[Opera Lively interview # 97] Opera Lively met the gifted singer in person at the Metropolitan Opera House, the day after one of her performances of Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini.
We addressed this opera, and many other topics.
Belfast, Ireland, but she is a Dutch national
Francesca da Rimini (title role), the Metropolitan Opera House
Minnie in Puccini's La fanciulla del West
May 12, 16, 19, 24, 30, Jun 2, 9, 12, 15, 2013
Sieglinde in Wagner's 200th Birthday Concert
May 22, 2013, 7:30 PM
Ariadne in Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos
Münchner Opernfestspiele, Prinzregententheater
Jul 4, 7, 10, 2013
Isolde in Tristan und Isolde
Nov 16, 20, 24, Dec 8, 2013
Sieglinde in Wagner's Die Walküre
Berlin Deutsche Oper
Sep 22, 2013, Jan 9, 2014
Eva-Maria Westbroek studied at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague from 1988 to 1995. Her vocal teachers included Iris Adami Corradetti and the American tenor James McCray. She made her operatic debut at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1994 as Mère Marie in Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites. She was a prize winner at an international competition in Rome, which allowed her to sing the role of Tosca at age 25. She also was a laureate at the Angelica Catalani Concours and the Santa Maria Ligure Concours.
In 2001, Westbroek secured a 5-year contract as a company member of the Staatsoper Stuttgart. Her roles in Stuttgart included Carlotta (Schreker, Die Gezeichneten), Tosca, Emilia Marty (Janáček, Věc Makropulos), Desdemona (Verdi, Otello), Donna Anna (Mozart, Don Giovanni), Giulietta (Offenbach, Les Contes d'Hoffmann), Marie (Smetana, The Bartered Bride) and The Duchess of Parma (Busoni, Doktor Faust). In 2006, at the end of her work in Stuttgart, she was given the title of Kammersängerin der Staatsoper Stuttgart.
In 2003, Westbroek debuted at the Salzburger Festspiele as Agave in a concert performance of Egon Wellesz' Die Bakchantinnen. In 2004, she debuted at the Opéra Bastille as Madame Lidoine in Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites. Her debut at De Nederlandse Opera was as Katerina Izmailova in Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. This performance was commercially recorded for DVD release, and Westbroek won first prize from the Dutch VSCD Classical Music in the category "most impressive individual artistic achievement" for this performance. She repeated this role in her debut at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in London in October 2006. In 2008, she won the Grand Prix Antoine Livio of the Presse Musicale Internationale.
In her first world premiere production, Westbroek created the role of Anna Nicole Smith in the February 2011 Royal Opera premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage's opera Anna Nicole at Covent Garden.
Westbroek made her Metropolitan Opera debut on April 22, 2011 singing the role of Sieglinde in the premiere of a new production of Wagner's "Die Walküre" directed by Robert Lepage.
Westbroek is married to tenor Frank van Aken.
Westbroek's commercial recordings include Bohuslav Martinu's Julietta, in the title role, for VMS Music Treasures, and three productions of Wagner's Die Walküre as Sieglinde with Bayreuth, Frankfurt, and Aix en Provence on CD and DVD. She is also featured in a DVD recording (Opus Arte) of Puccini's La fanciulla del West as Minnie, her own acknowledged favourite role.
Other recently released DVDs include Anna Nicole, Elektra from Strauss at the Salzburger festspiele 2010 and the role of Georgetta in il Tabarro in Puccini's Trittico.
The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Eva-Maria Westbroek
© Opera Lively - Disclaimer: this exclusive interview is copyrighted by Opera Lively with all rights reserved, and is not to be reproduced without express authorization. Brief excerpts can be used after consultation (use the Contact Us form) as long as proper credit and a link to the full interview on Opera Lively are provided. Links to the interview can be posted without authorization.
Credits - Questions by Opera Lively journalists Mary Auer and Luiz Gazzola. Photo Credits - Unknwon, fair promotional use.
OL - You are Dutch, but anyone who listened to your interviews during the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts would have been impressed by your very idiomatic English. You sound like a native speaker. How come?
EMW – I don’t know… I guess, I learned from watching television in English. In Holland everybody has to speak another language, because nobody wants to speak our language. (laughs)
OL - You are a spinto, right?
EMW – I think I’ve been a spinto, forever.
OL - Your instrument has wide range, is beautiful, polished, strong and powerful, with nice projection. A musician friend of mine is of the opinion that you are best in non-Italian roles. However, as a spinto soprano, your voice must be ideally suited for many Verdi heroines. So far, you’ve sung Desdemona, Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera, and Leonora in La Forza del Destino. Any comments?
EMW – I really love both Italian and non-Italian roles. I think Verdi and Puccini are extremely healthy for my voice. They just line me up in a very good way. Shostakovich was all right. Richard Strauss is also very vocal. And Wagner, you have to be a little careful, not to be too declamatory and lose your musical line.
OL - You are one of the world’s leading Sieglindes today and have sung the role at many different opera houses. When you sing a role frequently, how do you keep the character fresh and interesting for yourself and for the audiences?
EMW – It’s really nice if you have a new conductor. You do a role with James Levine, it’s very different from doing it with Antonio Pappano or Simon Rattle, so I’m very lucky to have these great people that are inspiring, and they make you think about it differently, again.
OL - Three of your roles are those of unhappily married women who become romantically involved with other men: Sieglinde, Katerina Ismailova, and Francesca da Rimini. Any comments?
EMW – It’s interesting, because they have so much suppressed emotion! When you suppress something, it becomes bigger, so these passions that they have become bigger than those of someone whose life is easy and normal. When you have to suppress your love, it becomes unbearable.
OL – What do you think of the score of Francesca da Rimini?
EMW – Oh, I think it’s amazing. I really love it; I think it is so special and interesting! I’m not a scholar or a musicologist; I just go only on how it makes me feel, and I think it’s fantastic. The more you know it, the more you like it.
OL – Yes, I love the wordless duet.
EMW – Isn’t it amazing?
OL – It reminds me of Der Rosenkavalier.
EMW – Yes, yes. It is beautiful.
OL – One of the best moments in all of opera.
EMW – Yes, it’s divine. It’s so poetic! I also love the words in this opera, they are so amazing! It’s nice how through the book they get together; it’s a highlight for my career, to be doing this.
OL – I thought you did very well.
EMW – Oh, thank you, so you did enjoy it! It was a good show, yesterday!
OL – Yes, it was! Moving on from Zandonai, Wagner and Strauss are important parts of your repertoire, but a few years ago, you said that you didn’t think Brünnhilde was in your future. Do you still feel that way?
EMW - I still don’t think she is in my future. I may do little things from the role in a concert but I really don’t think I have that type of voice. I’m not a Hochdramatischer soprano.
OL - A few sopranos have sung the roles of both Elisabeth and Venus in the same performance of Tannhäuser. Would that appeal to you, or is Venus also more of a role for a Hochdramatischer soprano?
EMW – I don’t want to do Venus. It’s hard, harder than ever.
OL - You will sing your first Isolde this coming November at the Semper Oper in Dresden, and then in Bayreuth in 2015. This is one of the great Wagnerian roles, and I’m sure you must be looking forward to it very much. What are some of your thoughts about this part, in terms of its technical challenges?
EMW – Yes, I’m looking forward to it very much. I’m really working on it. The thing I find to be the most difficult about it is its length, because it is so long! You want to pace yourself, and you want to scream in the first act because it is so exciting, and then you have the second act which is so lyrical, so you have to be technically prepared, and think technically, a little bit, so, that might be difficult. I hope I can do it… but I don’t know, you know?
OL – Psychologically, there is such a shift as well between the acts!
EMW – Yes, yes! I love her transformation, it is amazing. From being so angry, she is so in love, it’s phenomenal, wonderful.
OL - I know that you do extensive research whenever you prepare a new role. Can you please tell us more about that process?
EMW – I do what I can; I read about it, I go online… Now it’s so easy, that we can go online, it’s wonderful. I read what people say about it, and I read the text. Sometimes I go back to the literary source, but not always, because I don’t always have the time.
OL - When you are working on a new role, do you listen to recordings as part of your research? Or do you prefer to come to a role “fresh” without being influenced by the way in which others have interpreted it?
EMW - Yes, I really do listen to older records. I know that some people don’t want to be influenced by their predecessors, but I really do, I like it.
OL – Your husband is a singer as well, and you have sung the roles of Sieglinde and Siegmund together. There are some singer couples – Peter Seiffert and Petra Maria Schnitzer, for example – who make a point of frequently performing together. How often are you and Mr. van Aken able to sing together? Do you make specific plans in your schedules for joint appearances?
EMW – Yes, he is doing the Tristan in Dresden, so this is going to be very exciting. And there is another Walküre
planned for the future. I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say where, but yes.
OL – You’re both avid record collectors, right?
EMW – Well, more, him. Actually, only him. I couldn’t compete with that! He came to New York and he was hysterical, he just bought so many records here again, and it’s such a heavy material to carry around! He is one of those who say “I got this series now complete!” Also, he is so interested in older voices!
OL – So, that’s where you get some of the old records you use in your preparation for new roles?
EMW – Yes, I do use them!
OL - You’ve described Minnie as your favorite role. What about this character and the music appeal to you?
EMW – I love Minnie very much for a lot of reasons. I love the music, I find it really divine, and I love how she is really a real person. I feel very close to her insecurity. She is so feminine and so cute, but I love it that she is also a lioness. She has everything. She is a true person and could be one of my friends.
OL – So you identify with her? Are you a strong woman?
EMW – Yes, but then she says “io non son che una povera fanciula oscura e buona a nulla” – I find it so sweet! You feel that way sometimes. I find Tosca much harder to identify with, because she is this sort of diva; she doesn’t show this vulnerability; this makes her not as interesting.
OL - You are also well known for singing the title role in the world premiere of Mark Anthony Turnage’s opera, Anna Nicole. What was your reaction when you were asked to sing Anna Nicole Smith? How much did you know about the real woman at that point?
EMW – I always thought that Anna Nicole was a fascinating figure, one of the most beautiful people ever, so I have to say, I was very surprised they asked me, and also flattered, but also very scared, because I thought, “my God, what it’s going to be?” I got the score and I read the text and everything. I thought, “oh my God, what am I going to do??” Knowing that it was this wonderful team, it was so much fun... I really loved it.
OL – Contemporary music is a bit more challenging for the singer, right?
EMW – Yes, I’m not a really great musician, so it took me a really long time to learn it.
OL - Did your impression of this woman change as a result of portraying her onstage? What are your views of her now?
EMW – It did, actually. I really fell in love with her. I saw lots of footage of her in the Internet. You see this girl that is one of the most beautiful people ever, and how she has to sparkle in this amazing charisma, and how that makes people around her go crazy. In the end it turned against her. Also, in the rehearsal room, everybody in the beginning was saying, “God, did you see that episode of the Anna Nicole Smith show?” Of course, those were very depressing. But in the end, we were all saying “it’s a tribute to Anna,” because we all fell in love with her. Isn’t it great? I was so happy! The best compliment for me was that two of her close friends came to see the show, and they liked it. I asked, “would Anna have liked it?” And they said, “Oh my God, she would have loved it!”
OL – Nice! Some of the other characters depicted in Mr. Turnage’s opera are still very much alive. Do you know if the Royal Opera House was ever contacted by any of them or if they opposed the performance?
EMW – Yes, there were lawyers checking out everything, and they had to change some scenes. There was a scene in which we were supposed to act like we were sniffing coke on stage, and we were not allowed to do it.
OL - Last year, a group of us from Opera Lively had the pleasure of hearing you sing Didon in the Royal Opera House’s production of Les Troyens. In 2010, you sang the role of Cassandre with the Netherlands Opera in Amsterdam. How would you compare the two roles?
EMW – Cassandre is of course a very dark and interesting character, but Didon’s story appeals more to me, because I’m a romantic. And Didon’s music is just so divine! I can’t get over it! The quintet! And the ending scene is so amazing! I hope I get to do it again. I wish I have another try. It’s quite low for me.
OL – Could you do both in the same production, like some of your colleagues did?
EMW – No, I couldn’t. I was exhausted! Cassandre is very declamatory in the middle voice, and that is always quite tiring. I personally find it very tiring.
OL – Yes, she often says her line in prophetic tones and speech-like tones.
EMW – Yes, especially in that last scene with the Trojan ladies.
OL – Régine Crespin and Shirley Verrett performed both roles.
EMW – Yes, and Jessye Norman, and Debbie Polaski. I learned it the first time when I covered it in Salzburg for the Festspiele. It was actually a big break for my career because Gerard Mortier heard me do an orchestra rehearsal, and then he invited me to Paris, to sing there.
OL - I’d like to ask you about the early years of your career. How did classical music and singing come into your life?
EMW – I had some luck. My father played the piano so we always had classical music around the house. It wasn’t like it was new for me; but there was never opera or singing, really. We had one Kathleen Ferrier record, and that was it. But I was always singing. I wanted to be like Mahalia Jackson; I was always singing huge spirituals and screaming my head off. So, my dad said, “why don’t you take singing lessons” instead of violin, which I was really not good at, I had no talent for it whatsoever. So I went to see a woman who lived in the area, and she said “you have to do opera, your voice is for opera.” Then she gave me a record, and I was struck by lightning.
OL – How old were you?
EMW – Sixteen.
OL – As a teenager, you were a fan of Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone, and Billie Holiday, right?
OL – Yes, still.
OL - But have you sung any popular music since then? How do you feel about so-called crossover music? Would you have any interest in performing or recording music outside the classical genre?
EMW – No, I’m not good at singing their music; I prefer that other people do it. I sing it under the shower. Diana Krall, and K. D. Lang, I love them all. And Nina Simone, of course, is amazing. But you know, I don’t think I’m good at it.
OL - Your career began to move forward again when you joined the ensemble of the State Opera in Stuttgart. You were soon singing leading roles with them, and you’ve described your time in Stuttgart as a very happy one.
EMW – Yes, it was.
OL - What in particular did you like about the environment at that house?
EMW – I was starting out, so I was quite inexperienced. It was a wonderful theater, with a fantastic leader. We had really good people. What they did was not like we see now in some of these opera houses where they get stars to do the first night and then the ensemble gets to do the rest with two weeks of off and on rehearsals. No, we were the stars. So, if you were in the ensemble, you were doing the lead role. It wasn’t like they hired other people. And that was amazing. I got to do so many wonderful roles, with great rehearsal periods and wonderful conductors. And of course, the greatest thing was to be settled somewhere so that you could have a social life.
OL – So, now, with all the traveling, is it a lot more difficult?
EMW – Yes, although the fun thing is that now that I’ve been doing it for so many years, I keep meeting the same people in other places. I keep bumping into them. Especially when you do Wagner, you see the same people all the time. (laughs) So, it’s like a family!
OL - You also received the title of Kammersängerin there in Stuttgart; do you feel very special about it?
EMW – Yes, I do, it was wonderful. I don’t know if I actually deserve it so much.
OL - You’ve said you might have remained with that company longer if there hadn’t been a change in management.
EMW – Yes, I was in Stuttgart for six years, and then the intendant left, and it was extremely emotional, because we were really a family, and so the family was being broken up. And then they did this sort of gesture for a couple of us, and it was special and emotional; we had a couple of good-bye concerts, and in my last performance we were all weeping, because we were all leaving.
OL – So, with the change in leadership, did they stop having that sort of special consideration for the ensemble singers?
EMW – No, they didn’t; it’s just that it was different people and they wanted their own gang. People wanted to bring in their own, and I understand that. That’s how it is, that’s change; everything changes all the time in life.
OL - You are involved with the international charity Musicians Without Borders, right? Can you please tell us about some of the projects on which this organization is currently working?
EMW – Actually, not yet. Someone put it somewhere, but I never really got to meet them. I tried to be part of it, but it never worked out. But I do want to be part of it. I think they are an amazing organization. They go to places like Bosnia to make choirs for women from all sorts of background, so they try to, with music, help people communicate. They try to put musical schools in places where everything is destroyed. I think music can bring so much life and love and understanding to people!
OL - At the end of April, Queen Beatrix will step down and The Netherlands will welcome a new King. Will you be able to attend any of the celebrations connected with the enthronement?
EMW – No, they didn’t ask me. But I love the Queen, I love her very much.
OL - Looking toward the years ahead, may we ask you about some of the new roles you’ll be performing in two or three years from now, or any recording plans you have?
EMW – I have no recordings planned. Isolde of course is a huge, big challenge. Kat’a Kabanova, I’m very happy to be doing that, too. I’m really excited that I did Manon Lescaut for the first time, and I’m going to do that again; I totally loved singing Manon Lescaut. It’s so wonderful!
OL – The first time I saw one of your DVDs, was Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. I thought it was spectacular, and I kept thinking, who is this great young singer?
EMW – Oh, cool, I’m so glad, thank you!
OL - How are you as a person? Reserved, or outgoing? How do you describe your personality?
EMW – Ouch! I don’t know! It’s always hard to say it, about yourself. Ah… I’m not reserved, I think. I like people, I like to have fun, I like harmony. I don’t like to fight. I like to have a nice time, all the time.
OL - What are some to the things you like to do outside of opera?
EMW – Actually I have to admit that my life revolves a lot around opera. I have a dog, I love my dog. I really love going in nature and walking the dog, and going in bicycle trips. I cook for friends. I go see my friends and my family, that’s what I do.
OL – Thank you so much for this lovely interview!
EMW – You’re welcome!
Let's listen to the spectacular singer:
This is a superb rendition of Pace, pace mio Dio, from La Forza del Destino:
As Sieglinde, at the Metropolitan Opera House:
I believe one of her best roles is the difficult Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District:
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