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INTERVIEW: Johanni van Oostrum on Figaro, Travel, and the Quest for the Perfect Burger

Soprano Johanni van Oostrum. Photo by S. N. de Vries.

Soprano Johanni van Oostrum stars in Minnesota Opera’s upcoming production of The Marriage of Figaro. The international opera star’s career has taken her from her native South Africa to Europe, North America, and Asia. The Arts Reader‘s Basil Considine caught up with van Oostrum to talk about opera.

You’re a graduate of the University of Pretoria in South Africa and sang in Cape Town Opera’s Der Fliegende Holländer (“The Flying Dutchman”) last August. This season, your schedule has you traveling as far as Tokyo. Where do you call home these days, and how often do you get to stay there?

Johanni van Oostrum as Senta in Theater und Orchester Heidelberg’s 2016 production of Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman). Photo by Annemone Taake.

Most of my previous contracts were in Germany. Therefore, when I fell in love with Weimar, a small city with a huge musical and historical importance, I decided to move there. Weimar was home to Goethe, Schiller, Bach, Liszt, Strauss, Kandinsky, and Gropius – to name but a few.

My engagements mean that, as you already guessed, I am not home too often. I travel a lot and experience many different countries, people, cultures and food. That is part of the adventure. When I jumped into the Fliegende Holländer production as Senta, it was the first time in many years that I sang in South Africa again. Since most of my family members live in South Africa, it was a huge blessing for me to have them at the performance in Cape Town.

How do you plan your international (or any long-distance) travel with your singing career? Do you plan in any pre-rehearsal intervals for acclimating to the local climate and time zone?

I do not plan in pre-rehearsal intervals. I just try and get into the local time zone as soon as possible. Fortunately, with the opera rehearsal time, I have sufficient time to get over jet lag before the performances start. The best practice is to always be flexible and to go with the flow.

Even when you plan things carefully, they might go differently – coming here I missed my connecting flight due to extreme weather conditions, which resulted in 26 hours of travel. The rehearsals started the next day!

Johanni van Oostrum appears as the Countess in Minnesota Opera’s upcoming production of The Marriage of Figaro, which uses a production design featured at Lyric Opera of Kansas City (pictured). Photo by Dana Sohm.

You’ve sung the role of the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro several times, including last season. What is your role preparation like when you return to a part like this? For example, how much time do you need to devote to “refreshing” your memory about the music?

It depends on how much time has passed since the last production of that piece. I sang the role of the Countess last year at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, and have the music and the basic structure still fresh in my mind. This also means that I also have the musical interpretation of the last production in mind and that I have to try and not let that influence me too much.

Every production is different – the stage director and the conductor create a new piece with their artistic vision and message. I have to try and go into rehearsals with an open mind and open ear. I always connect the music with the action on stage and find subtext for myself. The different cast also brings an entirely different energy and interaction to the stage, and it is important to find a good musical balance with my new colleagues during the rehearsal time.

When enjoying a bonafide vacation, is there any music that you sing purely for fun?

I enjoy going into nature and having no music around me at all during a vacation. Then I love to listen to the waves, leaves, and birds, or just take in the silence. When I do listen to music at home, I will listen to some jazz and blues. There is the odd moment when I take out my guitar and accompany myself with songs that I used to sing when I was a school kid, things like “House of the Rising Sun.”

When not rehearsing and performing in Minnesota, are there any particular activities that you hope to enjoy?

I regrettably missed the Vikings last Sunday – that is something that I want to experience. I have been taking some long and beautiful walks along the Mississippi and still hope to visit one of the beautiful lakes, the Walker Art Museum, the Mill City Museum and, of course, do some shopping at the Mall of America. I am also still searching for the perfect hamburger and fries. Suggestions are welcome!

[Editor’s note: We recommend the Smash Burger at Parlour (730 Washington Ave N
Minneapolis, MN 55401) in the North Loop neighborhood of Minneapolis. Fries not included.]

Minnesota Opera’s production of The Marriage of Figaro opens Saturday, Nov. 11 and plays through Sunday, Nov. 19 at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul, MN.

Basil Considine