Monday, August 31, 2020

Interview with soprano Regula Mühlemann

Photo: Henning Ross - Sony Classical 

Ramón Jacques 

The young Swiss soprano Regula Mühlemann is currently one of the most recognized voices in the interpretation of Mozart's operas, as well as in the repertoire of Baroque music. In her short career, she has already performed on important international theatres such as La Scala in Milan, La Fenice Theater in Venice, the opera houses of Zurich, Berlin and the Salzburg Festival, to name a few; besides being one of the few artists that remains active in the realization of recordings. Regula kindly agreed to do this interview in which she speaks about her career, about her interests in music, and her recordings.

What made you want to become a singer? Can you talk a little about the beginning of your days as a singer?  

I think a key moment was when I saw Mozarts "le nozze di Figaro" with my godmother at the Zurich Opera House. The scene in which Barbarina stood all alone on stage with her picnic basket and above all, the beautiful Cavatina - that was a moment when I projected myself in thought onto this stage and thought it would be nice to do this job too. I was in the Lucerne Kantorei (Luzerner Kantorei), a choir in the city where I grew up. At that time in the choir I often sang solo-parts too. I was still a teenager and my teacher at that time motivated me to make more of this hobby and to study singing.

Who or what were some of your earliest and present inspirations? (Singers from past or present, conductors, stage directors etc).   What are some important milestones, experiences, and achievements in your career?

I had different idols. A different singer for each discipline. I heard a lot of recordings. For coloratura arias I always found Edita Gruberova the best, for lyrical Arias/legato lines Kiri te Kanawa, with song recitals it was Barbara Bonney. I liked Kathleen Battle…  and Edith Mathis - a great idol, she’s like me from Lucerne. My first big step into a career was Ännchen in the Opera „Der Freischütz“ from Carl Maria von Weber. I sang it in a movie with René Pape, Michael Volle, Juliane Banse – Daniel Harding conducted the London Symphony Orchestra. And the first classical CD I received (also from my godmother) was „Der Freischütz“ and Edith Mathis was singing the part of Ännchen. So an inspiration from the very beginning. I had an excellent singing professor, but I also learned a lot from these recordings. A lot about technique. So I would say my idols were also a little bit my teachers.
I've already mentioned one milestone. The Freischütz movie was my first big job. I was still in studying and had this unique chance. This production was a reference and opened many doors for me. Another important thing was a competition in Switzerland, which I hadn't won at the time, but a member of the jury was the assistant of the director of the Zurich Opera House. He was so enthusiastic and invited me to Zurich. When the director became the Intendant of the Salzburg festival he engaged me there as well six months later.

That was the beginning. Achievements would be. My contract with sony classical. I recorded 4 CD’s so far. Mozart 1, Cleopatra (an album with baroque Arias from Händel and others), Songs from Home (Swiss composers and Schubert), and Mozart 2 which will be released on September 4th 2020! It’s so amazing to have the opportunity to do a recording of whatever you like most at the time being. All the wonderful opera houses I have been able to perform in. One of my first jobs was a production in Teatro la Fenice in Venice. Amazing! You can feel the spirit of the ancient days. I love Italy, I sang in San Carlo in Naples, in La Scala in Milan, i did a production in Turin. And all the other beautiful stages in Berlin state opera, Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, Salzburg, Theater an der Wien and last February I debuted at the Vienna state opera as Adina in Elisir d’amore (Donizetti). What a stage! Not to forget the beautiful concert tours in Barcelona (Palau de la musica), Paris (Philharmonie), Lucerne Festival, Wiener Konzerthaus with Arts florissants and William Christie. The South America tour with the Lucerne Festival strings. I remember the most amazing concert hall in the South of Chile (Frutillar). Concerts in Chicago, and „The seasons“ (Haydn) in Philadelphia with Jannick Nézet-Séguin the current musical director of the MET.

Photo: Mischa Christen
What would be the first song, aria, opera that you would want to sing to someone who has never heard your voice? 

An aria from Mozart I guess… Susannas Aria from Figaro maybe.

Your voice is your instrument. How do you keep fit?

Singing is the only way I train my voice. The better I sing, the more precisely I work, the better I become technically. I have not spent many hours in my life with singing exercises, but when I learn new music I try to sing it technically correct from the beginning. Half a year ago there was a period when I had a lot of concerts. During that time I sang a lot and noticed how my voice developed strongly again. Singing well is my vocal hygiene.

Your repertoire mostyl comprises roles in operas composed by Mozart and from the baroque period.  When did you first discover both of these repertoires, how did they become close to your heart? What was your initial reaction to the music?

I have a very natural approach to Mozart. I don't think any other composer manages to create such a fitting personality profile as he does. Of course he worked with excellent librettists, but he put so much into the music so you can see that there was a connoisseur of human nature at work. Every opera part (no matter how small it is) has a differentiated personality. I find that incredible. This accuracy helps me to imagine situations/relationships/emotions. Everything is visible in my mind. It can be experienced. So the musical interpretation is very easy to find. Mozart is „easy“, natural, honest and I think that’s the reason why Mozart is incredibly hard to sing. If you cheat (in any way, technically, vocally, musically, mentally), everyone can hear it. So it’s a wonderful challenge, no matter how many times you have sung an aria. AND it’s fun!

Baroque is more like Jazz. I find it almost more modern than the classical and romantic period. It's a lot of improvisation, the scores are less precise in terms of interpretation. So you have more freedom. And sometimes only a few instruments play along, it's like playing with a band. Anyone who gets involved knows that baroque rocks.

Recently you have taken on several new roles, I can think of Adina in Elixir of Love which you debuted at the Wiener Staatsoper.  Which roles do you find most challenging and what kind of roles give you more satisfaction? 

When I compare the roles I’ve sung so far I can say that every part has its difficulties and that comedy is easier for me than tragedy. Juliette in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette was very challenging because of all the sadness and drama going on. To dive into a sad story without being involved too much is not easy. But with every opera you do it’s getting a bit better. Especially the „mad scene“ of Juliette, the poison aria was difficult. Sadness is easier to sing than rage, you have to take care that you don’t get overwhelmed by your emotions and keep the technical aspect under control. Adina was fun. But the tricky thing here is that the aria – the Adina-moment comes in the very end. I have to say that the biggest satisfaction to me is the variety of repertoire, composers, roles.
Photo: Shirley Suarez Padilla
What do you love most about your job? What would you change about your job?

I love the music. Overall I love to make music with others. It’s magic when everything comes together in concerts or opera performances. The process and then the performance with the audience. The exchange of energies and what it makes with us. I love traveling. Not the travel itself but I’m very interested in discovering the destinations. It’s a privilege to see all these beautiful places and concert venues/opera houses. I don’t like the travelling itself, the hours you spend on planes and trains. I also don’t like the hotels very much and the fact that in order to travel you have to be away from home and your beloved ones. But to be able to make my job I have to travel and I have to be away from my home. It’s how it is…

How do you balance your career to do  all the genres of singing that interest you, as well as concerts and recitals that also interest you? 

I  need to do both – concert and opera. Musically but also for my private life. When I do opera a new production can take up to 2 months. That means I’m away from home for a long time. When I do a concert I prepare at home and go to a place for just a couple of days. That makes it way easier to leave. But I love opera (the acting, costumes, stage…) so a combination is perfect for me.

How do you want your career to unfold?  Where do you see yourself professionally in the future? Do you have any dream roles that are not in your repertoire yet?

I never made plans for my future. I just worked very hard on my voice, took every opportunity to perform, did auditions and competitions. All the rest happened to me as a result of this work. I take what I get and get amazing opportunities nowadays. So I can’t wait to see what the future brings. In terms of roles: I have to say, I don’t have a dream role. My dream role is always the one I’m currently singing. I love the intense work on the music, the character, the constellation between the characters, the staging, the stories… But maybe I would like to try out more romantic repertory. I will do Gilda/Rigoletto in two years. I would like to do more Donizetti and Rossini – but I’ll always be faithful to beloved Mozart.

You have an ample catalog of CD recordings: operas, Mozart arias, Cleopatra baroque arias and your most recent, Songs from home Schubert lied. Why do you feel important to make recordings?  In your experience what are the challenges of producing, marketing, and releasing a CD when the industry has become more digital and CDs tend to disappear? 

As I just mentioned, I didn’t have dreams about roles or stages on which I want to sing. But I always dreamed of having my own CD. I used to be a nerd, listened to all the records and thought that it would be the very best thing if I could do my own cd one day. And this dream came true. I choose my CD programs with great care and prepare myself well for the recordings. There's a lot of personality in such a CD. For Mozart 1 I made a playlist with all! the soprano arias that exist from Mozart. That was about 23 hours of music. From this I have selected the highlights. And I made a list which arias I would like to record when I have a more mature voice than in 2015. These arias have now made it to the 2020 Mozart2 recording. With Cleopatra I read countless hours of handwritten notes from the manuscript and tried to find the highlights. Among them a first recording. The same amount of work with "Songs from home". The cd includes Schubert and Songs from Swiss Composers that have never been performed or recorded we discovered and recorded them.

In a time when people are no longer willing to pay for music, it's getting difficult on all sides. The labels (even the big ones) are dependent on the orchestras bringing along sponsors, because they cannot cover the whole costs of a big production. And the orchestras also have difficulties in financing themselves. But somehow it always works, because fortunately there are also people who have the financial means and support culture. And the best thing is that there is a great interest in classical music. That makes me confident that there will always be solutions in the future for such projects. Because…as we all know: The expensive thing is not the CD, but the production/the recording. No recording – no streaming. So let’s hope that there comes back a certain understanding of value of recorded music.

Le Nozze di Figaro- Zurich Toni Suter
How did you spend your time during the unexpected break with the current situation we are all living? Did you get any artistic or personal gain out of it?  What is your expectation or outlook on the world of classical music and opera? 

I was very busy right before the lockdown. I think it was even the most hard-working time of my life. And then - nothing. That was very good in the beginning. I could spend days of doing nothing at all. And then I started to clean my apartment, every single corner, organize my scores and everything. But I didn‘t feel like singing. I learned how to bake sourdough bread. That was hard! But when you succeed incredibly yummy. I cooked a lot. I felt a bit like a pensioner who has worked a lot and then suddenly has too much time and needs to find a new hobby. Now - since we (in Switzerland) are allowed to meet small numbers of people again, I see all my friends who I neglected a bit in the months before.. It‘s wonderful. But the other part of me still didn‘t feel like working for hours on the piano. That was scary... why didn‘t I feel like I want/have to practice. I know now: Because I don‘t really like practicing. It‘s hard work and not always fun. But what I miss so much is make music with others. Singers, conductors, pianists, orchestras... that‘s what I love and what I miss and what I’m looking forward to. Very soon hopefully. I’m positive for the future. I really think that people miss going to concerts and opera. That they will come back and appreciate it even more. Maybe it’s naive, but feels good to think so.

Would you mind sharing an anecdote about something unusual or funny that has happened to you on the stage? 

It was not particularly funny... rather stupid. It was at the Berlin state opera. I ate an apple. The apple was a prop in the opening scene and after that not used anymore. My mouth was very dry so I asked if I could eat it. And after having eaten it, I had an allergic reaction to this apple. I didn‘t know about this allergy before. Suddenly my throat was swollen and I could hardly breathe. The doctor came and I had to inhale cortisone or something. All during the performance - they have a doctor in the house during every performance. Right before my second appearance on stage with my second aria, the swelling in my throat started to reduce. Not quite back to normal but I was able to sing – although it was a pianiss-issimo version of the aria. What I learned? Never eat props.

Opus Klasic 2018 - Monique-Wüstenhagen
Finally, would you mind telling us a little bit about yourself?  Who is Regula?  Where is home for you? How regularly do you get back to it, and what are some comforts that you especially enjoy when you are there? What hobbies do you have? What type of music do you like to listen to?

I am from Lucerne (Switzerland). I still live there in the city center. My mainstay from where I start all my travels. I'm a very sociable person. I love having my family and friends around me. I like good food. And when family, friends and good food come together, I am in heaven.  That's how I spend my time at home: cooking & meeting friends. Before I was a singer, I used to like to go on city trips in Europe. I like architecture, art & design...  I pursue this hobby now when I am on the road for work. I listen to many different types of music and often go to concerts: opera, symphony, recitals, jazz, blues, pop, rock, alternative, folk… life is too good to be limited to one thing.

Thank you for the interview.

Thank you too.

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