Vivica Genaux, to appear with Europa Galante and Fabio Biondi at Carnegie Hall, on Thursday, Feb. 2, talks to Michael Miller, Part 2 of 3

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Vivica Genaux. Photo Christian Steiner.

Vivica Genaux. Photo Christian Steiner.

[Read Part I]

[Read Part III]

(Transcribed by Alan Miller.)

MM: Harnoncourt will have the Concertgebouw…and I think maybe he started with the Vienna Philharmonic having them use gut strings…

VG: Good for him.

MM: And approaching a period style. I should think that would be a great—how do you say?—experience for orchestral musicians, to have them rethink their playing a bit and so forth. There’s not much interest in that in the U.S.

VG: But I think it’s also…It depends on who does the approaching, I mean Harnoncourt, you can’t argue with him; he’s such an institution in Austria, and then also you were saying, that in Europe in general he’s just…he’s untouchable. He’s brilliant and…

MM: Yes, I always learn something whenever I hear him conduct. There’s always something fresh and new. He rarely conducts over here.

VG: He did something, didn’t he, at Carnegie Hall last year?

MM: Possibly.

VG: A friend of mine sent me a portrait that he did of him that was taken last year in Carnegie Hall. I worked with him two years ago. I didn’t get a chance to work with him very much because he had just had an operation, so he wasn’t actually in many of the rehearsals, but there was an interesting system; I really liked what he had to say about the interpretation of recitatives and other things like that. He was really fascinating to work with.

MM: What was the work?

VG: Il mondo della luna, Haydn. It was the big Haydn year, and [we] did a video of Il mondo della luna at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna with him, and it was a way of celebrating his eightieth birthday as well, which happened during the run.

I think also that when you have a repertory house, you run up against this “well this is the way we’ve always done it, this is the way it should be done and this is the way we’re going to do it.” Whereas I feel always with the Baroque people that they’re willing to try things differently, and they’re willing to experiment and they’re willing to express themselves as individuals within a group also, more than I would find in a standard “house” orchestra. Maybe also because they’re not asked, they’re not invited to have that kind of an attitude at all. I mean they’re treated as house players, and they play as a house player, and they get out after a show, they leave and that’s it.

Whereas when you’re doing a Baroque piece or you’re doing a bel canto piece with a period instrument [band] where you’re working at 430 with original instruments, I always feel there’s so much “complicity” between the players and the singers through listening. The singers are listening to how the oboe player is playing a certain passage and trying to imitate that while the oboe player is doing the same thing, and there’s so much conversation in the music between the singer and the orchestra, so that the orchestra is very concerned about coloring a singers phrase, accompanying a singer’s phrase, punctuating a singer’s phrase, knowing his or her intention. What is the singer saying? What are we trying to get across here as far as an intention, as a meaning? And I really love that; it makes the rehearsals [take on] a workshop feel and get down in the mud and you really just play with the music like it’s clay, like you’re building something with clay and from the foundation up.

MM: That’s a marvelous thing with the Boston Early Music Festival, that their way is to…their orchestra plays without a conductor. They have Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs leading from…

VG: As first violins?

MM: From the continuo section, yes they’re playing continuo, usually with the lute or theorbo and so the orchestra really interacts with the singers.

VG: Right.

MM: They have a very long rehearsal period where they all interact in this way.

VG: If you have a fixed group, most of them, most of the best groups, don’t have people coming in and out all the time. It’s basically a fixed core of the same players. You have a string section that’s largely composed of the same…that’s one thing with Europa Galante, Fabio told me “we’ll play with two different violinists but not three” because the intonation—they get such an ear for one another as a group rather than as individuals, so that the unison that you get in a string section with Europa Galante is something remarkable that you don’t get from a pickup group, where you just call and “oh would you come, we’ve got a concert?”…that sort of thing, which is what a lot of orchestras are forced to do because they cannot guarantee to their players a full season of enough concerts, so that the players dedicate as first priority that group.

MM: Yes, early music players go all over the country here in the States…

VG: All over the world. When I was working with Nick McGegan, we had people coming from Amsterdam, but they come in because they love Nick, they love being in the Bay Area, they have a history with the group, and so there is that dedication there.

MM: They did Orlando at Tanglewood this past summer, and I happened to be sitting  next to the President of their Board who was talking about how it’s budgeted, just flying these people in for for a performance because there are very few period players in the Bay Area, and so they come from all over the world. It sounds as if one really wants a steady job, learning Baroque oboe is…

VG: Yes!

MM: A good thing.

VG: And horn players, my gosh, once you put together the oboes, always in pairs and the horn players always in pairs also. It’s a good gig, I mean if you’re good, especially for the horn players because it’s hard to find a good horn duo.

MM: Yes, absolutely! Let me ask you also, what’s your approach to vibrato? You don’t use a lot of it, but…

VG: Well I have a very fast vibrato in my voice naturally, and one of the reasons I didn’t want to sing Baroque music when I was in school, when I was at Indiana University. There was a vast chasm between Baroque study and classical, and ne’er the twain should meet. The Baroque study, as far I understood it at that time, was very much along the English school of thought, where the voice needed to be white sound, no vibrato, very much like a boy soprano kind of sound, and I wasn’t interested in doing that.

And then I had the offer of doing the audition for René Jacobs at the Staatsoperin Berlin, and I was really perplexed as to what should I bring and they said “well bring what you sing, bring Rossini,” because there’s a lot of agility involved in this music, and so I did, I brought “Mura felici” from La Donna del Lago. They sent me also a couple of arias from the Hasse opera I was auditioning for, and I sang with my voice, I didn’t try to do anything weird, different, and he hired me on the spot. That was one of the first of only two times in my life that I’ve been hired on the spot.

Then through working with him, on the contrary, rather than limiting what I was doing vocally he really pushed me to open up and use more, use the voice more, use it more, use it more and express more, put more voice into phrase. Fabio does the same thing: I mean he’ll oftentimes suggest, when I’m doing…in Vivaldi you often have these plainer moments where you have long-held notes in a descending pattern, and my tendency would be to be more delicate with those and he’s just, “no, go with the voice, fill it, fill it, fill it up,” and really to give the legato between the notes instead of separating them. (I haven’t done any Baroque music in Britain except at the Barbican in a co-production with the Champs-Élysées.) And that’s the practice of all of the people that I’ve worked with from Italy, Germany, France, Spain, Holland also and the States. Working with Alan Curtis, working with Nick, it’s “use the voice, use the voice, express with…” you can express from your gut like nothing, I mean, it’s amazing. You feel so fulfilled after having interpreted one of these pieces, you really feel as if you’ve put your heart, your soul and all of your energy and dedication and concentration into it.

So for the vibrato, generally speaking eight percent of the time I would say it’s not something that concerns me and twenty percent of the time it’s something that you can think of as a color; taking the vibrato out and doing a messa di voce where you start really piano and let it build and then let it come down again and then have vibrato at the very end. Those are effects and, but they’re in the minority, because they’re used as a color, not as a general standard.

Then the other time where you have to be careful of vibrato, which I don’t because it’s more when you have a wider vibrato that you have to watch out for it. When you have a very small tight vibrato like I have, it becomes more of a shimmering quality, I think, to the voice than an actual vibrato, and it’s more of a color itself to the voice that’s a rippling kind of color, so it’s a little bit easier. But if you have a larger vibrato it can be more difficult to unite with another voice in a duet where have you to do together a messa di voce or you have to do coloratura together in unison, strict unison. So those would be the only two times when I would say think about vibrato a bit.

MM: So you and the other singer would have to be listening to each other very carefully…

VG: You have to listen a lot. You have to listen a lot, and part of it is just a matter of nature. Some voices just will not go together, and it’s like in bel canto also, if you’re casting I Capuleti e i Montecchiyou have to have a Romeo who works with the Giulietta.

And there are some times…I did a Lakmé duet with Simone Kermes, I did also the Meyerbeer piece I was talking about two years ago with her and I was thinking…I really wanted to work with her, because I had seen her on stage and I think she’s so…she has no limits on stage, she’s just so unfettered and unburdened on stage. She’ll do anything. And I think that’s hysterically funny and really cool. I put so many restrictions on myself, I admire people who have that freedom in their nature, and so I wanted to work with her on this project, and it turned out that the two voices worked really really well together which was kind of a surprise. And then we did  a Lakmé duet together at the Berlin AIDS foundation gala in November. I haven’t listened to it but they said that the voices mixed really really nicely. So that’s always nice when you don’t have to think about it, you just listen normally, and, I think, both of us coming from a lot of Baroque music have that tendency of listening.

And it’s not only with the singers, though, it’s not only with the singers, as I was saying, when you’re working in that kind of music you have the tendency of listening to the orchestra more, getting those colors out of the…kind of mining those colors out of the orchestra and bringing them out in your voice also. And so that has to do with vibrato also. I did a recording of a Hasse aria that is in a duet with an oboe and it’s true that you do change, just listening to the oboe sound. It changes you a little bit…how you phrase something in order to assimilate with the oboe or to contrast with the oboe also. To use those two possibilities and kind of come in and out of the oboe line if you want and it’s a lot of fun. So maybe…

I was asking also a friend of mine who plays viola with the Scala orchestra, and he also plays Baroque music. It’s not always the case, but with some of the younger players you’ll find people who do both and I said who when you’re—and he teaches also—I said “do you teach that, listening, to your students?” Because for the strings, of course, but for all of, for the orchestra in general. It’s not so much in a modern orchestra, I find. I find that now, when I listen to a modern orchestra, it doesn’t sound as in tune as I’m used to hearing with the period instruments, trying, striving for it. We don’t always achieve it either but there’s always that attention and that stopping and working a phrase very slowly to find exactly where if your third finger is high enough on the [laughs]…

So the intonation, the listening between the instrumentalists to themselves, just to begin with without even adding the singer in, is amazing and I wondered, “how did they learn that?” I’ve been fortunate, I’ve always had a really good ear for languages, for intonation, for pitch, for colors, I think. It’s always been easy for me to understand when somebody asks me, then maybe I can’t replicate vocally what they want me to do, but at least I can hear it in my ear—what they’re looking for—and then at least I know what I’m striving for. But he said, “no, nobody teaches you that. It’s kind of a line, you know, if you can do it then you develop the skill. If you can’t do it then you can’t play this music. You can’t play with an ensemble that well.”

MM: There was a really interesting book I was reviewing a couple of months ago, Looking for the “Harp” Quartet: an Investigation into Musical Beauty. The author, Markand Thakar, was talking about, well, what makes a good performance. Between the composer, the musician and the listener. He had a very good couple of paragraphs about how, about what it means to play in tune. It acquires a totally different meaning when you’re with other people…

VG: Right, yes…

MM: It’s a matter of arriving at some kind of accord in playing together.

VG: Right…

MM: The ensemble has to find it’s own way of playing in tune…

VG: And when you’re playing Baroque music, then you always find that the cembalo has to be tuned to a certain tuning system. There are different tuning systems, so the third might be a little bit lower, or it might be…so it’s not the well-tempered [laughs]…that we’re used to hearing in the modern, then you have to know what system are you using in the intonation—and does that sharp have to be a little bit sharper or a little bit more centered or what? So you have to know that as well.

MM: You just listen for that?

VG: I don’t have to know anything about that technically. I can hear if the second is too high or if the sharp needs to be held up a little bit higher if they’re really edging up on it. So I think that’s something I hear intrinsically and just match. It’s been something I keep forgetting about, but it’s been something I’ve been wanting to research and just look into actually what are the technical aspects of those tuning processes. Also because I’d like to learn how to tune a cembalo myself, even though I don’t play. I’d like to learn because I like that tuning process.

MM: Uh huh. Yes, it seems like a black art. It seems like something very difficult to do, but…

VG: And now they have machines which also…That you can, you have a tuning machine and you can say what tuning system you want to use, and it will just…once the little needle is in the center you’re done. But if you do it by ear…there are still some people, but very few, I think, who do it by ear. That’s magical. That’s a real gift. I mean real ear training, I mean serious…

MM: Yes, I’m interested in that myself. I’d like to experiment with different tuning methods, and I was thinking of finding an electronic keyboard with one and tuning in that way…

VG: That’s difficult to find though, you know. I can’t even find…Now on the iPhone they do have a program where you can actually set the frequency that you want for the A, but it’s not available on any kind of PC or smartphone format, and now, some of the higher-end electronic keyboards you can actually do pitch according to a frequency rather than just transpose up half-step, down half-step. But they can be hard to find because the mass market doesn’t want those kind of things. I even—I can remember I was in Munich—no, in Vienna, and I thought, well, maybe I can buy a tuning fork for 415, but they don’t make them.

MM: Really?

VG: You have to have it custom made, which I thought was bizarre. The thing also was that they have all of these little machines that you can use to tune an instrument to whatever frequency you want to, but it doesn’t necessarily emit the pitch, so as a singer I’d have to [sings] narrow in on a 415 and then go from there. So it’s not as easy as maybe it would be for tuning a guitar or an oboe or something like that to a 415 A, or a 430 A, or whatever you choose.

MM: There’s a fellow in Cleveland, RossDuffin, who experiments with that sort of thing. He uses a synthesizer to get started, anyway.

VG: Yes.

MM: Speaking of Cleveland, have you ever sung with Apollo’s Fire?

VG: No, but they were in San Francisco when I was there and they came to the last half of my last concert also. They were doing a tour with Philippe Jaroussky, and they were playing also in Berkeley the last day that I was there, so I saw them.

MM: They’re fantastic. I heard a recording recently of the Mozart G Minor Symphony, K. 440, and it was the best performance I have ever heard.

VG: Super…

MM: But, you know, traditionally conductors tend to beat the hell out of it and just keep it going, but Jeannette Sorrell really let it breathe, took a broader tempo, and really let the phrases come out. It was a totally different kind of approach to it, and I think she really got it.

VG: Lovely, oh good.

MM: So I’m a fan now.

VG: That’s neat to hear.

MM: I missed that Jaroussky concert…

VG: Yes, he did a bunch. I think he did around ten here in the States. Yes, he’s super. He’s a lot of fun, he’s such a great guy.

MM: Really? I heard him this past summer with the Boston Early Music Society. They did  Steffani’sNiobe.

VG: Oh wow. I’ve heard some of that, I’ve never seen the piece or anything, but I’ve heard, I think, something from it, but that’s beautiful to do.

MM: It’s a great, great opera. They really had to piece it together from the parts. There was a performance apparently at a German music festival that went to Covent Garden which apparently was totally different in the selections that they made from it. It’s a five hour opera, and we were talking actually quite a bit about the cuts they had to make, which is kind of unfortunate. But they had no choice, really, to get down to four hours rather than five

VG: No, it is really hard to cut those pieces. The Hasse Solimano that we did at Berlin was originally a six hour opera, and we got it down to four. They started at six o’clock in the afternoon we ended at ten-thirty.

MM: It’s too bad people are so concerned about…

VG: People go and see Wagner for thirteen hours [laughs]…

MM: Exactly.

VG: And there’s always “Oh Wagner’s so long, Wagner’s so long” but nobody realizes that the Baroque pieces were longer than any Wagner opera…

MM: Yes, and it’s part of, well, being at the opera or listening to music that if you’re there you’re in the time that the composer has created. It’s not the time on your watch.

VG: Right. Exactly.

MM: So it doesn’t matter, really.

VG: Right.

MM: But Niobe seemed like a short opera when you’re sitting there…

VG: That’s it. It has to be done well, of course. If you’re sitting in something that’s not, anything that you’re not getting into. It’s hard for me to judge because I always analyze the…time goes by very slowly in an opera for me because I’m just looking at everything and I’m watching the conductor. “Why does he do this? Where are the lights coming from? How are they doing that light technique? Where is the singer putting himself? Is that a good spot?” That kind of stuff. And so for me it’s more of a work event, but there have been times, when I went to see the Agrippina that was a David McVicar production that he did at La Monnaie and in many other places with René Jacobs conducting. That for me was like being at a Broadway show. It was [snaps fingers]—BAM!—it just went like that. I don’t think I breathed once, and it must have lasted four hours.

MM: Yes.

VG: And it was just fantastic; the way that they had realized it: it was sung brilliantly, the orchestra was fantastic. So yes, if it’s done well, then it just flows by way too fast.

MM: Yes [chuckles], exactly. Hopefully they’re going to do a recording of Niobe. It’s still up in the air, I think, with Jaroussky.

VG: Funding and everything…

MM: Yes, but apparently they want to do it uncut for the recording.

VG: Yes, for the recording one should. That would be good…

It’s really an exciting time. There are a lot of opportunities for doing recordings, the only thing is, as I said, with the funding now the way that they’re doing it is the perfect solution, to be able to do it in performance and then take it into a recording situation. There are a lot of recordings being made now that you just…obviously as a singer you prepare yourself, but you go in and you record on site basically with the orchestra reading, and you do as many takes as it takes to get what you’re looking for and then you keep going. It’s an exhausting process because you have prepared yourself, but maybe the violins aren’t together, or the continuo’s not together, or maybe you’ve prepared yourself in a way that’s in a different direction from the way the conductor has thought about the material. You have to be very malleable on the spot, which is great, I mean it’s useful, it’s always a useful skill. But you end up having to sing a lot more than you generally would. When we did the Rinaldo recording with René,we’d done two productions of it.

MM: So they do a lot of takes in these…

VG: A lot of takes! A lot of takes! A lot of takes! Yes, because you’re always looking for measure 3, beat 2, [laughs], where beat 2 is together and if it’s the first or second violins and maybe the second weren’t quite together or the pitch wasn’t…the chord wasn’t quite gelled or something like that. And then maybe the singer was flat on one note and so you have to do it again and then the singer was in tune but the violins were off again, or something [laughs]. Yes, it’s interminable…

MM: I was talking to a young Russian pianist, Vassily Primakov He’s just about thirty, and so he’s in good shape, and he’s not…I don’t think he’s actually killing himself in his traveling, in his schedule, but he was doing recordings and that brought him into a state of exhaustion [and a back problem.].

VG: Yes.

MM: He could deal with traveling and concerts and whatever, but all the repeated takes in this recording were…

VG: It’s a different kind of concentration, and that’s always been something that’s been fascinating for me—the different kinds of concentration that one needs for various jobs. I used to love watching winter olympics and watching the skiers getting ready for the downhill slalom, or super-g or something. Depending on whether the intention is only just getting down the hill fast or if it’s getting down the hill fast while doing a lot of intricate back and forth movements which would be comparable to what we do in the Baroque or in bel canto also there’s a lot of that real flexible, fast work where there has to be real precision. Otherwise you go flying off the hillside also. But to see when they’re sitting up in the hut before going down and they’re going through the course in their mind and they’re just…You see them making every left and right turn and going through that because they have thirty seconds ahead of them where every microsecond counts.

And for us, we have moments like that when you hear the downbeat to a particularly fast allegro aria, it’s true that you think “OK, now I’ve got…you know, how many minutes of just [snaps fingers] pressure work ahead of me. Just go go go go go! Don’t make a mistake! Breathe when you’ve got to…” As compared to that, looking at going into the theater at 4.30 for Solimano, for example, knowing that the curtain is up at six o’clock, and you’re going to get out of the theater at 10.30. That’s a whole different kind of concentration. Concentration for doing an audition where you go in, and you’ve got to show as many colors on your palette as possible in four minutes for people who are just looking, maybe they’re just looking for general voice quality, maybe they’re looking for a specific character type, maybe they’re looking for a specific role. So that is different and you’re in the middle of these different singers and in just four minutes you just show every marketable quality that you have. Versus a competition, where you’re showing potential and you have to concentrate whether it’s a competition on a one day kind of thing, or if it’s over the course of a week where you have to show just enough to get into the next stage on the first day, and then on the second day a little bit more so that you get by that one, and then the third one and then you get into the last, final round [snaps fingers] you let it rip and you really show your stuff. That’s a whole different kind of concentration.

And recording, that was really scary for me. The first recording I did was the Farinelli recording with René Jacobs and that was…we had eight arias in five days. I was terrified I was going to get sick and have…you know ambush the whole project or something, but it didn’t happen. But it was my first recording and it was a big, big deal, I mean a huge deal for me. A big responsibility, and I really wanted to live up to Maestro Jacobs’expectations. And it’s now become much easier because I understand what is required of me in a recording situation and so I prepare myself technically differently for a recording than I would for a live performance or an opera performance.

And so yes. as you go along, again, it’s a completely different concentration form and duration and…how long you need to stay in the zone. And how much can you come up out of the zone if you have a break before going back in? Can you afford to eat? Can you afford to lie down? Do you have to keep yourself up at a certain level so that you can get back into the recording session at the same level as you left off. It’s really interesting.

MM: So you don’t hate it?

VG: No, I don’t hate it. It used to really destroy me, I used to get out of recording sessions and I would be just completely a disaster, I mean a mess. Now I find I’m in much better shape vocally when I come out of a recording, because I’m pacing myself and, again, I know what my job is in the system. So my job is to give them a good take. My job is not to give them fifty takes of a full aria A-B-A perfect. My job is to give you measure one perfect, measure two perfect, measure three perfect. If I’ve got measure one through measure twenty perfect and eighteen has something wrong with it, I’ll give you a good measure eighteen. But that’s the way the recording business works.

[to be continued…]

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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