Few singers move through musical genres and eras with as much confidence as Anna Prohaska. Programs like “Maria Mater Meretrix” (designed with Patricia Kopatchinskaja) and her latest album, “Celebration of Life in Death” (recorded with baroque orchestra La Folia and Robin Peter Müller), combine everything from Hildegard von Bingen to George Crumb to Leonard Cohen in one evening. Yet they never sound arbitrary, artificial, or pretentious. Instead, they remain credible, conceptually coherent, and demonstrative of Prohaska’s love of language.
I met Prohaska on a Monday evening last autumn at Weinverein Rote Insel, a wine bar in Berlin’s Schöneberg neighborhood, where she lives. She arrived by bike and immediately started to gush about a concert she’d seen two days earlier given by the Berlin Philharmonic and John Williams, which she attended dressed as Princess Leia—or, “more like an Esther Perbandt version of Princess Leia. I was one of two people dressed up. At first, I thought I’d be embarrassed, but everyone seemed into it.”
VAN: Many houses and presenters are trying to rebuild their audiences right now. Is it harder for you to perform in front of empty houses?
Anna Prohaska: To be honest, it doesn’t bother me at all. Before Corona, I did [György Kurtág’s] “Kafka Fragments” with Isabelle Faust at the Philharmonie in Cologne. 2,000 people fit in that hall, and there were only 200 or so there. But they were all seated together and hung on every word and gesture. It was a fantastic concert.
So many organizers are playing it safe right now, only programming warhorses and crowd-pleasers. Are you worried about a new conservatism?
A little, yes. That would be the worst, if everyone retreated into traditionalism and reduced their seasons to just the same interchangeable set of works. Imagine if “The Magic Flute,” “Carmen,” and “La Bohème” were playing at three opera houses in the same city at the same time… Post-pandemic, I’d also like to see us stay out of the fast lane, at least a little bit. You don’t need to present a new artist every night. You can do more with residencies, so that an audience can really get to know an artist long-term. We don’t do that enough. It’s always this game of musical chairs where a panic sets in: “Oh God, she was here six months ago, it’s too soon for her to come back now!” I think it’s much more important that the programs are interesting, rather than having someone new pop up all the time.
Speaking of conservative, how do you get on with opera audiences? For example, there’s a Facebook page called “Against Modern Opera Productions,” which has more than 60,000 followers and essentially calls for operas to be staged exactly as they were a hundred years ago…
Of course, there are always going to be people who want to put on a sequined gown and go to a traditional “Magic Flute” with little animals and period costumes and all that… There are also people who simply know a quality production when they see it. They notice if something is designed to be provocative but lacks substance. It’s like blowing on a house of cards. And, in those cases, I don’t think it’s right to accuse people of conservatism. I think it’s dangerous when people play this sort of dress-up where you throw a lot of money at a production and pay a star designer to create something. Whether it’s historical or modern, it’s the same result: It may be artificial and shallow, but it costs a lot to produce, so all of the socialites go. I always find that incredibly sad.
You yourself sang in a production of Rameau’s “Hippolyte et Aricie” at the Berlin Staatsoper for which Ólafur Elíasson designed the sets and costumes…
That was more like an installation; as singers we were more like extras. Of course, we were well-lit and had beautiful costumes, but really the stars were the dancers and the lighting. I said to myself, “This is wonderful music; we’re performing it with Simon Rattle. I’m just happy to be standing here, so just think of it more or less like a concert.” At a certain point, too, you have to tell yourself: “If you’re always criticizing everyone else, then become a director yourself and do it better.”
What work would you direct first?
Maybe “Pelléas et Mélisande.” Not the easiest to do, of course, but it’s one that I love very, very much. The question is, how would you find a modern language to express something so symbolic without slipping into kitchen sink psychology? I’m fascinated by the relationship between “Pelléas” and the Bluebeard myth. You could try combining the stories.
What annoys you the most about working in opera?
That in productions you’re sometimes ordered to just do things because they correspond to what the “authority figure”—the director or conductor—has in mind. And you have to do it, no discussion. I get the feeling that, in other artforms, decisions are more collective and the work is done more democratically. It’s the same with large orchestras compared to more independent early or new music ensembles. Of course, some hierarchy is important. Ultimately, someone has to decide whether to play diminuendo or crescendo, or whether a singer enters through the door or not. But it’s often the case that authority figures, and sometimes colleagues who have a certain status that they feel the need to maintain, lord it over others who actually want to work very collaboratively and constructively. You can’t develop your own creativity at all in those circumstances.
Is the sense of hierarchies and authoritarianism stronger in opera than in other artforms?
I think it’s the general sense of precariousness that comes with the work. With the exception of the chorus, orchestra, and perhaps the administration, anyone could be fired and everyone is afraid of not being hired again. What’s really wild is when a director will let the artistic director tell them that something is too provocative. They never say, “I’m doing it like this, and if you don’t like it, you can fire me.” Because that would be it; the artistic director would totally cave in. The rest of us musicians and singers, we’re always scolded for agreeing to everything. But even with the big directors, it’s no different—they want to be invited back.
When you’re working with directors, what’s the red line for you between criticism that’s constructive and not?
I had a bit of a dismal time doing “Der Freischütz” in Munich [at the Bavarian State Opera in February 2021]. Maybe it was because of the lockdown. At the beginning, I was very intimidated by [director] Dmitri Tcherniakov. He completely tore me apart, from top to bottom. He literally criticized everything, from the way I walked to my gestures to the way I held my head—he even criticized the way I moved my eyes! But, strangely enough, he always gave me an incredibly warm hug during breaks. I realized it was because he cares about the piece. You have to take that as a compliment and say to yourself: “He’s harping on me because he wants to get something really special out of me.” Even if you go home and think, “I did everything wrong again.”
Do you speak up now if you don’t like something?
Yes. For example, there was a time when I had three premieres in two months at the Berlin Staatsoper—Rameau’s “Hippolyte,” Beat Furrer’s “Violetter Schnee,” and “Himmelerde” by Familie Flöz and Musicbanda Franui. I was already hanging on by the skin of my teeth, I’d even tried to get out of one of the engagements a year before. [During rehearsals], it became very touch-and-go, and naturally I got sick. I said, “I can’t sing the Rameau premiere if I have to scream every day in the Beat Furrer rehearsals.” Of course, the score [for “Violetter Schnee”] came much too late—a month before the start of rehearsals—and it was the hardest thing any of us had ever sung. I really got on my hind legs, then. I went to the artistic director, the director, and conductor, and said, “This is impossible.” They took me out of rehearsals, and somehow we made it through.
What’s so difficult about opera is that everyone wants something from you: the music, the production, the language, the audience, critics. You’re being pulled in so many different directions, and you still have to manage to do your job onstage—all while remaining healthy and calm. Of course, as you get older, you learn what you can just give five minutes instead of giving it your all.
You were a member of the Berlin Staatsoper’s ensemble for 12 years. Did Daniel Barenboim’s temper get to you at all?
I was awestruck by him, especially in the small roles I had at the beginning. As the squire in “Parsifal,” you have three bits. If you screw up one, you’ve ruined a third of your game. [Laughs.]
We had a sort of polite distance between us. And then I realized, Okay, I’m singing Despina and Zerlina in Salzburg, why haven’t I sung those here? I asked him for a meeting, and we had a very even-keeled conversation. I told him, “This is my house; I identify with it so much. I feel like these smaller roles, Barbarina and so forth, are going very well. Could I maybe audition again [for bigger roles]?” He said, “Yeah, great.” I brought three of my strongest pieces with me, and then suddenly I started getting the bigger roles: Zerlina, Susanna, Sophie… If you feel like you’re being treated unfairly or that you’re ‘destined’ for something bigger, you can ask for what you want while still being aggressively professional. There are so many people who’d rather just sit in the corner and sulk. I think I surprised Daniel Barenboim with my request at first, but he also saw it in me. We’ve since done recitals together, and “Don Giovanni” at La Scala, and it’s all gone well.
Two years ago, there was a report about Barenboim’s management style. Did you think it was appropriate?
I think it was good that there was a discussion about it.
Some people argued that you shouldn’t criticize someone who has achieved so much for how he achieved it.
There are certain reactionary journalists who say things like that in the press. I think it’s ridiculous. Everyone has to respect other people. When someone has been treated unfairly, I think it’s really important to name that. On the other hand, I also don’t agree with these generalizations: “You shouldn’t perform this deceased composer’s works because of his biography.” Daniel Barenboim would be the first to dispute that.
In protests against budget cuts or for more adequate COVID economic relief, artists are all grouped together in the same boat. But at the same time, there are extreme disparities in opera in terms of salaries and job security—for example, the chorus and orchestra on one hand, and soloists on the other.
Yes, of course. It’s unbelievable how some opera chorus members behave. There are a lot of really great singers who set up a chamber choir and sing madrigals and Bach cantatas to stay in vocal shape. But there are also those who hide in the back rows, don’t sing at all, and have an easy night. Or there are those who haven’t practiced for decades and have zero control over their intonation. The chorus has a cushy job; they have the safest contracts and are always brought into rehearsals later and get to go home earlier.
On Facebook, you’ve spoken out on a few topics that are quite polarizing. Leftist politician Sahra Wagenknecht, criticisms against the German government’s pandemic restrictions via #allesdischtmachen… Are you afraid of being canceled?
I’m not on Twitter, so probably not. [Laughs.] I agreed with #allesdichtmachen, even though I was totally attacked for it. I lost a few good friends—a very good friend that hasn’t contacted me at all since then. What’s really outrageous is how people like [German actors] Jan Josef Liefers—who’s a super nice guy and not at all right-leaning—or Ulrich Tukur—a fascinating and smart man—are immediately and completely blacklisted. These black-and-white binaries are really tough; as soon as you say something that’s a bit more in the gray zone, it’s like entering an ideological no man’s land.
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You once said that the one thing you could do without is “virtue signaling.” Why?
I think that was during the time of #allesdichtmachen. It’s this whole, I’m so woke, I know exactly how to say everything, I’d never make a mistake… How many of these supposedly virtuous people have done actual community service versus simply talking about it? When Black friends tell me about the everyday racism they encounter, that really hits me. I listen to them, and I wonder what I would do in such a situation, and how to tackle this social problem at its root. But scratching the surface on social media for your own clout or “brand” is just vapid. So much real, genuine empathy has been lost.
Speaking of branding, it’s funny that there’s still this “the soprano who also listens to metal” messaging in articles about you.
Oh God, yes. I rarely listen to metal. Last night, a little bit of Metallica. But really it’s not every day.
In contrast to pop culture, people in classical music still turn their noses up at quirky or playful personalities—especially when that’s reflected in how musicians dress.
Yes. People always love to criticize Yuja Wang. Of course, she has an incredible number of fans—and perhaps some of them are as much a fan of her legs as they are of her music—but she is also just a brilliant pianist, a super nice woman, totally intelligent and extremely self-confident. I find a lot of that criticism comes from people who are threatened by that behavior; hating what you like because you don’t want to admit you like it. There’s a lot of puritanism and uptightness in the classical music industry. You see this as well in critiques of director Herbert Fritsch’s productions: People say “It’s just slapstick” versus “It’s extremely virtuosic and meticulously rehearsed.” The cultural scene in general is a little bit caught between #MeToo, a certain neo-puritanism, and the extreme pornography of the film and advertising industries. The sector needs to reorient itself. The world of classical music in particular doesn’t know whether to go in the direction of Netflix and HBO, or to double-down on defending the tried-and-true.
Isn’t there also a sense of chastity behind that thinking? “Thou shalt not soil the holy work of art by showing bare skin”?
A little, yeah. Although it’s funny that so much bare skin is shown in opera, and not in concert. It’s strange, for example, that Teodor Currentzis or Patricia Kopatchinskaja are always accused of being “crazy.” They’re not crazy at all. They’re really hard-working artists who just think a lot about what they’re doing, and perform with emotion and passion. Currentzis has his tastes in clothes—and music—and Patricia plays barefoot, because it gives her a stronger connection to the ground. I think it’s fine to play with that. I always have a lot of fun making music with Currentzis; the rehearsals are very enriching, detailed, and concrete—not at all wishy-washy or esoteric. Other people just have a strong sense of business and “what works.” That’s not a crime. But a little bit more humor in music criticism couldn’t hurt.
Are you concerned with the finite nature of a singer’s career? Questions like how much longer you can sing a role, or the roles you absolutely want to sing by a certain age?
Yes, that’s exactly it: “Is this going to be my last Susanna?” That’s why I also thought, singing “Figaro” at the Berlin Staatsoper, “Fuck it, I’m going to enjoy this Susanna as much as I can, do the best I can, and enjoy every second of it.” That killed my nerves off right away. Right now, I’m at a phase in my life where I think, “If I never sing a Violetta in my life, so be it.” There was a time when I’d think, “Oh God, I have to be working towards a ‘Traviata’ right now.” Perm Opera offered me one and I couldn’t make the scheduling work. I was so angry and thought, “This is my last chance!” But theoretically, if I really wanted to, I could perform a “Traviata” right here in this wine bar with a honky-tonk piano, flute, and cello. I once sang a “Traviata” aria with Christoph Schlingensief at the Volksbühne in Berlin; maybe that’s enough. That may be a lot better than any full production I’d do.
That is pretty great.
…and also in the same evening: “Casta diva” from “Norma” and some of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. That doesn’t happen every day.
What would you say to the next generation of young singers coming up?
Most performing artists naturally have moments of doubt or fear about their future. But there’s always enough room at the table. We don’t all have to fight over the one seat. And you always have to be aware of your own strengths, because you’ll tear yourself apart more than any critic ever will. ¶
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