Interview with Mari Eriksmoen

Norwegian soprano Mari Eriksmoen is recognized as one of the most exciting Scandinavian singers to have emerged in recent years.  Following studies in Oslo, Paris and Copenhagen, she made her international debut as Zerbinetta at the Theater an der Wien in 2010.  Since then, Miss Eriksmoen has appeared at many of the leading lyric theatres including the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, the Nationale Opera in Amsterdam, Opera Vlaanderen, Zurich, the Scala, and the Komische Oper.  Her repertoire spans the range from the baroque to the present day.  Recent, current and upcoming engagements include Pamina in Aix and Zurich, La Fée in Cendrillon at the Komische, Mélisande in Flanders, and Blondchen in Frankfurt, as well on a recording for Harmonia Mundi.  I caught up with Miss Eriksmoen from her home in Bergen, Norway following her role debut as Sophie at the Norske Opera.

Mari Eriksmoen. Photo used with the kind permission of Miss Eriksmoen.

Miss Eriksmoen, you just made your role debut as Sophie in Oslo.  Tell us how a little about how you prepared for an occasion such as this.

I’ve been waiting for some time to take on this role.  For this role, you really need several months.  It’s complicated, both musically and rhythmically, so you really need time to learn it.  It takes time before you really get it.  You can learn a Handel opera or a Mozart opera in a month, but I started working on Sophie half a year ago.  What I found most challenging working on this part, is that you have to balance the voice all the time, working on creating a more lyrical sound, creating more fullness in the voice, especially in the middle register, but still not losing the shimmer and being able to support those long phrases where you’re always up there, on high.  You also need good breath support.  I was also quite shocked the first time we sang it with the orchestra, because it makes a huge difference to sing it with them.  It feels that almost every instrument has a solo part with those beautiful phrases – they also seem to love playing it.  You should definitely not underestimate this role.

As Sophie in Oslo. Photo: © Erik Berg.

And did you feel any added pressure singing at home in Norway?

Yes, I do.  There’s something about being at home in Norway.  It’s a small country and often I feel that people have a certain expectation of me at home.  Here, we have something called ‘janteloven’, the law of Jante, which is something we grow up with.  In Norway it can feel that if you’re too visible in a way, or if you’re in the media too much, you can feel that you need to be humble, you get the feeling that people might be wondering why you especially were chosen to sing a role.  When I sing at home, I feel that I need to prove something.  I don’t often post reviews, but when I do, I start to immediately think that people are judging me and that I’m full of myself.  I have a tendency to be extremely self-critical, and there are so many good Norwegian singers, I feel I have to prove myself worthy of having these opportunities to sing these beautiful roles.  That said, singers in Norway are incredibly supportive of each other.  There’s an atmosphere of genuine friendship and co-operation of singers working in opera, and we really support each other.

You are one of a significant generation of Norwegian singers making an impact on stages throughout the world.  Why do you think that Norway has produced so many fine singers? 

Thank you – it’s quite new actually.  For a long time, Sweden was ahead of us.  They had a longer tradition of producing great singers.  I think it’s a combination of things.  When I was studying in Copenhagen, I had a wonderful teacher, Susanna Eken, who also taught Johannes Weisser, Lise Davidsen, Audun Iversen, to mention just a few of the many Norwegian singers with international careers.  There were many of us, and so many good friends of mine, who went to Copenhagen to study.  Having that wonderful teacher helped, but also seeing how my colleagues are also making it internationally.  You get inspired by seeing other people your age make it.  Now, I know a lot of young Norwegian singers in their early twenties who I’m sure we’ll also see on the international stages.

Do you think it also has to do with the language, because Norwegian is very open and quite musical in a way?

Yes, Norwegian is a very singable language.  It has clear vowels and people often mention that it sounds like we’re singing when we’re speaking.  I think it can absolutely have something to do with that.

As Blonde in Glyndebourne. Photo: © Glyndebourne Festival.

And you were also very musical growing up, because you started as a violinist, if I’m not mistaken?

I started as a violinist and I played the violin until I was 18.  I also played the trumpet.  Then there was theatre.  Singing was always a big part of me, but not classical.  I always sang a lot of pop and jazz but the classical side didn’t happen until I was 17 or 18.  My best friend, who was a huge singing talent, was the niece of soprano Solveig Kringelborn.  She would sing opera and I would sing pop and jazz.  One day we were playing around and just for fun, I tried singing the Queen of the Night.  I had all the high notes and I was able to do something I never knew that I could.  She convinced me that I needed to train my voice.  That’s where it started.

That’s interesting because your international debut was as Zerbinetta.  The first time I ever saw you was in Oslo as Olympia in 2013.  You’ve also sung more lyrical roles such as Pamina and Mélisande.  How do you work those into the voice and do you still keep Zerbinetta and Olympia, for instance, in your repertoire?

I’ve always wanted to sing the more lyrical roles.  It might sound strange but I never felt that I really lived up there.  I sang Zerbinetta when I was 26, jumping in for Diana Damrau.  It was a lot of fun and then I started to sing Blondchen and Fiakermilli.  I always felt that there was something more to my voice than just the high notes, and in my heart I wasn’t so happy, actually.  I really wanted to experiment with my timbre and musicality and didn’t really feel that those roles gave me the chance to do that.  Blondchen is one of the roles I’ve done the most, I did it at Glyndebourne and also recorded it, but when I sang the more lyrical stuff, also in the concert repertoire, I felt much more satisfied.  One of the happiest moments of my life was when I sang for Harnoncourt.  I was so nervous.  When he heard me, he asked me to sing Fiordiligi and I thought ‘no way, this will be so wrong and I’ll get slaughtered’.  But we tried it out and he encouraged me to sing with my voice.  I sang it as part of a trilogy also with Susanna and Zerlina.  He told me: ‘follow your heart and sing the roles and the repertoire that make you blossom and that you feel are closest to your heart’.  It was so amazing to work with him, and talk about Mozart, and see how he brought the orchestra down to let the singers through.   Then I started to work on Pamina.  I have to find out where my voice is most comfortable and where my timbre and musicality will feel at home.  We’ll see.  I’m still working.

Sometimes I think too much and I’m scared of doing something wrong, of saying yes to things that don’t fit me.  I haven’t sung a lot of bel canto but now I’m getting asked for it.  I’ve also sung a lot of baroque and I’ll be singing my first Romilda in Serse in Paris next season.  I love Handel and I love exploring these great Handel roles.  At some point you have to move on and I don’t want to get stuck in a box.  Of course, you shouldn’t go into these big parts too early, but at the same time you shouldn’t get stuck either, because you can’t sing these very high parts, Olympia, Blondchen, forever.  You need to be smart and think ahead, even though you might still be able to sing something today.  It’s important to show the business that you can sing other roles.

As Pamina in Aix-en-Provence. Photo: © Pascal Victor / artcompress

You’ve sung Pamina for instance at the Aix-en-Provence festival, with Raphaël Pichon and this period instrument orchestra, and then you sang it in Amsterdam with a modern orchestra.  What are the differences for you between singing with period and modern instruments?

I think it’s a huge difference.  To be honest I don’t know which I prefer.  In a way, there’s something really authentic about working with period instruments.  I really love the sound.  The semitone difference in pitch can make a huge difference to the voice.  I feel that my voice sounds brighter when I sing with modern instruments, but at the same time, my voice finds new colours when I sing with period instruments.  Some people mentioned to me that, when they heard my Pamina with both period and modern instruments, that they liked the lower pitch more, that the sound was darker in a way.  Whereas other people mentioned that they heard more of the overtones, or more of the sparkle, with a modern orchestra.  Both have their own qualities but it’s definitely easier when it’s a semitone down – it makes the high notes much easier.  It’s different and I really can’t say which one I prefer.  I have to mention that I enjoyed working with Raphaël Pichon so much.  He’s really one to watch.  He has so much knowledge.  It was his first Magic Flute and he knew the piece extraordinarily well.  He dared to do new things with the piece and really challenged me with ‘ach, ich fühl’s’.  Instead of asking ‘ok, how you want it?’, he questioned everything, the things that are traditionally done but not in the score.  And it’s true, very often when you sing these well-known pieces you fall into the habits of singing them just like everybody else.  So, one of the most interesting things about working with him, was that he really challenged us to rediscover the piece.  I think he’ll be an important conductor for the future and I’m so happy that I’ll get to work with him again.

As Mélisande in Flanders. Photo: © Rahi Rezvani

Let’s talk about being a singer in the twenty-first century, because you’re very active on social media.  You’re great value on Instagram, where you show the fun and the difficulties of working as a singer.  How important is it for you to be present with the public like this?

I’m having a lot of fun with it.  It’s also a way of connecting with the world because you’re so often alone in this business, travelling a lot and being by yourself in a hotel room or an apartment.  It’s a way of connecting with people – I get asked questions, people comment on my posts.  What really inspires me is how many questions, and how much feedback I get, from young singers who ask me a lot of questions and tell me that they get inspired by getting a glimpse of the lifestyle and work that goes into being a singer.  They can see it’s ok to have fun, that it’s not all serious all the time.  When I talk to young singers in their early twenties, they’re so hard on themselves and give up so easily.  I just try tell them that of course you need to take this seriously, and that you always have to be super-prepared, that the business is serious, there are more and more singers, more good singers around, and it’s getting harder than ever to have a career.  But at the same time, I think that if you’re so full of self-doubt, if you’re so serious and doing everything correct all the time, if you don’t live, then it’ll also affect your voice.  I’m sure of it.  It’ll affect how you sing if you’re not happy, if you’re anxious all the time.  So that’s why I’m also trying to show through my social media that we can have fun on set.  I’m always trying to be a nice colleague and show that the business doesn’t always have to be serious and full of blood, sweat and tears!

Coming up you have a new collaboration with Calixto Bieito Solveig’s Waiting in Bergen.  You have of course worked with Mr Bieito previously in that Oslo Hoffmann.  Can you give us any indication of what we can expect from that show? 

With Bieito you never know.  It’ll definitely be something new and it’ll be rediscovering Peer Gynt.  I think the reason this show has gotten international attention – it’s touring to a number of cities – is that of course Bieito’s work is interesting, but also that Peer Gynt is famous worldwide.  This version will focus on the woman and so I think she’ll be a very strong Solveig, with an extreme amount of feelings.  It’ll be truthful and up-to-date – today’s Solveig – a modern woman in all aspects.  Having worked with Bieito before, I know that he likes to explore, he likes to keep communicating all the time, and try out a lot of different things.  I remember when we worked on Hoffmann we started with one idea of Olympia and ended up with something completely different – and I was a huge part of this process.  I adore working with him because he’s always listening.  I think he’s an extremely special director of our time.  He’s very humble, very smart, and he doesn’t have a big ego.  It’s not him in focus, it’s all about the art, and I love that about him.  He’s all about the communication and exploring together.  I think it’ll be very interesting and I hope that we’ll inspire each other to find a new and interesting version of Solveig.

As Olympia in Oslo. Photo: © Erik Berg

Do you find it easier to do to a more radical staging such as that Hoffmann or is it more challenging to do a more traditional staging?

In general, the stage animal in me blossoms more when I get to explore.  It’s so inspiring to have this kind of work where you get so much freedom to explore, like with Bieito.  You meet and you just try everything, so in the end you’re just exhausted because you’ve been through all of your emotions and it’s as if there’s no filter.  Personally, I really love that because I feel I can truly grow as an artist – you become part of it yourself and become more creative.

What can we expect from you looking ahead? Where do you expect your voice to go longer term?

I really hope that you’ll just see me grow into the right roles and that I can sing with heart and mind.  I hope that I’ll slowly grow into some bigger parts, without forcing anything, for example Zdenka and Ilia.  I’m also singing Mélisande again and I’ll continue singing my Susannas.  I think this French and German repertoire will be my thing.  We’ll see if I get to do some of the things I’ve been offered – I need to think about the bel canto roles in general.  What I would really love to do is explore my concert repertoire, because this is really important to me.  So often, people divide singers into ‘this is a concert singer’ and ‘this is an opera singer’.  I’d love, and I’d be so blessed, if I could do both.  That’s why I’m so thrilled that I’m getting to do some great concert works that I’ve been wanting to sing for a long time – the Mahler symphonies, the Haydn Creation, and I’m also singing a lot of Beethoven in the future.  I have a Missa solemnis coming up in Stockholm with Daniel Harding, as well as a Beethoven 9 in Aix-en-Provence with Jérémie Rhorer.  That’s really also my dream to be able to combine singing the wonderful concert repertoire with great conductors at the same time that I can grow as an artist in the opera house.  That’s my goal.


Mari Eriksmoen on Instagram

Mari Eriksmoen on Facebook

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