Opera Lively traveled to Berlin this summer for in-person coverage of Cendrillon at the Komische Oper and Luce mie traditrici at the Staatsoper. The second of our five interviews related to this coverage (the first one has already appeared in our online review of Luce mie traditrici) is now being brought to our readers, and features the delightful young soprano Nadja Mchantaf who sang the title role of Massenet's opera (see our full review by clicking [here]). The charming Ms. Mchantaf is full of life and energy, and is enjoying the big push that her budding career is getting from this very successful run. We counted on the input of Dr. Andrea C. Röber, Komische Oper Press Officer, who sat with us at the table during the interview.
Photo Credit Jan Windszus Photography
Singer: Nadja Mchantaf
Fach: Lyric Soprano
Born in: Husum, state of Schleswig-Holstein, Germany
Recently in: Cendrillon (title role) at Komische Oper Berlin
Next in: Rusalka (title role) at Komische Oper Berlin, among others
Nadja Mchantaf was born in Husum in the state of Schleswig-Holstein, Germany. After 10 years in dance training, the soprano studied voice at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy in Leipzig with Regina Werner-Dietrich and has been a pupil of Brigitte Eisenfeld in Berlin since 2010. She also studied with Peter Schreier and Franz Grundheber. During her studies she performed at the Leipzig Opera, the Gewandhaus and the Leipzig Bach Festival.
Directly after graduation in 2009 she started her involvement in the Young Ensemble of Semperoper Dresden and sang among others, the title role in Henze's world premiere of Gisela for which she was nominated as Young Artist of the Year.
Then Nadja Mchantaf became a member of the established ensemble of the Semperoper Dresden and was heard there as Pamina (Die Zauberflöte), Musetta (La Bohème), Micaëla (Carmen), Servilia (La Clemenza di Tito), Gretel (Hansel and Gretel), Princess Eudoxie (La juive), Annie (Der Freischütz), Valencienne (The Merry Widow), Lucilla (Il tutore), Lidochka (Moscow, Cheryomushki) and Morgana (Alcina). In L'elisir d'amore under Riccardo Frizza she sang Adina and under Christian Thielemann the 5th maid (Elektra) which was recorded on CD released by Deutsche Grammophon.
As Tamiri in Mozart's Il Re Pastore she debuted at the Komische Oper Berlin and was then engaged for the 2015/16 season as the title role of Cendrillon by Massenet. Guest appearances have also led her to the Stuttgart State Opera, the Berlin Symphony, the Shanghai Symphony and the Beijing Music Festival. At the Graz Opera she sang Angèle in Der Opernball.
For the season 2016/17 Nadja Mchantaf is part of the permanent ensemble of the Komische Oper Berlin, where she will sing Tatjana (Eugene Onegin) Rusalka (Rusalka), Micaëla (Carmen), and L'Enfant (L'Enfant et les Sortilèges).
The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Nadja Mchantaf
This is our interview #205. Copyright Opera Lively; all rights reserved. Reproduction of excerpts is authorized for all purposes as long as the source is quoted and a link to the full piece is provided. Reproduction of the entire interview requires authorization - use the Contact Us form. Photos unless otherwise stated with specific credit are fair promotional use (we often do not know the names of all photographers; will be happy to include them if we are told who they are). Some of the photos were kindly sent to Opera Lively by the Press Department of the Komische Oper Berlin; authorized use.
Luiz Gazzola for Opera Lively - Please tell us about this production of Cendrillon. First, the music: what do you like about Massenet’s music for your character?
Nadja Mchantaf - I love the part, I love the staging, and I’m enjoying very much the whole evening. I like especially that it is such deep Romantic music! It goes for my voice from the low to the high, through the bright. I can stretch my voice in every direction. Massenet wrote so emotionally! Everything I can do for this character on stage, I hear it before, in the music. I try to bring both together, and it works. He is a good theatrical composer. It’s so detailed! When you read the score, every point, every phrase, every staccato contains so much information! The character automatically develops. It’s all written in the music.
OL - Are there vocal challenges in this role? Is it difficult to sing, in some parts?
NM - Yes! [laughs] Every role has its special points where you think “OK, this is difficult for me; I have to practice harder.” This part is often sung by a mezzo. It’s really deep and then it goes high, but I like it. In the end there are big lyric-dramatic parts, but in the beginning it is soft and there are lots of points where you can develop good piano. There are parts that are very dramatic when she wants to die, and this is also written in the music. It goes from light lyric to dramatic soprano – well, it’s not really dramatic soprano but it goes a little bit in that direction. It also has coloratura parts. The role has a bit of everything.
Komische Oper Berlin's 2016 production of Cendrillon - Photo credit Monika Rittershaus
OL – There is also the physical part, in this production: you dance en pointe, you jump around in crutches, and you have this incredible scene when the hospital bed with wheels is passing by and you have to jump on it, and I was thinking “I hope she doesn’t miss it and acquires a real knee injury!”
NM – [laughs]
OL – Is it very exhausting? Does it trouble your breathing and your singing?
NM – Of course you have to practice a lot to combine the singing with the en pointe dancing, but I really like doing this sort of thing. I had eight weeks to test my limits. I’m happy that it worked. I’m not the kind of person who says “I can’t do this because I have to sing.” I never refuse anything; I enjoy bringing everything I can into a production . There are of course limits, but most of the time it works fine.
OL - What is your recipe for a good Cendrillon, singing-wise?
NM – Good question; I don’t know. You have to have the range since it is strong in all registers; the low, the middle, and the high. I saw the score and actually felt that it was good for my voice. I don’t have a special recipe for this. I just follow the music- it’s all there.
OL – In this production with the knee injury and the hospital bed, the story gets slightly altered, but I think it worked very well. What would you say about this production’s strengths?
NM – It is a very special concept. It feels like the real world, where Cendrillon experiences real bodily pain and a loss of self-control. She is threatened with losing the control of her own body and losing her dancing career and her boyfriend who is also her dancing partner. There are many more emotions than in the original plot, because we mixed to it this parallel with the Ballet world. For me this reading works really well.
OL – Yes, certainly the concept spiced it all up and gave more psychological depth to the role, which otherwise can be a bit one-dimensional. You have ten years of dancing background, right? So it’s kind of a production made for you.
NM – It was destiny, because the director didn’t know about my dancing background. I was not a ballet dancer. I did competition ballroom dancing for ten years when I was young. I had a lot of passion for dancing. And here I was sitting in the concept presentation where the director spoke to everybody about his ideas… There is a term for this in German: “Konzeptionsgeschräch”- I’m not sure if there is an equivalent term in British or American theater.
OL – The problem is, we don’t have too many concepts over there… our productions tend to be old-fashioned and traditional.
NM – [laughs]
OL – We come to Europe to be amazed by your productions that are so daring and avant-garde! Ours are boring!
Andrea C. Röber (Komische Oper Press Officer) – [Laughs] We do our best!
NM – Well, Damiano Michieletto presented his concept, and I was thinking “OK, cool. I’m a ballet dancer. Maybe I can dance! I’m not sure!” I was a little bit happy with this, and I thought “maybe he knows about my background.” Then I thought “OK, he says that I’m injured the whole evening so I won’t dance.” But then in the rehearsals we developed the idea of her having a dream. She dreams that she is healthy. The music was playing, then I tried something: I started to dance. He was happy. He said “Oh, you can dance!” I said, “Yes, I was a dancer!” Then we incorporated the ballet dancing into it. It was destiny.
Komische Oper Berlin's 2016 production of Cendrillon - Photo credit Monika Rittershaus
OL – Did you have to get lessons on ballet dancing?
NM – In this production we have a real ballet dancer who functions as my doppelganger, and we had a choreographer, who is also a ballet master, so in these eight weeks of rehearsals she taught me. She was with the Komische Oper Ballet Corps when it still existed. At age thirty-something she changed jobs and became a stage manager. She knows all things ballet.
Komische Oper Berlin's 2016 production of Cendrillon - Photo credit Monika Rittershaus
It was a great time for me. It was my first contact with ballet and with ballet shoes. I had never tried to dance en pointe. It was nice to feel like a dancer again. It was just a little bit of dancing; not like I did before, but for me it was very enjoyable. Sabine [Franz – the choreographer] gave me a lot of freedom to experiment things with my body, because I’m not a professional ballet dancer. I learned a lot.
OL – You looked very convincing. Does your background in dancing help with other aspects of your operatic career, such as being more relaxed on stage, and more in tune with your body language?
NM – I think I have a degree of musicality that comes partially from the dancing music in my childhood. I’m not sure if it leads to better acting. It is definitely useful with the time counting for the music. But it is not like my colleagues who don’t have a dancing background can’t do it. I’m not that special in this regard.
OL - You were a member of the Ensemble of Semperoper Dresden where you did more than 40 roles.
NM – Forty? You counted them? [laughs]
OL – Yes, I did! Lots of roles! Tell us about this experience. Is it exhausting? Is it dangerous for the voice?
NM – I was with the ensemble for six years. I started with the Young Ensemble Studio then I was promoted to professional ensemble, and I had great roles. It wasn’t dangerous. I was given a lot of time to develop my voice and my personality. It was my artistic home: my first time as an opera singer, and my first opera house. Every role came at the perfect time for me, there. I started with light roles then progressively evolved into deeper ones. I had a great time. I continue to be very connected with them.
OL - You participated in Henze’s world premiere of Gisela. How was the experience of creating a new role?
NM – Gisela was very special because it was his last opera. He was there in the premiere. The score wasn’t entirely ready when we started rehearsals. He finished it up during the rehearsals, writing specially for our voices. It was one of the first big roles that I sang in Dresden. It was a big deal for me.
OL – Did you have an opportunity to interact with him?
NM – Yes, we spoke during the dress rehearsal, and I asked him what else I should do to express his music, “tell me, tell me!” He was very quiet and gentle, and said, “No, everything is fine. I’m happy with what you are doing.” For me it was a big honor, to have contact with this great composer.
OL – You were nominated as Artist of the Year for your role.
NM – It was just a nomination. I didn’t win it. [laughs] But still it was a great honor.
OL – It’s still impressive for such a young singer. OK, you have engagements to sing, in the 2016-17 season, Tatjana (Eugene Onegin), Rusalka (Rusalka), Donna Anna (Don Giovanni) and Micaëla (Carmen), although I’m a bit uncertain because the program seems to have changed.
NM – Yes, we changed it a bit. I won’t sing the Donna Anna this season because I also have L’Enfant et les Sortilèges and it turned out the rehearsals overlap; it’s too much, so I had to decide between the two. I was more interested in L’Enfant because it is a new production, and Don Giovanni is a revival.
OL (to ACR) – Just a curiosity: I saw the pictures for the upcoming productions and almost all of them have contemporary costumes. Is this a signature characteristic of the Komische Oper? Is it a coincidence or intentional? Do you almost always update your productions to current times?
ACR – The photos for the new productions don’t reflect their style. They are just motifs that are loosely associated. So this might be a bit misleading. Each director, each team, they have their own concept. We don’t prescribe anything. If you take our Don Giovanni, it’s a pure fantasy world, in an abstract space and the costumes are over-the-top Baroque. [laughs] I wouldn’t call them contemporary. They are more like today’s vision of the Baroque, with a neon-Rococo twist. But in Rusalka and Eugene Onegin, for instance, we have what I would describe as classically historicized costumes. Even Ball at the Savoy or A Woman who knows what she wants! are visually fundamentally historic – but the costume design is rooted in the 1920s and 1930s, so it has a modern touch.
OL (back to Nadja) – So, considering these four upcoming roles, probably Rusalka is the most difficult one, due to the language, right?
NM – No, our Rusalka will be sung in German so it’s not so difficult for me. But of course Russian for the Tatjana will be harder. I have started studying Russian. The rehearsals for Rusalka and Onegin will also overlap and they are both big roles, but I’m so excited! I didn’t even want to have a summer break. I’d prefer to go on with working on these roles; I cannot wait!
OL - As a young singer still in the dawn of your career, how was the experience of already recording an opera, Elektra, with Deutsche Grammophon?
NM – Great, fantastic! I loved it because this is my favorite opera! OK, maybe not my favorite because when I’m singing Tatjana Onegin is my favorite, then when I’m singing Rusalka, it becomes my favorite… but I really do love Elektra; it is so special! This was a wonderful experience because the singers were so great [Waltraud Meier, René Pape, Evelyn Herlitzius, Anne Schwanewilms], and working with Christian Thielemann and the Staatskapelle Dresden to make this CD was a big honor. My role, the Fifth Maid, was short but tough. There is a nice aria when I sing a lot. In this opera it was the perfect role for me, at the time.
OL - How did you decide to become an opera singer, growing up, and why did you change from dancing to opera?
NM – Good question. I fell in love with operatic music. I was 17 or 18. I started by singing Lieder and working with my voice, then I listened to a lot of operas and fell in love. It became very clear to me that it was what I wanted to do. In my high school they really wanted to provide good music education for the children. It was a music-oriented school. In my childhood I always knew that I wanted to do something with art – that much was clear to me, but for a long time I didn’t know which artistic genre would fit me best, until I started listening to opera.
OL – Did your family have a music background?
NM – No. That’s why it is so special. It really comes from myself. Nobody in my family ever suggested that I should do this or listen to that. I did it all on my own. Nobody in my family was into opera. Now they are; of course they come to see me, and I also give them things to listen to; they do, and they love it. For them, another world got opened and they are thankful for it.
OL – Your career is taking off nicely. You are getting big roles in this prestigious house. How do you see your career ten years from now?
NM – I hope it goes on and I have the opportunity to do great productions and reach the people in the audience, and I hope that I’ll develop my voice and my acting. I like roles that have strong characters and deliver a message. When it happens I’m satisfied as an artist. This is a great feeling. Like yesterday, when it ended and the audience seemed to have liked a lot I thought “OK, I can go home; I had a great evening for me and for the audience.” Of course there are lots of operas with great messages so there is a lot to do. [laughs]
OL – The ovation was very, very long. Is this usual with the German public, or is it because the public really loved this show?
Curtain calls - Opera Lively picture
ACR – It is different for each show. I think yesterday was quite special. The ovation was indeed very long, even compared to other Cendrillon shows.
NM – Every Cendrillon is a smash, because it’s such a nice opera! [laughs] It really is!
ACR – The public does engage in longer applause here than in Hamburg, for example, I feel. In Hamburg it’s often awfully short. But then in Berlin applause is often not as long as in Munich. It’s a question of local mentality, I think. People in different parts of Germany applaud differently.
OL – I just came from Milan, and they boo the artists there!
ACR – I heard it happens in almost every performance there.
OL – Curiously, it didn’t, this time. They really loved the Simon Boccanegra that I saw there.
ACR – It’s funny, because here in the Komische Oper they really don’t boo a lot – at least not at the moment; only in very rare cases. But if you go over to the Deutsche Oper Berlin, for instance you get quite a lot of booing there with the applause, most of all at the premieres. [laughs]
OL – Germany has opera houses in all major cities and even in smaller cities. Is it much easier to get jobs and have a career here, and get well paid, or is it a cut-throat business? Opera singers don’t get as many job opportunities in the United States, I think.
ACR - Yes, we have a beautiful landscape of theaters so it is probably easier to get a job, but I wouldn’t say that it is well-paid. I suppose that an artist in the States who gets a job as a freelancer gets better paid than most artists here in Germany or at least equally. But I don’t know the statistics. One would have to do research into that. But American theatres mostly lack the ensemble culture. Here you have the choice to join an opera ensemble, have a regular income and get all the experience, which is a great opportunity. Of course in the German-speaking world we have more opera houses than in the rest of the world combined. More than fifty percent of all opera houses are in German-speaking Switzerland, Austria, and Germany.
OL – But you are getting now lots of competition from Eastern European singers, North Koreans, and the Americans already come numerous, so the job market must be getting tighter.
NM – So far, I’ve been very sheltered as I’ve been in ensembles since I graduated. I have not really been in the competitive job market as a freelancer.
OL – Not yet!
NM – [laughs]
ACR – Lots of talented people from abroad come here to study. Universities in Germany are tuition-free and often have an excellent reputation. In many countries you have to pay for your education; for instance in the US, in Great Britain and North Korea, as far as I know. Of course people then stay here and look for jobs. With this amazing landscape of orchestras, theatres and opera houses – who wouldn’t? The music and opera world has always been quite globalized.
OL (to Nadja) – So now you are protected in this nurturing environment. Are you afraid of going out to the world?
NM –I’m not afraid. I love my job. I’m not afraid of anything. [laughs]
OL - Tell me about you as a person. What is your personality like, your take on life and your extra-operatic hobbies and interests?
NM – I try to live every day in a good way. I like to spend my free time with my friends and my family. This is very important for me. They keep me grounded. I’m in this fantastic opera world but I need to be grounded in my private life. I like to be in the garden, and I like to practice sports. I like to be quiet but I also like to go out with friends, sit in a café, or eat good food. I enjoy reading a good book. I think I enjoy things that are nice and easy.
OL – Personality wise, you look like a very happy person, but maybe it’s because the season has ended and it was a big success! [laughs]
NM – [laughs hard] No, we can do an interview at the beginning of the season and it will be the same!
ACR – She has this natural radiance!
OL – Yes, she was portraying a depressed character in the opera, crying profusely, and then I met her in front of the building coming to the interview and she is this ebullient person! [turns to NM] So you are a very good actress, able to portray someone very different from your own self.
NM – I like to be in touch with all the real emotions of a human being.
OL – You said at the beginning that it was your first interview in English. I’m sure it won’t be the last, since your career is developing very nicely. Anything else you’d want to add?
NM – I don’t have any big comments to make. I enjoy everything that is happening to me now, and I’m sure I’ll enjoy the next steps. I live in the moment. Now this great production has ended; it was the last performance, but it is still inside me. This is a big changing moment in my life, because the big roles are coming now, and I’m very excited and happy. I’m just happy to be doing what I’ve always wanted to do in terms of the roles that are coming in my near future.
OL – Thanks a lot. It was wonderful. I wish you the best of careers. You are certainly in a very promising moment!
NM – Thank you so much! It was a pleasure to talk to you.
OL (to AR) – And thank you for your assistance and help.
ACR – You’re welcome.
Let's see the trailer of Cendrillon at the Komische Oper Berlin. We do hear Nadja briefly:
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