Saturday, 28 July 2018

Approaching Winterreise: Angelika Kirchschlager on performing Schubert's great song cycle

Angelika Kirchschlager (Photo Nikolaus Karlinsky)
Angelika Kirchschlager (Photo Nikolaus Karlinsky)
Whilst a distinguished roster of women have sung Schubert's great song cycle Winterreise, a performance with a female singer is still not common. The Austrian mezzo-soprano Angelika Kirchschlager sang the cycle for the first time at a Temple Song recital at Temple Church on Tuesday 24 July 2018 [see my review] with Julius Drake accompanying, and the two will repeat the performance at the Vienna State Opera on 11 October 2018. Whilst Angelika Kirchschlager was in London I was lucky enough to be able to chat to her about singing lieder and more.

First of all, I was curious as to why Winterreise and why now


For Angelika, Winterreise is quite simply the great song cycle and there was no question of her not wanting to perform it. She calls it the ultimate masterpiece that a singer wants to achieve.

It is also a huge project to take on. Angelika has thirty years' experience singing lied, and loves searching out the detail behind the songs, the text, the harmony and the way they interact. And Winterreise was her biggest challeng so far, and she is sure no bigger one will come along. She describes starting work on Winterreise as akin to strolling round a fortress, trying to find the entrance. Walking around two or three times she failed to find the main entrance but eventually found a little wooden door hidden behind a bush.

The timing of the performance she describes as co-incidence. She was supposed to perform it five years ago, but had to cancel because she was ill. She now regards this as fortunate, and is thankful that the performance is coming now and not five years ago.

She has been very close to this kind of madness and knows this kind of lost soul


So many of Angelika's operatic roles have been men, that when she started work on Winterreise she assumed her protagonist would be a man. 

Angelika Kirchschlager (Photo Nikolaus Karlinsky)
Angelika Kirchschlager (Photo Nikolaus Karlinsky)
But as things developed, this changed and she is not creating a gender-specific protagonist as she feels that the issues raised are common to both sexes. She points out that Schubert and Wilhelm Müller's protagonist had to be a man, only men were craftsmen who who wandered from town to town (as the protagonist in Winterreise does), women just didn't do that.

She sees the protagonist as someone who has no connection with society, who is walking into loneliness until lost. Always an outsider, these problems are apparent from the first song. And Angelika points out that women have the same topics, the same stories, not connecting with people, falling in love and not being loved back. But the work is not just about love, but also about finding a place in society.

And in today's society Winterreise seems even more real, as social media usage develops real contact is getting less, people do not listen to each other or feel the people around them. Angelika feels this very strongly, and describes wanting to run away into the woods to escape all the people around you who have no sense of their (or your) space. These issues make it difficult for people to find a place in society, and she feels that there are lots of Wander-persons around today.

In fact, she comments that she has met several men of this kind, and been in the position of the girl in the poem. Angelika adds that she has had to deal with lots of human behaviour, lots of crazy men. She can understand the protagonist well, as she has been very close to this kind of madness and knows this kind of lost soul.

You have to want to perform it


Our discussion moves on from gender issues regarding the protagonist, to talking about why more men sing the cycle than women. Angelika comments that if a man sings lieder then he expected to sing Winterreise at some point in his career. For a woman is different, the work is not right in front of them and people don't necessarily expect it to be performed. You have to want to perform it, and not every woman wants to (in fact, she suspects that not every man wants to, but it is expected of them). All the women the Angelika knows who have performed Winterreise are very powerful and strong.

For Angelika, when performing Winterreise, singing is so in the background and she concentrates more on the text, on telling the story, almost producing the sounds incidentally and she finds this combination of text and sound exciting. I was interested to find out what it was like singing Winterreise in German to a British audience and she comments that British audiences are some of her favourite in lied. She mentions here first appearance at the Wigmore Hall, when she was quite young and at the beginning of her career. She had no name, yet the hall was full and the people listened to her and were very open. She finds that language is no problem in the UK, that usually people the lied and often know the words.

Whilst Angelika has always sung lieder, it has become more important to her as she got older. Initially she divided her time equally between opera and singing lieder, but as she got older she did less opera (partly because of the travel involved) and so sang more lieder. And she feels herself lucky to have an audience that follows her lieder singing. And she also describes singing lieder as giving her the possibility to work in a more relaxed way.

Wonderful that she now sings such a lot in Austria


Whilst Angelika has never really thought about it, when I ask she comments that she does concentrate on German language programmes. This is partly because in the last five to seven years she has established a network of lied recital contacts in Austria. This came about because around seven years ago she met a farmer, a neighbour of her parents, after she gave a charity concert, and he commented that he had no idea that he could love Mahler songs. This confirmed her believe that everyone can love lied, love song; the more you know the more you get out of it but you can just listen and enjoy.

So she arranged a tour through villages in Austria, more of a social project performing Mahler and Brahms in little villages. Audiences were always full, and though she received no money she was provided with a bed and food, and often gifts as well, cheese, wine, flowers and such. She found that it was the best tour in her entire life, and so now she does one every two years. This has grown into her also being asked by many of the Austrian festivals, ones she could not perform at when she was away so much for opera. She finds it wonderful that she now sings such a lot in Austria.

By coincidence, or by fate


That Angelika became a singer at all is by coincidence, or by fate. She had always sung in choirs and sang in a children's opera in her last year of school, when she was 18 and people said that she should make something of her voice. Then one day she stepped out of the school bus and had the idea that she should try to be an opera singer, it came to her so strongly that it felt like destiny.

She applied to Vienna and received an audition. She sang Schumann's 'Erstes grün' (from Zwölf Gedichte von Justinus Kerner, Op.35), the first classical song she had learned, and was put on a waiting list, eventually receiving a place. She had had other plans as well, and if not a singer she would have become a journalist or a book binder. She admits to being a complete fatalist, everything in her career just happened. She had no problems getting her first engagement after leaving college, this was singing Octavian in Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier in Graz, and as a result she was engaged by the Vienna State Opera to sing her first Zerlina (in Mozart's Cosi fan tutte). Through this she met the record producer Christopher Raeburn, auditioned for him and he became her mentor. Through him she was able to audition for managers in New York and after just two years of professional engagements had management in New York. Everything simply fell into place.

As an opera singer, Angelika became known for her portrayal of male roles. Though she did play women as well, these were often young girls and she found the male parts more interesting. In fact, she would have liked to play the more dramatic female roles. Things began to change when she was in her late 30s, and after playing Sophie in Nicholas Maw's opera Sophie's Choice, at the Royal Opera House in 2002, she began to be offered more dramatic female roles. But she still feels that the male role's in Mozart's operas are fantastic.

Angelika feels very strongly the need to continue the lied tradition, to support and encourage composers writing today. She did a complete contemporary recital in Liszt's birthplace (in Raiding, Austria), entirely devoted to songs written for her and with the composers present. She has had three song cycles written for her by Austrian composers.

Nicholas Maw: Sophie's Choice - Angelika Kirchschlager, Gordon Gietz - Washington National Opera (Photo by Karin Cooper)
Nicholas Maw: Sophie's Choice - Angelika Kirchschlager, Gordon Gietz - Washington National Opera
(Photo by Karin Cooper)
She and Julius Drake are performing Schubert's Winterreise at the Vienna State Opera as part of its song recital series on 11 October 2018. Then on 25 October 2018, Angelika goes into rehearsal in Zurich, with baritone Bryn Terfel. This is for Stephen Sondheim's musical Sweeney Todd which opens on 9 December 2018. It will be a lot of work, she has a Cockney dialect coach and is taking lessons in musical theatre vocal techniques.

For full details of Angelika Kirchschlager's concerts, see the schedule section of her web page

Angelika Kirchschlager on disc:
  • The moon's a gong,hung in the wild: songs by Jake Heggie, Angelika Kirchschlager & Maurice Lammerts van Beuren, available from Amazon
  •  Johann Sebastian Bach - Orgel Liederreise, Angelika Kirchschlager & Robert Lehrbaumer, available from Amazon
  •  Liszt Complete songs Volume 2, Angelika Kirchschlager & Julius Drake, available from Amazon
  •  Joseph Marx - Italienisches Liederbuch, Verklartes Jahr, Angelika Kirchschlager & Anthony Spiri, available from Amazon
  •  Wolf & Strauss, Live at the Wigmore Hall, Angelika Kirchschlager & Roger Vignoles, available from Amazon
  • Richard Strauss - Der Rosenkavalier, Adrianne Pieckonka, Angelika Kirchschlager, Miah Persson Franz Hawlata, conducted Semyon Bychkov, directed Robert Carsen, Vienna State Opera, available from Amazon 

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Richly Romantic: Mascagni rarity, Isabeau, brought to life at Opera Holland Park (★★★★½) - opera review
  • A disturbing journey: Schubert's Winterreise from Angelika Kirchschlager and Julius Drake (★★★★★)  - concert review
  • Byron's Grand Tour: Alison Pitt & Gavin Roberts at the St Marylebone Festival (★★★½) - concert review
  • It’s Opera Giacomo, but not as we know it - Turandot at Torre del Lago (★★★) - Opera review
  • A study in dementia: a radical new version of Verdi's Nabucco from the Heidenheim Opera Festival (★★★) - Opera review
  • Lithe and musically engaging: Verdi's I Lombardi from the Heidenheim Opera Festival (★★★★) - Opera review
  • Premiere of a rarity: Donizetti's L'ange de Nisida from Opera Rara and the Royal Opera - (★★★★★) Opera review
  • An impressive achievement: Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos at Opera Holland Park - (★★★★½) Opera review
  • Alissa Firsova: Fantasy  (★★★★) - CD review
  • The cabaret tradition: Melinda Hughes, Jeremy Limb & friends in Weimar and Back (★★★½)  - CD review
  • A new, yet familiar piece: Benjamin Zander on his interpretation of Beethoven's Choral Symphony  - interview
  • Home

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