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You’ve mentioned being fascinated by Meyerbeer since your student days. What was your first encounter, and what drew you to his music?
When I started my studies, I only knew some of his French coloratura arias and was astonished by my encounter with his Italian work Gli amori di Teolinda, which I was invited to sing with the university orchestra. Then I found out that he also wrote German operas. That was when the adventure started: I wanted to know more about him as a composer, about his life and his achievements. For lyric and coloratura sopranos, Meyerbeer’s oeuvre offers a paradise of choice and always something special musically, such as when he takes a ‘normal’ opera seria aria and transforms it into a duet with clarinet in Teolinda, or the a cappella moment in L’Étoile du Nord with the voice with two flutes – or in Marguérite de Valois’ great aria from Les Huguenots, where her wonderful solo scene becomes an ensemble for four female voices. His music is of the greatest elegance and beauty, and full of melody.
What are the main challenges for a soprano in tackling Meyerbeer arias?
You must make your choices according to the possibilities of your voice and the style in which you would like to perform. He wrote for all voice types. There is flexibility when it comes to the choice of ornaments and cadenzas, so it is up to the singer to choose. But, no matter what, you should always be able to apply a bel canto technique – singing in an instrumental way, able to exploit the possibilities of every part of the voice, and with the greatest possible beauty. It is delicate ‘French bel canto’ and it is real music theatre, which means that the words and the dramatic situation must guide the colour and expression. Beyond your technique and voice, as a singer you have to apply all your artistry.
Which arias were you most keen to include on the album, and which arias that perhaps you didn’t know before were the most pleasurable discoveries?
It’s difficult to say, since I planned this album over a long period, and on that journey I discovered more and more of Meyerbeer’s work. I wanted to show his range as a composer in his German, Italian and French works. So I searched in all directions. I definitely knew I wanted to include Les Huguenots, Robert le Diable and L’Africaine, and it was a real pleasure to record L’Étoile du Nord and Berthe’s aria from Le Prophète. There are also arias that cannot be found on any other recording. Most recordings of Meyerbeer are live and sometimes in poor quality. I can say I have all of them! I really love the Feldlager aria, which has two bars that really sound just like Wagner.
Nowadays we know him for Les Huguenots and possibly Robert le Diable. Which of the lesser-known works do you think most merit reviving?
L’Africaine and Le Prophète are now being staged more frequently, and I’m sure that, with all the technology we have these days, more of his operas could be presented in a fascinating way. Meyerbeer could enjoy a great new playground! He was an innovator, the first opera composer to use electric lighting on the stage and to bring all the arts together. I asked some Meyerbeer fans, and they felt that Dinorah could be very exciting, provided particular work was done on the spoken dialogue, which is in French. They also thought that Il crociato in Egitto could have the same kind of success as opere serie by Rossini or Donizetti and that Le Prophète should be staged more frequently, though it can be hard to find suitable singers for Berthe and Jean. There was recently a successful new production in Essen in Germany.
Meyerbeer started with German works, moved into Italian bel canto and found fame and fortune with French Grand Opera. In your opinion, which are most successful – or was he a true chameleon?
Meyerbeer had a talent for adaptation. He was able to feel and understand the roots, styles and traditions of German, Italian and French music. He always sounds authentic – that’s why I see him as a real European. His works are always distinctive and always take music forward. It was probably the French style that offered him the greatest possibilities for expansion, inspiring him to more and new ideas. I am not a Meyerbeer specialist or musicologist, though … these are just my thoughts.
Despite his great fame, Meyerbeer’s works fell out of favour with the rise of Wagner and the later works of Verdi. What were the reasons for that, and were any of those reasons really justified?
Whereas Wagner and Verdi have their own style and worked on the idea of creating unity in a piece, Meyerbeer is more interested in the idea of composite style … He will combine Italian arias, French dramatic ensembles and ‘light’ ballet music, and work with German harmony while writing an Italianate melodic line to a French text … This could explain why, today, Meyerbeer might sound eclectic whereas Wagner sounds, well, Wagnerian! And the style of, say, Les Huguenots is not the same as the style of Le Prophète or Dinorah. Meyerbeer continued to experiment throughout his life. He never stopped coming up with new ideas for orchestrations and formal structures.
Which Meyerbeer opera would you most like to appear in on stage?
I think that Le Prophète and L’Africaine are probably the most worthwhile pieces, if they are well staged and cast with care.
Diana Damrau's Meyerbeer: Grand Opera is Limelight's Recording of the Month in August. Read our review here.