Although she’s lived in Germany since the 1980s, the mezzo-soprano Helene Schneiderman talks with an enthusiasm and openness thats still very American, reflecting her origins in New Jersey. Her conversation is infused with amusing asides and anecdotes, and we cover a wide range of topics during our 45 minutes together.
She’s currently in London to sing Suzuki in The Royal Operas revival of Madama Butterfly, a role which she last sang in Paris in 2009. She observes that her previous Covent Garden guest appearances have mainly been in humorous roles. “I’ve only done Mozart and I’ve only done funny things, pretty much Cherubino or Dorabella or Despina,” she explains, “and so this is the first time I’ve got to have a real dramatic kind of a role. She says of her character, I’m Butterfly’s servant. I never married and I never had children, so Butterfly and her child are both almost like my family, thats all I have. And after the wedding, everybody sends us away basically, and were pretty much cut off from all the other people, so it’s just me and Butterfly.
Helene had been looking forward to singing opposite Patricia Racette when it was announced that Racette had to withdraw from the production through illness. However, she has nothing but good things to say about Racette’s replacement, Kristine Opolais, whose performance as Butterfly has taken the opera world by storm. You know, she’s such a physical singer, you can just see the sound coming out of her body, she says. And shes very, very beautiful to watch because its a good technique and yet she doesn’t do any kind of pushing. Her voice is just now ready for these kinds of roles. I mean, shes just going to fly like a butterfly now. She is similarly complimentary about conductor Andris Nelsons (and Opolais’s husband). I love working with him, she enthuses. Hes a very selfless conductor. I really love that, he really understands singers.
Our conversation turns to singers who have been role models for her. Helene mentions that, as a young coloratura mezzo, Frederica von Stade and Teresa Berganza were big influences, then later, while working on Octavian, she came to admire Christa Ludwig and Brigitte Fassbaender (for me the best Octavian). Of present day singers, she mentions Joyce DiDonato (an extremely, extremely talented singer) and Edita Gruberov (a living legend for me).
Does she come from a musical family? She replies that her family is very musical, but never professionally so. But my parents always sang you hear that all the time with opera singers. She adds, My storys a bit different because my mother and father are Jews of the Holocaust who survived. My mother was in Auschwitz; my father was in Dachau and Buchenwald. My mother insists that it was her singing that saved her. Her voice saved her life because she got extra food in the camps. And it was her mothers singing that brought her parents together when they were in a displaced persons camp after the war. Helene continues, There was a little cafe there with a piano and she got up and sang with the pianist. And my father saw her and he said, Im going to marry that girl. He was 25 and she was 17. And literally three weeks later they got married. Theyve been married for over 60 years now and they still make a lovely couple.
Helene describes how her mother has written a book about her experiences, which the Jewish Museum in Berlin wants to translate in German. The best chapter, I think, is just the way she describes the food that she ate as a child and how she sang, and how her mother said, Youve got a beautiful voice, sing for me. Her mother just loved her singing and was always very supportive of her dream to be a singer, but of course her dreams were… It wasnt the time for her dream, you know, and so shes kind of living her dream through me. Its very nice. It puts a little pressure on me… but theyre very proud of me.
When not working elsewhere, Helene is based at the Staatstheater Stuttgart. Of musical life in Germany, she tells me, Its wonderful, its amazing, and thats the reason I went to Germany to begin with, and Ive never looked back. She is also Professor of Voice at the Mozarteum in Salzburg. Looking ahead, her future singing plans include Annina in Der Rosenkavalier at La Scala with Philippe Jordan and the same role in Dresden with Christian Thielemann. Shes also scheduled to sing Ottavia in Monteverdis L’incoronazione di Poppea at the Komische Oper Berlin.
Theres an ambition, though, that Helene has yet to fulfil: Im hoping for the Met, she tells me. Its still a theatre that Ive never debuted in. And my parents are still alive and its a big wish of mine to have them sit in the audience and have their daughter singing a supporting role at the Met. It would just be a big dream come true.