Interview with Evelyn Herlitzius

Born in Osnabrück, Evelyn Herlitzius is widely regarded as one of the most remarkable singing-actors before the public today.  The dramatic soprano has performed on all of the major lyric stages and in the most demanding roles in the repertoire, including Brünnhilde, Salome, Ortrud, Kundry, Turandot, and is a highly acclaimed exponent of Elektra.  After initial studies in Hamburg, Miss Herlitzius made her debut as Elisabeth in Flensburg before joining the ensemble at the Hamburg Staatsoper.  Closely associated with the Dresden Semperoper, where she was an ensemble member for thirteen years, Miss Herlitzius has also performed in Vienna, Paris, Rome, Brussels, Munich and Berlin among others.  Recent, current and future plans include the Kostelnička in Amsterdam, Emilia Marty in Berlin, Elektra in Zurich, and Ortrud at the Liceu.  I caught up with Miss Herlitzius by telephone from Vienna as she prepared to make her role debut as the Amme, in the anniversary production of Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Wiener Staatsoper. 

Photo: © Jasmin Zwick

Miss Herlitzius, you’re currently preparing for your role debut as the Amme in Vienna.  It’s a role with an enormous range, running from low E-flat to high B.  What are the challenges for you when you prepare for a role as extreme as this?

The challenges are mastering the music and the requirements of the music for the voice.  The vocal range of the role is really unusual and the challenge, vocally speaking, is to connect all of my registers perfectly for the role, so that I have no sense of register breaks, but also not to do any damage to the voice.  It’s really difficult.  We’re also doing the piece without any cuts.  As you might know, in the third act, there are several moments for the Amme that are more than demanding.  I started studying the role well before starting rehearsals, so that I was fully prepared to start working with colleagues, and that my body knew what was coming next.  It means that now, while we’re rehearsing, I can concentrate on the psychological aspects of the role and allow myself to find my way into this character.  It’s a role with such a wide range of emotions, of all the emotions that any kind of human being can have.  In a way, the emotional range of the role is very similar to the vocal range.  I think Strauss, of course, knew this and this is why he wrote in such an extreme manner for the Amme.  It’s an adventure and it’s lots of fun.  It’s really demanding, it’s exhausting.  I think it brings every singer to their limits somehow.  But I thoroughly enjoy every rehearsal.  Every day I can feel myself getting closer to this fascinating character.

As Elektra in Trojahn’s Orest at the Wiener Staatsoper. Photo: © Wiener Staatsoper GmbH / Michael Pöhn

It’s a very complex piece because it can be about many things – it can be about childlessness, about the gap between the rich and the poor, or indeed a simple fairy tale.  The Amme seems to straddle all of these aspects – who is the character, the person, behind this monster of a role?

I think she’s a loving mother.  She’s not a real mother, but she’s always been with the Kaiserin, she helped raise her.  The Kaiserin’s parents weren’t around and the Amme took on all the responsibility for raising her.  She’s a very loving person, perhaps even more than a mother, because she felt so strongly about her responsibility to the Kaiserin.  I think that’s the key point, when you’re working on the Amme, to try and find out why she behaves in such a rude and aggressive way, for example.  It comes from the fact that she wants to protect her child.  I think a key sentence in the piece is when the Kaiserin sings ‘hilf deinem Kind!’.  That’s the turning point for the Amme.  At that point, she immediately decides to accompany the Kaiserin to the world below to help find her a shadow.

This production is a big event in Vienna, the opening night is a gala, tickets have been like gold dust.  What can people expect from this new production?

They can expect an excellent cast.  Great music.  Christian Thielemann is the ideal Strauss conductor and for this piece especially.  I’m in awe of my colleagues in the cast, when I listen to them, because their singing is so gorgeous.  The collaboration with the directing team is excellent, the set will be beautiful.  We’re just trying to make this piece clear.  That’s really a challenge and we haven’t tried to project something onto the piece that isn’t in the libretto.  We’ve just tried to make it clear and to make it a kind of fairy tale.

As Elektra in Patrice Chéreau’s staging at the Gran Teatre del Liceu. Photo: © Antoni Bofill

How do you enjoy working in Vienna, in particular, because it’s your second production there this year now?

I enjoy it very much.  It’s a pleasure to be here for three and a half months in a row.  I might not feel like a Viennese yet, but I’m getting close!  I love the atmosphere in the city.  Of course, I’ve been here several times previously, but it’s different to stay for such a long time and just feel at home.  I get to do the things I normally do when at home – I know my neighbours, I’ve found my favourite bakery and butcher.  I also enjoy getting to know people in the theatre better.  And working at the Vienna State Opera is always a pleasure.

Unfortunately, until now I haven’t had enough time to attend many performances because I’ve been really busy with my own work.  I do hope that after opening night there’ll be some time to attend some performances and concerts and to visit the many wonderful museums.

As the Kostelnička in Amsterdam. Photo: © Ruth Walz

Let’s talk a little about the show you’ve just finished.  You are widely recognized as being one of the foremost interpreters of the role of Elektra of our times, but you have just finished performing the role of Elektra in a very different work, in Orest by Manfred Trojahn.  I’m curious as to how you found interpreting a character you’ve lived with in a very different work.

It was a very interesting experience and I enjoyed it very much.  It felt like a continuation of the story of a character I know so much about.  I found that I could dig deeper into her personality and discover more, for example, in her relations with her mother.  In Trojahn’s version, it was clearer that Elektra is very much aware of knowing that she will never somehow lead the life of a woman with children and a husband.  The way she suffered from this knowledge, I felt, came out even more clearly in Orest.  And then of course, there was her relationship with Orest himself, the closeness of the bond was so evident in Trojahn’s libretto.  It was very much a complementary story to the Strauss and von Hofmannstahl Elektra.

I found it a fantastic piece, so tight, not a single wasted note – but incredibly difficult for the singers.

I totally agree!  You had to find the pitch, seemingly from the air, just hoping that it’ll be correct!  As a singer, even if you don’t have perfect pitch, you do have a sense of muscle memory, which helps you to know what a pitch should feel like.  It’s not always perfect but it comes through – hopefully! And Trojahn was happy with what we did.

As Elektra in Zürich with Hanna Schwarz as Klytämnestra. Photo: ©Judith Schlosser

If we may talk a little bit about Strauss’ Elektra because this is a role that you’ve had so much success with over the years.  How important has she been to your career?

I think the most important encounter I had with Elektra was working with Patrice Chéreau, of course.  Although I’d sung her before, the collaboration with Patrice was really one that had a significant influence on my development as an artist.  I’m not so interested in thinking about what I need to do to become more famous.  What makes me so happy is that I’ve really grown with this role, starting with my role debut in Brussels back in 2010.  When I first started studying the role, I felt so desperate.  I took two months off at home just to study and I reached a point at which I felt that I just couldn’t overcome the challenges.  I spent a lot of time reflecting.  I knew that this was a role that I would be able to sing but I just didn’t know how.  So, I thought a lot about my way of singing and experimented with different ways of singing the role.  In the end, I gained a new feeling of freedom in my way of singing.  I’m exceptionally grateful in every respect for my experience with her.

I’ve seen you sing this role around a half-dozen times now and every time I leave the theatre I leave with the sense, not of someone inhabiting a role, but of seeing you become Elektra.  How do you manage that?

I don’t know how I manage it.  The thing is that I can’t do it in any other way.  I have to give everything of myself to her – physically, psychologically, and as an actress.  Otherwise I’m not able to sing her, I wouldn’t dare go on stage.

As Katerina Izmailova at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin. Photo: © Marcus Lieberenz/bildbuehne.de

Another aspect of your artistry that I’ve noticed is that your vocal production is very open and that, in every language you sing, the text is very clear.  How important is text to you?

Text is drama.  Without an appropriate understanding of the text, I can’t even begin to stage the drama.  For me, the text is completely attached to the music.  In practical terms, I try to look at every line and try to find out what precisely this particular word means in the context of this particular note.  If you think of the German word for death, ‘tot’, for example, it will have a different meaning on whether it’s on a high note or a low note.  Then, you can look at how long it’s held for.  All of these things allow you, as an interpreter, to find a deeper understanding of the music.  I also spend hours, days, months even, not just singing the text but reading it, declaiming it, trying to find other rhythms than those notated, just to experiment and find meaning.   I also try to look at what’s behind the text, to find those hidden meanings.

And do you do a lot of reading around the character, for example if it’s a true story, do you read biographies?

Yes, I try to find everything.  Of course, I’ll read biographies and letters and so on. But I’m also interested in what was going on in art when the piece was written.  I also try to watch films that are linked somehow with the piece.  When I sing Elektra for instance.  I won’t try to watch every film version of the story, but I’ll try to gain an understanding of the world around the piece.  I’ll also go to the theatre.  It’s a mixture of everything.  I find that a lot of the way one understands a piece also comes from instinct.  We can often find that we know so much more about a piece or a character, and it can seem that this comes to us all of a sudden, when actually it comes from our own experiences feeding into the way we think about a work.

As Brünnhilde with Johan Reuter as Wotan in Budapest. Photo: © Posztós

How long have you been interested in performing and when did it start for you?

I think it started when I was at university.  When I was there, I realized that singing and acting for me are connected – otherwise I’d have become only a concert singer.  I’ve always been interested in experimenting and finding my own way of acting, one that’s actually close to my own way of singing, so that the audience can’t really feel the difference, between whether I’ve been acting or singing or both.  That’s my ideal and what I always aim for.  I’ve been lucky because I’ve had the chance to work with some excellent directors.  I also think it’s an advantage that, originally, I wanted to be a dancer, even before I started singing.  It meant that I was already quite experienced in using my body on stage to portray a character and to portray emotions.

Let’s talk a little about how you built your instrument because it has an astounding cutting power but also a warmth in the middle.  How did you build the voice to be able to create the sound in that way?

It’s just something I’ve developed.  I’ve always based my singing on the idea that there are no registers at all in the voice, that the voice is a kind of column, an even column that goes from the very bottom to the top.  That my body forms this column, it’s completely even, with no narrow places in it anywhere and to keep the column of sound open while I’m singing.  Also, to breathe out and not hold the breath in.  It’s important not to keep the breath inside – don’t be afraid of not having enough breath.  If you let it flow, it’ll come back automatically.  I think of breathing like a wave, coming out from somewhere behind me, going over my head, and then projecting into the audience.

It’s fascinating what you mention about register breaks, because I never get a sense of you negotiating the passaggio, it always sounds connected, always linked, and it’s really interesting to hear that’s the way you look at it. 

It’s good to have this with the Amme I can tell you!

As Emilia Marty at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin. Photo: © Bernd Uhlig

You’re having a very busy season with several important role debuts – you’ve had the Trojahn Elektra, the Amme, the Hexe in Dresden and the Kostelnička in Amsterdam – but you’ve also said farewell to one of your most highly acclaimed roles, Brünnhilde.  How do you decide that it’s time to say goodbye to a role that’s been so important to you?

I just felt that it was the right time.  I’d been singing Brünnhilde for twenty years and I felt that there were more and more corners in the role, not in Götterdämmerung, but in Walküre and Siegfried, where I felt uncomfortable.  I felt that I had to make a decision.  I wanted to sing the Amme, because that’s where my future lies, and you can’t do both.  The vocal demands are just so different.  You can’t sing the Siegfried Brünnhilde and the Amme – I can’t do that.  There may be somebody who can, but I can’t.  And so, I thought that it’s better to make a clear decision.  Instead of living with the doubt of whether I could go back to sing Brünnhilde, whether I could manage her again, if I had enough time to get back into it after the Amme, I decided that no, it’s better to be clear.  I’ve been so lucky as a person and a singer with this role, that I’d been allowed to sing her for such a long time.  I think it’s better to move on with lots of gratefulness and start to focus on the future.

With these new roles that you are taking in your repertoire, what is your decision-making process on whether to take on a new role?

I think that most of it is luck but instinct also plays a part.  For example, with the Amme, around four years ago I was in Vienna for a Ring.  Dominque Meyer came to me and asked me what I thought about singing the Amme in 2019.  I said ‘yes’ right in that very moment because I knew instinctively that it would be the right role, at the right time.  The same with the Kostelnička.  It’s a role that I’ve been waiting for a number of years to sing.  I’d been offered it six or seven years ago, but I wasn’t ready at that point because it needs a different way of handling the middle and lower registers, similar to the Amme.  Seven years ago, it was too early.  The character is great and I was curious to sing her on stage but I knew that I needed more time.  Then I got the offer from Amsterdam, for October last year, and I felt that the time had come to take her on.

Looking forward we have an Elektra and an Emilia Marty in Zurich, the Kostelnička at the Deutsche Oper, Ortrud at the Liceu.  What else can we look forward to looking ahead?

I’m going to be participating in a world premiere in Dresden, Die andere Frau by Torsten Rasch.  I’ll also be singing my first Herodias in 2020.  I’m returning to the Kostelnička, and also very much looking forward to two more productions in upcoming seasons of the Amme.  I’m at a stage where I’m really changing my repertoire and taking on a new direction. These roles are part of that.

With thanks to the Wiener Staatsoper.

Evelyn Herlitzius on Konzertagentur Marianne Böttger

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