Nina Stemme has one of the greatest and most dynamic voices on the operatic stage today. Renowned for her performances as Turandot, Salome, Elektra and a range of Wagnerian heroines, she regularly performs at the world’s most prestigious houses, including New York’s Metropolitan Opera, La Scala in Milan, the Bayreuth Festival, the Vienna State Opera and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
Nina Stemme. Photo © Neda Navaee
Last year, the Swedish soprano was honoured with the most prestigious distinction in the opera world – the Birgit Nilsson Prize worth $US1 million. Stemme was only the second singer to win the prize and admits to feeling overwhelmed when it was announced.
“That’s an understatement. I could hardly believe it when I found out. I’m not only the second singer, but also the first woman to receive it. It was so inspiring and encouraging to be acknowledged for honouring composers and working honestly in such a narrow field like opera and dramatic singing. It felt extra special since I’d had the opportunity to meet Birgit Nilsson a couple of times, even though I was singing in a completely different voice and ‘Fach’ at that time.”
Birgit Nilsson and Nina Stemme in 1996. Photo © Birgit Nilsson Foundation
Stemme had sought advice from Nilsson before her debut as Isolde at Glyndebourne in 2003. “I was singing Senta in The Flying Dutchman at the Vlaamse Opera in Ghent. Birgit Nilsson had known about the request from Glyndebourne for a long time and I wrote to her to say that I thought I had reached the limits of my voice with Senta. She replied that she didn’t think that at all, and that she’d heard I had been asked to sing Isolde at Glyndebourne. One could say she was encouraging enough. She would never over-encourage anyone – she was very honest and straightforward. Birgit Nilsson made me feel like a peer, which was very generous of such a great artist and stellar singer. She was very collegial, even though I knew we weren’t on the same level. In the end, I agreed to perform the role of Isolde and I asked her if I could sing it to her at one point. She replied that I was welcome to come and see her anytime I wished. However, the problem was that I never felt ready to present it to her and I missed the opportunity before she passed away.”
Nina Stemme being presented with the Birgit Nilsson Prize by H.M. King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden. Photo © Fredrik Stehn
The Birgit Nilsson prize, presented to Stemme by H.M. King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, was borne of the legendary singer’s concerns for the future of opera, and is granted approximately every three years in recognition of a contribution to perpetuating the artform. Plácido Domingo won the inaugural prize in 2009, followed by Riccardo Muti in 2011, and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in 2014. Stemme is very clear on how Nilsson’s legacy can be kept alive.
“Wherever I sing I see sold-out houses. I feel the love and enthusiasm from the audience and I feel that we are in contact. All we can do is our best, but I also believe that we need to ensure that new operas are composed. We need a lot more commissions of new operas for various voices to welcome a broader audience. I hope the prize will continue to help us achieve this goal,” she says.
Another criterion of the Birgit Nilsson prize is faithful service to the legacy of the composer. Stemme’s name is now synonymous with the music of Richard Wagner, who is often quoted as saying that he wrote music with an exclamation point. “I thought that the dramatic soprano was the exclamation point!” Stemme says with a laugh.
By definition a dramatic soprano can sing over a full orchestra, while a Wagnerian soprano is often described as a singer of heroic proportions and extraordinary musicality. Few have achieved such lofty heights, with Nilsson and Kirsten Flagstad generally considered the definitive Wagnerian sopranos. Stemme is proud to further their great tradition.
“It’s an extreme type of voice and music. It is the ultimate solo part and a part of the orchestra at the same time. It’s not easy to explain, but it is very exciting because Wagner’s music is so emotional. His words are so specific and musical in themselves. In some cases, he even invented his own words and syllables, and this speaks to me very strongly when I sing Wagner.”
Today, Stemme is recognised around the world as one of the preeminent interpreters of Wagner’s heroines – Isolde, Brünnhilde and Kundry. Does the soprano have a favourite?
“Singing these roles is the best thing that could have happened to me. All three ladies are so very different. Brünnhilde is at least three roles, if not more, over a very long stretch of music and at least three evenings. She starts off like a goddess before becoming very human, so you can relate to her as a woman. Similarly, I find it very liberating to sing Isolde’s rage at the beginning of Tristan und Isolde, especially to other women. I believe the rage she holds is universal, as is her love and her own hatred for that love. When it comes to Kundry, it’s a much shorter role, but the ideas that surround her are eternal. I can’t choose between these characters and I’m just so lucky to be able to sing all three of them … at least for a little while longer.”
Nina Stemme and Jonas Kaufmann in Parsifal. Photo © Ruth Walz
Last year Stemme starred as Kundry alongside Jonas Kaufmann in the Bayerische Staatsoper’s landmark production of Parsifal, designed by Georg Baselitz. Having performed in some very unique artistic interpretations in the past, Stemme recalls stepping into his distinctive vision as a very special moment in her career.
“I had previously performed in Alexander von Zemlinsky’s Der König Kandaules in Salzburg in 2002. That also had an artistic set designed by Alfred Hrdlicka, but with Baselitz it was a lot clearer because, in a sense, it was a two-dimensional set, just like his paintings. It was up to us, the performers, to add the dimension of depth – depth of character and depth of set – by every means possible. It wasn’t easy, dramaturgically speaking, and we worked with the director, Pierre Audi, to cleanse our vision and our pattern of movement. As a singer, I always try to relate to the set. In this case however, I had to trust that I was part of a set or painting, because one can’t really relate to a two-dimensional, upside-down tree. Nevertheless, you pretend that you do and that’s quite challenging and exciting at the same time.”
It isn’t just different visual interpretations that Stemme has encountered over the course of her career. In performing Parsifal, it’s not uncommon to find different playing times, ever since Richard Strauss famously cut the opera down by 45 minutes while conducting it at the 1933 Bayreuth Festival.
“Tempo is never an absolute parameter. I get quite worried and even a little reluctant if I feel the tempo is going to be exactly the same, night after night. It depends on the audience, the conductor, my blood pressure, and how well I slept the night before. There are so many factors that play a role in deciding a tempo, so I’m quite happy that Parsifal can be up to 45 minutes longer or shorter, depending on the day. It’s simply not a problem for me and I never require exactly the same tempo from one performance to another.”
Nina Stemme as Turandot in Stockholm. Photo © Carl Thorborg
Stemme is no stranger to landmark productions around the world. One role she has performed in many guises is Turandot, including appearances in San Francisco, Stockholm, at La Scala and the outdoor Dalhalla Opera Festival in Sweden. In 2020 she looks forward to returning to the role in the New York Metropolitan Opera’s iconic production by legendary director and designer Franco Zeffirelli.
“The production by Zeffirelli is still really alive and very well maintained. I’m so proud to have been a part of it in 2016 and I’m very happy to be returning to this fantastic production next year,” she says.
That said, Stemme does recall that her first night in the production nearly didn’t go according to plan. “I was so scared when I went on stage for the first performance that I almost forgot to sing my first aria, In questa reggia. It was terrifying in a way, because I hadn’t had an onstage rehearsal before I went on. The set consists of a lot of narrow bridges, so imagine entering with that hairdo and hairpiece, as well as a curtain surrounding you, with only a couple of bars of music before you’re supposed to sing. Fortunately, everyone around me on stage was magnificently supportive. We got through it and the other performances went very well,” she says.
Stemme will perform in Turandot in April next year, under the baton of Maestro Carlo Rizzi. Before that, in February 2020, she will also perform in Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, conducted by Oksana Lyniv at the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich, and next month she will travel to Hobart for a gala concert of Wagner’s music with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra to be performed on November 2.
Nina Stemme with Stuart Skelton, Monika Bohinec and conductor Marko Letonja in Tristan und Isolde for the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. Photo © Alaistair Bett
Stemme sang with TSO in 2016 in a concert version of Tristan und Isolde opposite Stuart Skelton. Two months earlier, the operatic superstars had performed together in the same roles at the Metropolitan Opera. Attracting them to Hobart was a coup for the Apple Isle, and the reviews were ecstatic. “To call it a ‘huge success’ is accurate, yet grossly understated – it is a world-class marathon of continuous song and music from a collection of our generation’s finest performers,” said Limelight in a five-star review.
In another five-star review, The Australian Book Review said: “Nina Stemme sang magnificently all night, never faltering, never disengaging. Her German is delectable, and it was fascinating to watch her taunt Tristan during Act I, only to swoon after taking the love potion. With Stemme there was just enough movement and expression all night; she was magnetic to watch. The Liebestod – queenly, galvanic, impassioned – was sung with the greatest emotion, like an invocation to the superbly attentive audience”.
“I’m very excited to be visiting Hobart again and to sing in another Wagner concert with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and the conductor Marko Letonja. I’m also very proud to be singing with another Swede, the baritone John Lundgren. It’s going to be a very exciting evening,” says Stemme.
Nina Stemme and John Lundgren in in Staffan Valdemar Holm’s Ring Cycle in Stockholm. Photo © Markus Gårder
Lundgren and Stemme have formed a strong onstage partnership. Last year, they thrilled audiences as Brünnhilde and Wotan in Keith Warner’s production of Die Walküre at the Royal Opera House, conducted by Sir Antonio Pappano. Two years earlier, they had performed the roles together in Staffan Valdemar Holm’s production of the Ring Cycle in Stockholm. Lundgren will also play the title role in Bluebeard’s Castle in Munich. The forthcoming Wagner gala in Hobart will see them reunited in a program featuring scenes from Der Ring des Nibelungen, including Wotan’s Farewell and the Ride of the Valkyries in Die Walküre, Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene and Siegfried’s Funeral Music in Götterdämmerung, as well as highlights from The Flying Dutchman.
Apart from looking forward to the Wagner gala, Stemme is also eager to return to Tasmania. “Going ‘Down Under’ at a time when it’s very grey, cold, gloomy and wet in Sweden is such a privilege,” she says. “I love the people, the environment and the wildlife. To say it’s refreshing doesn’t do it justice. When you perform in Tasmania you can give your best and recharge your batteries at the same time. It’s just wonderful!”
Nina Stemme performs an all Wagner Gala with Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra on November 2