Véronique Gens is recognized as one of the finest sopranos before the public today. Having started her career with Les Arts Florissants, she has established herself as an outstanding Mozart singer as well as a noted interpreter of the French repertoire. With a significant discography of over seventy titles, Miss Gens has also appeared on most of the major lyric stages. Her current engagements include performances as the Figaro Countess and Donna Elvira in Munich as well as concert performances of Gounod’s Cinq-Mars in Vienna and Munich. I caught up with Miss Gens between performances as an exceptional Gluck Iphigénie in Vienna.
Madame Gens, you are currently appearing in this production of Iphigénie en Aulide et en Tauride at the Theater an der Wien in which you play two distinct characters who are perhaps also two sides of the same person. Tell us a little about these characters and your impressions of this production.
It’s going to be difficult to be objective because I really like this show and I really enjoy working with Torsten Fischer who is directing the staging. I have been completely won over by everything that he has asked for and everything he has asked me to do. Of course, the score is nothing like what we have here – Iphigénie is one character and Diane is another. Torsten Fischer really wanted to create this combination of two characters to make the entire story clearer and that’s what we aimed to do. In his interpretation, at times I play Diane and at others I play Iphigénie. As you saw in the first half you get the music of Iphigénie en Aulide but I am already on stage as Diane and I participate and tell the story as Diane who feels regrets and remorse for imposing the sacrifices she requires. At the same time, as Iphigénie in Tauride I recall what happened when I was younger and all the events that led into this story. Clearly, it’s fascinating for me to play a character who is simultaneously two characters and it’s as if we are interpreting this entire complicated story and learning from history.
You certainly achieve that and it’s a completely gripping and captivating show. For you what are the challenges that you find in the role of Iphigénie?
It’s a very complete role and in fact it’s a long role, especially in the way that we do it here with the two Iphigénies combined. The interval doesn’t take place between the two operas, it actually takes place in the middle of Tauride which makes the role really quite lengthy. I’m on stage for pretty much all of the second half. It’s very much an effort of concentration and endurance – it’s a real challenge for a singer to be on stage non-stop for an hour and a half without being able to leave. As you know, I also sang Iphigénie en Aulide a few years ago and it’s true that the music is just as fascinating there as it is in Tauride – the arias are magnificent as are the ensembles. I really enjoy singing ensembles, I was trained singing baroque music and I am never happier than when singing in trios and ensembles. Now the other challenge, since you mention challenges, is that here we are working with modern pitch and as someone used to working with period instruments, I really do feel the difference in my throat and in my voice. This isn’t music that was written to be performed at 442Hz or 443Hz for example but rather to be sung at 412Hz or 415Hz at the very most. One really feels the difference and it makes the tessitura much more challenging and much more delicate for a singer I think and certainly for all of us on stage. The higher pitch really does make a big difference to the voice.
One thing that always strikes me when I listen to your singing is your wonderful stylistic awareness and use of ornamentation. I recall this was very apparent in your recent Covent Garden Elviras and also in this staging of the Iphigénies where, in your wonderful aria ‘ô toi qui prolongeas mes jours’ you really used the ornamentation to illuminate the line beautifully. When you receive a new score for the first time, how do you decide on the ornamentation?
Actually I don’t decide on anything in advance, I ornament as things come along and I think that every evening I really do something different or almost different. As you know, at the time ornamentation wasn’t written out and it was really left to the singer to use the inspiration of that very moment. On days where I feel more on form I might do more and those days when I am perhaps more tired I might do a bit less. That’s how I learned to do this music – the ornamentation comes from the singer and in my case, I never write it down, I always do it according to how I feel, how I sound, if I’m feeling comfortable, if I’m tired and so on. It really depends on so many factors. Ornamentation is something that is truly essential to this music. In that particular aria you mentioned, ‘ô toi qui prolongeas mes jours’, the line really lends itself to be ornamented whereas the aria I have towards the end, ‘je t’implore et je tremble’ is much more difficult to ornament simply because the text is very strong and at no point can you relax and add some ornamentation. You mentioned Elvira and for Mozart it’s the same – always some ornamentation, depending on the orchestra. It’s difficult to use more ornamentation in this particular production of Iphigénie because the orchestra is modern and so there is a kind of antinomy between having a modern orchestra and the use of ornamentation which is so closely associated with period instrument orchestras. One has to compromise but I really like using ornamentation and I find that it’s essential to this music.
You sing frequently in French and have a good number of French-language roles in your repertoire. You are also known as a recitalist with the programs of mélodies that you offer. We know that French is a difficult language to sing in, what are the pleasures for you of singing in French as well as the difficulties?
First of all it would be a shame not to make the most of the fact that I am French to sing this repertoire. There is so much baroque and later repertoire to explore. We have so many mélodies and also there’s some wonderful Berlioz for example. There are so many wonderful things that are not done very often and I think it would be a real shame as a French person for me not to make the most of being able to play with the words of these marvellous texts. I doubt there is any French person who couldn’t enjoy these magnificent poems of Apollinaire and others. It’s exactly the same for German-speaking singers when they do Lieder recitals. As a French singer, I really try to make the most of my language. As a young singer working with William Christie in the French baroque repertoire, we would speak the text even before singing it and for years that’s how I would learn the texts. That way, we established the short syllables, the long syllables, the important consonants, thereby establishing the rhythm of the language. It all forms a kind of vocal grammar that is essential to the music and one can really use that to truly enjoy singing in French.
There’s a lot of pleasure to be found singing in French but there are also a lot of nasal sounds that are not very comfortable to sing and it can be almost hellish for non-Francophones and Francophones alike. Indeed it really is quite difficult to sing in French. For me, the most important thing is to make myself understood. When I sing baroque music and mélodies I always feel that what I do is fifty-fifty, fifty percent music and fifty percent text. If you don’t pay equal attention to both of those aspects then one of them suffers. If you concentrate on just making a beautiful sound then there’s not much point. Gluck for example is such an almost minimalistic music, such tragic music that the essence of this music is actually in the text. In this case it’s incredibly important to really deliver these great tragedies and to really give life to this text that is so harsh and strong. With Gluck we’re not talking about music where it’s about the pleasure of the sound or the line, no, in this case the music is harsh if I may say that. The music is here to move you and not there for you to say ‘oh it’s beautiful’ without you feeling the pain of what is happening to Iphigénie. That’s how I feel about this music and what I try to do when I perform it.
When I saw you perform Madame Lidoine in Paris last year I was struck by how you managed to combine the meaning of the text and found an interior strength to the character without ever compromising the integrity of the tone. How do you reconcile the seemingly competing objectives of being a great actress without compromising on the beauty of the sound?
I am very flattered that you mention that because it isn’t something I really think about. It’s true that when I sing Madame Lidoine, the story is so horrible, so tragic, just as it is for Iphigénie, that I simply enter the character and the text and I focus 150% on telling the story. Otherwise I would lose my voice and cry from the beginning until the end. One always needs to keep some measured distance to remain oneself performing a role, otherwise it becomes impossible to separate the emotion. The end of that piece is overwhelming, I’m always on the edge of tears in this sublime music and especially when you remember that it’s a true story, it’s simply horrific. Again, I think about the text and I put all of my heart and all of my intensity into the text and I believe that it’s by concentrating on the text that one manages to convey the emotion and one becomes the character. But I’m happy you brought this up because I really enjoyed singing this role.
Are you planning to sing it again soon?
We’re planning on doing a revival of that production but unfortunately I don’t have any other offers for Madame Lidoine right now. I hope that they will be forthcoming. We’ll see.
You are known as a deeply stylish Mozartian and Mozart is very much central to your career. How do you think Mozart has helped or perhaps even hindered your technique?
I think I sing in exactly the same way when I sing Bach, when I sing Mozart or when I sing Gluck. You know there is only one technique and one way of singing that one adapts to the characters, but above all one adapts to the style of the piece. I’ve had one opportunity to sing Wagner in my career so far and I sang it exactly as I sing Mozart. I don’t think the voice should adapt to each composer, you have one technique and it should remain the same otherwise you lose your vocal identity. It’s the style that changes – the phrasing, breath control or making the voice work fully. I have only one technique, one voice and I adapt myself to the style but I don’t try to change myself according to what I sing, I don’t think that’s a good idea, it’s not the right direction for a singer to go to. Otherwise it simply becomes dangerous.
Coming up over the rest of this season you’ll be back in Vienna for Cinq-Mars as well as in Munich for the Figaro Countess and Elvira. What other projects can we look forward to from you?
Since you mention Munich I’m looking forward to performing Falstaff there. I really enjoying doing Falstaff, I find it’s good for me. For once I get to do a cheerful piece – cheerful for the ladies of course, less so for Falstaff himself – but it’s entertaining and funny. I really enjoy doing it and it’s true that it’s not a piece I get to do very often. Otherwise I have lots of concerts, recitals and a new recording project coming up. I also have a lot of Mozart as always, pretty much everywhere, some revivals and some new productions. Mozart really is the centre of my career and this musical period of Gluck and Mozart – where they are both so close to each other – is really music where I feel at home and I feel a need to always be singing. It’s really quite essential for me, you could say. I have always been careful precisely because I have a desire to sing for a long time. I would like to protect my voice; I don’t have a desire to just sing anything. It’s true that my voice has changed quite significantly since my debut with les Arts florissants but I have also changed. At that time I was a girl and now I’m a woman, I’ve had children, many things have happened in my life and all that means that the voice changes, that the character of the voice changes. If you ask me where I’ll be in 10 years, I don’t know, I don’t even think about it. I just hope to be able to sing for a long time.
With thanks to the Theater an der Wien.