Saturday, 20 March 2021

To stay true to yourself: I chat to soprano Katharina Konradi as she releases a new disc of lieder and makes her debut as Sophie in Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier in Munich

Katharina Konradi
Katharina Konradi

Soprano Katharina Konradi has a new recording out next week, Liebende on the CAvi-music label, a programme of songs by Richard Strauss, Mozart and Schubert, with pianist Daniel Heide, and she has a new stage role, appearing as Sophie in the new production of Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier which opened this week at the Bavarian State Opera (conducted by Vladimir Jurowski and directed by Barrie Kosky with Marlis Petersen, Christoph Fischesser and Samantha Hankey). 

Born in Kyrgyzstan and now living in Germany, Katharina's name may well be familiar to UK readers as she became a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist in 2018 (and her new disc is a co-production with BBC Radio 3) and has already made her Wigmore Hall debut. I caught up with Katharina by Zoom from Munich, where she was busy with rehearsals, to find out more.

In person, Katharina is lively and charming, 'fantastic' is a regularly used word, and makes delightful company. Yet she also has a clear view of her voice, taking a balanced view of possible repertoire, of not doing too much and taking the long view, whilst staying true to herself, admiring a soprano like Arleen Auger who remained a fine lyric soprano all her career.

When we spoke, Katharina had been rehearsing for a week and things were going well. She had been rehearsing with her teacher the previous week on the voice needed for the opera. She was finding that she needs to project with more power for the opera, on a big stage, whereas with Strauss' songs she can use less voice and make it more transparent. The production will not be using Strauss' full orchestration but Ernst Kloke's recent version for a chamber orchestra (the same size as that used in Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos). This makes it an interesting experience for Katharina because it means that for her first Sophie she doesn't have to find as much power in her voice as she would with the full orchestration. 

Richard Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier - Katharina Konradi - Bavarian State Opera (Photo W.Hösl)
Richard Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier - Katharina Konradi - Bavarian State Opera (Photo W.Hösl)

The production is being directed by Barrie Kosky, and Katharina has not worked with him before. She is finding it a happy experience, describing him as a fantastic man and that they are having so much fun in rehearsals, and Kosky does everything to make them feel free and comfortable on stage, to be really natural. And she certainly hopes to work together again.

Sophie is Katharina's second role in a Strauss opera, she sang the role of Zdenka in Arabella at the Semperoper in Dresden during the 2018/19 season and at the Staatstheater Wiesbaden. She comments that whilst Sophie and Zdenka are vocally similar, they are very different in character. She loves Zdenka and enjoyed the big challenge of playing a woman playing a man. Zdenka was Katharina's first travestie role, and she has followed it with Oscar in Verdi's Un ballo in maschera at Hamburg State Opera.

She enjoyed performing Oscar because of the different body energy needed to play a man on stage; she had to find out how to sit like a man, what to do with her hands (not soft like a woman). The fascinating thing for Katharina was that whilst she could not change her voice, she was using it with that different body energy.

Richard Strauss:Arabella - Katharina Konradi - Staatstheater Wiesbaden
Richard Strauss:Arabella - Katharina Konradi - Staatstheater Wiesbaden

Looking ahead her dream role would be the title role in Verdi's La traviata and perhaps the title role in Arabella and the Countess in Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro (in which opera she currently sings Susanna). But she takes an admirably balanced view of her voice and fach, saying that if she stuck with Zerlina (in Don Giovanni) and Despina (in Cosi fan tutte) all her life, then that would be fine. It would be fantastic if she could continue to sing them in a good way, and she cites the example of sopranos such as Barbara Bonney and Arleen Auger. Instead of wishing after roles, she feels that she wants to concentrate on thinking about what she can do better and taking care of her voice.

When we spoke, her new disc had just come onto Spotify for the first time, which delighted her. It is her second disc, the first disc (which was made with pianist Gerold Huber) having been made as a part of winning first prize in the German Music Competition in 2016. Looking ahead, she would love to do a single composer disc devoted to Schubert, who is her most beloved composer. But the programme on the new disc, a mixture of lieder by Strauss, Mozart and Schubert, was designed partly to showcase the Strauss songs to coincide with her performances in Der Rosenkavalier.

The repertoire on the new disc is essentially songs that make her happy, as she cannot imagine recording something which she doesn't love. For the Mozart songs, she chose the hits, the best known of his songs. Schubert was more complicated as he wrote so many songs, and she concentrated on songs about love and lovers, though perhaps Verklärung is not quite on topic, but even with this song which is about death, there is the idea of love in heaven. For Richard Strauss, she chose songs from her repertoire which she has performed a lot, though interestingly she avoids the best known of the songs.

Verdi:Un ballo in maschera - Katharina Konradi - Hamburg State Opera
Verdi:Un ballo in maschera - Katharina Konradi - Hamburg State Opera

Looking ahead, this Summer Katharina will be returning to the Bayreuth Festival for the Shepherd in Wagner's Tannhäuser. She made her Bayreuth debut in 2019 when she sang the Shepherd and a Flower Maiden in Parsifal. With just the one (relatively small) role this year, Katharina will be using her time preparing for future concerts. Looking further ahead, she sees the rhinemaiden Woglinde as a possible stepping stone and wonders whether she might consider Sieglinde in the future.

But opera is not her only concern, she also regularly sings recitals and concerts and she comments that a singer today (and maybe those of the past) cannot concentrate on one area but needs to be flexible. Singing song, oratorio and opera provides Katharina with so much experience, and she enjoys the challenge of tuning her instrument to different halls and venues. But she admits that it is difficult to balance the three (opera, oratorio and recitals). When she began her career as a member of the ensemble in Wiesbaden she was in so many operas, yet she also wanted to do recitals so that she did them in her holidays and so had no holiday for two years. She wanted to sing everything.

She has learned, step by step, to achieve more balance. She has reduced the amount of opera she performs, to allow time both for preparation, which she sees as most important for her voice, and for lieder performances. She knows not to do too much, if she sings opera she needs two or three days to come back to her natural light voice and sing lieder. So she currently tries to do three opera projects per year, and devote the rest of her time to recitals and concerts.

Katharina Konradi recording with Gerold Huber
Katharina Konradi recording with Gerold Huber

Katharine joined the BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists scheme in 2018 and she was so happy to be part of the scheme. It was a pianist who she had worked with in Germany who told the BBC about her. Katharina had already heard about the scheme from another of its artists, her colleague Olena Tokar, and Katharina had been a bit jealous. The scheme provided her with a chance to sing in the UK and to record for the BBC. She found it a great experience, and doing the recording was very intimate, enabling her to try repertoire and to use lots of colours in her voice. When it came to making her first BBC recording she admits she was both excited and nervous and found the process gave her experience of working in a studio and with microphones, things you don't have in normal life.

She was also able to make her debut recital at Wigmore Hall. She loves the acoustics of the hall but also enjoyed the audience, finding them great song lovers. Her last recording for the BBC before lockdown in March 2020 was of Russian repertoire at LSO St Luke's, and again she found the audience so appreciative.

As a child in Kyrgyzstan, she sang Kyrgyzstan and Russian folk-songs and later popular music in Russian. She came to Germany at the age of 15 and it was then that she first heard about composers such as Bach and Mozart. She was 18 when she heard her first opera; this was Verdi's La Traviata in Hamburg (which she admits why the role is high on her wish list). The staging was quite traditional and she found it incredible and decided she wanted to sing like that.

Katharina Konradi
Katharina Konradi


Russian was her first language with the Kyrgyz language taught as a second language. When she arrived in Germany she couldn't speak German, which meant that she ended up having to repeat some years at school and did not finish her high schooling until she was 21, which is when she started studying singing. Singing in German is now 'really simple' and the language is like her mother-tongue, but for the first few years, she found the pronunciation and grammar difficult. Her next challenge is to improve her English. When she came to Germany, with no German and no English, she concentrated on learning German and followed this with French, but now she wants to do English.

She enjoys singing in Russian, last October she was back at Wigmore Hall with pianist Joseph Middleton for a programme that included Tchaikovsky songs alongside songs by Felix and by Fanny Mendelssohn and by Lori Laitman (born 1955). In connection with this, she appeared in the BBC Radio 3 programme In Tune, an experience which she found unnerving. She comments that when singing you have the text, you know what you are singing, what you want to say, but a live interview is so different.

As a child her experience was just of folk-music and popular music, she came from quite a small village and heard not classical music. Her idea of opera singers was as something artificial and unnatural, a big woman opens her mouth and sings loud. But now she knows opera is something different to that, so natural, and you don't have to be loud. She feels that it is important in music to stay what you are, to stay true to yourself.

Liebende: lieder by Strauss, Mozart Schubert - Katharina Konradi, Daniel Heide

Katharina Konradi on disc:

  • Liebende: lieder by Strauss, Mozart Schubert - Katharina Konradi, Daniel Heide -  CAvi-music [available from Amazon]
  • Gedankenverloren - lieder by Schubert, Debussy, Strauss, Rachmaninov, Boulanger, Krenek, Trojahn, Laitman - Katharina Konradi, Gerold Huber - Genuin [available from Amazon]

Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier at Bavarian State Opera - 21 March 2021 (free on-line premiere), 22 March 2021 (free video on demand), 3 April 2021, see website for details

  • Conductor: Vladimir Jurowski, director; Barrie Kosky, sets: Rufus Didwiszus, costumers: Victoria Behr, Marschallin: Marlis Peterson, Ochs: Christof Fischesser, Octavian: Samantha Hankey, Faninal: Johannes Martin Kränzle


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