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A conversation with Yvonne Naef: part 1.

TALKING WITH MEZZO SOPRANO YVONNE NAEF at the beautiful Fairmont Copley Hotel in Boston's Copley Place.

Leslie Holmes: One of the bios, which I read of you, called you a contralto. I believe you think of yourself as a mezzo, do you not?

Yvonne Naef: Yes. I am a true mezzo soprano, with a low voice and, also, really good top.

LH: Wonderful! You have such a vast repertoire that I really had a difficult time trying to figure out what I would ask you. You've sung with every conductor I can think of. You've sung with all the major European opera houses--or most of them--plus, Japan and Korea. You have sung with most of the major orchestras. It's amazing. So, let's go back to the beginning. Where were you born in Switzerland?

YN: I am born in the Rheinfall district [the name of the town is Schaffhausen], where the Rhine is really making a lovely falls. I don't write that in a CV, of course, because Reinfall, in German, means failure.

LH: Oh dear. [laughter] You have not been a failure, I'll say that.

YN: I'm a citizen of a small town near Zurich. I grew up in different towns in German-speaking Switzerland.

LH: Yes, we go hiking every couple of years in Switzerland, and sometimes it is in the German-speaking part, and sometimes in the French-speaking part.

YN: Oh, great. I'm a great hiker. I love to hike. It's so beautiful.

LH: Was your family musical?

YN: I was a bit of a black sheep.

LH: Or a white sheep. A black sheep sometimes means you were not good.

YN: But, in a herd of white sheep, I was the one who went my own way. So, in that sense, I was a black sheep--I stood out from the herd. My mother has a lovely voice. She was Leslie Holmes and Yvonne Naef singing in a chorus, when she was young. There was musicality in the family, but not really professional. When I was about 9, I asked my mother if I could play the accordion or violin. As the violin was not in the realm of the family, I started, for a year, the accordion. Don't ask me why I had the idea of an accordion. I didn't like it, so, after a year, I changed to the violin. Actually, my voice would be a cello. I love the cello.

LH: I do, too. Did you start singing when you were young?

YN: Yes. It's a typical story. I was in a children's chorus. My first visit to the opera house, in Zurich, was a musical for children--Pinocchio. There was a small children's chorus on the stage--5 or 6 singers. I was listening and I was furious because they didn't sing well, and I said to my mother, "I can do better." I always sang in choirs. In Switzerland, at that time, it was really a tradition that many people were members of a choir. You could hear a lot of Bach oratorios. I was singing in the chorus from a young age. I was into music. My family was not really supporting me. My mother supported me a bit.

LH: That's good to have some support, at least. We need that from our family. I believe you first got noticed when you came in second in the Maria Callas Competition in Athens. Would you say that's true?

YN: I was too shy, at that moment. I already was 30. I studied singing then. I was singing professionally, during my study time, but only oratorio. The Callas Competition was really when I knew that, if I wanted to do opera, I have to take steps. I have to go out there and find an agent. So, I did it, but I was too shy to use the contacts I had from this [competition]. But, it was the beginning of my time. I was auditioning for agencies.

LH: So, you did know you wanted to sing opera.

YN: Yes, but quite late because opera was something I was holding as holy in heaven. I thought, before I can start opera, I have to master everything. I didn't see myself as a beginner, but I thought that, with opera, before you start you really need to perform everything. As a mezzo, I just had the chance to get it right in my development, so it was not too late.

LH: How did you get from there to Monte Carlo, where you sang in Anna Bolena? I think you had quite a lot of success with that.

YN: Yes, it was a remarkable success. I loved the style. I have regrets that, after this remarkable success I had with critics, this branch of my repertory didn't develop. It was, perhaps, a time in Germany when this repertory was not really the style. The orchestras were not playing in this style. I did some roles, and I did my best not to be seen as a German singer. I wanted to sing Italian repertoire. I wanted to sing almost every style--except for verismo, which I didn't like. I wanted to be known as an Italian voice.

LH: How did you get to La Scala to do The Tales of Hoffman? Did you have an agent for that?

YN: Yes, I had an Italian agent, and he managed that. But, it was Italian repertoire. To have a career in Italy with French repertoire--which I like--is not possible. I returned to La Scala, a year later, with French repertoire in concert. Young people liked to hear Ravel and other French composers, but the main audience wanted Italian. You can feel it, in Italy. They don't understand what you are singing. It is really obvious.

LH: Did it ever occur to you that you would sing a lot of Wagner, when you thought you wanted to do Italian repertoire?

YN: Yes. In my beginning years, I was a member of the State Opera in Wiesbaden. It was in the last period when the house really had high standards. It was an ensemble. As a mezzo, I had a contract for dramatic mezzo parts, but I also sang Rosina. I also sang Dorabella. I had, really, the chance to do anything I wanted. I worked like a horse. There I did my first Wagner role. It was Fricka. We had a marvelous, beautiful Ring, staged by the Director of the Paris Opera, Nicole Joelle. It was in the style of Asia, with huge, huge coats. It was in summertime, with a lot of hot fog, and we had to wear [costumes that weighed] 30 kilos. I had a big success with my Fricka, and I thought, "Now, I have to be careful. I'm in Germany. I'm a native speaker. I have success with Wagner." I did my best not to push forward with this repertoire, and managed to get engaged as an Italian mezzo.

LH: You have done a lot of Verdi. Did you do a lot of Verdi then?

YN: Yes. My first role was Amneris. It's still my most beloved one. As a Verdi mezzo, you [the mezzo] are the one who is changing the whole system. The soprano is often walking more in heaven than on earth [i.e., has her head in the clouds]. The tenor is a loving hero--is naive, or whatever. The mezzo is the one who makes things happen. With Eboli, I never believed she would go to a monastery. She is leading the revolution. It's a very short scene, where she appears. Just one word and she is leading the revolution. I see her as someone who will pull down the whole pyramid system, to be ruled by priests. She is the one who sees that her father is manipulated. She's a victim of this system, but she will destroy it, I'm sure. Her next act would have been all of this.

LH: So, the mezzo is the smart one. She knows what's going on.

YN: Yes. If you look at Preziosilla [La forza del destino]--it was the first part I was singing in Wiesbaden, so I remember--she is like that. I loved it, and I had a very, very good director. He said, "Preziosilla is not the one who will go to war with the army. She is like one of the figures in the Medieval Age, Alhaja. She has one leg in our world, and the other in the spiritual world. She knows both kinds. She talks to people in a way that says, 'If you don't change now, you will have fight and death'." It makes her very interesting. But, you have to show it on stage. It is not obvious, I think. When you look a bit deeper, she's an interesting figure.

LH: I think the mezzos in Verdi are always interesting. They are the ones who carry the action forward.

YN: Yes.

LH: I only have your repertoire list from 2003. I counted up at least 35 different roles.

YN: It's much more. I did 35 in my first five years.

LH: That is astounding. Is memorizing easy for you?

YN: It's quite easy. Normally, I don't have to memorize, when I am really working a piece. It comes, naturally, from the work. Of course, I have to memorize Russian or Polish ... a very difficult language. And, when I have a lieder recital I'm walking with the text. I write it down.

LH: You made your debut at the Met in 2004?

YN: If you say it, OK.

LH: I know more about you, right now, than I do about myself. I believe you sang Fricka in Die Walkure. And Waltraute.

YN: Yes. In Das Rheingold.

LH: And then you did Aida. After that, you went on tour with them. Do you remember what you sang on tour?

YN: My first encounter with the Met was on a tour in Tokyo with James Levine--my favorite, beloved conductor--for Gurrelieder. Afterwards, came my real debut in the house. We did, then, [Die] Walkure and, to my big surprise and to my regret I didn't accept another offer. I was asked to do Zerlina [Don Giovanni]. I was so happy about this. In Germany, when you sing really big parts, nobody believes that you can sing in another style. Then, I spoke to one of my coaches, and she looked at me and said, "Oh no. I don't believe that's right for you. Yvonne, don't do that." So, I said, "No." It was very silly. I would have loved to sing Zerlina. In my later years, in Zurich, after doing the premiere of Un ballo in maschera, the head of the opera, Alexander Pelada, asked me to do Despina. It was a delight to do that. I loved to do that. So, I could have done Zerlina.

LH: Despina is the only one in that opera who knows what's going on ... like Susanna.

YN: Yes.

LH: You are now in Boston to sing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. You are portraying The Deaconess in the Polish opera King Roger, by [Karol] Szymanowski. For a long time, after its 1926 premiere, this opera was not heard very much at all, but, over the last 20 years, it has been given 13 or 14 productions. Many of them--at least 4--have been conducted by Charles Dutoit, who is conducting it now. From your facial expression, I have a feeling that Polish is not easy.

YN: I think it's one of the most difficult languages. I have a good ear for languages ... but my English ...

LH: If I were trying to talk in German, I would not do anywhere near as well as you are doing in English.

YN: Thank you. I have a Polish student, a pianist, who is taking voice lessons. She was really the one who helped me [with the language]. She was not pleased, at all. I didn't meet her standards. She was really criticizing me a lot. I had to learn to readjust my ear. In my ear, Polish is kind of like a mixture of Portuguese and Russian. They have sounds like ... [makes some very nasal sounds]. You have to learn where to put the vowels, and then to sing while you are doing that.

LH: Do the other singers know Polish, or are they all struggling, too?

YN: Three of the four principal singers are Polish, and Edgaras [Montvidas] learned Polish from TV, from soaps, from whatever was on TV.

LH: One of Szymanowski's concerns was the fact that everybody idolized Chopin as the only Polish composer. He felt it was having a bad effect on later Polish composers, because they thought they could never measure up to Chopin. Syzymanowski spent at least six years writing this opera with his cousin. He and his cousin wrote the libretto. What do you think of the opera?

YN: Difficult question. I've seen two productions on the Internet. When I read the text and listen to the music, I have the impression that Szymanowski wanted to show the audience the shepherd figure--Dionysus-like--who was showing the world that it could be joyful and still be spiritual. The Catholic church was very powerful in Poland, at the time [1926]. He was not contradicting Christianity, but giving it a new dimension. It's interesting the journey the king is going on. In the end, the king [a devout Catholic] is reaching for the highest light; he is offering his heart to the sun. The shepherd has stepped over a boundary, which society was not supposed to do. They condemned Tannhauser for going into the world of Venus. The church, with its power on earth, has to condemn that. Of course, an artist is always stepping over that boundary.

LH: There's quite a long article in last week's Boston Symphony program about this opera and Szymanowski. It's very interesting. You've worked with Charles Dutoit before.

YN: Yes.

LH: Didn't you do Mahler's 8th with him ?

YN: Yes. In Tokyo.

LH: And didn't you two do L'enfant et les sortileges?

YN: Yes. By the way, I just came back from Tokyo, and he was there at the same time. I couldn't go to one of his performances, because of rehearsal times. It was good to see him.

LH: How do you like working with him?

YN: I love working with him. I love colors. He is a listener. He has very big ears. He likes it when a voice is able to soften, to have really high soft tones, and still have overtones. He told the violins, today, to leave space around the tone.

LH: Don't you think that the high, soft tones are really deeper, with more space?

YN: Of course.

LH: How do you think about the breath, and about where the breath goes when you're singing a high note?

YN: I'm not a singer who thinks about breath. I'm like this famous singer in the 18th century who, when she was asked about her breath, she said, "I'm not breathing." It was an insult to her. Of course, I had to learn a lot about breath. Breath has to always flow. I, personally, think that I am an "in breather." I breathe in. First, I have to make myself open up the huge space to see what, specifically, this music has to offer. Then I try to, really, opening up all of my cells, all of my joints to take in this music and, then, giving it out. I don't care so much about giving out. I care more for the taking in.

LH: I don't think you are so aware of the breath when you're singing, because that breath comes out as tone. And, it comes out as energy.

YN: Yes. When we speak about air, we mostly mean energy. I think, when you try to control what you are doing, the diaphragm is in danger of tightening up. Then, you start to think about breath. I think you have to have it all in one. My philosophy about that is that I try to be into the music. When I have to think about breathing in, I think there is something wrong.

LH: I often think we make singing too complicated ... that it's simply opening, depth of air, space and then out.

YN: When it works, it's simple.

(continued in next issue)

Soprano Leslie Holmes, a Wellesley College graduate, is well known for her numerous solo appearances, as well as for her radio program of eleven years on Classical Radio Boston, WCRB. Her solo appear ances include the Boston Symphony, Boston Pops, Opera Company of Boston, and Boston's Chorus Pro Musica. Ms. Holmes has performed solo recitals at such venues as the Gardner Museum, Great Woods, Boston Public Library, French Library and Cultural Center, Bard College, throughout the East, Europe, Cuba, and on NPR. Currently, she presents recitals of classical cabaret, music by women composers, French composers, and The Great American Songbook. A past New England Regional Governor and frequent adjudicator, she is on the NATS Foundation Board. President of the Wellesley Symphony Orchestra, and hosts a Cabaret Open Mic at Amazing Things Arts Center. She is on the Board of Boston Singers Resource, is Chair of the Advisory Board of the Boston Association of Cabaret Artists, and on the Advisory Board of the Maud Powell Signature magazine. Leslie was recently named Distinguished Woman of the Year by the Boston Alumnae Chapter of SAI.

Caption: Leslie Holmes and Yvonne Naef
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Title Annotation:THE VOCAL POINT
Author:Holmes, Leslie
Publication:Journal of Singing
Article Type:Interview
Date:Sep 1, 2015
Previous Article:Collaboration.
Next Article:Recent research in singing.

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