The German mezzo-soprano Waltraud Meier performed her last Kundry, a complex figure from Wagner’s “Parsifal,” on March 28 at the Staatsoper in Berlin. On April 10, she will receive one of five Opera News Awards at The Plaza in New York. We spoke with her, in the middle of her final preparations, about Wagner, “updated” stagings, and why she’s not working on her memoirs.
VAN: What is it like to step into the role of Kundry in a finished production? Is it hard to get started?
Waltraud Meier: It’s definitely a bit harder. I like to work with the director so that we can develop something together. It’s my job to take the version of Kundry that I have and integrate it into the production in a way that fits.
I’ve been singing Kundry for 34 years now, and I’ve been in over 20 productions—at least, I stopped counting at 20. I’ve really delved into the piece, especially its psychological aspects. It’s natural that I bring some of my own thought process into it. But it has to fit into the fabric of the production. My concept can’t be outside of what the director’s ideas are. I can’t just tell a completely different story.
Waltraud Meier as Kundry in “Parsifal,” Act 2. From a production by Harry Kupfer at the Staatsoper Berlin, 1992; Daniel Barenboim (Conductor)
After all these years and productions, do you still look for new ways of playing her?
Definitely! It’s been a long time since I saw a production that really took a subtle, unconscious psychological approach to the characters. I miss that a lot.
Wagner isn’t the most accessible composer: the pieces are long, the music has an intimidating quality. Do you have any tips for people who are just getting to know him?
I have to get to know the person first. What is his relationship to the arts? Am I able to reach him with the Prelude to “Tristan und Isolde”? I’d say, Listen carefully, it’s like being on a ship. You hear the waves. It goes up, it goes down. It moves towards a climax, but that wasn’t really the climax. You experience something erotic, something foreshadowing. Wagner is, to simplify it horribly, movie music. It’s so vivid, you start to see what’s happening right in front of your eyes.
Despite the length of his operas, Wagner has a way of getting stuck in your head. Very often it will just be these short, little phrases, but they’ll stay stuck there for weeks. (For me, it’s the “Er sah mir in die Augen” phrase from the Prelude.) Do you get things stuck in your head too?
Yes, that has a lot to do with the way he builds in recognizable leitmotivs. I have that all the time too, it’s terrible [laughs]. Thank God that’s not the case right now, though. We’re rehearsing, and there are so many melodies in my head that I don’t suffer from any particular one.
At the same time, these moments are what define Wagner’s music in a way. All of a sudden there’s a feeling of elation, and you don’t know why.
Exactly. You can’t approach Wagner from a purely intellectual perspective, though you shouldn’t forget about the intellectual part either. It should get you in the gut, as the Americans say. And you have to be open-minded for that to happen. But what’s really exciting is when you start trying to figure out why it got you in the gut. Not just saying, Wow, great, but asking, What was it exactly that touched me just now? What got to me?
Wagner, Prelude to “Tristand und Isolde”; Christian Thielemann (Conductor)
First of all, you need to be able to handle the feeling, I think. You need to be in a place where you’re ready for what can be an overwhelming experience.
Yes. But you need to retain the ability to be critical, too. Wagner deserves scrutiny. It needs to be a healthy balance. This balance was of critical importance to him, too. Wagner didn’t write meaningless musical lines.
You don’t just sing Wagner operas—you’ve appeared in productions of Strauss, Beethoven, Verdi, and more. Is there something unique about the audiences that come to listen to Wagner?
Well, I can imagine that a Wagner audience wouldn’t show up to hear a superstar singing in a Donizetti opera. Besides that, I don’t see any major differences. Wagnerians also listen to “Don Carlo” or “Wozzeck.”
Have audiences changed in the course of your performing career?
Yes! To my great regret, I’ve noticed that audiences don’t really know the essentials of the works anymore. There’s this suggestion that you don’t need to take the text seriously; feel free to zone out; don’t ask, What’s the connection between what’s happening onstage and the content of the piece? What is the main psychological or philosophical idea behind it?
There’s a kind of ironic distance to the pieces that has become almost expected in opera, as if directors are saying, Please, don’t take all of this too seriously.
I remember an important phrase that Klaus Michael Grüber said to me once: “I don’t want to be the director, I want to be the first observer. I want to believe you on stage.” It’s about taking the words you recite, the music you sing, seriously. Getting rid of any sarcasm or irony. They create distance; you can’t get to the heart of the matter that way. That’s cowardice in the face of great art.
Sometimes you have to deal with discomfort. Or, the opposite—you have to find a greatness inside yourself. Once you’ve found it, you have to recognize it, instead of wanting to deny its existence.
This is what these pieces are essentially about. That’s why Patrice Chéreau—and I don’t want to downplay the importance of the many wonderful directors I’ve worked with over the years—but he was my favorite to work with. Because his incontrovertible goal was to get to the heart of the artistic statement. It wasn’t for him to show his own commentary on the piece. I’m so fed up with that.
Even though the operas are already several centuries old?
This obsession with updating, and you see it often, is ridiculous. It’s like you don’t trust the audience to apply what they see to their own realities. You don’t need to change the superficial things, like setting the action in an open-plan office or something. If that’s the whole concept, big deal.
Of course, there are plenty of fantastic directors out there who treat the material with painstaking care. And often they have incredible technique. But, they add their personal opinions on top of everything. The mistake is in the way they treat it. They know the piece, inside and out. But they rape it.
I have my own opinions about the characters I sing. But I don’t show them. As Ortrud [from “Lohengrin”] for example, I need to be convinced that I’m completely, utterly right. Then you don’t even have to act evil. All you have to do is say what she says and believe in it. Then it makes sense.
Waltraud Meier as Isolde from “Tristan und Isolde.” From a production by Patrice Chéreau, Paris 2007; Daniel Barenboim (Conductor)
You’ve said that you never watch operas that you’ve sung in. Last year, you sung Isolde for the last time; now, you’re finishing up with Kundry; will you ever be able to watch the operas again?
No, that’s the sad part. After our last “Tristan,” I told Barenboim, “What depresses me the most is that I’ll probably barely listen to ‘Tristan’ anymore.” I told him I’ll go to the orchestra rehearsals when the singers aren’t there. So that I hear the music once in a while.
What do you have planned next? Are you taking a break?
I want to do everything in my life consciously. I want to say goodbye to this character consciously. Thankfulness, grief, nostalgia—it’s all part of it. And the gratification too! It’s going to take some time to digest all of that.
Still, I’d love to do “Parsifal” one day with a director who really gets to the heart of the work. Even if that means I’ll just be sitting next to him, and not singing.
Would you like to direct yourself?
Definitely not! I don’t have a vision for the entire work. I always start with the characters.
How about writing your memoirs?
You know, what would be most interesting would basically be me unloading all of the gossip. I don’t want that. Anything else would just be superficial though, without getting to the point. Who would be interested in that? ¶