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A SINGER’S LIFE : Petra Lang talks to Jim Pritchard



The mezzo-soprano Petra Lang was born in Frankfurt and came to singing relatively late in her musical studies - and by accident - as the result of a spelling mistake: it was a girl called Lange who was due to have the lessons but a secretary forgot the last E! She is establishing a formidable reputation in the mezzo repertoire as both a stage and concert performer, and even allowing for her level-headed attitude that there is the right time for each role, she is continuing to add to her Wagnerian ones and her many admirers hope that she will add Isolde and Brünnhilde to her stage roles in the future. Her Bluebeard co-star Albert Dohmen speaks of her as ‘a fabulous partner onstage, a great artist’.

I met her backstage at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, during rehearsals for Judith in Duke Bluebeard’s Castle and talked to her about her current role, about aspects of her life and her art as a singer and her help for the next generation of artists.

How do you ‘refresh’ a part like Judith, which you have already sung several times before? Tell me something about it for those who have not seen the opera before.


Every evening I go on stage and try to do something new as if I had never done the piece before. Duke Bluebeard’s Castle can be different every time. In Willy Decker’s production everything is relatively fixed but there are one or two changes to the original production because of Albert Dohmen and my personal view of the characters – this is what makes music and its staging so interesting.

The story is about my character, Judith, going after a man who has a very bad reputation with women: when they go with him they disappear, but she thinks she can save him, his life and his soul but she comes to realise that this is totally wrong. For her opening doors is like opening the soul of this Bluebeard, but he does not want the doors opened. After she has opened five doors she realises it was not what she expected to see, she is getting hysterical and very angry and wants to go the final door because she thinks that behind that are all the dead bodies of the former wives. When she does she finds that they are all alive but he puts her into his collection.

Behaving as Judith behaves is the perfect way to destroy a relationship. I think if you love somebody you have to let him have his privacy, his own space for the soul and don’t intrude in it. This is why I think Judith does not love Bluebeard at all. She is doing all this just for herself to prove others wrong and so this is why she fails. Judith is not a positive character.

Do you feel the need to connect with all the characters you sing?

Yes, I really must put myself into the characters I sing. It is the only way it can really work. It is not about singing beautiful lines, there are a few in this work but it is mostly declamation and you really have to bring the character to life. This is what I find interesting and this is why I want to sing opera because it is about bringing the composer’s intentions to life and making it all as real as possible. It is the same when you are singing Wagner; you have to analyse the characters but here in Duke Bluebeard’s Castle it is absolutely necessary otherwise everything is just a waste of time.

Did you sing as a child, and how did that progress to studying music?

I have been singing my whole life, I would walk around our house when I was young stealing my grandmother’s hat and wrapped in her tablecloth, I would just sing. I was not interested in any of the fairytale story LPs but it was the operetta and opera ones my parents had that were more interesting for me. I never planned to sing professionally as my father, who worked on the technical staff of Frankfurt Opera, told me it was a very difficult job and I trusted what he told me. I was learning the violin and my teacher told me I was very good teaching young children and I thought I should try that and found it really interesting.

Then came that missing E but after three hours’ teaching at the music school I couldn’t speak so I thought voice lessons might be good to teach me to speak properly. It wasn’t always easy and once or twice I walked out of singing classes crying because my teacher Gertie Charlent was very honest, but this was very helpful for my development. She was a mother figure, guiding me not only about singing but also acting, and told me everything was there but I just had to press the right buttons. This all happened during my last year of violin studies as I prepared for my diploma: I was still not thinking about using the singing but thought I would give it a try and study. I looked for a violin-teaching job and had the chance subsequently to go to Stuttgart but they said I would have to stop the singing but I wanted to give it a try. So I settled for a part-time job at the music school to earn my living and going to classes for singing and acting lessons in Darmstadt. Later I also had conducting lessons but I was not good enough at the piano - I had begun playing at 18, which was a little too late.

You eventually attended the Opera Studio of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich before starting your career in Dortmund and Braunschweig. What were these early years like for you and how easy was it to turn things down?

Early in my career I sang nearly the whole Mozart repertoire. In the German theatres you are engaged at the house and just sing what they give you. A few times I said no because I just couldn’t cope with the role because it was too early or too big or the wrong tessitura. There was the chance with the smaller roles to develop my acting skills and go on stage without any stress. Among my other first roles were small ones like Giannetta (L’elisir d’amore) – I sang that in Basel with Angela Georgiou as Adina. I sang Annina (La Traviata) more than 60 times and from those jobs I was able to buy a new car. Then there was Rosina, Second Ladies, Dorabella, Cherubino, Suzuki - which was a very important role for me and my vocal development – then Octavian, Lied von der Erde and Waltraute.

I won two singing competitions where I showed that I had a high B and what was the offer I got – can you imagine? …it was to sing Tosca. I went home, tried it, half a note lower maybe, it is very dramatic. I was offered Fidelio I don’t how many times very early in my career and once by a famous conductor who had a recording contract to go with it, but I said no again. I haven’t got the recording contract and this famous conductor does not work with me but my voice is still in a healthy state and that is the most important thing. So I was offered many times bigger repertoire than I should sing at that moment and as a singer you have to have a special feeling about what you can sing at the time and then in 5 or 10 years … and where you can sing it. Perhaps in a smaller house you can try a very dramatic role earlier than going on a big stage in a very famous opera house and singing your first dramatic one there and just killing yourself.

You have sung excerpts as Isolde and Brünnhilde in concert but do you think you will put it all together and sing these Wagner heroines on stage sometime?

As soon as I started singing Brangäne I was offered Isolde, I worked with a coach at the piano and each act is ok, and it gets better every year but I am still not ready for it yet. When conductors hear my top is so secure they think … Brünnhilde is for me. For the moment it is just the repertoire I am singing that I am happiest with. I have fun singing Kundry and Venus and wait for Act 3 of their operas to sing out those high notes. I am looking forward to putting my Ortrud on stage for the first time in Vienna this September. I sang it in concerts at the Edinburgh Festival three years ago with Donald Runnicles and also last year in Spain.

How do you envisage the character of Brangäne?

Too many directors want to make Brangäne not so strong, making her older and an unsatisfied woman. This is often because it is the lyric sopranos who are now singing Isolde. For me you can make her younger and just do what is written in the score. Make her girlish and then the character is right because she should be very young and inexperienced so she just takes the way with less risk in giving them the Liebestrank. The best production I have been in is the Willy Decker one I have sung at Gent and Antwerp, there it is totally clear that Isolde is the strong lady with Brangäne younger and not very experienced. With good stage directing it can all make sense and work, even with a big, strong singer like Linda Watson as Brangäne to Luana deVol’s Isolde …and now Linda sings Brünnhilde.

What is it that is so special about singing Mahler?

It took me a while to get into Mahler’s music; it is a question of age and wisdom and of just doing it directly. Mahler’s own intentions about his music were to have it sung live and direct. Sometimes with all the tragic texts, can really be difficult when you are a young singer, fighting with your technique and finding your way through your life. The Mahler repertoire is very demanding on that and you have to give in to that repertoire otherwise it is very difficult to touch people when you are singing Mahler. It is important to find the right mood for both the text and the music and projecting this to the audience can be really difficult. This is particularly so with the Wayfarer songs, Kindertotenlieder and especially Das Lied von der Erde. In comparison doing Mahler’s Second Symphony is relatively easy because that is more or less a positive wish from the psychological point of view and therefore not so dark. I must make that connection, but sometimes you have to distance yourself to sing it and not let your emotions overcome you.

I think for Mahler it is absolutely necessary to tell stories and live your emotions out on stage otherwise you can’t reach the audience. It is not about singing beautiful lines; it is about projecting the text with your body, your thinking, you mind and finally your voice. The challenge with a recital is that you do not use your hands; it just involves you standing still using the expression in the face and voice. I am looking forward to coming back to the Wigmore Hall next May.

While you are here this time you are giving a master class for The Mahler Society. In general do you have the time to do any other teaching?

Recently I started helping younger colleagues with their voice but I don’t have the time to spend 2 or 3 times a week with someone who is just learning how to sing. That is too much of a responsibility. I just help them when they have vocal problems or when they are changing Fach or have reached a certain point in their career or we analyse roles when it is a question of advising them which direction is best. They come for a week or so and working with one singer at a time for an extended period I find really works. In the summer I work with singers for a number of days alongside Ingrid Bjoner who is my voice teacher in her cottage near the Oslo Fjord and we work from morning through to evening and we can really solve problems. With 45 minutes now and then you can’t change things but with 5 or 6 hours a day you might.

How important is having the right conductor?

Of course having the right conductor is very important for me and for all singers. There are very few I have had difficulty with and who are not on the same wavelength as me. A few have been very important to me for my personal and musical development or because they gave me the right role at the right moment and helped me immensely. First it is Bernard Haitink, then there is Riccardo Chailly, Gerd Albrecht, Armin Jordan and, of course, Sir Colin Davis with whom I sang Cassandra in Les Troyens. That was another role you can only sing if you are really into the character. I have particularly enjoyed working with Simone Young as well. Also Donald Runnicles and doing Ortrud with him the first time in Edinburgh was really special.

At the very beginning of my studies I took those conducting lessons and in fact they were from Donald. Later I sang for him in Basel when he was Music Director in Freiburg and before I had even opened my mouth he said ‘I never understood why you quit the violin and never wanted to go in an orchestra’ I replied ‘I just wanted to sing or to teach’ … so I sang for him and afterwards he said ‘Now I understand, what a good decision’.

Do you have any particular recollections of Birgit Nilsson?

I once spoke to Birgit Nilsson on the phone when I was at Ingrid’s home. A young singer asked her once what is necessary to sing Isolde, her reply was ‘All you need is comfortable boots.’ For me she was the one Hochdramatisches singer of the second half of the last century, following on from Kirsten Flagstad. Hers was a special voice and it seemed to come from everywhere in the theatre. She sang Turandot one time in Frankfurt and for the first performance I had a ticket in the gallery of the theatre. The voice was coming from everywhere. For the second performance I had no ticket but my father put me in the wings and her voice really wasn’t that big but it was totally focussed. For the third performance I had a ticket again and could sense her voice on my body just not on my ears, I could feel the vibrations of the voice and this is only something I have experienced a couple of times since then.

Are there opera houses that are better to sing in than others?

All over the world I just try to do my job and not think too much what is going on in the opera house. There are houses with a fantastic acoustic like Dresden, Leipzig or the Deutsche Oper Berlin and you open your mouth and the voice just comes out and it’s very easy. In some others it is difficult to focus the voice. Vienna has a relatively dry acoustic and it depends very much on the set and how it is made. I just sing in every house with the same technique and if you wait for something to come back it costs you and you lose your nerve. You just sing everything properly and this is something I learnt early on at Braunschweig, which was an old theatre with a very bad acoustic. The first time I sang there after coming from Dortmund, a house with a fabulous acoustic, I thought that I had lost my voice. It took me nearly six months to realise it was not me but the theatre … just don’t expect anything to come back, just sing.

Do you have any other advice for a singer’s life?

You have to try and stay healthy and not overdo things, live normally and sing the right repertoire. Then you will not catch colds and will remain relatively stable health-wise and there is no problem. It becomes a joy to go on stage and sing.

Jim Pritchard




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