Interview with Aušrinė Stundytė

Born in Vilnius, soprano Aušrinė Stundytė has rapidly established herself as one of the most remarkable singing-actors before the public today.  Following initial studies at the Lithuanian Academy of Music and in Leipzig, she became an ensemble member at the Oper Köln in 2003.  Since then, she has appeared on many of the leading lyric stages including the Bayerische Staatsoper, La Fenice, Amsterdam, Lyon and Flanders.  Her extensive repertoire includes roles as diverse as La Gioconda, Tosca, Venus and Katarina Izmailova.  Recent and future plans include Renata in The Fiery Angel in Zurich, Warsaw and Aix-en-Provence, Heliane in Flanders, Salome at the Staatsoper Berlin, and Katarina Izmailova in Paris.  I caught up with Miss Stundytė by telephone from Berlin between performances as Carlotta in Calixto Bieito’s production of Die Gezeichneten at the Komische Oper.

Aušrinė Stundytė. Photo used with the kind permission of Miss Stundytė

Miss Stundytė, you are currently performing in the new production of Gezeichneten in Berlin.  It’s a fascinating staging, one that leaves many things unsaid and forces the audience to confront its own nightmares.  Tell us a little about your experience of working on this production.

This has been a very difficult role for me because at first, I didn’t quite ‘get’ her. I usually try to feel the core of a character and once I do, the stage movements aren’t as important.  Once you feel the essence, the drive of the person you are acting, everything else becomes more or less second nature.  In this case, with Carlotta, I just couldn’t find a way in.  There were just a couple of times where I felt it, but then I lost it again.  On a rational level it’s quite clear who she is as a person but in her scenes, it feels almost as if they contain nothing or there is so much that could mean something else.  It’s almost impossible for the audience to understand her because she doesn’t really understand herself, nor does the person she is singing to.  There are so many layers to her character.  It was really difficult.

As Venus at Opera Vlaanderen. Photo: © Annemie Augustijns

Of course, you have a very interesting staging because it takes a thought-provoking angle to the work, one that has a basis in the libretto but also develops it further.  How do you feel about the way that the staging evolved?

Honestly, I liked it.  I think that nowadays we’ve already seen everything on stage.  The brutality, things that shock, people’s intimate parts – we’ve seen everything.  We’ve reached a point where it seems there’s nowhere further we can go to show things in a realistic fashion.  I believe that the way we have done it here, to leave so much to the imagination, is much more interesting.  It’s much harder to make the audience feel what’s happening under the surface, to make them feel the danger.  I don’t know if we succeeded in that, that’s for the audience to decide, but I do think it’s more powerful to watch.  The imagination of every person in the audience is different – what’s true for one person, is different for another.  When it’s left to you to fill these gaps, you will fill them with what preoccupies you.  That’s why I really like this approach – but it’s much harder to make it really work.

Vocally it’s a big role, but it’s also a very strange role, because essentially it’s a combination of Fiordiligi and Brünnhilde.  You have the lyrical parts but also parts in which you need real power.  How did you work the role into the voice?

I must admit that when I was offered the role, I said yes because it was a chance to work again with Calixto [Bieito] and then I went to YouTube to listen to the music.  I thought ‘wonderful, she’s just marking all the time, this is something very light’.  I knew that I would be rehearsing Salome at the same time and I thought it would be a good combination – a light part alongside Salome which requires much more power.  I was then unpleasantly surprised to find it was extremely uncomfortable, it’s not very well written, for the voice.  Now I understand why that singer was marking because you can’t sing this role with the full voice all the time, it feels as if the voice doesn’t want to open up.  It’s an extremely tricky role.

As Montezuma in Madrid. Photo: © Javier del Real.

One thing that I find very interesting, is that you have a lot of roles in your repertoire that not many other people sing.  For example, Montezuma in Die Eroberung von Mexiko or Renata in the Fiery Angel.  What is your learning process for roles such as this? 

So far, I’ve been able to find recordings of roles I’ve been offered so I could listen to the type of voice that sings them and that helps.  I have an unusual voice and often I can’t find other singers to compare myself to.  There are some voices that are more similar to others; but people know that I don’t sing like Freni, for example.  I basically have to like the part and if there’s something in there that inspires me, even if it isn’t a completely perfect fit, I somehow manage to sing it as well.

Right now, you are preparing for another role debut, rehearsing Salome while singing this run of Gezeichneten.  Have you found yourself as the run goes on perhaps bringing some of Salome into Carlotta?

It’s funny that you ask that, because in the last performance I noticed that I brought a little bit of Salome to Carlotta.  They’re quite comparable characters – they both have similar colours.  Both are very determined, both quite egoistic, wild and free.  I do have the impression that maybe Salome has made Carlotta a bit tougher.  But I also like this development – it’s a good thing for this role.  Also, the productions I’ve done with Calixto are never so strict, you do have space to bring some of yourself and your feelings on that day. It’s more organic.

As Heliane at Opera Vlaanderen. Photo: © Annemie Augustijns

With these rehearsals of Salome, currently, how much marking do you do in the rehearsal room?  Especially if you have a show the next evening.

I do a lot of marking actually.  As we start to move to the stage rehearsals, I’ll try and sing out more.  I know myself, I’m used to using my voice fully before the first stage/orchestra rehearsal.  With this part I try to keep myself back because it inspires you to give everything. I have to pace myself and not let go.

Can you reveal something to us in advance about this new production of Salome?

This is my first work with Neuenfels and also the first time I’ve met him in person.  I think this new production will be intense and interesting.  As a director, I don’t think he’s at the point in his career where he needs to prove anything to anyone any more – he just wants to tell a story.  Salome is a bit of a tricky piece, like Tosca or Bohème, as in when you stray too far from the story, you can lose it.  You still have to keep the basic narrative, just to tell it how it is.  This Salome in particular will be quite intense, I think, and I think it’ll work.

In the program book for the Fiery Angel in Zurich, Mr Bieito mentioned how much of a pleasure it was for him to work with you as he felt that you were a natural stage animal.  Indeed, you have been widely acclaimed for the combination of acting and vocalism.  How do you consolidate the theatrical and vocal demands of a role?

I focus my work in layers – the music, the character and then the acting.  When I study the part at home, I don’t think about acting at all.  I focus purely on my words and my notes.  Then, when I get to the theatre and start working with the stage director, I mark the role, trying not to think about the singing technique but instead working on the layer of the character, of the feelings and emotions.  In the last week before the stage/orchestra rehearsals, I start to integrate everything into the layer of the acting.  I start singing out more and more and then, of course, we reach the real joy of the opening night where we present our work to the public for the first time.  I can’t start to connect all of these layers right from the start, I think nobody can – it’s impossible.  But when the acting process comes together, and when the body already remembers the emotions, you don’t need to put as much effort into creating those emotions as you do in the beginning, it starts to become second nature.

As Judit at the Komische Oper. Photo: © Monika Rittershaus

You’ve been collaborating very often with Mr Bieito, so far around a half-dozen times if I remember correctly.  How do you enjoy working with him?

Very much.  I think I really came to understand myself and what I’m capable of doing on stage through him.  I’ve always tried to be truthful to the character and the emotions.  Then I did Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk with him and somehow through him, it became so much clearer to me who I actually am as an artist, what kind of animal I am on stage.  I’d never realized that before.

Let’s go back right to the start.  You studied at home in Lithuania and then you went to Germany.  How did you find your voice?

I started singing in a choir, which is quite a common thing in Lithuania – it’s a country where everybody loves to sing.  Back then, my father was working in an abattoir and he had access to the kind of fresh meat you couldn’t usually buy in the regular supermarkets in the Soviet Union.  So, thanks to this precious meat, he managed to get an audition with the best girl choir in Lithuania.  He did it by calling the founder and saying ‘I have a daughter, she has a voice – or maybe she doesn’t – but I have meat so maybe you’d like to listen to her!’  The conductor agreed and before I auditioned for him my parents tried to get me to sing, to prepare.  They didn’t really know if I had a good ear, if I could sing at all, but I was so embarrassed.  In the end I sang something, I auditioned for the choir and apparently, I had something that was interesting.  I got in to the choir and from then on, I really started loving it.  Loving it so much that the only moment I felt alive was when I was singing.  That’s why I wanted to go further and never stop, because I loved it.

You carried on singing right through school and then went to music college?

For my mother that was a horrible thing because she didn’t think music could be a profession.  I also went to university to study a ‘normal’ profession which I didn’t finish.  I would have been a lousy social worker.  For her, just to make her feel calmer, I did two years of studies but it was clear that I was a singer at heart, deep down.

As Loreley at the Sankt Galler Festspiele. Photo: © Toni Suter / T+T Fotografie

You’ve certainly broken through and become a singer in demand for some of the most challenging roles.  You’re making big debuts in leading houses and your career is very much taking off.  How do you manage to keep that vocal and health balance with all of this going on around you?

I try to think that it’s just another opera house because ultimately, perhaps, they are not so different.  It’s just that the consequences of failure are, I guess, more critical.  But if you don’t fail it isn’t so different.  I think it’s not too different from when I was singing in smaller theatres.  I keep healthy by marking in rehearsals, trying not to talk too much – and warm tea!  I don’t want to get too crazy thinking that these big debuts are coming.  I can’t be anyone other than who I am, with my voice.

Looking ahead, what else can we expect from you over the next few years?

I think I’ll try as much as possible to stay in the repertoire of the twentieth century, which I don’t even know myself so well.  It’s great that the repertoire of opera houses is really changing and rediscovering these fascinating operas that had been forgotten.  I find that these are much closer to me than works of earlier eras and have much more intense characters.  I know there are still works that I don’t know but I’m looking forward to discovering them.  I have a few Fiery Angels coming up and also Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk will be coming again as will Salome.  Otherwise, no very big new things.  Honestly, it’s not a deliberate choice, it’s just the way things turned out and I’m very happy about it.  What I love in this new music that I’m doing is that you never feel that you really completely ‘get’ the character, you never have a feeling that you’ve seen it all, that everything is there on the page.  There’s a wonderful sense of discovery that you want to repeat again and again.

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