Jim Pritchard interviews soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek of Anna Nicole fame
The charismatic Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek studied at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague and made her debut at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1994, followed by performances in Skopje, Riga, Rome and Berlin. From 2001 to 2006 she was a member of the State Opera Stuttgart. In 2006 her performances in Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in Amsterdam were acclaimed in her homeland and by repeating this role for her debut at Covent Garden it has led to further important engagements in major international opera houses where she has been celebrated for her portrayals of opera heroines such Katerina Izmailova, Elisabeth (Tannhäuser), Sieglinde and Anna Nicole Smith, a role she created in Mark-Anthony Turnage’s new opera last February for the Royal Opera. She returns to Covent Garden as Richard Jones adds productions of Il tabarro and Suor Angelica to his staging of Gianni Schicchi to complete Puccini’s Il trittico for the first performances in its entirety there since 1965.
JP: We are meeting just before a further rehearsal for Il tabarro. What attracted you to do this opera. Was it the opportunity to work with Richard Jones and Antonio Pappano once again?
E-MW: It’s been a dream to sing Giorgetta in Il trittico – I’m a huge Puccini fan and I always dreamt of singing Minnie in La Fanciulla del West. That came true … and now so has Il tabarro. I would do all the Puccini roles if I could but I don’t think I am fit for all of them. I just love that music.
As for Richard Jones, he’s fantastic – what can I say – I’m a big fan. He is an amazing human being and always seems – I don’t know how he does it – to be able to wonderfully explore the relationships of people in these texts. He is such a profound person, and you find that in how he speaks to you about your character; you find things there that you never thought about and I find that fascinating. Every rehearsal he never stops improving and you find a new angle and a new little thing. It is all very detailed and there is none of that ego business. He does not want to make a point or a statement and he is not going to change the piece to please himself … but it is about the truth and the characters – and I find that amazing. Another thing is that he is very cooperative – but his ideas are so good that I’ve never had one that’s better . However you can definitely say to him ‘this doesn’t feel right’ and he’ll say ‘well maybe we’ll do it like this then’.
Tony Pappano’s exactly the same and they are like the dream team together. They are always talking to each other: Should she do this here or turn around there or should that have more tension? He is an incredible man too and lives for the music.
JP: Most of the roles you have had tremendous success with recently have a three-dimensional quality to them and you seem to make them come alive. Which are your favourites so far?
E-MW: I love doing that … I love people who go through a journey. Three-dimensional is a good phrase and those characters are the best ones. I have loads of favourites … Anna Nicole was a tremendous experience and I love Minnie very much – Sieglinde, of course, then there’s Katerina Izmailova from Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, now there’s Giorgetta – I’m so lucky to sing these phenomenal roles.
JP: You seem a very relaxed person but have some very troubled characters to portray. Are they a good way of releasing any pent-up anger?
E-MW: I hope so as I have lots of roles like that to get it out of me (laughs). I just love their journey and just finding the character. It always takes a long time before you get it. Lady Macbeth was a fantastic role to play – that definitely gets all your aggression out – especially wielding the axe as Richard Jones has me do.
JP: What helps you find your character in the operas you sing?
E-MW: I’m very inspired by movies. I watch lots of them and watch the actors; people also say to me I should watch this or should look at that. One example is Dangerous Liaisons with Glenn Close: I remember I had to do this scream as Gutrune in Götterdämmerung when she realises Siegfried is dead. They didn’t want it to be too operatic (demonstrates) and wanted a real scream; I remember I had to have a session with a voice therapist because I would lose my voice. So I kept watching the scene where Glenn Close discovers that her lover has died and that she is the laughing stock of the society and her scream – O My Gosh! – is phenomenal. I rewound it many times. I don’t think I can do it at her level but I always try to look stuff like that up.
JP: You mentioned Anna Nicole: that was your most recent success at Covent Garden, how did you enjoy appearing in a new opera?
E-MW: It was very challenging and a bit overwhelming because of course we all know she was a real person, but from Day One Richard Jones said I did not have to be an imitation of her and that together we would try to develop something from her. I thought Mark-Anthony Turnage’s music had some wonderful things in it and it was very demanding. I had coloratura – that is not my forte – and it was quite high or quite low and sometimes a very fast role. Then there was the physicality of it because I was on stage most of the time. But the hardest thing, I thought, was getting the language right: I kept saying I was sounding like the Nun in The Sound Of Music (demonstrates and laughs) – that wouldn’t fit the character – so that was a special challenge.
JP: I notice that you – in common with many singers these days – are trying to keep all tyour options open with regard to the repertoire you sing. There is some Wagner and then, like now, some Puccini.
E-MW: I find it very important to be versatile because everything helps another thing. As we all know, the Italian repertoire is so beneficial for the voice. I had a conductor once say to me ‘I don’t believe in German or Italian singers – I believe in good or bad singers’. You can either sing it or you can’t. It’s what singers used to do; Leonie Rysanek was a fantastic Sieglinde but she also did Verdi roles such as Lady Macbeth and Aida and she was also a great Kaiserin in Die Frau ohne Schatten. If I tend to do too much German stuff at a certain point I shorten my voice a bit … I feel it and it’s unhealthy and then I need to some Italian again.
JP: Thinking about things that are unhealthy, there is always the problem of the travelling singers must do these days. What are your thoughts on that?
E-MW: When you are in really good form and you are healthy all the travelling can be alright but it always has an effect on your body and dries you out – especially flying more than trains, although trains now have air-conditioning. I got a huge cold because I had to fly home and do concerts at the beginning of this rehearsal period. Then again, you can just touch something and pick up germs and that’s it – you’re sick. But I really try to limit my travelling as much as I can.
JP: You recently sang Sieglinde at the Met on that fascinating set how was that?
E-MW: It was very interesting, the set was – someone said very funnily – the ‘biggest diva’ of the production because we always had to wait for it … in the end it was very exciting. Unfortunately I was ill the first night which was really weird. It’s really any singer’s worst nightmare to make your debut at the Met with a roomful of flowers and not be able to sing. My reaction now is everybody lived – nobody died – they had a cover and it was all fine, but at the time it was very depressing. Thankfully I quickly got better and sang all the rest of the performances including the cinema broadcast one.
JP: I remember we were kept waiting in the cinemas because of that set. Do you do anything different in those performances that are filmed?
E-MW: Yes, that was our big diva playing up again there (laughs). To answer your question we were specifically told to be as we were. James Levine is not only a genius of a conductor but a genius of a human being. Everybody gets hysterical with these things so he had a huge meeting before it and talked to us about how we should approach this psychologically. It was a bit overwhelming and you get all those little voices in your head that remind you there are so many people watching you right now. You just don’t want to think those thoughts, you need to be in your role because you can lose your flow and be made to be self-conscious. He talked about that and he was extremely supportive in the pit, I thought it was a good show and I thought we all forgot about the cameras – and that was the important thing.
JP: It is interesting that you were born in Belfast while your father was doing some geology research there, but were you there long?
E-MW: Only a couple of months. I don’t have any recollection of it but we went back once and it was amazing … I do feel very at home in Britain – sometimes more so than in Holland – but I like it there very much too.
JP: Was there much music in your family as you were growing up?
E-MW: There was lots of it. Nobody was a professional musician but there was always music and it has always been a huge part of our family life. We always talked about music and listened to it. Dad played the piano and we all played an instrument – but we never listened to opera. I wanted to do jazz and I really wanted to be Mahalia Jackson because I loved her so much: I still do. It was only my singing teacher who said ‘You have to be an opera singer’; she heard my voice when I was 16 and realised I had the voice for opera. I listened to recordings and thought ‘yes this is it’, and after that I spent every night dreaming of becoming a singer.
JP: What recordings did you listen to and what singers do you most admire?
E-MW: I love Renata Tebaldi and I love her Puccini – I’m a huge fan – she just makes me cry every time I hear her. There are so many others: I used to love listening to Giuseppe Di Stefano and a lot of the old singers – I was always playing records with my now husband (the tenor Frank van Aken).
I read this fantastic book that I can recommend to everyone: The Last Prima Donnas by Lanfranco Rasponi. It is the most entertaining book about singers and it’s like my Bible. Every night I would fall asleep with Tebaldi singing and read that book. I read one chapter again and again. I like verismo because I guess it speaks to me because of my need to be acting and all that and it was about the great verismo singers and one of them was Iris Adami Corradetti. There were four whole productions of Madama Butterfly done especially for her at La Scala because she was so amazing … can you imagine it? She said she always had to really cry on stage and nowadays her students always tell her ‘yes I have cried, I really have cried’ and her last phrase was ‘but I do not believe mascara could have improved that much’ (laughs). Somebody gave me her phone number so I worked with her and that was tremendous and she gave me a recording of hers that was very rare ; it is the most phenomenal way of singing and of portraying emotion ever I think. Magda Olivero was also one of those.
JP: Your career began to take off while you were in Stuttgart how did you enjoy your time there?
E-MW: That was a wonderful time – I sang in a variety of things including Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten (it was a really amazing production of a very perverted piece I must say), The Bartered Bride, Otello, Don Giovanni, Tosca – also a really fine production of The Makropoulos Case. I did a lot of very different things. I thought it was a very good grounding for my career because at that time the theatre was at a very high level and it was a wonderful atmosphere to work in. There were really great directors and great conductors..
JP: I understand that you feel opera is unfortunately considered as elitist in Holland as it is in Britain.
EM-W: Yes, people always make the statement in Holland that opera is elitist and I actually think it shouldn’t be. I think opera is for everyone and I always feel the most wonderful thing is when young people from all sorts of schooling and background encounter it for the first time. It can be a tremendous asset in your life. Music can give you so much – it can be anything – it can be a passion for many and for some it can be a therapy. What music can do for people is phenomenal. I’m always saying it shouldn’t be elitist, but of course it’s often expensive and that’s the trouble.
But I do think an opera like Anna Nicole has really broken a barrier and I thought that was wonderful because they made the tickets cheaper and so many young people came – I hope they like it and I hope they’ll do it again.
JP: You have a lot of important new roles on your schedule including Didon in Les Troyens here next year at Covent Garden. What else is there you are looking forward to?
E-MW: I feel very privileged and I love singing here. It seems like I am studying music all the time now – but what divine music! David McVicar is directing Les Troyens and I have never worked with him, so I am looking forward to that. Then there is Isolde and I’m super excited and super scared. I have to learn so many other things as well. So I am juggling with my time, and in the end I just sit down and read a book (laughs) and don’t do anything … well maybe just a little bit.
I’m doing a couple of more debuts this year – a concert version of La Gioconda in Amsterdam and I’m going to do Francesca da Rimini in Monte Carlo. It is another Corradetti role and there is a recording of her doing the aria on YouTube – so that’s very exciting too.
JP: Your husband is a well-established singer with his own career; I know you sing together but I was intrigued by something I read about a dinner you once had while you were making you debuts in Vienna in different things. Apparently you banned any talk about opera and ended up eating in silence. Is this true?
E-MW: Yes, very true because we both get nervous – being nervous together was even worse! We’ve done Die Walküre together and did a whole production in Frankfurt last year and that was fantastic and we had a great time. Now we are going to do Tristan und Isolde in Dresden but even sooner than that will be Tannhäuser together in Chile. We’re looking forward to these.
JP: Do you get asked a lot whether you think you will eventually sing Brünnhilde?
E-MW: Yes I do but I don’t hear that in my voice – they may well ask me and they actually have already, but not too seriously. I really don’t see myself as a dramatic soprano – maybe I’m the only one who doesn’t – I really think I’m a spinto and somewhere between the two.
For further details of forthcoming performances at Covent Garden please see the website http://www.roh.org.uk/.