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Jane Henschel as Elektra (Deutsche Oper Berlin) [Photo courtesy of Askonas Holt]
16 Jun 2011

Jane Henschel — An Interview

Since her first significant and highly acclaimed debut as a guest artist with the Netherlands Opera in 1992, in the taxing role of the Nurse in Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten, American mezzo-soprano Jane Henschel has triumphed in opera houses across the world, marvelling international audiences with her musical versatility, vocal strength and striking stage presence.

Jane Henschel — An Interview

Interview by Claire Seymour

Above: Jane Henschel as Elektra (Deutsche Oper Berlin) [Photo courtesy of Askonas Holt]


There is scarcely a major international opera house at which Henschel has not delighted and astonished audiences; and, she’s been a regular performer at festivals including Edinburgh, Glyndebourne and Salzburg. Her repertoire encompasses practically all the significant mezzo roles by Verdi, Wagner and Strauss, plus Puccini, Janáček, Bartok, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Weill, Henze, even Bizet and Berlioz. Moreover, Henschel has regularly appeared on the concert platform, in works such as Mahler’s Eighth Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde. Critics repeatedly admire her powerful, clear singing and the magnificent warmth of her voice, as well as her attention to dramatic detail.

I meet Henschel during rehearsals for the revival of Willy Decker’s production of Peter Grimes at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, where she is to perform the role of Mrs Sedley. She has previously appeared in Britten’s tense, tragic opera about the tortured and alienated fisherman, taking the role of Auntie (in Salzburg and Dusseldorf), but this is the first time she has played the eerie laudanum addict who is such a sinister and persuasive force within the Borough community. I point out to Henschel that she seems to be making a habit of playing, ‘the baddie’ — having recently performed Janáček’s steely matriarchs, Kostelnička and Kabanicha, and Strauss’s femme fatale Clytemnestra. Henschel laughs:

“It’s one of the advantages of being dramatic mezzo rather than a dramatic lyric soprano; I love getting my teeth into these roles, taking an audience by surprise … and I really enjoy playing ‘nasty’ sometimes!”

Indeed, earlier this year her imposing impersonation of the Witch in Hansel and Gretel at the ROH won many accolades: “Henschel was a Witch of heroic Wagnerian calibre” but she was no “mere caricature” and the performance was “all the more malicious for presenting a properly sung portrayal”. She instinctively appreciates and integrates the way music and text cohere to create meaning, producing convincing drama of deep expression and emotion. As one critic observed, “With high-voltage singing combined with a detailed portrait, [Clytemnestra] was much more than the cardboard-cutout evil one normally sees.”

JANE-HENSCHEL---JAN-10---CO.gifJane Henschel [Photo by Barbara Eichinger]

There is much ‘evil’ in Peter Grimes, but it is a more subtle, cloaked and ambiguous malevolence, a malice which is deeply disconcerting and troubling:

“It is one of those pieces that is more moving for the audience than for us on stage. It’s the old truism — we shouldn’t cry, we should make the audience cry. We have to find a distance; and because some of the most moving scenes, such as with the child, are not actually on stage, it’s a little easier to get that distance.” Other than Ellen, the characters have little pity for Grimes, and while Ned Keene and Balstrode are less judgmental, they cannot ignore or overcome the collective verdict of the shipping village; and, this production emphasises Grimes’ existential isolation.

“The chorus is actually the biggest role in this piece —musically it’s a very tricky role — and this makes the atmosphere so claustrophobic. “

I remark that when I saw this production in 2004 I felt that the rigidity of the community was emphasised, particularly in the church scenes when they are literally all ‘singing from the same hymn-book’, and that this is a very ‘anti-religious production. Henschel agrees:

“And, the set helps this, with the high, straight walls, and the tavern with its imposing back wall. I imagine when you see it from the front it’s rather daunting. It’s very bleak and ‘edgy’.”

How does she see her own part in the persecution of Grimes?

“In this production, Mrs Sedley has a crucial role — she’s always watching what is going on, and she disapproves of the tavern, even though she’s drug-dependent herself. In fact, her hypocrisy isn’t emphasised in this production, because although it reveals her flaw, her weakness, here it is her strength which is emphasised.”

Henschel trained at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, before moving to Europe where she sang in local repertory houses in Germany — “that was actually my training” — where she was fortunate to be able to sing many big roles away from the spotlight.

I ask Henschel if she thought it was usual, or necessary, for young American singers to come to Europe to ‘learn the trade’.

“For a while there were very few American singers coming to Europe because when the [Berlin] Wall came down lots of very talented Eastern European singers travelled to the West, and perhaps they were willing to work for a bit less money … but also, in America there more singing programmes, more small opera companies and greater opportunities to sing, so there was not so much need to come to Europe. But, now, finances in America are so tight that young singers are again travelling here to begin their careers.”

Henschel truly values the opportunities she had as a young singer in a German house; although the big Strauss roles came later, she was able to tackle many of the major repertory roles, including Tristan, Lohengrin and nearly all of Verdi — this is especially important to her, as many of these roles she now no longer sings, except for Mistress Quickly in Falstaff and Ulrica in Un Ballo in Maschera, because, she says wryly, “no other mezzos want to do it!”

“In the end you have to find the place where you are better than most people and stick with it. It’s great to be able to sing exactly what you want to sing, but it doesn’t always work that way. […] I started with dramatic repertory, even though I was just 24, because I was hired as a dramatic mezzo — and it’s bad advice for any young singer but it just worked out that way and I was able to sing all of those roles without hurting my voice. But, I was always happy though to do the Messiahs and Bach … and I still warm up with Rossini every day, because I believe that really any dramatic voice should be able to move at least somewhat. If the voice is so tense and so pushed that it won’t work quickly then you don’t have the dramatic flexibility.”

I wonder if there any of the numerous roles she’s explored have been less fulfilling.

“There is one role that I’ve done quite a bit but it’s not my favourite role and that’s Kabanicha in Katya Kabanova. I’ve done only one production, but I’ve done it all over, and that’s the Salzburg production by Marthaler. And he had Kabanicha in her bedroom along the side of the stage and so she was watching quite a lot of what was going on; it made the role more interesting and more sympathetic, as it showed another side of her. But, basically she’s a harridan and she has no redeeming factors, and she screams all the time! On the other hand, Kostelnička in Jenufa, is much more beautiful to sing; and, she asks for forgiveness.”

Simultaneously, we both remark that in fact Kabanicha and Mrs Sedley have a lot in common! They are similarly hypocritical; and, both push an individual to the brink, enjoy doing so, and carry the community with them. “But Mrs Sedley is more fulfilling to sing; they’re totally different — Mrs Sedley is quite low whereas the other is quite high — it’s just not screaming at people all of the time!”

Henschel also relishes teaching. Although previously she did teach beginners, for the last three years she has taught only young professionals as they start out on their careers. “I find it’s very rewarding, I learn so much. You have to figure out what the problem is and why it’s there. How am I going to get the singer to change it? How am I going to explain it? And I find that although there are some things you say to every student, there are other things that are individual — everyone is different. And I’ve had to think about what I do, and it’s made me analyse my own singing. […] I think singing needs to be as close to speaking as possible — it sounds ridiculous but the more difficult you make it … there are so many different ways of approaching it because you can’t say ‘move this and don’t move that’, or ‘relax this but not completely’.”

Home is in Dusseldorf, and Henschel is always pleased to sing before her ‘local audience’, but future projects will continue to take her all over the world — in the next few months to Madrid, Moscow, and Valencia. The one role that Henschel admits that she would perhaps have liked to have done is Santuzza in Cavalleria rusticana but she’s just delighted to have “had such a wonderful career and it’s wonderful to have been a part of this family here [at Covent Garden] for so many years. I’ve been lucky too — there’s always a bit of luck involved.” I point out that you need luck but you also have to take all the opportunities that arise, to which Henschel astutely replies: “You also have to be ready for them”.

Good advice for any aspiring performer. And, there may be many of those in the audience of the schools matinée on Friday 17th June, when Henschel marks her 100th performance at Covent Garden — an anniversary that, with typical modesty, she fails to mention.

Claire Seymour

Peter Grimes opens on Tuesday 21 June 2011 and runs until Sunday 03 Jul 2011.

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