Christiane Karg: A Breath of Fresh Air! An interview by Margarida Mota-Bull – 29.7.2013
On a rather humid, muggy morning in July, I travelled to London to meet Christiane Karg at Wigmore Hall. As I arrived, I already felt tired and was perspiring from the unpleasant humidity outside and wondered from where I would get energy to conduct the interview! I set up my digital recorder, my laptop and my notes and waited for Ms Karg to arrive. A few minutes later, a young woman, wearing a simple dress, flat sandals and a warm smile just erupted through the door like a cool whirlwind; her wide, luminous eyes trying to grasp the world around her in one single glance. I must say that I instantly felt revived and at first wondered who she was. Of course, I immediately recognised her from photographs and from having seen her on stage but I asked myself if it could really be her, as she appeared so much younger and livelier than how I had imagined her.
Christiane Karg is a young German soprano (33) with a flourishing international career, which has naturally developed from her already celebrated, distinguished work in Germany and Austria. She is the owner of a delightful voice, with crystal clear tone and easy, very warm high notes, a solid, accomplished technique and an admirable enunciation and intonation of whatever language she happens to be singing. Her personality is cheerful, straight-forward, open and honest but at the same time she is vivacious, spontaneous and there is a quiet strength that emanates from within her once she begins to speak about her work.
My first question was how I normally start my interviews with opera singers, meaning how they chose the profession, their influences and if it was what they had always wanted to do. To my surprise, Ms Karg’s answer was different from all my previous interviewees. Without hesitation, she smiled and said passionately: “Yes, it was. I think I was five years old when I knew I wanted to become an opera singer”. So, for her, as she stated later, it is a passion and one that has never left her. Unusually, for an opera singer, Ms Karg does not come from a family of musicians. Her parents are, in her own words, “in the pastry and hotel business”; however, her father is a big opera fan and so she grew up with The Magic Flute and Wagner, as her father is a member of the Bayreuth Club. Therefore, they always managed to get tickets for the Bayreuth Festival and it was there that she had her first experience of a Wagner opera at the tender age of eleven. Even so, she did confess later, during our conversation, that Wagner is not for her and, with a good-humoured smile, she stated: “I think I’ve ended my Wagner career with the ‘Hirtin’ and a ‘Blumenmädchen’.” And then, with a laugh, she added that she would like to go to Bayreuth to listen to Isolde but not to sing it.
Ms Karg is currently in the UK singing the role of Aricie in Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie; her Glyndebourne Festival debut, alongside such famous established singers as Sarah Connolly and Stéphane Degout. I had the pleasure of reviewing the opening night of this new production where there was much to like; not least Ms Karg’s performance, giving a moving portrayal of Aricie as an innocent, pure and lost young girl. Asked about the role and the difficulties of French Baroque opera, Ms Karg readily admitted that, at first, she did not grasp Aricie and took her a while to find the key to the character, which in the end, as mentioned, she really did. Openly, she does not hesitate to confess that for her, the biggest difficulty is the language, as she explains: “More challenging for me really and because I don’t know it so well, is the French. It’s the language and also the style. I speak fluent Italian; I studied in Italy for a while, so the language is closer to me. For French, well, I’m not fluent at all.” It is almost difficult to believe her because while singing Aricie, she undoubtedly sounded French. This is, however, one of Christiane Karg’s greatest qualities: She manages to pronounce a language as if she were a native speaker, which is an obstacle for many opera singers, and although it is also for her, she works double, as she puts it, to overcome the issues and sound natural, in the way that a native speaker would.
She has sung many different opera roles from a variety of composers, not least Mozart, a composer where she definitely excels, perhaps because she was exposed to many of his operas from an early age. Karg studied at the celebrated Mozarteum in Salzburg and is well versed in Mozart’s early repertoire, a fact that she beautifully demonstrates in her delightful, charming CD “Amoretti” with a rather original programme of early Mozart, Gluck and Grétry. The reason why she chose these composers and how the CD came to fruition is an interesting story, detailed below in the full transcript of the interview.
While at the Mozarteum, Ms Karg also studied song with Wolfgang Holzmair who was a big influence in her way of interpreting Lieder. She did a recital of Cornelius and Liszt with Mr Holzmair, at Wigmore Hall last week, something that she relates with genuine happiness and honest pride. Christiane Karg is a really committed recitalist and Lieder are an integral part of her repertoire. She says that: “I couldn’t do only opera or only Lieder. I need all of them”. This versatility, combined with her originality in choosing topics and composers for recitals are two of her most admirable qualities. As she says herself: “All the ideas for my recital programmes are different, I mean, I like to do different topics and composers”. What is important for her is not the composer but the mood of the song and how it fits together with the whole atmosphere and topic of the recital.
Talking to Christiane Karg was for me an unforgettable, immensely enjoyable experience. She is friendly, honest, open-minded and with an insatiable thirst for knowledge, as if discovering the world for the first time. Her passion for singing is real and comes from deep inside her. It is something that was born with her and not something that she likes to pretend in order to impress. Christiane Karg is a natural. Additionally, she is always generous towards the people that she works with but she is firm in her opinions and unafraid of expressing her thoughts and beliefs. As for example, her heartfelt comments about folk songs in Germany: “…in Germany, it’s really very sad. We forgot the folk songs. There was a period where we couldn’t sing them. It still feels a bit strange to sing them because of the background and association with the war and Hitler, you know, during Hitler people sang these songs in groups together. And in Germany, we still have problems with that and so, the songs disappeared completely … which makes me very sad”.
Christiane Karg is an honest, determined, passionate singer and a charming, spontaneous, warm and genuine human being. Her energy and vivacity are contagious; her knowledge and professionalism commendable. Whether she is speaking about herself, her colleagues or her work, she is always open in her opinions, truthful and appealingly natural. In a world where image and perception seem to be everything, Ms Karg was to me a real breath of fresh air.
Full Transcript of Interview with German Soprano Christiane Karg
MMB: First of all how did you become an opera singer? Was it always what you wanted to do?
CK: Yes, it was. I think I was five years old when I knew I wanted to become an opera singer. I was a very talkative little girl and I said: ‘I want to be an opera singer’ and everybody thought that I had gone crazy. My dad is a big opera fan but my family is not a family of musicians. They are in the pastry and hotel business, you know, gastronomy; but, as I’ve mentioned, my dad is a big opera fan and so I grew up with The Magic Flute, of course, and the Wagner stuff, all the very heavy stuff. My dad is in the club in Bayreuth, in this “Wagneriane”, so we always got tickets. At eleven, I had my first experience with Wagner in Bayreuth. My father didn’t have much time but we always went to the best festivals, which were: Salzburg, Munich and Bayreuth. So, I always wanted to sing. As a child I sang really a lot and my sisters were not always happy about that because I sang the whole day at home. I have finally stopped because I have enough to do on stage, and I do not even sing under the shower [she laughs]. But yes, I came to music that way. It’s a passion that has never gone away from me.
MMB: This year has seen your debut at the Glyndebourne Festival, singing Aricie in Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie. French Baroque Opera is very different from Italian Baroque Opera. From your perspective which do you find more challenging?
CK: More challenging for me really and because I don’t know it so well, is the French. It’s the language and also the style. I speak fluent Italian; I studied in Italy for a while, so the language is closer to me. For French, well, I’m not fluent at all. By the way, it is next on my plan; I mean a language course. I now sing a lot in French, I mean, in French opera and it’s a completely different approach to music. The music is so rich, so distinctive…not only for me but I think for all the German speaking singers. We have no idea about Rameau. In England people know more about it but I think there’s still a lot to discover. Rameau has a special French sound. It was very interesting for me to discover. But Hippolyte et Aricie wasn’t the first French Baroque opera that I did. It was my third production but the first with Bill Christie. The other was Rameau’s Castor et Pollux and the first time was with Christophe Rousset who taught me a lot. Because the first time… – I sang Télaitre – the first time I opened the score I didn’t even know how to read it because it looked like modern music you see? There was like a crotchet somewhere and a sharp sign here and another there and…well, I just didn’t have any idea what to do with the music. Also there are so many stylistic things…and I like it now a lot. It is very expressive, I think. If you have a note [she sings a brief note enthusiastically] the music is very rich and different than in Italian opera, it’s what the French call an accent plaintif and although very expressive, sometimes doesn’t sound so nice. These are sounds far away from us but that are very interesting to discover. So, this time, with Hippolyte et Aricie, I knew better. I could read the score. Rameau is very tricky in terms of the beating. It goes from restez to aria and it’s not a proper aria, it has two bars of arietta and then it goes back to restez and so you have to mark that; what it is in time and what is free of it. This is really a challenge but I think that it’s such rich music! I’m not a specialist but I think I can bring other colours to it than those of a French Baroque specialist. I have sung Puccini for example and sometimes Rameau really requires a Puccini sound, in my opinion, by which I mean a rich, big sound.
MMB: In Hippolyte et Aricie you worked with a magnificent orchestra (The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment) and with a wonderful expert in Baroque music, William Christie. In your opinion, what impact did the orchestra and Mr Christie have on this particular interpretation of Rameau’s music?
CK: He [William Christie] knows so much about it and he has so much experience…He knows exactly what he wants and so, I wondered: ‘Am I the right singer? The singer he wants?’ And so, I was a bit scared in the beginning but he left me all the freedom; he encouraged me to do more with the language and exaggerate the effect because the music is not very natural; it’s sort of artificial and Christie explained that from the beginning. He told me: ‘You have to do more; you have to do more with the language’. And of course, singing has to be always natural but the throat is placed in a very artificial situation. He liked what I did and what I offered but sometimes he said to do less in terms of the ornamentation. So, I asked him where and how and he said: ‘Tasteful! You have taste and you will know what to do.’ He can always find the balance with the singers and also with the orchestra. Additionally, he is also a man with a lot of good taste.
MMB: It’s interesting that you mentioned the language. I read an interview with William Christie prior to the starting of the performances and he said that he was going to be very demanding with his singers in terms of the correct French language because for a Rameau opera it is very important. Did you find that? I mean that he was really demanding?
CK: Yes, he was terribly demanding and he’s not French but he was worse than a French person would have been. A Rameau opera really comes all from the language and so he was right. Also, I had an incredibly good French coach, Florence, and I learned so much. She is really fantastic. Sometimes, you feel a bit stupid because you think that you’re doing everything too much – too exaggerated – but it ends up not being too much. It’s really, really interesting.
MMB: I reviewed the first night of Hippolyte et Aricie and I thought you were excellent.
CK: Oh! Thank you.
MMB: I particularly liked the way you portrayed Aricie as an innocent and pure young girl. Was this your personal interpretation or Jonathan Kent’s direction?
CK: I think it’s always both. Though, at the end in particular, he gave me less direction because he was really busy with all the dancers, I mean the chorus, as they have a lot more to do than I have. You see, this production is not merely an opera; it is a whole spectacle, a whole product. So that in the end he didn’t spend a lot of time with us singers. We did most of the singing and acting detailed work in the beginning. At the end, it was mostly a technical rehearsal. I was not certain about my character in the beginning but, especially in the last weeks, I found a key to my character. What I mean is that I found the key to Aricie. I couldn’t give you the interview earlier because I didn’t really enter into Aricie immediately. So, it is very difficult to talk about something that I don’t know. How should I interpret something that I’m not sure about? And if I don’t know it, how can I convince the audience? However, in the last week [of rehearsal], it all became so clear to me. And, you know, we should never give up and as artists we should always try to get some new ideas. But, anyway, after a run-through, I have realised that the difficulty of this piece is that I’m in the first act; then, I have two acts off! It’s actually a break of two and a half hours at Glyndebourne due to the long interval. So, at first, the story and the characters were not clear to me and then, I saw the third act where my character, Aricie, is not in. Every main role was in the house: Phaedra (Sarah Connolly), Hippolyte (Ed Lyon) and so on, and I suddenly realised what my person was about! I’m homeless, isolated, alone! Aricie is homeless and she was also the only character that I found strange but then I thought about it and concluded that she is a stranger. Her brothers (five brothers) were killed, her father was killed; her mother we don’t know anything about. Aricie was put abroad. She has no house, nothing. She is no-one and once I grasped it, everything was fine. I thought to myself: I am an innocent, tiny girl, without shoes… – Why would I wear shoes? Aricie is not of this world; she lives somewhere else. So all that was very interesting for me and then, I understood the character. She’s just an innocent, sort of lost child almost!
MMB: Well, you came across beautifully! Very moving!
CK: Oh! Good! I think sometimes I felt sorry for myself, I mean for Aricie of course [She smiles good-humouredly].
MMB: Some people thought that Jonathan Kent’s production of Hippolyte et Aricie defiled Rameau’s music and was a bit of a joke. Personally, I liked it as I think he captured the spirit of the Baroque. What is your opinion?
CK: Before I answer that, I would like to explain something. During the rehearsal process, it was very difficult for us because we [Aricie and Hippolyte] are not in every scene, which is always one of the challenges with Baroque music. You are not long on stage. Their roles [Hippolyte and Aricie] are tiny parts but still…all is equal. I mean for example Theseus and Phaedra have more to sing than I do. So, what I want to say is that it is difficult to make something which everybody will agree is a good Rameau. I have to say that I really liked the production. It has incredibly good images. Of course, maybe there is something missing but when do you find a production that gives you all the answers? I think that there is none. You can only find one story and if you have three or four aspects that are not in the piece, maybe they will be used next time. You can never get all aspects in one production. For example, how would you do The Magic Flute? Is it a Märchen Oper or is it something else? Is it one aspect? What should you put in the middle? For Jonathan Kent, in Hippolyte et Aricie there was only one important aspect, which was destiny; I mean fate, which we see all the time and people couldn’t do anything about anything! Also that life doesn’t win and the cold world of Diana opposed to the warmth of Cupid. Maybe I am not sure about those ideas but it is one possibility of viewing the opera. In any production it’s always one possibility. One interpretation is one possibility and you never find the truth. We changed the ending a bit by the way. The original ending was not very good for me and he [Jonathan Kent] saw that; he saw that it was not working, so he changed it. Personally, I think that his interpretation was very easy to understand and also very entertaining. And with this music, it can be so boring! It can be really boring because we are not used to this kind of language; it’s almost a theatre play, with a somehow strange sounding music…it’s like a conversation, yes, it’s a kind of a conversational opera. And, especially for Glyndebourne’s audience, you know, they want to go out to the picnic – and I don’t blame them, as during this month the weather has been so gorgeous! – So, it’s very difficult to bring this piece to the audience on a warm Sunday or Saturday afternoon. Therefore, the entertaining element is important. I personally think that the production is really good and I very much enjoyed performing in it.
MMB: As I said, I really liked it and I thought Kent captured the spirit of the Baroque but I suppose one cannot please everybody.
CK: No, but I think that’s good because artists should really promote discussion. I don’t think that anybody can say (whether they liked it or not) that this production is rubbish because there are so many good things but you can’t please everybody and you should never try because then, if you wish to please everybody, you will do a production that is very superficial. Like this there is still room to discuss and perhaps, I’m not of this or of that opinion but that is fine. It is artistry.
MMB: Indeed. I totally agree. Now, moving to something else. You have sung many Mozart roles and recorded some of his most beautiful pieces on your CD “Amoretti”. What are the biggest challenges when preparing and singing Mozart? And what do you personally think about Mozart’s writing for the female voice, as I think his writing for women was very special. What do you think?
CK: It was indeed very special. I think he had many lovers and their voices were so good, they all sang so well that he had to write like that for all of them. [She laughs]. Seriously, he’s very special because it all sounds so easy. Mozart appears to be easy but it’s not. You need the best technique to sing it. The voice has to be on top of the technique and have great quality. Mozart wrote really for voices and also for the development of voices. He followed his singers – and this is another research that I want to do – but anyway, his first Barbarina was also his Pamina. So there is a journey for every voice. And if some singers come and say Mozart is not for them, I think this is not true or their voice is not working properly because for every type of role you can find something in Mozart. For the light: Barbarina, Zerlina and Despina; more lyrical: Pamina and Susanna; and more dramatic: Donna Anna and Vitellia. His music is really for every kind of female voice and this is fascinating. With Wagner for example it always is a specific type of singer; Mozart on the other hand composed for everyone. His voice compositions require really good technique but singing Mozart did not always do him justice. Fortunately, it has changed a lot in the last twenty years approximately, with Harnoncourt. Whether you like it or not, he was the big changer of the approach to Mozart. He read tempi in a different way; he read especially pauses in a different way and I think this is what is so important for Mozart. Of course, in the recitatives, the pauses are not pauses because sometimes they may actually be just the end of a phrase. So, you are so free and the recitatives are so vivace, meaning that you can put so much life in them and it’s not only…“buchstabieren”?
MMB: Spelling out the words?
CK: Yes, exactly, spelling out the words, as it used to be some years ago. Harnoncourt change that and then, you realise that the composer is so rich and funny! Mozart is fun but again – as in Rameau – you have to work so much on the language. So the recitatives, Mozart’s recitatives are always the biggest challenge I find when singing his music.
MMB: The first time I heard you sing was in January 2012, in London, at the Barbican in Haydn’s The Seasons.
CK: Yes, in English! That was horrible! [She laughs, slightly embarrassed]
MMB: No, you were not horrible. Your singing impressed me immensely. You have great warmth and beauty of tone, assured coloratura and easy, warm high notes. You are not a soprano that screeches or screams the high notes.
CK: Thank you. I try to avoid that.
MMB: How does somebody still as young as you are become such an accomplished singer, reaching a maturity that most singers can only achieve later in life?
CK: I started earlier. So, as I told you before, with five years old, I knew I wanted to become an opera singer; so, I went to a choir and began singing in the church. I was very nervous as a child, really, really nervous and I knew that if I wanted to get through and become an accomplished singer, I had to work hard, do many pieces and all the solos, so it was something that I accepted naturally. I really wanted to do that but I was always anxious and kept counting the days, hours even, left to the performance day: Like, there’s one week to go! Oh! Now, three days! Now; oh dear! Twenty-four hours! [She smiles] That sort of thing. I couldn’t sleep and all that went on until I was eighteen. I think I had enough nervousness and anxiety to last my whole life in those years so now, I’m not nervous at all. So, I grew up with all that! Also, I think that singing in the choir was very helpful for my development. I earned my first money in the choir. Then, later on in Germany I sang in some projects. It’s good if you know that you can earn your living with what you’ve studied, I mean that I could earn my first money by singing and not having to be a waitress or something, was really good! Besides, you have contacts in the choir and gain a lot of experience. All this singing experience, fifteen years later, makes singing as a profession natural. So, it is all very natural to me.
MMB: Other great qualities that you possess are your diction, intonation and pronunciation of the various languages. I’ve heard you sing in Italian, French, German and English. Naturally, German is your native language but the others are not. However, your Aricie sounded eloquently French and your Hannah in The Seasons was really very British. What do you do to achieve such linguistic perfection?
CK: It’s so difficult! So difficult! I mean, it’s really hard work for me and you need someone to help you. Of course, they could have taken a French Aricie and of course they could have taken an English speaking Hannah, as the other two characters were performed by two English singers but they chose me and I have to work double. So, I always need somebody to help me and in the case of The Seasons, I asked Chris Purves, as I know him well, I said: ‘If you hear something odd, please tell me’. You see, there are things…well, that I can judge in my mother language but not in another. So, I need a native speaker to tell me: ‘Well, this sounds okay but it’s not really how we would say it.’ You cannot learn that sort of thing by yourself; you need help. Sometimes, lips, I mean, the form of the mouth is different. For example, Florence, our language coach in Aricie, told me: ‘Christiane, it’s very good, it’s really under way but when you said seront, you did something that wasn’t French and so, it didn’t sound quite right when you opened your mouth and I think you should do the opposite!’ So, I did, and kept repeating it in that way until it sounded correct. So, it’s hard work. Of course, you can look up the words in a dictionary, which we all have to do as homework before, long before you start rehearsals but then, you need help and you have to repeat it always, constantly until it sounds good. You know, so many things are different: The position of the tongue, the mouth…so, it’s really very, very hard work.
MMB: I would like to talk a little about some of your discography so far. “Amoretti” is a delightful collection of arias by Mozart, Gluck and Grétry. While Mozart and Gluck seem like obvious choices, why André Grétry?
CK: I didn’t know his name; I didn’t know that Grétry existed. But I wanted to do something slightly different because everybody expected me to record Mozart but I didn’t want to record Zerlina and Despina and so on. I studied at the Mozarteum in Salzburg so I got to know the early operas and I also sang some of them in the Salzburg Festival. I think these early Mozart operas are such an interesting repertoire with big arias, you know really big arias: Nine minutes, ten minutes, almost like concert arias. So, I wanted to record them and I fell in love with Lungi da te, mio bene, Sifare’s aria [in Mitridate, re di Ponto]. It is one of my favourite pieces ever. So, I thought that I really wanted to record it because on stage I would never perform it. Sifare is, of course, a man and I’m not a man; I mean, I’m too tiny to be a man on stage. So, at first it was going to be Mozart, early Mozart, but then I thought, in the Mozart year everybody recorded Mozart combined with Salieri, Haydn, so I have to do something different, some new things. Then, I discovered Gluck and I wanted to do only a short time span of composition for each composer. It seemed right. Gluck is also very interesting because he renewed his composition style. He did the Italian pieces and later on in Orphée he did it also in French and he gave it another quality. I was very interested because it was also the time when I did my first Rameau. Language does a lot to music and I think that French gives a different quality to the music, it changes the music. French is lighter. So, I wanted to have the Gluck with his two different sides. I took only ten years of composition of each composer and then I found this Grétry, on the French side…So, Gluck in the middle; Grétry – French, very French – and Mozart on the Italian side. I wanted to compare, to find the differences and so I had a look and decided to go for it. It wasn’t easy to find the music in Germany but there is the Heidelberg Library, which is close to Frankfurt, and I drove there and I asked them to photocopy some music because you can’t take it home. At first, they said: ‘Yes, it’s okay, you can take some arias home.’ And I asked: ‘Ten arias? I want to do a CD.’ Obviously, they said no, not that many but they would photocopy all the pieces for me if I wanted. And they did. So, it was great.
MMB: I have reviewed your CD “Verwandlung, Lieder eines Jahres”, which is a wonderful work. Naturally, there are many composers inspired by the changing of the seasons but I cannot remember a singer creating a disc with the concept of Songs of a Year, which is very, very interesting. How did you get the idea? And how did you choose the composers?
CK: I have so many ideas…and sometimes, I exaggerate and try to do a bit too much! But anyway, the idea was to do a Seasons CD. All the ideas for my recital programmes are different, I mean, I like to do different topics and composers. Last week, I did here at Wigmore, a recital of Cornelius and Liszt. I have a recital entitled “Thousand and One Nights”; another called “Nacht und Träume”; then, I have “Erwartung” coming next year. So, I have many ideas and I don’t go only from the composer, which makes it difficult for the promoters because they say it’s a bit too… “bunt”! I mean colourful but then, they like it and now they trust me because after years of people enjoying my programmes, promoters finally allow me to do these things. [She smiles] So, for me, a recital is more the atmosphere than the style of composition. It’s not difficult to change the style; I mean I can swap from Schubert to Strauss and then go to Schumann…and so on. Not a problem. I have it from the first note. You don’t need to change anything about the voice by going from one composer to another. The style just comes automatically if you feel the music. Schubert for example is very dramatic and I’m not the singer who sings Schubert neutral or a flat Mozart as some singers do; I like to take all my experience and put it into each composer and song. This is the way I sing Rameau or Strauss or whatever, with all my experience poured into it and sing it in that way. For example, why should I sing Bach differently, only because it might have been the way that people sang it in his time? In the end, we don’t know. There are no recordings, so we don’t know how Bach was sung then. Therefore, I go for the atmosphere of the pieces and so I discovered that summer in Schubert is the same as summer in Ligeti; it [the music] is filled with warmth and that is the important thing.
MMB: I think you’ve just answered my next question but what I was going to ask was that in “Verwandlung” you sing a wide range of composers and yet the work is remarkably fluid; it feels as if it were a real song cycle. How did you manage that?
CK: [She smiles and nods]. Yes, indeed it is what I’ve just said, the atmosphere. That is what makes them into a whole.
MMB: One of my personal favourites in “Verwandlung” is Clara Schumann’s Er ist gekommen. Why Clara Schumann in a recording where otherwise all composers are men?
CK: It was not on purpose. It was just the atmosphere of the song. It was the perfect song for what I wanted to do. Going from the rain and the storm as in Clara’s song to the spring: Mahler’s Frühlingsmorgen. It was never about…it’s never because it was a female or a male composer.
MMB: I didn’t think it was but I still wanted to ask you the question.
CK: So, no, never because of male or female. I’m not a feminist. I just look at the music and the atmosphere.
MMB: One final question related to “Verwandlung”. You have worked, I believe, many times with pianist Burkhard Kehring. How much of an influence did he have in the final product? Were you more directive or was it more of a collaboration between both of you?
CK: It was more of a collaboration between the two of us because we have known each other for a long time. He gave me, for example, the song from Ligeti. He did some research and came up with some new pieces that I didn’t have. Of course, as a singer, you decide and you can say no and you push the pianists to do a song that they don’t want to do [she smiles], and it is my name and my face on the CD but still there is a lot of collaboration from the pianist. We’re two people…we have to collaborate. It’s really one of the best things about recitals.
MMB: You have also done a rather pretty CD of German folk songs called “Wenn ich ein Vöglein wär”. Do you think it is important for artists such as you to record folk songs?
CK: Yes, I think it’s very important.
CK: Well, first this is not a CD of mine. There were different singers…
MMB: Yes, but you also sang in it.
CK: Yes, I did and it’s important because this is our background, our culture. It’s very sad, especially in Germany, it’s really very sad. We forgot the folk songs. There was a period where we couldn’t sing them. It still feels a bit strange to sing them because of the background and association with the war and Hitler. You know, during Hitler people sang these songs in groups together. And in Germany, we still have problems with that and so, the songs disappeared completely. So, this singing…of old traditional songs, you know, as Italians do for example, where all the generations know the same songs, this singing has gone completely, which is very sad about Germany. I think that we have to get over it. Now that I’m travelling so much and I see the difficulties of every country and also the good things about each country, I can see that Germany got back on its feet so fast and the people have worked really hard. You can hardly see any destroyed things; also Berlin is now completely renewed and it didn’t take that long a time to do so. What I mean is that Germany has recovered and restored its good things but this [the folk songs] is something we really lost and I’m very sad about that. We sang them in school a lot and because I was interested, I went to all the choirs but in general the folk songs have completely disappeared and that makes me very sad.
MMB: They are still relatively alive in schools. I lived in Germany for ten years and most of the time that I was there, I was teaching and the children, especially in primary school, still sing some folk songs but I suppose that once you leave primary school that kind of singing sort of goes away.
CK: Yes, it goes really away and many things changed. When did you live in Germany?
MMB: I left in 1991.
CK: Well, it’s different now. They have cut singing and music lessons in schools because they think that only Maths matter. They have also shortened Gymnasium [grammar school] from nine to eight years. So, sports and music can go of course because they are not necessary [she says in a mildly sarcastic tone] and naturally, this is a big, big mistake.
MMB: I agree. You are absolutely right.
CK: Yes and sadly I can’t do that much about it either.
MMB: Returning to my questions. Here, at Wigmore Hall I believe you have done or are going to do a recital of Lieder by Peter Cornelius and Franz Liszt. Not many singers do Lieder by these two composers. Why did you choose them? And what challenges do you face when singing Liszt?
CK: The recital was last week and first, I would like to say that it was very special to me because it was with my teacher. I started in Lieder class with him in Salzburg and studied further with him. His name is Wolfgang Holzmair. It’s a little different from the common German spelling; it’s Austrian and yes, he was my teacher of song in Salzburg and he really influenced me. As I said, Harnoncourt was very important for me for the pauses and the interpretation of Mozart but Herr Holzmair was very important to me because he gave me…how do you say “Werkzeugkoffer”?
MMB: A case with tools…or a toolbox!
CK: Yes, precisely. So, the right tools to go to Lieder, to start Lieder singing. So, he was very special. He asked me if I would like to do one of his last concerts here and I said: ‘Of course, I will’. And he said: ‘The programme I’d like us to do is one I did a long time ago but that for one thing or other, could never do it again.’ So, the programme was almost complete though of course we chose songs together. It was already decided that it would be Cornelius and Liszt and I’ve never sung any of them before. Liszt I have done some but not in French and never by heart so, it was really all new last week but Cornelius is so beautiful. Liszt is very difficult, in particular the French songs. His French songs are not songs, they’re arias. They go to the top B or top C; so, big songs, vocally very demanding, really like arias. It was a bit weird for me because the range of a normal song is two octaves and now it was wider, really very low and very high. Nice but it felt a little weird standing in Wigmore Hall and sing some arias with piano. So, nice songs, very nice but different and difficult, yes.
MMB: Lieder form an integral part of your repertoire. From your perspective what are the differences when singing Lieder as opposed to a leading role in an opera?
CK: It is different. Of course, vocally, I always sing with my voice but you have to sing sometimes louder and you have to give more if you are singing with a whole orchestra and a hundred people rather than with only one piano. It’s very different. I think that you should always try to find as many colours as possible in an opera and Lieder but in Lieder you’re more intimate, you can whisper, which sometimes is not possible in opera because opera houses are so huge. Also in Lieder you don’t have partners; there’s nobody to disturb you [she laughs]. So, you are alone and you have to find the answers with your pianist. In opera, you can ask others; you have a costume and so, you have the concept of a role and you can ask the director who should give you an answer.
MMB: It’s fascinating indeed. Still related to Lieder, I’d like to ask you one more thing. Two years ago, I interviewed a compatriot of yours, Jonas Kaufmann?
CK: Oh! Yes.
MMB: And one of the things he said, which I found very interesting, was that in opera you play one character while the biggest challenge in Lieder is that you have to play about twenty different ones. Would you agree with that?
CK: Oh! Yes, most definitely. You have to showcase characters but also you can demonstrate…you can show a lot of languages; you can show different styles of singing. So, in a recital of Lieder you can show a lot! From the pianissimo to the loudest and so on and…I love it. I couldn’t do only opera or only Lieder. I need all of them; always changing, so, I don’t get bored…[she smiles]. Also learning by heart, gives you always something to do. I came to London because today I have a rehearsal with Malcolm [Martineau] – he comes at one – for a new programme, a really interesting one that we’re doing in Germany.
MMB: Which leads to my next question beautifully because I’d like to ask you about your plans for the future in terms of operatic roles and recitals?
CK: My big plan for the future is Sophie in Rosenkavalier, my first and I hope it will be a good role because if not…[she laughs] I’ll really have a problem in the next years, as there are many coming up. Now, I’m in a position where I can do roles twice, which is good for me. I’ve been asked to do Pamina and Susanna and these are roles that I have done before so I don’t have to learn a new role, which is something I did for the last ten years and I’m tired. My head is tired. Sometimes, I did so many recitals…[she pauses briefly] what I mean is that although I like to do new things, new challenges, new recital programmes because there is so much to discover but, sometimes, I did so many that I felt my head would burst. For example, I had in three weeks, three different recital programmes with three different pianists and it is impossible! You can do this sort of thing for a short period but after a while it is exhausting and now I’m really looking forward to doing roles two or three times; so, I’m very much looking forward to all the Mozart that’s coming in the future. I will come back to Glyndebourne next season, which is very nice. I have several concerts coming up with some new things, for example, some new Poulenc: Stabat Mater and Gloria. Recital programmes…I have two recitals with Michael Schade and Malcolm Martineau; two different ones: Here at Wigmore Hall, a Strauss one; and one about Clara and Robert Schumann in Germany; maybe one day also here at Wigmore Hall. It’s a very interesting one with a speaker relating the story of the love and life of Robert and Clara. And there is the big new recital, with Malcolm, where we’ll do a big tour too, which comes also here to Wigmore, called “Erwartung”. This is a very interesting programme, I think; it’s the life after… “jenseits” but in a looking forward way, not in a very sad way; death but in a hopeful way. It’s about faith and all that; so, it can be very captivating. I’ve never tried it before but I think it will make for a fascinating programme! With Wolf, Strauss, Debussy and Schoenberg but nothing atonal because promoters sometimes say: ‘No, no Schoenberg! We cannot put anything from Schoenberg because people won’t come.’ Therefore, nothing atonal. But anyway, the recital is called “Erwartung” and it means really life after death. Also, I think a new CD will come out. I won’t say what it is but it’s with new songs and it will come out in the spring.
MMB: Lovely! Just out of curiosity, are there any particular roles/composers that you haven’t yet done and would like to do?
CK: I have done the Mélisande, which was on my wish list. There are Mozart roles, like Fiordiligi, which I’m still waiting for. There’s Poulenc’s Blanche that I really wanted to do. Of course the Sophie, as I’ve already mentioned. I hope I will do very soon, again because I’ve done it before and really, it was perfect, the Zdenka in Arabella. So, I hope it comes back to me. I really hope that a lot of roles that I have sung will come back…and I’m waiting for Cleopatra!
MMB: I think you’d make a great Cleopatra.
CK: [She laughs] Thank you. I’d like to think so.
MMB: Do you have a favourite composer?
CK: No, though of course Mozart is very special. I’m busy at the moment and that’s what I really like; the composer is not so important.
MMB: And are there any composers that you think you cannot sing?
CK: I think I’ve ended my Wagner career [she laughs] with the Hirtin and a Blumenmädchen. I hope there will be more Italian repertoire because the language is so close to me and I’m not offered such work often. Maybe because I’m German and my name sounds too German but I’m curious to see what happens. You never know where the voice goes. I’ve had a big voice development in the last few years, so you never know. But there’s Isolde. I think I’d really like to go to Bayreuth to listen to it.
MMB: To listen to it?
CK: Yes [she laughs]; not to sing it.
MMB: As a young opera singer and a woman with an international career, do you think that it is more difficult for women to balance this profession with a private life?
CK: No, I think it’s the same. It’s just that there are different difficulties for a woman than for a man. Travelling is difficult for both. It’s different with a child, of course because a woman will have to be at home for a time but then it is difficult for a man too, I mean being the father. So, there are also a lot of difficult moments for a man.
MMB: Are there any opera singers (past and/or present) who are an inspiration to you? Do you have a role model?
CK: I have not one but many that I admire. I’ve always loved Callas because she wasn’t the most beautiful voice… – but I don’t like very beautiful voices – because I think that we are all singers and we have to have something special and a kind of a nice voice but it’s the character of the voice that matters. I mean when you hear it on CD and after two seconds you know who is singing; then, that’s what is interesting for me. And Callas has that quality. I’m a big fan of hers. Luciano Pavarotti is another I admire and of course, he had a really lovely, beautiful voice but it was also quite unique, immediately recognisable. I also love Barbara Hendricks, for example, because again you hear the voice and it’s clear that it is her. So, really unique voices that you can hear and at once know who is singing. I think during the time of studying, they [teachers] try to avoid your own voice characteristics to make you sound very pure and put you in a good technical shape and so, we all sound almost the same but then, afterwards, all the big careers are from the singers who have a tiny mistake, in a manner of speaking, in the voice, which is what makes them special.
MMB: Finally, other people may listen to you singing as a means of relaxation. What do you do to relax?
CK: I won’t listen to myself, no [she laughs]. I listen to other singers of course and I can relax. It’s your own voice that it’s the most difficult to hear, I think. I also go swimming a lot, running. I like to go outside. I was out yesterday from morning until nine o’clock in the evening. That kind of thing becomes more and more important to me. That’s what I didn’t do in the last few years because I was doing so much travelling and I was so busy and now, it is something that I really want to do. And also have holidays! I’m having a holiday in September…for the first time in the last eight years! And by holidays, I really mean a gap in performing. I also go to concerts. It relaxes me because I love what I do, I love the job. I have also discovered poetry and I do my own programmes of poetry, for myself, and that is also relaxing. It’s all good for me. I’m a workaholic but for this job, the inspiration doesn’t come during your working time; it comes when you swim, when you run. I am inspired by the city, by the people…always; and so you should take a piece of paper or your i-Phone and speak something into it. That’s what I do anyway.
MMB: It’s really fascinating to me what you are saying. Because I’m a writer, not just this but fiction as well, and I always have something with me where I can write down ideas but I never imagined that a singer would do that kind of thing.
CK: Oh! Yes, most definitely because it’s…it’s the same in the sense that you get new ideas that way for recitals, I mean for programmes. It’s the same. That’s how the ideas come and you need to have something to record them.
MMB: Well, those were all my questions. So, thank you very much Ms Karg for your time. It was a real pleasure meeting and talking to you.
CK: Thank you, thank you. I’m really very curious to see the final product…I mean what you will write. Will you also send it to me, please? I’d like to read it too; so, not just my agent.
MMB: Of course, I will do that. Thank you once again.