Opera + Classical Music Features

Interview: Angelika Kirchschlager

Angelika Kirchschlager is pretty relaxed about being the finest lyric mezzo in the world today.

The idea of the reluctant superstar is a bit of a clich, and it’s not really an apt description for the Austrian singer, but the success she has had over the last decade or so does seem to sit easy with her.

Profiles of her always focus on how down to earth she is and Kirchschlager certainly shows no airs and graces during the informal chat I have with her, prior to her latest appearance at the Royal Opera House. I ask her if she considers herself ambitious and she says “not really”. This is in part because she’s done so much already but also because there’s plenty else going on for her. “There’s my family and what is most important to me is having a good life. I try and get a balance.” Stars often try to pass themselves off as very ordinary but, if it’s an act for Kirchschlager, it’s an incredibly convincing one.

Following her recent appearance at the Barbican with regular collaborator Simon Keenlyside (“a wonderful artist”), singing duets from the operetta of her homeland, she’s back at Covent Garden as Hnsel in Humperdinck’s fairy-tale opera. The part came about as a result of the management messing her around with Carmen and then giving her a free choice for her next role. She was supposed to have played the Spanish temptress in Francesca Zambello’s new production two years ago but the plug was pulled at a late stage, and she was replaced by the Italian soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci.

Hnsel und Gretel was an interesting choice, considering the field was wide open. She played the part a decade ago in Graz and felt the time was right to do it again. It’s not a decision she regrets at all, as she’s been having a ball getting into the mind of a 10 year old boy and is enjoying enormously working with directors Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser. “They are so fantastic,” she says, “They work with the singers and create the production out of us. It’s not about sets or costumes or concepts.” Unusual for new productions nowadays, with most so-billed actually being revivals from opera houses abroad, Hnsel und Gretel is brand new.

“It starts as completely traditional but it soon gets very dark and scary,” she explains, “The set is simple but fantastic and we, the singers, create the atmosphere fear, fun, everything. Patrice and Moshe give us the tools to create the world. It’s also very intense.” If there are dark undercurrents to Humperdinck’s work, she says the opera is very suitable for children, who she believes needn’t be talked down to.

She has a 13 year old son herself, who has attended a number of rehearsals and thoroughly enjoyed it. “It’s an ideal way of introducing children to opera. Mind you, it doesn’t have to be that way. When I was doing Rosenkavalier, there was a four year old boy who only wanted to see Rosenkavalier or Elektra (although they wouldn’t let him in to Jenufa)”. The thought of a child wanting to see Janacek’s dark tragedy sends her into peals of laughter but she’s making a serious point that you can’t always predict what children will like.

She paints a picture of an idyllic working environment in her current engagement, with everyone getting on incredibly well and rehearsals ending on a feeling of uplift. She has formed a close bond with Diana Damrau, the German soprano playing Gretel. “We’ve really clicked,” she laughs, “the other night we went on the London Eye together and it was great fun. She wants to go skating next. She’s so present onstage it’s wonderful to work with her.”

Favourite roles are constantly changing for Kirchschlager. “Octavian was always the part that I wanted to sing and was the first one I sang in a real engagement. That is still a real favourite,” she says. London operagoers got to experience her assumption of the role, one that many people consider near-definitive, a few years ago when she joined Felicity Lott in the most recent revival of Der Rosenkavalier at Covent Garden. I, for one, have never seen better.

She will be playing the part again in Vienna next year and then in a new production in Houston. “It will be with Susan Graham doing her first Marschallin and she very kindly asked me to be Octavian,” she enthuses, “we know each other and get along so well. It will be very special.”

“More recently, it’s been Mlisande,” she says. It’s a part she played in the Salzburg production of Debussy’s opera, seen also at Covent Garden last year. Stanislas Nordey’s bizarre concept for the opera mystified, even outraged, some people but it went on to win an Olivier Award and Kirchschlager is quick to defend it. She talks enthusiastically about the way Nordey helped her develop a less conventional characterisation for the mysterious waif-like creature. So far, it’s her only stab at the part and she was so happy with the way her character developed that she’s in no rush to do a different production, although it’s a role she now loves.

Sophie’s Choice, the opera by Nicholas Maw, premiered at the Royal Opera House in 2002, opened her career out and brought her a much greater international profile. She wouldn’t consider doing it again, though, due to the demands of the role (“You have to deal with negative emotions for six hours a day and I don’t want that now”) and because the moment has now passed. The moment for Carmen is still to come, with her debut in the part due to take place in Berlin in March, after being “on, off, on, off” for years.

The diary’s full but she struggles to remember exactly what’s on the cards. Trying to recall a Handel opera she’ll be doing next year sends her off into more streams of appealing laughter. “Is there a Handel opera called Arianna?” she giggles, “if so, I’m doing that. You can see how ambitious I am! My role is Teseo; that I can remember.” Her attitude is nowhere near as cavalier as that may make her sound and she shows utmost seriousness when explaining her approach to Hnsel, all but turning into a 10 year old before my eyes.

Our conversation has come back to the job in hand and she explains graphically how a young boy moves and thinks. It comes from observation of her own son and an empathetic feel for the world of a child. She displays great earnestness in acting out the feelings of a child lost in the woods and it’s this intensity, combined with a voice of great silvery beauty, that makes her characterisations so vivid, whether playing a trouser role (which she does extremely convincingly) or an alluring woman such as her sleek Mlisande.

She shares the role of Hnsel with another great acting-singer, Alice Coote, and both line-ups are mouthwatering Kirchschlager/Damrau/ Silja and Coote/Tilling/Murray, with Colin Davis and Robin Ticciati sharing conducting duties. The only sensible solution to this operalover’s dilemma is to see both casts. There is an opportunity to see the production (with Angelika Kirchschlager) in cinemas on 16 December and it will also be shown on BBC 2 on Christmas Day.

Read our review of Hnsel und Gretel here

Angelika Kirchschlager, Diana Damrau and Anja Silja will appear on 9, 12, 14,16,18,21 & 29 December with Alice Coote, Camilla Tilling and Ann Murray on 11,21,28,30 Dec & 1 Jan.

Colin Davis conducts all the first cast performances except 29 Dec, when Robin Ticciati will conduct, along with all the second cast performances.

Tickets are available on 020 7304 4000 or online at www.royalopera.org

buy Angelika Kirchschlager MP3s or CDs
Spotify Angelika Kirchschlager on Spotify

More on Angelika Kirchschlager
Lott / Kirchschlager @ Wigmore Hall, London
Interview: Angelika Kirchschlager
Hänsel und Gretel @ Royal Opera House, London