as I said I soak up new ideas and knowledge like a sponge. My own experience as a director has taught me how important a good set designer is, and above all good lighting, something which is often underestimated!

I bet Hamburg is looking forward to hosting your upcoming debut as the mother in Hänsel and Gretel?

I think they are! And above all I looking forward to it myself, there is nothing more exciting than something new. I have always wanted to sing the role of a mother, and this one is perfect for me, whereas similar roles in Janacek operas wouldn’t suit me, for example.

What do you like most about being a singer – and what do you like least?

I love working hard, the intensity of it, I really thrive on that – I’m a true “workaholic”. What I don’t like are the trappings of this profession, discussions about what is the right decision, knowing the right people, having the right connections, the right agent, even the right clothes, in short, all the things that are part of having a “career” – a word I have always disliked. I never worked on my career, I just worked, period – and with a passion! What I have always liked about being a singer is that my body is my instrument, but that also means that harmful influences automatically impinge on your voice/instrument, too. And yet we have to dare to be vulnerable time and again, making way for feelings and emotions, because otherwise we would not be artists. So we have to learn to be open without letting everything in.

Bettina Mara

Originally written in German for Orpheus Oper International (www.orpheusoper.de).