The coloratura discusses mental instability, her new Lucia and where next for those famous top notes.

Diana Damrau isn’t the first coloratura to tackle Donizetti’s poor, mad Lucia and she won’t be the last, but in this cash-strapped day and age any new opera recording is a cause for celebration. And so is any new disc by one of the world’s most interesting sopranos.

Voted Best Female Singer at this year’s International Opera Awards, Diana Damrau is clearly flavour of the month right now. Her rock-solid reputation for style and reliability regardless of the vocal challenge is allied with a keen sense of fun – witness her commandeering of Maestro Mehta’s podium at a recent Vienna Phil concert. And anyone who has seen her delicious three-in-a-bed romp with Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Flórez in the Met’s Le Comte Ory knows that her instinctive comic timing makes her one of the most watchable and exciting singers on today’s circuit.

Three in a bed: Damrau in Le Comte Ory with Flórez and DiDonato

“I think it’s a natural gift,” Damrau tells me over the phone from Vienna’s Theater an der Wien where she’s just opened in Bizet’s Pearl Fishers. “I love acting. I think I always had a good feeling for timing and I’ve learned more and more since my first performances. My first official engagement was Eliza in My Fair Lady so I needed to know how to speak dialogue and how to act. It was more acting than singing. After that came the Queen of the Night, so that’s the opposite. It’s more focussed on singing and only then comes trying to act and put across the dark character of this woman.”

Damrau’s new Lucia recording is taken from a series of concerts that she gave last year along with baritone Ludovic Tézier as Lucia’s brother Enrico, Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja as her lover Edgardo. It also stars her real life partner, the bass Nicolas Testé as Raimondo. Her portrayal drew plaudits as much for Damrau’s dramatic insights as for her vocal gymnastics. So how did she go about preparing the role for a concert performance?

“When I’m not working I keep my eyes open. I absorb,” she tells me. “I adore film. I always get ideas for when I perform a role”. She’s also more than happy to take the odd risk. “Our Pearl Fishers production here is set in a reality TV jungle camp show,” she says. “It sounds terrible when you hear it for the first time, but it’s really working. It’s genius! In Vienna we have quite a traditional audience, and there was no booing – everyone raved about it. Our director is a young Dutch woman and she really made this idea work. She holds up a nice mirror to our time. We had the most wonderful time rehearsing it!”

So when did this particular journey begin? “I saw my first Lucia performance in Vienna standing in the famous Stehplätze [standing places] for a few euros,” she tells me. “I was a student and I went to Vienna and I got to see Edita Gruberová in Lucia. But I think I already heard the Sutherland recording and also Callas.”

And the Damrau version? She’s probably more ‘Callas’ than ‘Sutherland’. But where have her ideas about the part come from? “Lucia di Lammermoor is the most veristic of the bel canto roles,” she explains. “The madness of Lucia makes it a real role for acting and singing. Lucia’s madness is an illness. It’s not just a vehicle for a soprano to show her skills and her technique. I talked to doctors about that. She is bipolar and you can hear that very clearly in the first aria”.

The particularly modern concept of a bipolar bel canto heroine is intriguing and Damrau has clearly thought it through. “She gets very, very happy and almost frenetic when she talks about her visions. And ill people can have visions – she’s not just the standard ‘romantic’ figure of the time. Because she is bipolar she really gets very dark and very frightened. Everything seems to be real and very dramatic to her. She’s under great, great pressure because her mother has died and she’s in a really bad situation. This comes to its peak when she finds out her brother betrayed her – that he forced her into a political marriage and everyone around her has actually manipulated her. When Edgardo comes back and curses her and says, ‘you betrayed love and you betrayed God’, that’s more tension than she can take. Then the illness comes. The madness breaks out and she kills someone”.

For well over a hundred years, Lucias traditionally worked on the famous mad scene in conjunction with the opera orchestra’s principal flute – a kind of musical representation of a broken mind that flutters from one idea to the next like a wounded bird. Nowadays, however, they have the ‘back-to-basics’ option of Donizetti’s original conception – the weird and wonderful glass harmonica. Is it very different to sing a duet with something akin to a bunch of upturned wine glasses? “It’s a little bit different,” Damrau admits. “You have to have really good contact with the player. The glass harmonica can’t go as fast as the flute can play it, so you have to adapt along with the musician. The sound of the glass harmonica is a bit like tinnitus. It feels very strange on the ear. It creates a different atmosphere. It’s not about doing something nice, like with the flute. I think Donizetti really wanted the sound of madness and it was his wish actually to use the glass harmonica.”

Damrau has always been broad in her tastes, singing lieder nearly as often as she sings opera. Did she always know that ‘coloratura soprano’ was the voice that she was going to cultivate? “My teacher said I had a very light soprano with easy high notes and a great flexibility,” she tells me, “so coloratura singing was never a problem. She also said ‘you have a lyrical quality in your voice now’ – I was 18 years old – ‘now you’re a pure coloratura soprano, but it will develop. You will get more skills and technique and you can also sing Pamina and go with the lyric repertoire’. So then it was a natural development to do the light bel canto roles, and the comedy roles in Don Pasquale and Sonnambula. My teacher also said, ‘yeah, maybe in the future you’ll sing La Traviata’, and now here we are!”

So what next? The voice is clearly developing as planned and at 43 the world looks to be very much Damrau’s oyster. “I’m not a pure coloratura anymore,” she admits. “Pearl Fishers is a very lyrical role. It’s dramatic but a little bit spinto, so I’m testing the voice. I like to play with the possibilities, but I don’t want to push one direction. I want to keep my flexibility and I want to keep my high notes. I’ll be at the Met in the spring when I will perform Massenet’s Manon. The next role debut will be Romeo and Juliet by Gounod – also a lighter, more brilliant role. In summer I will debut the countess of Le Nozze di Figaro. I like to go in all directions because I was always an all rounder. I come from Mozart and also from Richard Strauss and Donizetti, so I will go on playing in this field.”

Lucia di Lammermoor is out now on Erato.