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Seen and Heard Interview


Soprano Adrianne Pieczonka talks about Sieglinde, Lars von Trier, Dan Akroyd and Avril Lavigne - Interview by Bruce Hodges

Glamorous but down-to-earth, soprano Adrianne Pieczonka made an indelible mark in the much-celebrated 2001 recording of Falstaff with Bryn Terfel, and just this past spring made her debut at the Met as Lisa in Pique Dame, conducted by Valery Gergiev. This fall she made her first appearances as Sieglinde in Die Walküre at the Met, again with Mr. Gergiev, to critical acclaim (including my own). In October we met at the Metropolitan Opera House, which was teeming with eclectically costumed personnel rehearsing for Julie Taymor’s new Magic Flute. We managed to locate a relatively quiet spot where she was generous with her time, offering spirited, insightful comments on the art of singing, life in London, film directors, and rock and roll artists she admires.


Her Sieglinde was assembled at the last minute, pulled together from a minimum of rehearsals, which she didn’t seem to mind in the least. In any case one would never know it from her masterful performance, paired with Plácido Domingo as Siegmund. She had worked with Gergiev before, on Don Carlo in Salzburg, and relishes his excitement. I asked her about his fluttering hand motions, long a source of amazement to me. “Yes, we call it ‘the quiver.’ Olga Borodina was with him in Italy two years ago – she’s worked a lot with him since they’re both Russians. I said I find it really hard to follow him, and she replied, ‘Dahling, do not follow maestro – maestro follow you,’ and she’s right. He’s that brilliant. He does follow through and you just have to trust that. It’s quite amazing. So I was able to do that, without trying to second-guess him, and it was a lot more organic.”

Although she has lived in London for six years, she grew up outside Toronto, where she had little experience with Wagner, fearing she wasn’t going to like his music. But this changed in 1992 at the Vienna State Opera, where her first big role was Freia in Rhinegold, and she began noticing all the myriad motifs in the score. Then came Eva in Die Meistersinger, which got under her skin, “like a drug, actually.” She sees herself in the vocal tradition of Gundula Janowitz, rather than Jessye Norman or Waltraud Meier, and with that in mind, views Sieglinde as a slightly dangerous role. In Toronto she did seven performances and fell ill, and is determined not to have that happen when she makes her debut in a new production at Bayreuth in 2006.

But first the production needs a director, following the departure of filmmaker Lars von Trier. Pieczonka expresses admiration for his work, as well as trepidation: “I love his films, but they’re kind of scary, too…how he treats women. I think Björk said of Dancer in the Dark that she nearly suffered a breakdown. I thought the film was extremely hard to take – I just couldn’t bear it, basically, with all the pain and suffering. I just saw Dogville with Nicole Kidman – it’s very black – and again Nicole suffers. It starts off very benign but gets very insidious. But you have to hand it to him: it’s three-and-a-half hours, and I loved it.”

Her very first role was in Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, in the chorus, before she received a grant in 1988 to study in Europe. Although she clearly loves her native country, she dreamed of time in Europe with the opportunities to tackle more substantial roles. As luck would have it, she was hired by the Vienna Volksoper, doing Countess Tatiana [Eugene Onegin] Donna Elvira [Don Giovanni] and delighted, cautiously, to be doing major roles in her twenties. At the time she found Vienna less than enchanting, much different from the modern trendsetting climate it has today: “I was very miserable for the first year-and-a-half. They really put me through my paces. It was grueling, but I paid my dues. I’m going back after about six years of not having sung there, singing Ariadne in 2005 and Arabella with Thomas Hampson in 2006.”

She adores the Canadian director Robert Carson, with whom she worked on Der Rosenkavalier in 2003, and conducted by Semyon Bychkov following the death of Giuseppe Sinopoli and Christian Thielemann’s subsequent cancellation. The production was widely panned, despite her own enthusiasm. As I mention the Spanish director Calixto Bieito, whose recent sex-and-drugs-filled Don Giovanni in London was called by one writer “the most reviled production in the recent history of British theatre,” Pieczonka grins and shakes her head, knowing full well she could never work with him. She feels that Carson’s work, on the other hand, occasionally contains sex, but married with truth – still unconventional for some opera companies, but nevertheless well considered.

Her apartment overlooks the Thames, where she finds space to roam, jog, play tennis and relax: “Maybe I’m getting older, but maybe I just want to be in my lovely home, and be among my nice things and my friends. I have a beautiful view, and there’s a lovely path for running or walking and lots of pubs along the way to pop in for a quick pint and get the paper. I live in the sort of green, leafy outskirts, and have a car to get outside of town very quickly.”

But she has quickly become enamored of New York City, which she admires for its compact neighborhoods, and loves to visit Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, and Broadway theatres: “I’m a huge musical fan. When I arrived last spring I got tickets to Gypsy, The Producers with Matthew [Broderick] and Nathan [Lane], and went to Carnegie to hear Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg [with the Minnesota Orchestra] – blew me away! It was just so cool. The audience was so appreciative and the orchestra was so dynamic – I thought it was the best thing.”

Her appearance in Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame at the Met last spring perhaps surprised some listeners, as perhaps did her delicious performance in the triumphant recording of Falstaff, starring Bryn Terfel, conducted by Claudio Abbado, whom she calls “…the sweetest man. It was a dream to work with him. Basically [Angela] Georghiu was going to do the role, and couldn’t, so I got asked and was thrilled because I knew the role. We didn’t have a lot of time, maybe four days. Abbado knows what he wants to do and is very methodical. Working with Bryn, Dorothea [Röschmann], Tom [Hampson], the young tenor [Daniil] Shtoda, Larissa [Diadkova]…we had a hoot. Claudio loves clarity, and it’s very clean. He encouraged me to lighten up. I think on the stage I beef it up a bit, and he wanted it very clean, sort of ‘less is more’ – a more elegant reading of it.” This is especially apparent in delicate moments such as the famous Pizzica! section, where this light approach works perfectly.

The conversation turns to Abbado’s precarious health. “We were all extremely concerned. He was bone-thin. I believe he had stomach cancer, and had his stomach removed. He would have to eat little tidbits, so he’d have a bar of chocolate, and then do something for twenty minutes, and then have two grapes. He had to keep feeding himself and drink lots of water, and he looked exhausted. I thought, ‘He’s going to keel over…you could blow him over.’ And yet somehow, when he lifted his baton, he had the energy to do it. I really respected him, and was very motivated by his spirit, and his strength and courage.”

The subject turns to recitals, which she enjoys, but unlike some artists she prefers not to switch gears while she’s immersed in an operatic role. She loves Richard Strauss, and a very wide palette of others including Barber, Ives, Copland and other 20th and 21st-century composers, as well as Schumann, Schubert, Faure, Poulenc, Tchaikovsky and Brahms. In March, she plans a solo recording with the Bavarian State Orchestra of Strauss and Wagner, partially to solve the problem of fans crowding into a shop and pleading, “Do you have any Pieczonka recordings?” – and not finding any. (In addition to Falstaff, she has also done Don Giovanni, and one of her particular favorites on which she appears is a three-disc set of the complete orchestral songs by Richard Strauss, on the Nightingale label, with a roster of stars including Kurt Moll, Edita Gruberova.)

Working with Gruberova is one of her fondest memories. “It was great. We recorded Die Fledermaus together in Budapest, but I also worked with her in Barcelona, in Ariadne auf Naxos two years ago (and also my first Ariadne). She was doing Zerbinetta for the hundredth time, and it was the 25th anniversary of her being at the Liceu, and they celebrated her one evening. All of a sudden, people threw flowers, notes…they just adore her there. To be able to sing in her 50s is like no one else. We’ll do it again in Vienna next year, so I’m looking forward to that. She’s truly a legend. The voice is getting better, if anything. She’s such a technician. I think it takes a lot of sacrifice, and I don’t know if I’ll be like that. Edita wants to sing, wants the voice to be her main focus and I don’t know if I’ll have the discipline or drive, since I might be getting into teaching, but who knows? But I do respect it.” She ultimately plans to teach voice, and is flattered by requests from those who want to study with her, and won’t rule out a position at a university.


On Ms.Pieczonka’s web site there is a touching photo of her and the Valkyries, during a rehearsal for the Canadian Opera Company’s Die Walküre, and in the center of the picture is the legendary Anna Russell. “She came in to see the dress rehearsal – she’s about 90! – looking lovely, and I had never met her, so she signed all of our scores and told anecdotes. She’s quick as a whip – laughs, tells funny stories – it was great, and she enjoyed all this interest. She lives in Canada, either in Toronto or nearby, and maybe in a retirement home, but still looks very lovely. She was in a wheelchair but seemed very healthy. It was an honor.”

Canadian artists, whether classical or otherwise, are keen on Pieczonka’s radar. She loves the members of Kids in the Hall, and her face lights up when I mention Dan Akroyd, Catherine O’Hara, Dana Carvey, Mike Myers and others who have become huge stars outside of Canada. She likes writers such as Robertson Davies and has devoured all of Margaret Atwood’s books, citing the upcoming production of The Handmaid’s Tale in Toronto. She hopes to meet Atwood sometime, having heard through the grapevine that she likes opera.

So what does an opera star listen to when she’s not onstage? “I listen to a lot of Handel, a lot of orchestral music, but not opera. When I’m in London I’ll listen to the Met broadcasts when I’m cooking, but I rarely sit down and say, ‘I’ll listen to Lucia tonight or something,’ or even put it on in the background. It makes me nervous! I love Barber’s Adagio for Strings, Brahms’ Fourth, Beethoven’s Fifth – although it’s perhaps not cool to say it – and Mahler. I’m maybe a little kitschy. I had a massage the other day, and the music was Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aruanjuez – beautiful!” But Adrianne’s tastes are diverse enough to encompass Avril Lavigne, Sarah McLachlan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, The Strokes, The White Stripes – “good music for running or working out to!” – and a band little known in the U.S. called Scissor Sisters.

As we conclude, she mentions some of her future plans, including Tosca in 2008 in Los Angeles with Neil Schicoff, conducted by Plácido Domingo and possibly directed by Anthony Hopkins. Caution reigns. Adrianne displays a prudent approach to keeping her voice healthy and doesn’t feel compelled to sing everything. She has considered Fidelio but hasn’t bitten so far; two years ago she was offered Isolde at Glyndebourne and turned it down. At the moment she finds the Russian and Czech repertoire, as well as Verdi, to be highly satisfying.

As I pack up my tape recorder, Schicoff himself wanders by (appearing as Don José in Carmen the following evening) and gives a friendly hello, followed by a slightly scary facial expression complete with darting tongue. Adrianne jokes (speaking of Anthony Hopkins) that perhaps he might want to eat our livers. Somehow I suspect that the Los Angeles Tosca may be quite something.

Bruce Hodges

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