EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH:
Juliane Banse (born July 10, 1969 in Tettnang, Germany) is a German soprano and noted lieder singer. She received her vocal training at the Zürich Opera, and with Brigitte Fassbaender in Munich. She won First Prize in the singing competition of the Kulturforum in Munich in 1989. The same year she made her operatic debut as Pamina in Mozart's “Die Zauberflöte” at the Komische Oper Berlin. In 1993, the International Franz Schubert Institute, whose jury that year included Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, awarded her with the Grand Prix Franz Schubert.
Banse created the role of Schneewittchen in Heinz Holliger's 1998 opera Schneewittchen at the Zurich Opera House. She gave the world premiere of Bach’s recently discovered aria, Alles mit Gott und nichts ohn' ihn BWV 1127 with András Schiff and Quatuor Mosaïques. She’s currently Leonore in “Fidelio” at Theater an der Wien. (source: Wikipedia)
“Everything that Beethoven wrote for voice is really, really uncomfortable,” she begins. “You ask yourself if this man knew anything about voices at all. Everything is extremely difficult, very unsingable and downright uncomfortable. Maybe we should be lucky that he didn't write more opera!” she laughs heartily. “It's wonderful music but it's very instrumental. Somehow he wasn't the ideal composer for voice.”
Yeah, I've heard others say that…
“I think everybody says that!” she laughs again.
"I have done “Fidelio” before but it's my first Leonore. Whenever Nikolaus Narnoncourt conducts something you get to know the piece in a very different way, as he always has his own way of approaching a piece. In the case of “Fidelio” he wants to get rid of all the "false traditions" that are with this piece. For instance, people tend to see “Fidelio”, musically, as an early Wagner whereas he sees it as a late Mozart. When it was first performed, it was the same singers that did late Mozart roles that did Leonore. In fact, I think the singer that premiered Leonore also did Pamina around the same time. That's what Narnoncourt says is the right way to do this piece.”
“The way I got this role was that he called me and said, "You are the perfect Leonore!"and I said, "No, no, you're wrong, I can't do it." When he puts his mind to something he doesn’t give up, so he called me again a second, third and fourth time, so I agreed to have a look at it. Afterwards I still said that it was too risky. He said, "No, you're wrong. Come to my place, we'll go through it and you will see that it's perfect for you." So I went to his house, we worked through it and in the end I said OK.”
“I have to explain in every interview that I won't be doing Leonore in average opera houses, because otherwise people will think I've lost my mind. This is a very special undertaking. I will not change my repertoire around this!” she chuckles.
Speaking of conductors, what qualities does a good conductor have?
“Oooh, that’s a very difficult question. As a singer it's much easier to work with a conductor who loves singers in the way that he wants you to be as good as possible, wants to help you and get you through the phrases. There are some conductors who make you sing better than you normally do. Simon Rattle is like that. Claudio Abbado is like that – and also Nikolaus Narnoncourt. They bring out the best in you by supporting and inspiring you and making you feel like you can be free. Technically I don't know how they do it, I don't even know if there is a technical thing they can do, but I think it's a way of breathing with you as singer. They have to have other qualities too, of course, like the ability to educate and rehearse an orchestra, rehearse the singers. This is a skill that not everybody has.”
Someone said that all conductors should learn and perform an opera to know what it's like…
“Well, there was actually someone from the orchestra here in Vienna who, for his 60th birthday, got to play a tiny role in an opera because he always made fun of the singers. He'd say that they're stupid, they get nervous and crack their voices. The director then said, "OK, for your 60th birthday you will be on stage!" He did - and he fucked up completely! Afterwards he was always very nice to the singers. This would be good therapy for some conductors too!
It's great when conductors know about singing, because you can communicate on a different level. The conductor is in a very safe position. He has his back to the audience, he doesn't have to produce any sound, but he has to inspire and lead. Apart from us on the stage and the musicians in the pit, nobody in the audience will really notice if the conductor makes a mistake.”
You’ve been working all over the world – how do you find the differences between Germany, America and... have you worked in Italy?
[laughs out loud] “Yes, I have. It's very different but every way has its advantages, I think. In America everything is so perfectly organized that you tend to forget that you're making music. In rehearsals with an American orchestra there's a big clock on the wall and an assistant with a stop watch counting down the seconds. That's just so uninspiring. The orchestra will literally drop their bows and leave, even if it's three bars to go. This I will never understand. They work with the same intensity and complete focus during their set time, so the quality is really, really good. It's just hard to understand sometimes.
On the other hand, when you're in Italy, rehearsals will most likely start twenty minutes late, sometimes you have lights and sometimes you don't, sometimes the chorus is on strike - but in the end the performances go just as well there as in more structured places. You just have to get used to this chaos. Being German and coming from this structured, reliable way of doing things, it's interesting to get to Italy where you have to be flexible and accept that people come late or don't show up.
I think somewhere in between may be the ideal situation. It's really funny to get to these different places and get completely different ways of working. It's a crazy job, but all these challenges is what makes the work interesting.”
I saw that you started out as a ballet dancer…?
“Some of my first appearances were as a dancer, not a singer. In the beginning I was completely focused on the ballet. I was aware of having a voice, which was possibly a bit above average, but I didn't want to know about it. I didn't want to be distracted from the dancing, so I really didn't start voice lessons until I was almost fifteen. Still not taking it seriously, thinking that although I was singing a bit I was actually going to be a ballet dancer. That switch came quite late, I was seventeen - maybe eighteen - when I allowed myself to go towards the singing.”
Voice maintenance and learning process
How do you maintain your voice on a daily basis?
[giggles] “I don't know, I don't!” [more giggles].
“I mean, I try to lead a healthy life, get as much sleep as possible and somewhere during the day - for maybe half an hour - do a few vocal exercises. I'm quite lucky because I'm quite healthy – even with the children that bring in every virus imaginable. Even before the children arrived I always refused to think of myself as a race horse that can't have a normal life. If I catch something I catch something. I'm a normal person and I want to have a more or less normal life. I just never allowed myself to get paranoid about my voice.”
What’s your learning process?
“It depends. If I do not know the opera or the piece I am supposed to learn, then I usually buy a recording along with the score, listen to the recording with the score in front of me. Then I go to a pianist, to get an idea of what it feels like in the voice. If that's not a good feeling, then I'll drop it or go to my teacher and ask if I should invest more time and energy in it. Sometimes it doesn’t take me long to know if it's the right or wrong thing to do. If I decide to do it, then I usually learn small parts at a time, get it into my system and at the same time memorize it. I'm not someone who sits there and first learn the music, then the text, then sing it. It's not a very well-organised process [laughs]. Sometimes I learn on trains, sometimes I'll just sing parts of it at home and then after a while it sticks. Thank god I'm a fast learner!”
Which future roles do you look forward to the most?
“In December 2013 I will do my first "Rosalinde" at the Chicago Lyric, and one other thing that's fixed is my first Elsa in Amsterdam in 2014. I'm very much looking forward to that! I think that's all I'm going to do Wagner-wise, actually. I won't go any further with that. Then I will probably be doing Elvira in “Don Giovanni”, which I already did last year. One of my greatest wishes for the next five years maybe The Marschallin in “Der Rosenkavalier”. I've done so, so, so many Sophie von Faninals so now would be the time for The Marschallin. There are no current plans, so we'll see.
So far everything has always fallen into place. Sometimes I've thought I need this particular role now, asking myself how is this going to develop, when it this role going to come, what should I do, what roles should I sing - and in the end everything's come at the right time. I trust it will be the same now, with “Der Rosenkavalier”.”
How can we make opera more accessible?
“I think opera houses are more and more aware that they have to do something, and many opera houses do a lot. Many have children's programmes or afternoon performances and so on. I think one of the major obstacles is the ticket prices. It's virtually impossible for students or young people with families to afford it, so they end up going to the cinema instead because it's much cheaper. The opera houses where they have standing places are doing the right thing. Many opera houses got rid of these and I disagree with that a lot. We need more of these introductory programmes, an hour before the performances, or even go to schools and give talks. What I find, with both opera and recitals, is that when people take that first step and go to an opera, they feel great excitement afterwards. I think we have to help them take their first few steps and then it'll take care of itself after that!”
Which opera would you recommend to a young person?
“La Bohème”, probably! It's music that you don't need preparation to understand. It goes straight to your heart, it doesn't matter if you know anything about music or not - and it's short! You're out after a couple of hours. You definitely don't send a beginner to see a Wagner opera, they'll never want to return! [laugh]