On October 26, 2017, the alto Wiebke Lehmkuhl sang a note—a G or an E flat, if I’m not mistaken—that was so quiet and smooth it sounded more like a boy than many boy sopranos do. The piece was Bach’s Mass in B Minor, conducted by Ton Koopman at the Berlin Philharmonic, penultimate movement, the Agnus Dei. Since then, I’ve practiced the piece on my keyboard without managing to recreate that magic. I decided I would have to talk to Lehmkuhl.

Photo © SOUND & PICTUREDESIGN
Photo © SOUND & PICTUREDESIGN

VAN: Did you enjoy the B-minor Mass back then?

Wiebke Lehmkuhl: Well, since October I’ve done a lot of Bach projects with modern orchestras. Actually, I’m a bit of an early music dork, and for a long time I thought that only early music specialists should do this repertoire.

What changed?

Most musicians who sit in these orchestras now have come into contact with historical performance practice. There’s so much that used to be fuzzy in the past that’s clear now. You really just come to make music, and don’t have to explain everything in minute detail.  

In the Bach Agnus Dei, you had a very instrumental tone, in the most positive possible sense. Does your experience with early music make you sing differently, with less vibrato for example?

This particular Agnus Dei has been with me for a long time. Before singing, I studied flute with a teacher who had a thing for baroque music. When you’ve internalized this musical language, you’ll know: you’ve got to lean into the suspensions and the friction, express the soul’s pain, really make it hurt. Otherwise it’s a missed opportunity. The Agnus Dei, especially, is full of chromaticism and suspense that runs through all emotional registers.

"You’ve got to lean into the suspensions and the friction, express the soul’s pain, really make it hurt." Alto Wiebke Lehmkuhl on singing #Bach's "Agnus Dei" in @vanmusicmag Click To Tweet

When I was in conservatory, there were a lot of sopranos who wished they could sing alto, because there was less competition. Is that really the case?

Definitely. You notice at any audition that there’s less competition. But I think it’s a real shame that everything is so pigeon-holed and compartmentalized these days, that there’s less room for movement. Sopranos, in particular, are forced to settle for, and then intensively work in, a single direction. But voices often hold more potential. I’m a bit envious, in that sense, of singers like Christa Ludwig, who was allowed to sing anything she wanted—her voice was exceptional of course. But she was allowed to try, too.

Wiebke Lehmkuhl in the Agnus Dei by Hasse, with Marlen Herzog.

Have you ever envied sopranos for their opera diva roles?

No, not at all! That was never a dream of mine. At conservatory there are lots of students who begin their studies with a dream role in mind, but I wasn’t one of them. Of course, I’m happy when I have a nice, rewarding role in an opera, which suits my voice. But to be in the spotlight for the entire night…

What are your dream roles in early music?

I really want to do Monteverdi sometime soon. My absolute dream roles are Penelope in “Il ritorno d’Ulisse,” and Ottavia in “L’incoronazione di Poppea.” They’re so perfect for me, I hope it’ll happen.

Is there anything you can do to make that happen?

I keep trying. I say it again and again; please include that I’m saying it now! In Berlin they planned a Monteverdi cycle, and then everything changed somehow, suddenly I wasn’t under consideration anymore. It goes in waves anyway, which pieces are performed and when. We just had the Monteverdi wave, but somehow I couldn’t catch it.

Do you ever feel like you’re taking a role back home with you?

Not really so far. Last year in Amsterdam I did “Jephtha” with Claus Guth, and Anna Prohaska sang the part of Iphis, my daughter. There was a period during the rehearsals that was so intense I almost lost touch with reality, and really felt that Richard Croft, who was playing Jephtha, was going to sacrifice my child. It took a while on the way back home for my head to clear, and for emotional stability to be restored.

Do you have a post-opera ritual?

Hanging out with the cast for a little bit afterwards and talking about something else. That helps. I think at these moments it’s very important to sit together and encounter one another on a different level.

Last week, Now Magazine in Toronto published an essay by the singer Danika Lorèn. She was photographed naked to show how women’s bodies continue to be objectified in opera. Have you experienced that as well?

I think I have some protection because of my vocal specialization. But it was certainly a physical factor when at first I was only very rarely allowed to play roles like Orpheus, where the director wanted a very androgynous type. It’s a shame, because I find it very appealing if you’re able to bridge that.

I saw one production that really made an impression on me. The singer who played the Goose Girl in the “Königskinder” was an enormous woman, really more a Valkyrie type. Within two minutes, she’d managed to make everybody forget that she was bigger than the others, because she acted and sang so well. And that makes it all the more magical. But you give that away when you type cast, and put so much emphasis on the way somebody looks.

Once there was a funny casting decision, about the three Rhinemaidens. I would have been a substitute, and I was really interested: there was a great conductor I really wanted to get to know, and it fit my calendar perfectly. They had two singers from which to choose, and weren’t sure who to go for. And then I realized that they were asking all the houses I’d played in previously about my clothing size—there was a leotard that all the Rhinemaidens wore. It turned out later that they ended up choosing a singer who was the same size as the original cast member, so that they didn’t have to adjust the costume.  

Lehmkuhl performs Alma Mahler’s “Five Songs” with the WDR Symphony Orchestra

Some singers say that directors demand too much, and that they can’t perform all these crazy actions and sing at the same time. Others say they don’t want to “park and bark.” Do you belong more to the latter group?

Yes, absolutely. I like it most when I have lot of scenic tasks to do, preferably if I understand why as well. That’s why you do opera, I guess.

If I had to choose between opera and a concert, I’d probably choose the concert. I come more from a music background than theater. When I do opera, I like to really act. I love the challenge.

With your voice, you could easily focus on lieder recitals. But I get the impression that this only seems to work for men: the great poet who travels with a pianist around the world. There are fewer women who do mainly lieder, right?

I’ve noticed that too. It certainly has something to do with tradition. Mostly with baritones, because they sing in a register that’s close to speech, so it’s easier to understand the words. I’d like to sing lieder more. I always fight for that a bit. But just that…I’m happy with the mix I have at the moment.

Do you get enough requests for lieder concerts?

I have the feeling that you have to be accepted into the clique, and then more will come. I’m with an agency that also has many lieder singers. They say they need a recording, so the ball’s in my court. I need to see to it that I release a recording, so that they can sell me better. I have a recital in summer at a small festival in Bruges on the theme of the femme fatale, and they want me to sing Schumann’s “Frauen-Liebe und Leben,” which is the antithesis of femme fatale for me. But it’s a nice challenge to do that as the program, and to group something fataler around it.

What would you like to do for your first lieder recording?

My idea was to record a CD of Brahms. There are so many different things there that I like. Nothing special, famous songs too. At the moment, I really love these songs for alto, viola and piano. Brahms also fits my voice the best. ¶

Jeffrey Arlo Brown

... has been an editor at VAN since 2015. His work has also appeared in Slate, The Baffler, The Outline, The Calvert Journal, and Electric Lit. He lives in Berlin.