Big Cities vs Rural Idyll: Göran Forsling Talks to Contralto Anna Larsson

SwedenSweden Göran Forsling talks to contralto Anna Larsson on her contrasting dual activities.

Swedish singer Anna Larsson has since her international debut in Berlin 1997 in Mahler’s 2nd symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra under Claudio Abbado established herself as one of the foremost contraltos on the international circuit, both as concert singer, recitalist and opera artist. In the latter capacity she has reaped laurels in roles like Delila (Samson et Dalila), Orphée (Orphée et Eurydice) and several Wagner roles: Waltraute, Fricka and Erda. Erda (in Das Rheingold and Siegfried) has become her signature role and all the big opera houses want her in their Ring productions. Last autumn (2011) she was the evil Princess in Suor Angelica at Covent Garden in Antonio Pappano’s critically acclaimed Il trittico – ‘Marvellous’ wrote Edward Seckerson in The Independent about her role portrait – and her latest addition is the title role in Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, which was premiered on Friday 13 July this year at the brand new concert hall in the little village of Vattnäs in the province of Dalecarlia in Central Sweden.

Even to most people in the rest of Sweden Vattnäs is probably an unknown name – or rather was until last year when news spread about the concert hall. It is a red wooden building, going well with the surrounding houses, and the view over Lake Orsasjön a few hundred metres away is terrific. There must be very few, if any, concert halls with such magnificent surroundings. This part of Sweden is rather sparsely populated and even though there are more than 50 000 inhabitants in the four municipalities that surround Lake Siljan – and Lake Orsasjön is closely connected with Lake Siljan – population density is only 7 inhabitants per square kilometre. 50 000 people might be an acceptable basis for a concert hall for this area, but how come it was built in Vattnäs, where only 294 people live permanently?

The answer is simple: Anna Larsson’s family has lived in this village for several generations and in 2004 she and her husband bought land not far from her ancestors’ place to get somewhere to withdraw and recharge the batteries in peace and quiet after the busy schedules during the concert and opera season. Her husband is Göran Eliasson, distinguished tenor and since 2008 also artist manager with a number of prominent singers in his stable. In the programme booklet for Sångfest (Song Festival) which takes place between 13 and 29 July 2012 Anna writes:

A little more than a year ago we built this house, our own concert hall not far from the shore of Lake Orsasjön in the village of Vattnäs. This is the village where my family originates from. Here my grandfather and great-grandfather grew up, here my father and his siblings went to school and here I learnt to swim during the longest and most beautiful summer holidays one can imagine. When I, after many strenuous years as a singing-student eventually managed to get my break-through on the stages worldwide I had a yearning to come here and sing. To be able to invite listeners up here to experience the great singers of our country, to arrange a festival with our friends and make music at a high level in simple and wonderfully beautiful surroundings. That was our dream. And now the house is here. Our nice concert barn.

What triggered us, she says when I call her the day after a riveting concert with Broadway musical melodies, was when we went to hear Dalasinfoniettan (the regional orchestra that gives annual concerts in all fifteen municipalities of Dalecarlia) and found that there were no good venues for music making in the area. Considering that in our little village there live more than a handful of professional musicians and several others not far away, we saw the possibilities for our own productions. In this region a lot of people are interested in cultural activities. Of course opera isn’t a high priority for a majority of the population, but we offer so much else and in the long run curiosity may entice some to try other genres than what they normally listen to. There is a lot of undeveloped potential in the district.

There was a kick-off last summer with a handful of concerts. Lots of people came and this year so far that trend has continued. At the opening performance, the premiere of The Rape of Lucretia, there were quite a few visitors from other parts of the country, including a busload from Stockholm. They also stayed for the concert the next day, when violinist Tobias Ringborg and tenor Michael Weinius took the audience on a guided musical tour from Sweden down to the south of Italy. But at the Broadway Musical concert the audience consisted primarily of locals, which Anna sees as proof of the potential in the area. When one offers entertaining and high quality concerts people will come, and high quality is always our aim, says Anna. There were standing ovations after the Broadway programme, not because the singers were media personalities – which they were not, not yet – but because they were tremendously professional, and good. And the mix of genres will continue: a baroque programme and several song recitals with international singers like Hillevi Martinpelto and Pers Anna Larsson, the name under which she is known locally – Pers is the family name.

Building this barn, I say – ‘barn’ of course due to the rural setting – must have involved a lot of fundraising. Well, no, says Anna. Not the building. We built it. But for the activities, the operative expenses, we have managed to find sponsors. And of course this involves a lot of time consuming work. The Municipality of Mora, Swedish Arts Council and The Barbro Osher Pro Suecia Foundation are listed in the programme booklet together with a number of local and other contributors.

Your first opera production at the barn may seem a bit surprising, I say. Of course The Rape of Lucretia is a masterwork, next year is the Britten centenary and this year it is the centenary of the birth of Kathleen Ferrier, for whom the title role was written, but isn’t it a very exclusive work?

There are many reasons, says Anna. The theme, to begin with, is one that touches people; Lucretia and Male Chorus are roles that suit me and Göran; the chamber opera size is ideal for the small stage in the barn: eight soloists, no chorus and an orchestra that requires thirteen musicians, half of them living in the village … Exclusive? Well, as far as opera is concerned I think little Vattnäs should be a place with more exclusive repertoire, while Dalhalla, the gigantic outdoor arena just 40 kilometres away, is cut out to handle the big spectacular productions and gala concerts. There is no competition between Vattnäs and Dalhalla. Göran Eliasson is artistic director at Dalhalla.

What about the future? A new Swedish opera, written specifically for The Vattnäs Concert Barn is one of my visions, says Anna. And there are several composers who have shown an interest. I can’t say more at the moment.

As indicated initially Anna Larsson has a busy international career, as concert singer, recitalist and in the opera houses. The contrast between the rural idyll at Vattnäs and the big cities where she spends a lot of her time during the concert season is indeed staggering. Let’s have a look at the agenda for the next few months: Australia, Milano, Berlin, London. A lot of Wagner. A tour with Antonio Pappano, concert tour in Scandinavia with Wagner songs. All this travelling, tough, isn’t it?

Anna admits: Being away for long periods can be frustrating and I miss my family. Fortunately a lot of what I do is concerts, and then it’s only a matter of a day or two.

I wonder whether there is a dream role that she hasn’t done yet. ‘The next step is the crone compartment’, she answers with a little laughter, ‘but that will hopefully have to wait another five-six years.’ Anna refers to roles for elderly ladies like the Countess in Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades and Azucena in Verdi’s Il trovatore.

Anna Larsson has a comprehensive legacy of recordings (discography here) and before we hang up I wonder whether there is something in the pipeline. Yes, she says, we are planning a disc with Lieder but so far I have no details.

Wait and see, then, but knowing her capacity it will certainly be worth the wait.

Göran Forsling