Soprano with a beautiful voice (Amsterdam 2011)

Interview with Anne Schwanewilms in Het Parool newspaper, on May 11 2011, the occasion of the  Rosenkavalier premiere at the Netherlands Opera in the Musiektheater, Amsterdam.

Anne Schwanewilms is in Amsterdam this week for Richard Strauss’s Rosenkavalier, in which she sings the role of the Feldmarschallin Princess Werdenberg with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra under Sir Simon Rattle. Connoisseurs are very excited because no living singer embodies the role as completely as she.

Schwanewilms brings good news. A new recording of the Four Last Songs is on the way.  “I’ve recorded them with the Gurzenich Orchestra under Markus Stentz. It was a joy. I sometimes feel as if Strauss had written the songs for me!”

What’s it like to have such a phenomenal voice? “Oh!”, says Schwanewilms. “People with ‘phenomenal’ voices don’t actually see themselves like that. The first time I read the word ‘Wunderwilms’ in a paper, I thought it was a joke, but of course it is wonderful when it comes across like that’. She is without vanity, however, and stands with her feet firmly on the ground, well earthed, as fits a former landscape gardener – her profession before she became a singer.

“I chose to be a singer in order to explore my own soul. I want to know who I am. Through music we discover worlds and feelings which are not our own  and that’s good. For example, I experience sad music as a personal enrichment because I’m not by nature a sad person. But real feelings reside precisely in the voice, and that’s why I love to sing.”

However, it took her a long time to realise the kind of singer she was. She herself describes it as “…a long and painful journey”.

“I began as a deep contralto, then went from mezzo soprano to high mezzo, then to Jugendlich-Dramatischen soprano, but I wasn’t happy with that. At that point I could have remained a gardener. My singing was all about technique and volume, and musically I didn’t find that very interesting. And with every new Fach came a new repertoire. It was an aimless time. Then I took five years’ off and concentrated on my singing in order to find finally where my voice really was.

“At first, in 2001, 2002 and 2003, I decided I was a lyric soprano. Psychologically, this opened doors, and revealed sounds that I had never expected in myself. It seemed that at the top I had a bell-like voice, with a delicacy that took me completely by surprise. But even if I could have chosen it, that wasn’t the voice I was looking for [she laughs]. I still wanted a dramatic voice, like Christa Ludwig, Brigitte Fassbaender. Deep, rich. But I’m not that either!”.

It was a struggle against preconceptions. Hans Sotin, the professor at the conservatoire in Keulen, was already convinced in 1995 that Schwanewilms would sing Kundry, the big, heavy role in Wagner’s Parsifal.

“Looking back, I can see his thinking. I was 1.82 metres tall, I had red hair and was registered as a Jugendlich-Dramatischen soprano. I was already stamped with the brand label: ‘Wagner Singer’.

She sang Gutrune in The Ring of the Niebelungs at Bayreuth in 1996 and realised she really was a soprano. She made the voice-change without any teacher. “I wanted to be myself and not imitate anyone else like a parrot. If I’d gone to Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, I’d have sounded like Elizabeth Schwarzkopf”. It was the right choice. Every day she harvests the fruits as one of the best-loved sopranos of our time, but without (“thank God!”) the starstruck carnival of an Anna  Netrebko, with whom she would in no way  want to change places.

And now here she is in Amsterdam to sing the Marschallin, one of her favourite roles because it is so true to life. In the opera, she sings of the life of a woman beginning to grow old, with all the existential doubts that this implies.

“This will be the 31st time I’ve sung the role, and that’s not really so many. Every time I  find new colours, new approaches and new insights into the character, and certainly here in Brigitte Fassbaender’s production. She has a completely different view of the Marschallin.


“This Marschallin is not so melancholy, not so modest. When she sings ‘Die Zeit, die ist ein sonderbar Ding’ (‘Time is a very singular thing…’), the tone is lighter and more  ironic than usual. ‘So what, I’m getting older? There’s not much I can do about that’. And without any deep self-pity”. Schwanewilms sings the lines once more, this time with an exaggerated, laid-on grief. “That can soon become very tedious. But with the lightness I have also to get across the impression that, of course, everything is far from completely happy. This constantly shifting ground is what makes the role so interesting. That’s Theatre!”

Fortunately, the music is always there in support, says Schwanewilms. She would never want to be an actress without music. “I couldn’t do it. As a singer I know from line to line where I am going. An actress stands naked there. She has only the text to work with and must find its rhythm and dynamics for herself. No way! Weird. No, I’ve picked the right ticket! (laughs)

“But I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture. When you wake up on the morning of a performance and feel that you’re not in good voice, that’s a huge stress. Or when you’re sitting on a plane surrounded by snufflers. But if you give in to anxiety, everything would be much worse. In the end you do everything for the moments when everything goes well, or at least better than you expected. Those are God-given moments which you must savour a long time. And it happens to me often enough.

“How ‘often’ is enough? I reckon about  25 per cent of all my appearances. Christa Ludwig once said she was relieved she had stopped singing because, finally, she could walk on the street without a shawl and drink a cold beer. And I thought: I don’t want to be so restricted. I do drink cold beer, even if it means the next day I pay for it. And friends with colds can come to visit. I want to live normally. I don’t want to be a nun!” More laughter.

Is laughter really healthy for singers? “Not the way I laugh, absolutely not!” She roars with laughter, coarse as a bag of pebbles. “But I don’t want to think about that. I know colleagues who have adapted their laughter (she coos like Betty Boop in the cartoons). They’re always playing a part, it’s not real. I don’t want to think like that. Because when you’re not your true self, you can’t reach the inner depths of any one else”.