Costume sketches by Mathew LeFebvre for Minnesota Opera’s upcoming production of Richard Strauss’s opera Elektra.
The Soprano-Wrecker. The End of Harmony. The Most Horrific Tragedy in Opera. The First Freudian Opera. These are but a few of the nicknames for the opera Elektra. Composed by Richard Strauss, the opera first took the stage in 1909. It was, in some ways, the opera that Strauss wrote to top the scandalous Dance of Seven Veils in his 1905 opera Salome. Minnesota Opera puts in on at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul, October 5-13.
The nickname “Soprano-Wrecker” is voiced half with respect, half with awe. Most Strauss operas are exceedingly difficult and demanding of their lead sopranos. If most Strauss operas are 10-mile races, however, Elektra is the marathon, putting its leading lady up-front and center throughout. German soprano Sabine Hogrefe knows this well – she’s sung the title role in Germany and at the Metropolitan Opera, and soon she’ll open Minnesota Opera’s production as well. (Alexandra Loutsion sings the role on alternate nights.) Hogrefe spoke with the Arts Reader‘s Basil Considine about her singing career and pacing Strauss.
You made your Metropolitan Opera debut as Elektra in March 2018. When did you first learn and perform this role?
I first learned it in 2012 at a small theatre in Germany. I did 5 productions at the Met, so this is my 7th production.
The role of Elektra is famously difficult and vocally demanding. What do you do (or not do) to prepare for this on the day of a performance?
I try to get up late and be just a little bit lazy to save my energy. I also drink a lot to moisten my vocal cords, because when you’re onstage so much, you normally don’t have time to drink. It’s 1 hour, 45 minutes of being onstage, singing, so it’s hard to stay hydrated.
Having sung this role before, did you have to do a lot of preparation to sing it again?
With Elektra, the music is so complicated that you kind of have to not learn it again, but restudy the durations of each note and really work on it. When I knew I was coming to Minneapolis, I worked with a répetiteur for two weeks, every day.
When not actively rehearsing or performing a role, where is home for you?
My home is now in the south of Berlin. l live in one of the suburbs, near the new Berlin Brandenburg Airport.
I moved there 5 years ago because my parents live in Lübeck, which is only 3 hours away – so I can quickly drive to them, which is nice. Freiburg, where I was living before, was 8 hours away by car. I lived there for 18 years because it’s so nice – the warmest place in Germany, with mountains around with skiing and other things that I like very much, but I thought, “Okay, it’s time to change.” And Berlin is not a bad place, either.
You worked at the Bayreuth Festival for several years – what was that experience like?
It was very nice – I learned a lot about how to sing Wagner, and it was the first place where I heard Parsifal, which was written especially for Bayreuth. I was very lucky to hear it there because the acoustic is so special at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. I would not hear it like this opera in another theatre because of that special acoustic.
I also especially liked the production because the stage director was Stefan Herheim and the conductor was Daniele Gatti.
Audiences describe that acoustic at Bayreuth as other-worldly, with the orchestra covered by the stage and the round shape of the hall giving it a special reverb. What does that sound like for you as a performer when you’re on the Bayreuth stage? Do you have to make any adjustments for the hall?
When you’re on the Bayreuth stage, you can sing very softly, but it stills sounds as a big voice – rather like singing in a bathroom. It’s also special because you have to sing later than normal, rather than anticipating the conductor’s baton – it seems like singing after the beat. You have to rehearse this.
Did they tell you about this acoustic property in advance?
No, they didn’t tell me about this in advance because I was jumping in to cover a role. They called me the day before for Tristan, and the next day I was onstage singing – and during the breaks between acts, they told me, “Sabine, sing later – you’re always ahead“.
So did you not get to rehearse in the Bayreuth Festspielhaus beforehand?
No – I was covering a role there, and when I jumped in there was no time for a rehearsal with the orchestra. Normally, though they have staging rehearsal, orchestra rehearsals, and one general rehearsal in the space before a production opens.
You’ve sung roles at opera houses around the world. Are there some places or theatres that you haven’t sung at yet, but that you’d especially like to? If so, why?
I think the opera house is only a building. It’s interesting to work with the people. The opera houses that belong to particular orchestras, like the Dresden Philharmonic, and in Vienna…I’d like to sing there.
For me, one of my goals is to have a good time with people making art, and to have the chance in a company to be a team and do a show so well that the audience will be touched. That’s my intention.
This is your first time in Minnesota? What are some of the things that you’ve been surprised by here?
I was surprised about how theatre in America works, with just four weeks of rehearsing before opening. We blocked this show in five days, which was very astonishing for me, especially because we have two Elektras. I’ve never worked such a short time for a show. In Germany, it would be 6 weeks from the beginning to the opening. When I was coming in, I said, “Let’s talk about this,” and the director said, “What do you want to talk to me about? Just do it!” It’s astonishing to me that it is possible.
I can’t understand this fast schedule, from my point of view as a European singer, but it happens and it works, somehow. And it’s not a simple show, either – it’s complicated and had two days for filming…
Would this role have also been double-cast if you were singing it in Germany?
In Germany, it would also be two singers, which is because of how the shows are scheduled. You couldn’t sing Elektra every day – it’s not possible, or at least not a good idea. Otherwise, it is scheduled so the production dates are spread over a whole year, so that’s 10 performances with a lot of time in the middle. When you’re only doing one short run, the last 14 days are hard because you have to sing full-voice for the orchestra rehearsals and get very tired before the premiere. So I prepare by getting up late – at 8 or 9 in the morning on the day of the performance – and slowly make my coffee, read the news, etc.
What’s your next performing engagement after this?
My next engagement is a small role in Rosenkavalier in Brussels, so I have to learn that when I get back.
Minnesota Opera’s production of Richard Strauss’ Elektra runs October 5-13 at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul, MN.