It is with some trepidation that I prepare to interview Nadja Michael.
I know my fear is irrational rarely do sopranos play up to diva-ish stereotype, and by all accounts Michael is a charming and well-grounded individual it’s just that last time I saw her she was salivating over a severed head.
The occasion to which I refer was, of course, her performance as Salome in David McVicar’s production at the Royal Opera House almost exactly a year ago. Anyone who caught it (or the subsequent DVD recording) couldn’t help but be affected. Michael’s Salome was both alarmingly adolescent and glacially seductive a character on the knife-edge of innocence and experience it was a performance of utter conviction; it was also deeply disturbing. Today Michael looks almost as youthful, her short blonde hair tucked under a cream beanie that frames a striking, sculptural face, but thankfully proves much better company than her on-stage persona.
Scanning Michael’s repertoire one senses that this German soprano is drawn to particularly gruelling roles: Salome is right up there with Mde and Lady Macbeth, but she has returned to Covent Garden for a part that, musically at least, she describes as more demanding than anything else the dual characterisation of Marie / Marietta in the UK premiere of Erich Korngold’s 1920 opera Die tote Stadt. Korngold’s biography has been oft-told in recent years: after the early success of this opera, which premiered when he was just 23 years old, the composer found commercial success in Hollywood, scooping a couple of Oscars for his film music, but then sank into critical obscurity.
Korngold’s music has, over the years, been dismissed by many as mainstream and unsophisticated. I want to know, therefore, what conspires to make the role of Marie / Marietta so difficult. “It combines everything that a voice could offer. You have to have a top which is just there,” Michael says, snapping her fingers, “you have to have low notes, you have to have colouratura and then come back to purely read lines, and although the musical structure sounds harmonic it can become almost atonal in parts.”
Like most people she is unfamiliar with the rest of Korngold’s oeuvre: “I have to admit this is the only opera I know. I know there was a concert performance of Das Wunder der Heliaine in London last year, and I’m really keen to listen to that and to others by him.” She is, however, overwhelmed by his precocious talent and the sophistication of the score. “It’s extremely complex and I just can’t imagine how a young guy could compose this music, it’s out of my imagination, absolutely out of my imagination.”
Inspired by Georges Rodenbach’s turn of the century novel Bruges-la-Morte, the story of Die tote Stadt follows Paul, played by American heldentenor Stephen Gould in this production, a man consumed with mourning for his dead wife Marie, as he is seduced by a woman named Marietta, who bears a striking resemblance to Marie. It sounds like something that Andr Breton and his Surrealist clique might have cooked up, distilling, as it does, Freudian psychology and a sense of post-war dystopia. In terms of structure, the plot may be characterised by several dichotomies: life versus death, optimism versus pessimism and, not least, fantasy versus reality, and I wonder if Michael found it difficult to make sense of the piece.
“No, actually I think it speaks directly to us,” she explains, “I think it’s hard to sell the story of Le Nozze di Figaro firstly, we all know it and secondly, it’s so unreal it’s almost a divertimento but this story still concerns us and the questions are still relevant. What is religion? Do we need it? Is it just God or can a fetish become a religion?”
Willy Decker’s production, which was first seen at the Salzburg Festival in 2004 and subsequently revived in Vienna and San Francisco, is rich with symbolism. Michael knows it well, and is enthusiastic about Decker’s approach, as she sang Marie / Marietta in the Vienna run back in 2005. It was also significant in marking her auspicious debut as a soprano prior to that production she had performed as a mezzo-soprano, indeed her professional debut was as Amastris in Handel’s Xerxes and setting her career off on a different trajectory.
It is a career that might never have happened. Born in Leipzig, East Germany, in 1969, Michael and her four siblings grew up in the shadow of the communist regime. “I can say that for a very long time, until I reached adolescence, we were all burning for the ideology, because this was what the government infused,” she explains, “and of course an ideology speaks of an ideal that sounds beautiful and fantastic, but you can’t take away the high and the low and the right and wrong of human beings.” For much of her youth Michael trained to be a competitive swimmer, whilst learning the piano on the side, but she can trace her desire to sing back to the age of three or four.
It was a chance encounter with Mahler’s Eighth Symphony at a Gewandhaus concert that inspired her to pursue a musical career, and she describes the experience as nothing less than an epiphany: “Those soloists sounded like angels, not pure and silvery, but they came suddenly, above this base of Mahlerian sound and it was like an enlightenment for me. And then of course the words from Faust “Alles Vergngliche” it makes me shiver even thinking someone could bring it together like that.”
After a brief stint at teacher training college Michael escaped to Stuttgart in her late teens, where she studied singing, before travelling to Italy and winning a scholarship to Indiana University. She describes her education in the States as sociological “It really opened my perspective of cultures and differences between nations, it taught me how people live together and what to expect from one another.” Once she graduated, however, her operatic ascent was rapid, beginning with mezzo parts and then moving on to conquer Salome and a whole host of unhinged and hysterical soprano roles.
It’s clear that Michael truly inhabits her characters and she gives fascinating analyses. “Salome goes so deep you can’t get rid of it. Lady Macbeth is a bit different. Why?” she asks herself “I think for me Salome is a human being and I can see what forces her to go that way. At the end I’m just so sad and when I have Jokanaan’s head I know it’s wrong and I know that she’s failed and that society’s failed, then there are those lines about love, and you see in her the ability to love, and just a tender human being. Lady Macbeth is a different thing because her suffering was before the opera starts”
Given the physical and emotional commitment Michael makes to each of her roles, I imagine the job must occasionally takes its toll, and she admits that after Mde she felt very low (somewhat tellingly, Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production required her to act the part as an Amy Winehouse look-alike) but this year’s schedule looks just as relentless. From here she is off to play Lady Macbeth at the Bayerische Staatsoper, title roles in Tosca and Aida follow, and next year she is planning to add Norma to her roster of tragic roles.
Although recital work took up much of her time as a mezzo, Michael decided to focus on the stage after the birth of her second child, so that travel would be less peripatetic. She has also had to catch-up with the soprano repertoire. “I jumped in as a soprano and it worked and everything happened quickly, and then all of a sudden you realise ‘oh, I have to go back and work on the technique’ and of course it’s not just about singing high notes it’s also about the weight of the voice and I’m still working very hard.”
As for future roles, Michael has her sights set on Kta Kabanov and would love to put more Cherubini characters on the opera stage. And some Wagner, I suggest? “It will come, it will come,” she laughs.
Die tote Stadt plays at the Royal Opera House on 27,30 January, 2,5,11,13,17 February 2009. Tickets are available on 020 7304 4000 or online at www.royalopera.org.uk. Our review of the production will appear on 28 January.