Opera + Classical Music Features

Petra Lang: “Work the music into the body, into the muscles” – Interview

When Petra Lang steps onto the stage of the Royal Opera House in Lohengrin next week, it’ll be into a long shadow cast by Waltraud Meier in the last revival six years ago. If anyone can rise to the challenge, it’s Lang, one of the most compelling of current singing actresses.

While Meier’s Ortrud was one of the most brilliant performances at Covent Garden in recent years, it’s not something that’s likely to phase Lang, who is now one of the first singers one thinks of for the Wagner mezzo roles. Her Kundry in Parsifal 18 months ago was one of the elements that helped the production rise well above Klaus Michael Grber’s rather shabby staging.

A bout of illness postponed my meeting with Lang but I finally caught up with her just a few days before the production opens. Health is something that really concerns the mezzo. In the early part of this decade she experienced serious illness, suffering from a number of allergies, which temporarily brought her career to a halt and she’s now very careful about how she conducts herself.

She talks emphatically about the need for both looking after the body and voice, and not taking on roles that are too taxing too early. This is particularly relevant given the demands of the Wagnerian repertoire. She talks of the need to “work the music into the body, into the muscles” and to take it a step at a time. “You have to treat your body like an athlete,” she says, “that means you have to eat healthily and give yourself time for relaxation.”

The health and welfare of singers is almost an obsession with her and she sees a time in the future when she will teach and impart her wisdom to a younger generation of singers, who nowadays have a lot of pressure on them to develop too soon. She also believes that singers age faster than other people because of the physical pressures they have to endure. On a lighter note, she laughs that any singer who eats chocolate the day before a performance is “very silly.”

Ortrud the heathen

On the job in hand, she tells me how playing “bad” characters like Ortrud (the heathen witch who plots to destroy the new order in Lohengrin) requires some empathy and a justification of their actions. “She’s very, very interesting and also very demanding,” she tells me, “she’s just fighting for her belief in the old Gods (Wotan, Freia etc) against the new Christian beliefs. She uses her skills, “nature forces”, to fulfil her will. She’s like a panzer, blasting her way through the difficulties. She has more than one dark side.”

“Evil people don’t see themselves as evil,” she continues,”there’s always something positive in them and you have to find the justification. Her struggle is to save the old order. Ortrud is just using her skills differently from most people.”

Cherubino to Kundry

Wagner didn’t come until relatively late in Lang’s career. She began singing the Italian roles “as a very lyric mezzo” Dorabella, Rosina, Cherubino, almost everything in Mozart. But her teacher Astrid Varnay (the great Swedish soprano who dominated Bayreuth in the post-war Wagner revival) always insisted that she was destined to do Wagner. When the time was right, she worked her way through a Valkyrie, Waltraute, Fricka and Brangaene, to become, along with Waltraud Meier, the pre-eminent Ortrud and Kundry of her generation.

London has been lucky in seeing Lang perform some of her best roles, including Judit in Bartok’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle and Cassandre in Berlioz’ The Trojans, although so far we’ve only seen her do the latter in concert, in Colin Davis’ magnificent performances with the LSO.

Bartók and Berlioz

Judit, who she played at Covent Garden in Willy Decker’s production three years ago, was a testing part because Lang found it difficult to empathise with her. “It’s not about love,” she says, “but curiosity. I hated her at first, this woman who tries to work her way into the heart of a man who resists every attempt, but once I’d got on top of the part, it has stayed in my repertoire.”

“Cassandre is a favourite role of mine. I only had one month to study it the first time, while singing Brangaene here at the Royal Opera, and I had a lot of rehearsals on my own with Colin Davis. He was very, very helpful. It’s great fun playing the mad woman. Although of course she’s not mad, she just sees everything clearly.”

Soprano repertoire

Veering back towards Wagner, with whom Lang is inevitably linked, I ask her about Isolde and Brunnhilde, both of which roles she has played in excerpts on the concert platform. In earlier interviews, she has said that the soprano repertoire is definitely something she’s not pursuing now but when I ask her again she laughs coyly and says “I’m not saying anything about that.” I get a definite feeling that it’s a departure that could still be on the cards.

If she won’t be drawn on that, she’s also reluctant to name any other new roles that she aspires to. It reflects a shrewdness that has marked her whole approach to her career. There was to be a Leonore in Fidelio at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin but she tells me that has been scrapped because VW have withdrawn their sponsorship. A sad sign of the times, although Cassandre in a new production of The Trojans at the same theatre next year will be going ahead.

Wagnerian conductors

We talk about conductors who have influenced her and Lang mentions Haitink, Davis, Marek Janowski and Armin Jordan all as “father figures” who have been enormously helpful to her during her career. Pushed to name the finest Wagnerian conductor she’s worked with, she says unhesitatingly that it’s Christian Thielemann. “No disrespect to the others but for the German repertoire he is the most authentic. I’ve also done Lohengrin a lot with Semyon Bychkov (who is conducting the current revival) and he is really fantastic.”

To some, Elijah Moshinsky’s fairly traditional staging of Lohengrin is looking a little tired and old now (although I wouldn’t necessarily agree with that). What’s sure is that Petra Lang’s first London Ortrud will breathe fresh life into it and is as likely as any to complement the memory of Waltraud Meier’s triumph in the production.

Lohengrin plays at the Royal Opera House for six performances from 27 April to 14 May 2009. Tickets are available on 020 7304 4000 or roh.org.uk

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Petra Lang: “Work the music into the body, into the muscles” – Interview