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Halfway through my interview with Simone Kermes she fixes me with a provocative look and says: “Do you want to see my vocal cords? I want to show you my vocal cords.” It’s a gesture typical of this reincarnation of the wild-women of the Baroque. “For a singer it’s like you are naked”, she says. “Like you take off your clothes for Playboy”. She takes a few minutes to rifle though her trusty smartphone during which she warns me that what I am about to see may be quite confronting as apparently many people think they look like certain other body parts.
“Nobody is showing the cords because if they are not healthy you can see it”, she says proudly, displaying a series of up close and intimate shots of her vocal apparatus. “I wanted to put them in the last album but Sony said ‘no Simone, you cannot put them in the book’. I said ‘why not?’”
Kermes is here in Australia for a series of concerts with Paul Dyer and the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, the latest in a line of international class acts to visit our shores as guests of Australia’s premiere period orchestra. She’s only just got off of a plane from Berlin and I’m her second interview of the day but she looks a million dollars, casually, but fashionably dressed, the whole ensemble topped off with a rather theatrical diamante crucifix. There’s no sign of tiredness and no shortage of the trademark Kermes chutzpah.
We are discussing the mechanics of singing the baroque repertoire and whether arias written for women and those written for the rock star castrati require a different approach. When she first started producing the string of solo albums that have made her name, on the whole Kermes was singing music written for the famous divas of the period. In particular she has a fondness for Francesca Cuzzoni – Handel’s first Cleopatra and, like Kermes, a singer with a reputation for energising her audiences. “I have a new album coming”, she reveals, “but this program is about Cuzzzoni’s fighting with Faustina Bordoni.” The two prima donnas were notoriously reputed to have come to blows onstage in a performance of Handel’s Astianatte. “My rival will be Vivica Genaux”, says Kermes with a malicious twinkle in her eye, “but we are friends”, she adds teasingly.
Recently she has been singing a lot of music written for the legendary castrati – the likes of Farinelli and Caffarelli. Does it feel very different? “I think it’s more difficult”, she says, “because the best arias at this time were written for them. If I look now at the repertoire for Cuzzoni that I’m working on I have to say it’s not the same as what was written for Farinelli or Caffarelli. They really got the best arias. Technically and musically they are more difficult. There are beautiful slow arias, and then the coloratura with the horns or the trumpets.”
Does that involve a different technique? “No, I don’t think so”, she says, “Although maybe in the last years my technique has changed. My teacher died. I had a very good teacher – Helga Forner. But from this moment I started by myself. Sometimes you have to leave your teacher because you have to find your own way, your own voice. At the beginning, you need to learn technique but then have to create your own. Now I do what I feel I want and in the last years I have created my own style. It’s like in pop music, making a voice that people really remember, that you really recognise. For a singer this is very important.”
That independence of spirit has been a part of Kermes’ makeup from the very beginning. “When I was five years-old I had a nightmare”, she confesses. “I was standing on stage and singing an opera. I told my father that this was my dream and now my dream has come true. Of course at this time I wanted to be a rock singer or a pop singer or dancer.”
Although she now lives in a trendy area of former East Berlin, she was born and grew up in Leipzig, the Bach pilgrimage centre par excellence. His music, however, was not right for her. “I’m not at peace with Bach”, she admits, “It is very difficult for singers – not only for singers but for everybody – perhaps because Bach is for the head, not the heart. I did the Matthew Passion, the Johannes Passion, the whole repertoire at the start of my career. I sang a Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen in Paris once and as an encore I did a high C on the end. In Leipzig they would kill me for that. In Paris they are like ‘woah!’ It was the first time I was successful with Bach. Maybe in the future I will make my peace with him.”
Baroque music though has become the centre of her life. “Without Baroque I couldn’t live”, she pronounces, her eyes flashing with drama “This music was in its time the same as our pop music – it was new. So if I want to be a pop singer I have to sing Baroque.” And of course her famously pure voice seems tailor made for the repertoire. “I think baroque music is the base for every style of music. If you understand this music, you will understand Mozart, Verdi, Rossini, Mahler, Strauss. In baroque music you have to do something special with every note – you have to find a colour. It’s not only ornaments. The music is so moving and you have test everything in it. If you can sing this, you can sing everything that comes after it. You must have a pure voice to sing Verdi – you must not sing it with vibrato in the old fashioned – Verdi doesn’t want that. Verdi wanted the bel canto”.
It’s at this point she recounts the story that leads us to the revelation of her vocal apparatus in all its glory. “Years ago in Copenhagen I sang a very difficult role in Mozart’s Lucio Silla. During the production I got sick and I went to the doctor and he looked at my vocal cords and said that they don’t look like a high soprano or coloratura. They reminded him of only one other singer. He said I have the vocal cords of Birgit Nilsson! Because my cords are thicker and not so thin. Maybe this is the reason that I have a large range. I was singing Queen of the Night and Constanza and at the same time Rosalinde, Gilda and Lucia – lower roles as well”.
As well as singing the obvious Handel and Vivaldi, Kermes is a noted advocate for some of the lesser-known masters of the Baroque, in particular the Neapolitan school and the likes of Hasse, Vinci, Leo and Porpora. I ask her how she goes about finding this largely forgotten repertoire. “My husband found some in libraries and I found some scores in Berlin – but sometimes only the piano parts. You then need the instruments and often no one has done an edition. Then you’ve got to look for where the arias are – some in the US, some in Brussels. It’s a lot of work.”
At this point I have a sudden visual image of Kermes the academic, a combination of studious librarian and flame-haired Miss Marple. Does she have to spend a lot of time poking about in dusty music collections? “No”, she chuckles, “I have my ‘people’. And Cecilia Bartoli is doing the same – I can tell you she’s not doing it by herself – I know this for a fact. Also a lot of people send me scores – ‘please do it’, they say. Somebody even composed 'new' arias for me in baroque style”
And what about choosing the program for a disc like Dramma, the album she’s showcasing here in Australia? “Of course not everything is beautiful,” she admits. “I have to do what works for my voice. During the first few rehearsals with the orchestra we have to decide what is really beautiful and what is working. I like this work – it’s like you are pregnant and the baby is coming. And then you have to give the baby the milk. It’s like a birth.”
Equally renowned for her dazzling technique, her electrifying stage personality and her flamboyant fashion sense, Kermes is frequently cited as a risk taker in performance. Is this important to her? “Very much”, she says, “Everybody needs to take a risk. If not it’s boring. Always I fight with the orchestra or the atmosphere. I need to make people open their minds. I need to make them happy. Sometimes I clap and they start to clap. At this moment they start to open up. In one concert I pulled two girls up on the stage who were sitting in the first row. We were dancing rock and roll to baroque music. One critic wrote a fantastic review. And it was a fantastic concert.”
It’s not always easy, and not every risk pays off, but Kermes is always moving forward, ready for the next gig. And then there are the nerves. “Sometimes I feel like I am going to an execution”, she admits. “Sometimes there is a countdown one hour before, or you feel like you have to go to the toilet. In Rome there was a doctor who took my pulse before a concert– it was 140! He said ‘Oh my God, Simone. You cannot go out’. Once you start to sing though it’s gone. But there is still the audience – will you die or not? It’s like the Romans – I feel like I’m facing the lions. I try, I give – I give, but I am human and I cannot give more. At the end the audience may be fantastic. But you feel like you’ve faced a lion. More than one!”
Simone Kermes performs Fearless Baroque with Paul Dyer and the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra in Sydney and Melbourne, September 4-15.