Gilbert Kaplan Welcome to our December show where my guest is the reigning “Queen of the Night”, star soprano Diana Damrau.
Kaplan She dazzles in every role she sings but for some time her calling card has been “Queen of the Night” in Mozart’s Magic Flute, perhaps opera’s most treacherous role with its exposed stratospheric high notes. But if you haven’t heard her sing it yet, perhaps you never will. Because for safety reasons, to avoid injuring her voice, last week after a memorable experience at the Met, she retired the role. But fortunately, her newly released recording and already best-seller, Arie di Bravura, contains the famous aria. And on uTube you can even watch her electric and ferocious performance of that role. But today, she’s here with us with her normal bubbly, sunshine personality. Diana Damrau, welcome to “Mad About Music”.
Diana Damrau Thank you very much. I’m very happy to be here.
Kaplan Now, you know, if this was the political world, the government world, this would be an historic moment. Even in the opera, it’s no small matter – the Queen is stepping down. And at such a young age! Why?
Damrau Why? Well, first of all, I think “Queen of the Night” is among the roles you should sing for several periods of time in your career. So I call it “extreme sports.” You have only fifteen minutes onstage, all complete. Well, you have to be pinpoint accurate; you have to show everything in that moment. And the second aria is very, very dramatic and very high. And, well, the demands on this role is extreme. And everybody, even the littlest child, can hear if something goes wrong. So there’s a lot of pressure and when you’re not 100 percent fit, you can also really hurt your vocal chords, and you need time to recover. And, well, it’s just a little bit too risky, and for me in my case, there are just – I love performing this role. I really, I don’t want to give it up, and I never say never, you never know! Well, I didn’t accept any more new performances also because I have new roles coming up, big role debuts, so I have to focus on that. And I don’t want to stress too much the very, very high notes, but I don’t want to give them up.
Kaplan All right, even though we won’t be able to hear you sing this live, maybe ever, for posterity at least, we do have the new recording you just put out called Aire de Bravura. So let’s hear the Queen we’ll always have access to.
Kaplan The famous “Queen of the Night” aria from Mozart’s The Magic Flute sung by the reigning queen of this impossible to sing aria and my guest today on “Mad About Music”, soprano Diana Damrau. This from her newly released recording Arie di Bravura with Le Cercle de l’Harmonie Orchestra led by Jérémie Rhorer. Now, anyone singing the “Queen of the Night” must be a risk-taker, I would guess, on the stage. But do you regard yourself in general as a risk-taker?
Damrau Yes, absolutely.
Kaplan Well, you’d better expand on that and tell me how does risk show up in your life in general?
Damrau Well, … no, I can’t tell you.
Kaplan Then I’ll ask you some aspects of it. Most opera singers, if they’re taking on a really major role, are not likely to do their first performance in an opera house in a major musical center. But you do. I think the last three roles you’ve taken on, you sung them for the first time at the Met.
Kaplan It doesn’t worry you to do that?
Damrau Well, no, actually not. I prepare myself very well and I know that I am going to work in a wonderful opera house with fantastic colleagues, a splendid, incredible orchestra, and wonderful conductors in great productions. So I think I can really work on, well, on really top, top level.
Kaplan So you’re prepared to do your first performance under the spotlight? Well, that’s a risk-taker, I would say.
Kaplan Now I also understand that you are a horseback rider.
Damrau Yes, that’s also a risk sometimes.
Kaplan That’s a risk, but it’s not only a risk to ride horses but to ride them in Central Park in New York City, which I understand you intend to do tomorrow.
Kaplan Does the Met know you do this?
Damrau Hopefully nobody is listening to this. Well, in former days, yes, it was written in the contracts of singers that they are not allowed to go skiing or horse riding, really dangerous sports, not anymore. But I’m used to horse riding since my childhood, and, well, in January I spent one weekend in the Sahara desert, six hours on horseback a day, and slept in a tent on the floor, and, well, I survived.
Kaplan So you can manage Central Park.
Damrau I think so.
Kaplan All right, let’s return to your recording, which is not only Mozart arias, but also features Salieri prominently. Now, before the movie “Amadeus,” I think it’s fair to say that most opera lovers, or certainly most people who were not experts in opera wouldn’t have the slightest idea who Salieri even was. So, why Salieri?
Damrau Salieri, yes, I saw the movie, I saw the plays. And when I had my first fixed contract in an opera house in Germany, that was in Wurzburg, we performed a world premiere of a Salieri masterpiece called “Cublai, gran kan de' Tartari”. It’s a satiric comedy, beautiful music, and it was not allowed to be played in Salieri’s time. So I got in contact with this music, and having the background of all the negativity among Salieri and his name, I really wanted to know more about this man. Well, I read about him, I read about his life, and listened to his music. Then Cecilia Bartoli made her Salieri album and, well, in my opinion, I love his music. He was a wonderful musician and I think he was a wonderful person as well.
Kaplan Did he kill Mozart?
Damrau Absolutely not. He was a serious musician and a lover of art. He saw Mozart’s performances. They worked together. He was a very, very powerful man in Vienna at that time, but he followed and adored Gluck’s idea of opera and of music. So if you do something like that, I think you can’t kill another person, I’m sorry. And be jealous on a young genius talent.
Kaplan He’s innocent.
Damrau Yes, I think so.
Kaplan Well, in the aria that you have on your recording, Salieri challenges you even more in some ways than Mozart with those high notes, doesn’t he? There’s an F sharp in there – a high F sharp – and I understand that in the cadenza where you have some freedom to do it the way you might like to do it, you even throw in a high G. So, tell me why you did that. Was that to dazzle the audience? And then tell us a little bit about what we are about to hear.
Damrau Well, yes, indeed. L’Europa riconosciuta, that’s when Salieri’s music crossed my path again, that was in 2004 at La Scala di Milano, and I performed the title role there, L’Europa.
Kaplan For the reopening?
Damrau For the reopening, yes. This was the most difficult and challenging music and role I had ever to perform. On the recording, I really tried to follow what Salieri has written, and you will hear the real Europa, and he really wanted to have this F sharp. Mozart only wanted to have the F in the “Queen of the Night”. Yes, and I thought at the end, well, we’re already up there, and a G would really fit in this cadenza musically. It was not to show off. Well, and it was O.K.
Kaplan Did the audience go crazy when you hit it?
Damrau Everybody loves bravura.
Kaplan Indeed they do. So, what is the story you are singing about here?
Damrau In the aria of Europa which we are going to hear now, which is called “Numi, respiro…Ah, lo sento”, she is absolutely relieved, she had a very hard conversation with her former lover, she’s married now to another man, but she’s still in love with the other guy, but she’s Queen, so she has her duties and she loves her husband, so she won’t go back where her heart wants to be.
Kaplan An excerpt from Salieri’s L’Europa riconosciuta, with some of the highest notes called for in music, sung by my guest today on “Mad About Music” soprano Diana Damrau on her newly released CD, Arie di bravura, with Le Cercle de l’Harmonie led by Jérémie Rhorer – already a best-seller. When we return, we’ll talk about the moment when Diana Damrau first knew she was meant to be an opera singer.
Kaplan This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest on today’s edition of “Mad About Music”, soprano Diana Damrau. Let’s jump back from this lofty perch you now occupy to the beginning – the real beginning. When did you first know that opera really appealed to you and that you were meant to become a singer?
Damrau Well, that was when I was twelve years old, I was alone at home, my parents were out for dinner, and I – well, I watched TV and I got stuck in the Zeffirelli Traviata movie with Placido Domingo and Teresa Stratas. Right from the beginning, and I heard about opera, I saw opera movies, little bit. But with this experience it was clear for me that this was the most complete and wonderful thing on earth.
Kaplan Now, was there music at all in your home? Did you, as a child –
Damrau Yes, as a child, my grandfather, he used to play Freischütz and Carmen for us, and – well, as I said before, I’m watching TV sometimes, some movies occur, and there was this wonderful, wonderful, dear to me, movie with Luciano Pavarotti, “Si Giorgio”. And there is a scene of Turandot, and that was actually the first opera recording I wanted to have, and I received this as a Christmas present. Sutherland, Caballé and Pavarotti in Turandot. And I, with my little brother, he was six years old, and I was six years older than him, so we sang Turandot up and down the duets. Our neighbors were at the windows, listening and watching and trying to figure out what happened to these children? It was wonderful.
Kaplan The duet from the final act of Puccini’s Turandot sung by Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti with the London Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Zubin Mehta. Sutherland and Pavarotti – role models for my guest on “Mad About Music” today, soprano Diana Damrau when she was twelve years old and dragged her six year old brother into performing this duet against listening to the recording. All right, you’ve obviously come a long way since that experience. Now you work with some of the foremost opera directors, which brings me to ask you about a rather explosive comment you once made about some modern directors. This is what you said: “We singers ought to stage a revolution – a revolution against stage directors.” Here you were talking about those directors who completely distort the composer’s intentions. How often has this happened to you?
Damrau Did I really say that?
Kaplan Well, maybe it’s partly the writer, I don’t know.
Damrau Well, yes indeed. I mean, there are special cases like that. But I’m really not against modern opera direction. I think it’s also necessary because we have to develop.
Kaplan I had a feeling from those comments that I read to you, even though some of it may be the writer who wrote them, that you have had some experiences where you really were disappointed.
Damrau Oh, yes, I had these experiences. And especially as a young artist, you are really happy to sign a contract in a wonderful house with a wonderful role, and well, and you’re not going to be asked, are you d’accord, do you really want to do that, do you approve. No, you arrive and then you see, “Oh…my…God!”
Kaplan But you do it.
Damrau Well, you have to do it. You signed the contract. And you are not able to step back.
Kaplan Now, to some of these directions, I would think make it not only artistically unappealing, but sometimes very hard to sing and perform. I have seen you in some operas where you’ve had to roll on the floor and sing upside down almost. I mean, isn’t that difficult?
Damrau Well, I don’t mind that. I love dancing, I love sports, and I love performing. And what I love most of all is that I want to tell a story, and I want to make the people feel and understand the story and the character and what the character is driven by. Well, I’m not scared of doing weird things and being sometimes unpleasant on stage – it’s human.
Kaplan Is this why you also once said, since you said you can manage these requests that you sing in awkward physical positions, that you really have to be an athlete to be an opera singer?
Damrau Absolutely. I think opera is athletic.
Kaplan I suppose Pavarotti got away with it anyhow, without being athletic. But you know, you say that you have to do these things because you signed a contract. But you take someone like Riccardo Muti, I’m sure you know the story that at the opening at Salzburg, he, back in Gerard Mortier’s first season, he was supposed to conduct Clemenza di Tito. He saw the production and he walked out. He said, simply, this goes against the music. I won’t do it. And I suppose that at some level of fame, which I think you’re at already, you could do that now if you wanted to, if you came across one you simply felt uncomfortable with.
Damrau I think I would do that, really, yes. But what I said, at the beginning of a career, you just can’t.
Kaplan Of course. Now we’ll return then to your music and for your first orchestral piece. We’ve heard only opera so far. And this is the Peer Gynt Suite by Grieg, which I gather has yet another childhood recollection.
Damrau Oh, yes, oh, yes, and it’s dear, and it’s proved: we have it on tape. I was four years old. My parents kept recording our children voices, asking us questions, and let us sing. And one day they went out of the living room, and they played my favorite, my favorite classical music part, that was Peer Gynt, “Morgenstimmung” and I loved this piece so much that I started humming. And then at one moment, I really – I remember it so well – I thought, well, I should sing like a real voice is singing. So I heard maybe on TV and radio maybe, some opera voices, so I started doing sounds with vibrato, and it was like…
Kaplan This was four years old?
Damrau I had no breath anymore. It’s so funny.
Kaplan This was four years old?
Damrau This was four years old. And I had just – I just love that because my mother’s cousin’s husband was a ballet dancer and he danced Peer Gynt in Munich, in Bayerischer staatsoper. And we received this recording from him and I played this music over and over. Also, I adore it because I love dancing as well as I tried to invent some dances and stories around the whole Peer Gynt theme. So I was, I kept spinning, spinning, spinning, spinning, faster and faster, until I fell down completely – zoom! So I have really dear memories of this music.
Kaplan “Morning Mood” from Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite, the Berlin Philharmonic led by Herbert von Karajan, the first musical recollection of my guest on “Mad About Music” today, soprano Diana Damrau. Now we’ve been focusing mostly on your singing, but you also have developed a superb reputation for acting. So that leads me to ask you about romance and opera. It is certainly true that often in making movies, actors who play love scenes wind up falling in love with one another. Does this also happen in opera?
Damrau Well, I think yes. That can happen. Music, music connects hearts. Music is feeling. And singing duets and being with colleagues on stage, you have to feel each other; you have to understand each other; you have to know what the other is thinking that moment. And it’s a very intense way of working with another human being. And yes, it can happen that you’re attracted to your colleague, but because you work six weeks constantly every day on one special story.
Kaplan I’m bound to ask you – has it happened to you?
Damrau Yes, at the beginning of my career it happened to me once. But O.K., you learn by that. I mean this is, maybe, your feelings, your thoughts go crazy and you think. Yes – it is attraction, but I don’t know the person. You have to know the person; you don’t have to fall in love with the other character on stage. I mean, with the role the guy is playing.
Kaplan O.K., well, that is a good transition to the next part of our show we call the “wildcard,” and all our listeners know this is the moment when you can talk about music from outside the classical music or opera genre, and so what did you bring us today?
Damrau I brought you, I think also a classic. It’s Michael Jackson, “Thriller.” Don’t be shocked.
Kaplan No, I’m just waiting to hear the story behind it.
Damrau Well, with Peer Gynt my dancing career started somehow, and I found out that ballet is not my cup of tea. It was too lyrical. Also in Carnival, I never played the Princess. I never wanted to be a nice princess in a pink dress. I wanted to be the mean stepmother, so I had a red dress and red finger nails, and a silver crown, and a dramatic look. But I looked like a princess.
Kaplan Sounds like the “Queen of the Night”, actually.
Damrau Yes, somehow, that’s how it started, I suppose. Well, and then – well, dancing, I found out with my colleagues from school, with my friends, that we could copy some dance pop videos, and we founded a jazz dance group, and we really performed, and we also performed Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”
Kaplan Well, as you’re speaking about dancing, did you perfect Michael Jackson’s “Moonwalking”?
Damrau Well, I can’t be compared to him, but I did it, and I actually did it on stage! That – oh, my God! – this was in Covent Garden, I sang the revival of Arabella, and I sang “Fiakermilli”. And I got a golden suit and I got a break dancer being my shadow, so it was a really funky girl. I had red hair, a red punk wig. This guy was dancing around me –I can do that too. Let’s do it. So we really started to do “Moonwalk” and a little bit break dance, and I sang “Fiakermilli” with that. So that helps.
Kaplan So you introduced Michael Jackson to opera, in a way?
Damrau Maybe. I don’t know if my colleagues know that.
Kaplan Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, the “wildcard” selection of soprano Diana Damrau, my guest on today’s edition of “Mad About Music”. When we return, we’ll talk about the singer who had the most profound influence on Diana Damrau.
Kaplan This is Gilbert Kaplan with my guest on today’s edition of “Mad About Music”, soprano Diana Damrau. Now anyone listening to the way you describe your experience with Michael Jackson’s music and even incorporating “moonwalking” into one of your opera performances will have heard your bubbly sunshine personality. I can also attest to seeing it before my very eyes. Now, like most of us, you must have had moments, have moments when you’re not so bubbly, in fact when you’re sad; moments when bad things have happened. Do you ever turn to music then for consolation?
Damrau Oh, yes. Oh, yes. I play a lot of Isolde’s Liebestod.
Damrau Yes. And I play also a little bit the piano. So when I’m sad and, well, in love pain, I play – or angry – I play the Revolutionary Etude of Chopin, but only the first two pages, I can’t go further.
Kaplan O.K., well, watching Michael Jackson may have taught you how to “moonwalk”, but let’s talk about singers who have influenced you. I mean, when you learn a new role, do you listen, for example, to any recordings of other artists?
Damrau I listen to everything I can find.
Kaplan But is there one singer that inspired you the most?
Damrau Yeah, there is one singer. Everything started with me, with Kathleen Battle. My singing teacher, my first singing teacher, Carmen Hanganu a Romanian opera singer, she told me right from the beginning, listen to recordings and listen and learn as much as possible. And then she said, she recommended that I listen to Kathleen Battle’s voice because our voice is similar, quite similar. I could develop into her direction. So I heard her Norina, that was actually the first CD of her I bought. A concert, a live concert with Placido Domingo and she sang the Norina aria which I performed in studies and well then later on stage.
Kaplan Did you ever meet her?
Damrau No, no. But I adore her voice. It’s so beautiful how she – she has an angel’s voice and she’s a beautiful performer. And I love her Rosina. I love her Adina, and what I most love most of all, this is the ideal connection is for me the recording with Seiji Ozawa, Poulenc’s Gloria. It’s heavenly.
Kaplan An excerpt from Poulenc’s Gloria with Kathleen Battle, the Boston Symphony and conductor Seiji Ozawa, a selection of my guest on “Mad About Music” today, soprano Diana Damrau who cites Kathleen Battle as the singer who most inspired her even though they have never yet met. You know earlier we talked about the challenge of singing the “Queen of the Night” aria, the tough one. I’d like to ask you about another challenge you once faced to learn if you were frightened by it at all. For this we go back to 2006 and the World Cup in Munich. Normally a scene for the three tenors but all of a sudden there’s Placido Domingo, no other tenors, and this young blonde soprano instead. What was that like?
Damrau Oh…my…God! First of all, being honored to sing with Placido Domingo, it was just incredible for me. I really prayed that I was able to sing, produce a sound, and not be like uhhhh next to him. And then I was allowed to sing Traviata duet with him, and as I said before, everything with me started with Traviata, watching him singing it. And now it was me to sing with him, this duet. And it was magical, and he danced a waltz with me, and I was in heaven! And it was six degrees Celsius on 6th of June, in open space, open air, live on TV, with an orchestra around about 30 meters diagonal behind you. So I had no contact at all, only with TV screens, and it was so cold, it was so special, it was so weird that, well, somehow I survived. Somehow, it was like a dream. I don’t know how I did that.
Kaplan The way you tell it, you did it very well! All right. We now come to your final selection, which is a solo work for piano by Chopin, and you discussed it a little bit earlier, in another context, and it’s of course the “Revolutionary Etude.”
Damrau Yes. Well, we had a piano at home. And what little children do, they just hit it right from the beginning. It makes a sound and it’s beautiful. So my wish was to learn how to play the piano. We had only a few classical recordings, but one of them was the Chopin etude by Horowitz. Well, my mom played it for me very often, so I got to know Chopin, and I got to love Chopin and I wanted to play Chopin, but I never was able to play it. Well, there’s another lovely story. For entering studies, applying for a place for studies, we have to pass an exam, and as a singer, you have to play the piano as well. So, I got prepared and I was quite ambitious because I loved it. I only play and sing what I love. So I played the “Military Polonaise” by Chopin. It was the first time I ever played on a grand piano, on a real grand piano, which works differently from a normal piano. So I was very excited sitting there and playing and trying to make it work somehow. I asked the jury, well, I passed the exam, thank goodness. I asked the jury, “well, how was it?” And the guy said, “Well, we saw that you loved it!” We saw, we didn’t hear, but we saw. All right.
Kaplan Perhaps you should be a singer, he said.
Damrau And so I keep playing this when I am in a good mood or when I am in a bad mood, or in dramatic mood, I play the Revolutionary Etude by Chopin. But only the first two pages! I cannot go any further.
Kaplan Chopin’s “Revolutionary Etude” performed by Vladimir Horowitz, the final selection of my guest on “Mad About Music” today, soprano Diana Damrau. A work she struggled to play for her entrance exam to school and today turns to it at moments of consolation and euphoria. As we approach the end of the show, we come to one of my favorite segments which I call “Fantasyland” where all guests have an opportunity for true confession – and that includes you. To confess any fantasies you might have in your case, in opera. So as a soprano, I wonder what role would be your fantasy to perform if you were a tenor?
Damrau Well, this is a question – sorry dear tenors, but I’m not a tenor girl. Well, actually, if I would have to choose one role, and there are wonderful, beautiful tenor roles, I would love to sing actually Don José. But I’d love to be a baritone.
Kaplan And you would sing?
Damrau I would sing Renato, and I would sing Scarpia. Or even, I would even love to be a bass as well. Or I would love to do the duet of the Grand Inquisitor and the King in Don Carlo. I love this music.
Kaplan You actually would be a great Scarpia, when I think about it. That’s the “Queen of the Night” role too.
Damrau Right, right.
Kaplan All right, the final question is, and you sort of alluded to this earlier, but I think I’d ask it anyhow. You retired the “Queen of the Night” in 2006. And then all of a sudden, this opportunity came at the Met, and you said, “too good to turn down.” Do you think that will happen again? That someone will offer you a queen that will be too good to turn down?
Damrau What I learned ‘till now is never say never.
Kaplan Well, I’m glad to hear that and I’m sure the rest of our audience is also. And hope that if “never” doesn’t come about, that we’ll be nearby when you next sing it. Diana Damaru, you’ve been a wonderful guest, fascinating, all full of your bubbly personality I’ve come to expect. Thank you for joining us, and we wish you great success as you expand your roles now beyond the “Queen of the Night.” This is Gilbert Kaplan for “Mad About Music.”