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Commentary

Anna Prohaska [Photo by Patrick Walter]
13 Jun 2014

Anna Prohaska, one of Europe’s most promising sopranos

Anna Prohaska sings Sister Constance in Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites at the Royal Opera House. In the same month, she’s also in London to sing a recital with Eric Schneider at the Wigmore Hall, and to sing Henze with Sir Simon Rattle at the Barbican Hall.

Anna Prohaska, one of Europe’s most promising sopranos

An interview by Anne Ozorio

Above: Anna Prohaska [Photo by Patrick Walter]

 

She is also releasing her third recording, “Behind the Lines” with Deutsche Grammophon.

Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites is intense, but Sister Constance is resolutely cheerful. What part does a character like that have in this opera? “The superficial answer would be: every tragic, complex opera needs comic relief. She is the sprightly, busy young novice, always a bit late with finishing her chores because she frequently drifts off into pastoral memories of her Breton village. But Bernados and Poulenc give her character a unique twist. She has an obsession with death, in fact with dying young and — as she insists to poor, already traumatized Blanche — dying with her fellow novice. This is when you start questioning — which one of the two is actually psychotic? Isn’t it absolutely natural and understandable for Blanche to be terrified, as an aristocrat during the Reign of Terror? Has Constance in fact lost her mind? She seems such a bouncy, life-affirming character, but at the same time she is seemingly impatient to get to ‘the other side’, the ‘better place’. But here we enter deeply theological territory! “

How does a sweet girl like that face death? It’s much more demanding role than some realize.

“This is the tricky part about the role. It’s not actually that hard to play a fanatic, a visionary. It’s fun to switch from banal banter to fanatical glares to illuminated, vocational moments. It’s more of a tightrope dance towards the end of the opera, where Constance faces her execution, stripped of her habit, where you have to try and find the human being that has the instinct to survive, and to show her inner battle without pushing the boundaries of the ensemble and this timeless production with its sparse aesthetics”.

Miss Prohaska’s voice is distinctive. What operatic roles does she enjoy most, and why?

“I have a lot of friends who play certain instruments and complain about the limitations of their repertoire, and say that that they envy us singers for the sheer amount of marvellous music that has been written for the human voice. We, on the other hand, have to listen to our bodies and damp our enthusiasm for roles that might be too dramatic or too light or too high or too low, even if the greatest maestro tries to convince you that you would be ‘phenomenal’. But isn’t it fabulous that we are so spoilt for choice as singers? Our repertoire is vast and theoretically everyone can pick and chose what suits them best. I must admit, I do have a strong penchant for melancholy music, for the dramatic. But that doesn’t mean I’m dying to sing Tosca. I can find these sentiments in Handel, in Pamina, which I sang for the first time this season, or Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier, which can have an immense emotional scope. In my opinion, you have to let a character grow in your mind first to help you falling into the trap of cliché — along with working with a good director of course! At the moment the early baroque composers, especially Cavalli, fascinate me. But one of my greatest loves will always be Henry Purcell. To sing Dido — one of the most perfect pieces of music theatre ever — on a concert tour this year with MusicAEterna was such a privilege and felt so right at the same time”.

Her repertoire is remarkably adventurous, and she sounds comfortable in many different styles, from Baroque to Hanns Eisler. Her recording and recital programmes are exceptionally well chosen.

4792472.gifBehind the Lines

“Funny — I subconsciously avoided Eisler for a long time. Probably because I went to the former East Berlin Hanns Eisler Music Academy. Wouldn’t it be a shame if we singers didn’t make use of the wide scope of what composers have left us and are still writing for us? With recital programmes I tend to make brainstorming lists over the years, where I collect songs I have either heard in concert or on recordings, or which I have stumbled upon reading a score. I group them according to topics. To give the programme a shape, I try to narrow down the topic more than the periods of music, because it interests me to find the differences and similarities between songs with similar themes from different musical periods. It’s tied very closely to the songs’ poetry, of course, and I sometimes search for poems first and find really interesting settings. In the end, the precept should be that it’s good music and that the final sequence has to ‘click’. There I try to trust my dramaturgical instincts.”

At the Royal Opera House, Miss Prohaska is singing for Sir Simon Rattle. Based in Berlin, she’s sung with the Berliner Philharmoniker many times. She also sang frequently with Claudio Abbado, Daniel Barenboim and many others.

“Sir Simon is simply a dream to work with. On the podium he manages to incorporate a paradox: the reliability and support of the classic ‘Kapellmeister’ and the inspired and innovative risk taker. He has this intellectual knowledge of the repertoire and the arts in general but is anything but a snob. When I took over a concert of Webern songs when I was 25 — my first regular concert series with the Berliner Philharmonic — I was terribly nervous before the first rehearsal. The first thing Simon said to me in front of the orchestra was ‘Thank you Anna, for taking over so short notice. We really appreciate that.’ I can tell you - you get spoilt by that sort of treatment! “

“I learned a great deal from working with Claudio Abbado, and it was a huge privilege to be part of his musical world for a short time while he was still with us. I would rather say though that the conductor and arranger Eberhard Kloke has been my mentor, opening up my ears and mind to the far corners of the repertoire from an early age on, and my voice teacher Brenda Mitchell taught me how to sing it healthily! Daniel Barenboim has had a huge part in my musical development since I started working with him at the Berlin State Opera when I was 23. Back then I was offered my contract as an ensemble member in the wake of learning the middle-sized role of Frasquita (Carmen) overnight. The morning of the performance — I had hardly slept due to cramming the French text into my head all night I wanted the musical rehearsal with Daniel to be perfect. So I sang from the score. He snatched it out of my hand, threw it on the floor and shouted ‘Are you using this tonight on stage as well?!’ He can be intimidating, and pushes you to your limits. But if you beat your inner demons of fear in these situations, there’s very little that can frighten you afterwards. “

“Contrasting colour and intention within a piece plays a major role in Daniel’s music making: ‘The colour between the first and the second phrase has to be so different, you need a visa to go across’, he would say. Last November I gave my first Lieder recital with him in Berlin. For me, it was so natural and on the other hand miraculous how we seem to have become musical partners, the way he listens to my ideas, the way we can discuss interpretation or simply make music spontaneously on stage.”

The renowned conductor, Felix Prohaska was Anna Prohaska’s grandfather. With that background, when did she realize she’d be a singer?

“My mother tells me that I could sing before I could talk. Apparently certain atonal scales were coming from my cot when I was nine months old, after I had been infused by my English grandmother’s nursery songs. I sang at family parties from the age of six, in church and school choirs from my early teens onwards, and professionally have worked as a soloist since I was 16. It all seems it was written in the stars. But there were times where I was toying with becoming an archaeologist or an art historian — like my uncle and aunt. These are still passions of mine. Whenever I go to a town in Italy it’s — ‘how many Roman ruins, churches and museums can I cram into one day?’ up to the point where I’m nearly fainting and need to find a ciabatta as soon as possible to stuff my face with, so I can move on! I feel quite sad not to have been able to work with or be taught by my grandfather. He also must have been a fabulous accompanist. Yet through working on Schubert songs with my father Andreas — who was also a singer before he became an opera director — I think quite a bit of Felix’s knowledge has been passed on to me.”

With a voice as pure and versatile as hers, Miss Prohaska could do a lot. What does she plan for in the near future ?

“Thank you ever so much! I would hate to develop a wobble or breathy sound, or any other irreparable damage to my cords because I didn’t have the willpower to say no to unsuitable roles or a cluttered schedule. Of course the offers of Verdi’s Violetta, Berg’s Lulu or Mozart’s Konstanze dangle in front of you like Tantalus’s fruit, and perhaps (or even probably) my voice will develop into that direction. But for now I am thrilled and fulfilled to sing my current repertory. I would be so thrilled to expand my baroque repertoire to sing Cleopatra in Handel’s Giulio Cesare, or Cavalli’s Calisto. And having sung Yniold in Pelléas et Mélisande when I was 17, I’d love to sing Mélisande.”

Anne Ozorio

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