Petra Lang talks about Bayreuth, Brünnhilde and Big Voices to Jim Pritchard

Petra Lang talks about Bayreuth, Brünnhilde and Big Voices to Jim Pritchard

Petra Lang as Ortrud at the 2013 Bayreuth Festival- (c) Jörg Schulze/Bayreuth Festival
Petra Lang as Ortrud at the 2013 Bayreuth Festival- (c) Jörg Schulze/Bayreuth Festival

The expected furore over Frank Castorf’s new Ring at Bayreuth for the 200th anniversary of Wagner’s birth has overshadowed what else has been happening on the Green Hill and this includes the third revival of Hans Neuenfels’s ‘rat infested’ Lohengrin production that is fast approaching the stuff of legend not only because of its intriguing staging, but also its marvellous cast (led by Klaus Florian Vogt and Petra Lang as the titular hero and the villainous Ortrud) and fine conductor, Andris Nelsons. I first talked to Petra Lang in 2006 (see A Singer’s Life but much has happened since then including her return to Bayreuth and starting to sing soprano roles such as Brünnhilde. As part of Wagner Year 2013 in Bayreuth Petra Lang was also was involved in (with Adrian Baianu, the pianist and vocal coach) a masterclass for young singers and she has her own thoughts on the technique needed to sing opera’s dramatic repertoire.

I began by asking how it feels to be back singing at Bayreuth in Hans Neuenfels’s production.

For a Wagnerian singer to be able to have the opportunity to stand on this stage and sing is, I think, one of the greatest things you can do – and that is how it feels for me to be here. It is a great pleasure and a great honour especially to sing Ortrud as I have worked a long time with Astrid Varnay who sang that role here. When we worked all that time ago I never dreamt I would sing Ortrud at Bayreuth too.

I must say that I have always liked the rats but Adrian and I watched the dress rehearsal in the first year and talked for three days about what it all meant and what is in those videos that are shown. Some of the things I hadn’t understood then became clear from seeing the DVD we made. Now doing it for the second time I think it is a classic production from a stage director who knows his craft and has done a great job. The sign of the quality of this Lohengrin is that we only needed about two weeks of rehearsal in this its fourth year because it is already clearly in all our minds.

In 2016 Klaus Florian Vogt and Petra Lang will sing in the next new Parsifal at Bayreuth to be conducted by Andris Nelsons, could she say anything about how it is to work with the conductor on Lohengrin.

What I like about Andris is that he is a great musician. I have not had that many rehearsals with him, however I always have the feeling he is there for the singers: there seems to be no ego and a real love of music. I have enjoyed watching him during the Sitzprobe and seeing what he does musically with the orchestra.

I asked about what problems singing with Bayreuth’s famous covered orchestra creates.

I think it is different to every other opera house though each has its own – let’s call it – acoustical rules that depend on the orchestra and also on some conductors. This means that you have to realise how far behind the beat is the orchestra playing but this is just something you can manage with experience during a performance and eventually you know how it feels to sing in Vienna, Munich, Berlin, San Francisco, or Chicago. In Bayreuth the thing is the sound from the orchestra comes directly onto the stage and then goes out – goodness knows how – together with the voices into the audience: the problem then is if you try and sing with the beat of the conductor you will be far too early and so it becomes a question of finding out how far behind the beat you have to sing and how it all has to come together with the orchestra that you hear on stage. If you are directly with the sound of the orchestra then maybe you are singing too late or too early for the audience and this is something you just have to get used to and it can take a while. I know that Wolfgang Wagner once told me in my first year that normally they give the singer two years to figure out how it works because he said, acoustically-wise, it is not easy. The other problem is that depending on how the set is built the orchestra might sound extremely loud on stage. This is especially so if the set is quite close and this is why many singers then force on stage and sing too loud because they think their voices will not carry. Apart from these acoustical problems I just try and sing here like in London or Paris or in every other opera house in the world.

I was interested in what her routine was on the day of the performance at Bayreuth.

I try to sleep as long as possible and just wake up normally, then I drink lots of tea, water or juice and check my emails and do the admin, then watch TV or read a book. For a 4 o’clock Lohengrin, at noon I will have a light lunch mostly steak or pasta with salad, then take a shower and go to the theatre. I have a relatively easy day as you might expect. As long as I am healthy, I do my Tai Chi or gymnastics to warm up the body and the muscles and warm up the voice about 1½ hours before the start of the opera for up to 20 minutes. Mostly I start with 2 minutes or so just ‘speaking’, then do scales and other exercises and sing a few lines of the role. I sing maybe up to 5 minutes after an interval also. If I am sick but the vocal cords are not affected and I can sing the performance, warming up takes a little more time. Most essential is warming up the muscles and finding the right balance to produce the voice properly … it is about trusting your body and mind.

Although Petra Lang had sung some of the Act III Walküre Brünnhilde in a concert with John Tomlinson and the Budapest Festival Orchestra at the Barbican in 2004, when we spoke two years later she was happy with Brangäne, Venus, Kundry and Ortrud, the Wagnerian roles that she has had few equals in over recent years. However, she has recently sung all three Brünnhildes in concert – and appeared in Götterdämmerung on stage in Paris – and I asked why now.

I had never ever really thought about Brünnhilde but I remembered my first ever singing teacher saying nearly 30 years ago ‘You will sing Brünnhilde but you have to be very careful and the voice has to do it by itself and your middle register must be much stronger.’ The next person who told me this was James King who was doing a masterclass with Ingrid Bjoner in Munich and at the closing concert – when I was singing the page’s aria from Les Huguenots and Dorabella – he told me I had a very good top and would sing soprano roles and there will be Brünnhilde on the way for me – I thought let this guy talk [Laughs]. The next one was Astrid Varnay in my year in the studio in Munich and she really gave me good preparation and the ‘route map’ of how to go first to Ortrud, Brangäne and Kundry. Even then I was doubtful and wondered why she was talking to me about singing Brünnhilde, even though she was famous for the role, as I just wanted to sing Cherubino and parts like that.

Then Iván Fischer asked me to sing Sieglinde in the first act of Die Walküre with his Budapest Festival Orchestra in 2004 and I was delighted as it was my big wish to sing this at that time and he also said that it would save money and so help the orchestra if I could sing the end of Walküre Act III as Brünnhilde and I said yes because I liked the music. Ingrid Bjoner was another telling me at the time I would go that way but it would take time.

The next important person was Marek Janowski who offered me the Immolation Scene in a concert in Zurich in 2005 with the Wesendonck-Lieder and they had engaged another singer for those as he didn’t want to stress me but was also sure my voice would develop in that direction. The morning of the concert they rang me because the other singer was sick and asked if I would sing the Lieder as well and I did. After the concert Marek joined all those who were saying I was a soprano and that my voice would show me the way and what to do when the time was right. At the time I was singing in the Ring at the Vienna State Opera and doing both Frickas, as well as, Waltraute in Götterdämmerung, but coming back from singing the Immolation Scene to do Waltraute was a very strange feeling so after that I cancelled my contract for that role with the Bayreuth Festival for the 2006 Ring and told Christian Thielemann I was sorry but could not now create the sound in the lower register that was necessary for a good Waltraute and that my voice was moving up. I had to admit I didn’t know where it was going but I just didn’t think it was wise to continue with that role.

I continued to work on my technique not even thinking about Brünnhilde and then from 2007 I began working with Adrian Baianu who has been marvellous in helping my voice find the right register and the right focus to sing the soprano repertoire roles and, most importantly, not hurt myself. That is a process that is still ongoing because that is a singer’s life but within a few years I realised I could now do it though I would have to find the right place to sing the three roles for the first time. It took a while until we found the Ring in Geneva that I will appear in starting later this year. Geneva is an opera house I love and I have made a lot of role debuts there, I love the orchestra and I felt it would be good to sing it there for the first time in a new production.

I thought it would be an advantage to do a concert version before this so I know I can really sing it but not have it in places that are too important – but it worked out differently [Laughs] as I recorded Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung for Marek Janowski live in Berlin and also sang Götterdämmerung with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra. However, the best preparation was the recent performances of Götterdämmerung in Paris when I had four weeks concentrating on that Brünnhilde with a normal rehearsal schedule with some good rest and it made me look forward to my time in Geneva. I had had what I call my ‘Kamikaze time’ when I sang in just nine weeks the three Brünnhildes in concert with an orchestra for the first time and it is very different from rehearsing with a piano – no matter how much you do this. I have done many strange things in my career but I can describe this in no other way than as my ‘Kamikaze time’ [Laughs]. But through doing it in Paris, by the time I reached the third performance Brünnhilde was like a good friend and it felt comfortable and I had a lot of fun on stage.

How do the three Brünnhildes differ from the singer’s point of view?

I have always wondered why Wagner wrote them the way he did but I remember what Astrid Varnay told me and that Walküre is low for Brünnhilde because Wotan is the ‘big guy’ in the opera, she is his young daughter and does not yet have any power. If Wagner had written it any higher then the soprano voice would carry much more and she would be the stronger character. Here Brünnhilde is strong enough where she needs to be – with her ‘Hojotohos’ – but not when she listens to Wotan and there is a real dialogue between them. Siegfried sits relatively high and the voice needs to go through the passaggio properly, you do not want to darken the voice too much or use too much effort either. You have to be able to put the voice in the right place, focus it, protect it in the right way, then I find that she is the easiest of the three girls. Götterdämmerung needs a rich middle register sound and a secure top for the second act especially. All three require a very good soprano technique – and knowing about technique helps to really master them.

Your Brünnhilde is to be found on recently-released CDs where you are conducted by Marek Janowski and Iván Fischer, I wondered if it was possible to describe the qualities of these two great conductors.

I’ll start with Marek Janowski who really knows the repertoire and knows what to do with voices. I have known him since the late 1990s and he has always given me the right jobs at the right moments in my career whether in concert or opera. Once he told me to do some Schubert songs with orchestra because I needed to train the quality of my piano singing so that even if I open the voice and sing all the loud girls then I can always come back and sing piano so that I keep the real quality of my voice. Too many singers in my opinion forget to keep this flexibility of voice and it is actually what keeps it young and fresh and is what is needed especially for Wagner.

For me the biggest thing about Iván is his musicianship and his search for what I call the ‘truth’ in the music. I remember him saying to me ‘Don’t sing too loud as it’s only piano and the voice carries by itself. Just sit on the orchestra, just do nothing and just give me the words.’ We were discussing the last scene of Die Walküre where he wanted me to think of a tiny little girl talking to her father and wanting me to find the quality and colour needed for those special moments.

I have seen Petra Lang and Adrian Baianu work together in masterclasses and seen how young singers have benefitted by their advice; as part of Wagner Year 2013 they have been invited to participate in public coaching sessions over a few days in Bayreuth. How will they be able to help those of a younger generation?

My whole singing career I was always looking for new ideas: I had a teacher of course but I was sent early on to get new influences so I went to masterclasses with Brigitte Fassbaender, Judith Beckmann, Peter Schreier, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Hans Hotter and then, as I have said, I had the chance to study with Ingrid Bjoner for a long time and also work with Astrid Varnay. When I started and was working with an older colleague I wanted details of how they did something and what was their approach: or else I would try and work out what they were doing and see if it worked for me. I always found this very helpful. I think there is old knowledge to pass on because I have worked with very famous Wagnerian singers and there are just a few details which I think are in danger of being lost.

I think the most important thing for me is that it does not matter if you are singing Mozart, Verdi or Wagner as it is all about finding the right technique and balance in the body and developing muscle stability and flexibility for the singing. It is not always so easy to find the right placement for the voice and this may even differ from the Italian to German repertoire because of the sound you need to produce. There is one special thing older generations of singers have done that you can hear on their recordings that has disappeared and that involves when they would ‘cover the voice’. They would sing open as long and high as possible and release the larynx much later in order to keep the brilliance and fullness of the sound of the voice for as long they can without changing the timbre. This sound is relatively loud and direct and carries into a big opera house: however, you can have a problem with microphones in front of you if you record something.

So because of this, I believe in the 1950s and 60s people started to cover earlier in order to produce a rounder, fuller, sound – but only for the microphones – as it is not that big a sound in the opera house. It is a problem many singers and singing teachers just did not realise but why now we have the taste for these roundish voices but still complain that we do not have the big voices to carry through big orchestras and there is a problem in castings many roles in the Italian or German repertoire because there are not enough real dramatic sopranos, mezzo-sopranos or heldentenors. I am convinced there would be more of these ‘bigger’, better carrying, voices around if singers would think of working on that little detail. It would make the top of the voice more secure and would let the problem of pitch around the passaggio disappear – singers would have more stability in their singing and so, more stability in their career.

For the Wagner singing the most important thing is to get the text transported into the audience and for that it requires a focussed voice and the ability to be flexible with the tongue, muscles and lips to produce the words as far in front as possible whilst creating a little darker sound necessary for the German repertoire.

Adrian and I are looking forward to the Bayreuth masterclass and have worked with all but one of the singers because we do not have long with them here and because the masterclass is an important one we wanted to work beforehand with them so they really know what to do. They can come without any stress and fairly relaxed because they will know we are not eating young singers [Laughs].

With our time to talk coming to an end I asked was there anything she was especially excited about in coming seasons.

I am really looking forward to bringing all the Brünnhildes on stage and to do the complete cycle. This is the next challenge and with that I am very occupied [Laughs].

Jim Pritchard

For Jim Pritchard’s reviews from the 2013 Bayreuth Festival visit

For Jim Pritchard’s review of the Channel Classics CD release of music by Wagner performed by Petra Lang with Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra see .

For Petra Lang’s website visit