Hi Opera Fans! I’m just under the wire for the March Monthly Interview! Today, we are hearing from the marvelous mezzo, Ms. Fredrika Brillembourg!
Fredrika Brillembourg has enjoyed an illustrious career in some of the world’s greatest opera houses. She sings a large repertory of roles from Carmen, in the opera of the same name, to Bragane in Tristan und Isolde. She has been hailed by critics. “Fredrika Brillembourg as Brangäne was a winner with her stage presence and she sang with the most beautiful tones in her arioso call from the watchtower.”(Weser Kurier, Simon Neubauer) And “Fredrika Brillembourg is a marvelously rich-toned Suzuki (Madama Butterfly), very moving in the opera’s final scenes – protective of her mistress and devastated as she witnesses the unfolding tragedy.”(OperaNews, Andrew Farach-Colton). As Herodias in Salome, critics said “”Herodias is clearly the boss of the house. Fredrika Brillembourg radiates this personality every minute and fulfills all expectations of the part vocally with luminous tones and clear diction.”(Der neue Merker, Hermann Habitz)
I was lucky enough to be able to sit down with the singer, during a break between Carmens at the Sarasota Opera. Here’s what she had to say:
Opera Teen: You sing both stage and concert works. Do you have a preference? Why?
Fredrika Brillembourg: I basically love both for different reasons. I love staged opera because you are acting and singing. A good production is a pleasure to sing in. When you are singing in concert, you are with the orchestra and you are living in the moment and being one with the character.
OT: You sing in multiple languages including English, French, German and Italian. What is it like to learn all these languages?
FB: I am actually fluent in all these languages. My first foreign language was French, then Spanish and Italian. My most difficult language would have to be Russian. A good composer though, can make music easier to sing in different languages. You have to find your own feeling for the words and the music.
OT: Who inspires you as a singer?
FB: My first opera recording was Callas singing Puccini heroines. I also had a Carmen recording by Rise Stevens. The people who inspire me most, would have to bee Jessye Norman, Obraztsova, and so many great singers of today. Since she was my first opera recording, I would have to say Callas is a big inspiration, as well as Crespin, Tebaldi, Cossotto, Zajick and Borodina. My parents were friends with Frank Loesser, and a soprano singing in Three Penny Opera, so I was surrounded with music at a young age.
OT: What are your dream roles? What are your favorite ones you’ve sang to date?
FB: To date, my favorites are Amneris, which I hope to sing again. I also love Carmen(Bizet), Charlotte(Werther), Bragane(Tristan und Isolde) and Orphee in French. I’ve also sang pants roles like Cherubino, Hansel, The Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos, and Octavian in Rosenkavalier. My dream roles would have to be Eboli(Don Carlo), Kundry(Parsifal), Waltraute(Gotterdamerung) Azucena(Trovatore) and Countess Geschwitz(Lulu).
OT: What were your goals as a young singer and what did you do to achieve them?
FB: To be honest I think as a young singer I had no idea what a career as a professional opera singer was all about and my goals were a bit nebulous. My advice to young singers is to study and know as many languages as possible, to educate themselves as much as they can in literature, history, theater, world events and whatever else interests them so they can develop to be a human being who can express their experiences and feelings as an artist with their voice on the stage. Every career has it’s own individual path and as a young singer it can be daunting if one is not winning competitions, getting summer apprentice jobs and young artists positions. I never really did any of those “normal” steps and I did not go to a conservatory to study either. My career started a bit later than most and has been unconventional. My advice would be that if someone is dedicated to make their life in opera they should just keep pursuing it no matter what obstacles come in their way and that eventually the talent has to come out. Perseverance is very important and to not look always to see what others are getting, try to keep faith in oneself. It is a long challenging road but full of amazing music.
OT: What were your experiences with opera as a young person?
FB: I didn’t go often. Don Giovanni at the Met was my first opera, and we left at intermission! I started playing the piano at age five. I first developed my love of opera at 19 at the Aspen music festival. I discovered opera also through college programs, and many nights at the Met.
OT: Do you choose roles you relate to, or ones that are easier to sing?
FB: Sometimes I think roles choose you. You think about it then try. Kundry is fascinating. Her voice sits well for me though. Everyone’s career is different and surprising.
OT: Do you have a favorite composer or a composer whose work you like to sing more of?
FB: I love Verdi. I love his Amneris and Eboli. I liked Marguerite in Damnation de Faust(Berlioz), and I would like to sing Didon(Les Troyens, Berlioz). I loved the Mahler Second Symphone and I would like to sing a Schoenberg lieder.
OT: What kind of preparation do you need for a role?
FB: It depends on the role, but you have to work it into your voice. I learned Anmeris in a month. A year is a good time for preparation of a role. But I think you aren’t fully prepared for a role until you are live with the text — interpreting it your own way and understanding what you are singing.
OT: Do you have any exciting upcoming projects?
FB: I have some Mahler coming up. I’m singing my first Witch in Hansel und Gretel in German. I’m currently singing Carmen in Sarasota. I’m singing ‘O Don Fatale’ in a future Gala and Preziosilla in La Forza del Destino.
OT: You sang Jitzuko Honda, in the world premiero of Hanjo by Hosokawa recently. What is it like to create a new role and character?
FB: It’s exciting to create a new character. I had met the composer a year before, and his production used traditional Japanese artistic techniques. One of these techniques called for me to sing low, normally, and in intoned speaking for spoken words. It’s interesting to use a different part of your voice. Jitzuko falls in love with this geisha, who everyday waits for her husband who left her at the train station with her fan. He garners the attention of a journalist. When the journalist publishes the article, Jitzuko realizes that he may actually come back for the geisha. In a very verismo scene, Jitzuko “wins” the geisha in the end. Working with a choreographer is hard for this type of opera. We can’t use typical operatic gestures. The 20th century style of music is fascinating.
OT: How do you feel about mezzos in Bel Canto pieces? You’ve sung Enrichetta in I Puritani as well as Adalgisa in Norma.
FB: Bel Canto is totally about the voice and the specific vocal style. It’s a little bit of everything. I sang Adalgisa, and Italians tend to be very particular about the phrasing and style. Bel Canto is about forming vocal lines.
OT: What is life like as an opera singer working with a director?
FB: Being an opera singer is hard. Some people help you and are supportive of you and some make the depth of expression more difficult. I think you should always give a piece of you in a performance. When a singer gives something of themselves, it can create a goose bump moment. While the final duet in Carmen is emotional and exhausting, you have to put some of yourself into it. Put yourself into a role.
OT: What is the movement portion of an opera performance like? How do you balance both singing and motion?
FB: Choreographically, operas like Carmen are hard because you dance and you are playing castanets. Every morning rehearsing for Hanjo, we would have a yoga session with the director. There are also long and difficult rehearsals. To ingrain parts into your body, you have to train for it. Some nights you are energetic, and some nights you are more controlled. Opera has a huge physical aspect.
OT: Do you have to do any physical training for these roles and choreography?
FB: The Alexander Body Alignment Technique has been helpful. I also do Gyrotonics which is like yoga for breathing. I also do a physical warm up before singing. I like to be strong but relaxed when I sing. You should always have strength in breath, but be free in body.
OT: How do you feel about the common roles of mezzos in opera?
FB: Most of the time, the mezzo either plays the younger version of the soprano, like in Norma with Adalgisa and in Anna Bolena with Giovanna Seymour. Other times, the mezzo soprano is the villain. Eboli is sort of a villain like Amneris. There are two sides to a mezzo, and probably even more it you dig deeper.
OT: How do you feel about Puccini, and his mezzo roles?
FB: I love Puccini, but I’m sad he didn’t write for mezzos. Puccini was my first love of opera. When I was younger, I tried to sing Mimi and Tosca when I thought I was a soprano. Some singers can sing both. Verret and Bumbry were both Adalgisa, Norma, and Salome.
OT: How do you physically prepare for a performance?
FB: I have certain warmup exercises. I have to get air moving and relax my tongue. Singing vowels helps get air moving. I have five different basic exercises. This gets the body and air to begin flowing. First the head and chest voice. The main thing is to relax the voice.
OT: How do you prepare for the acting element of opera?
FB: I took some acting classes in college and some after I was finished. Directors in Germany, including the one who helped me with my first Charlotte, taught me to be free when I’m on stage. I did a Carmen with a theater director who staged the Opera Comique version. I had to do some improvising there. Music has to come from a natural place. When you are more at ease, more risks can be taken. When the libretto is amazing, it’s easier to get the message across. I usually go back and read the libretto and listen to the music a few times. Chemistry with another singer is important as well. When you have it, chemistry makes a performance easy.
OT: There are many mezzo roles in Baroque opera. How do you feel about that time period?
FB:I love Baroque personally but my voice now is too dramatic for that style of music. My career really didn’t go that way like many people’s do so I’m not doing a lot of baroque now.
OT: How do you feel about opera in the modern world?
FB: Opera is the moment where the world is adapting to communicate, but opera is moving on into a new century. (This interview is filled with quotable moments, isn’t it?!)
OT: Do you have anything to say to young people who may be interested in opera?
FB: The best thing for people to do is to just go to an opera and experience the moment. Don’t rule it out because of a strange language or story. Find the musical connection and and don’t be afraid of the experience.
OT: Thank you for your time.