La Monnaie / De Munt LA MONNAIE / DE MUNT

Anne Sofie Von Otter

An interview with opera royalty

Jasper Croonen
Reading time
5 min.

Concerts for the greats of the earth and a decades-long career at the upper echelons of the opera world. Are we talking about Anne Sofie von Otter here or the Countess in The Queen of Spades? It seems as if Tchaikovsky had the Swedish grande dame in mind when he composed his opera, and yet she is only now debuting the role – at La Monnaie. “I would never have wanted to try it before now. Despite her relatively small role in the story, the Countess is the key character in this work. And you can perform her in so many different ways….”

In what ways?

Anne Sofie von Otter: “She is often portrayed as a moody, petulant woman, but at the same time, she can also be played in a very fragile or overly comical way. Dmitry Golovnin (Hermann, ed.) told me that he had seen a recording of a theatre version in which she was played as a real bitch. (laughs) I think it has to do with the fact that Tchaikovsky gives her very little backstory. In Pushkin’s case, you learn a little more about her, but there, too, it’s primarily second-hand. In both cases, it is mainly the other characters who are talking about her. This gives her a kind of mysterious, almost legendary allure and allows both the director David Marton and me, as the vocalist, the freedom to portray the character as we see fit.

With Hermann (Dmitry Golovnin) during her key scene in the second act
With Hermann (Dmitry Golovnin) during her key scene in the second act © Bernd Uhlig
Which Countess can we expect to see at La Monnaie?

That’s difficult to say at the moment. David is someone who is very committed to the collaborative process: we all have our own ideas, our own expertise. The performance undergoes quite an evolution during rehearsals. Personally, I really enjoy working like this. To be honest, I don’t like directors who micromanage every move. But, of course, that makes it exciting to see how the puzzle fits together.

In the opera, your character remembers her performances ‘as if it were yesterday’. Is there a moment from your career that has stayed with you so vividly?

Both my first Cherubino in Covent Garden and the Mozart cycle with Gardiner are still vivid in my mind. But the absolute highlight is Der Rosenkavalier with Carlos Kleiber, in 1994 at the Staatsoper in Vienna. It was if all the pieces of the puzzle fell instantly into place: the orchestra was in top form, and Kleiber too, of course. If I want to be remembered for anything, let it be that production.

When the Countess talks about the glory of the past, doesn’t that confront you as a singer with the finiteness of your career?

I’ve especially noticed that, at this point in my career, I have a lot less interesting roles that are really my cup of tea. This is something that I regret, of course, but I consider it my craft as a singer to make a character sound as it should. I don’t have a big philosophy about that and I try not to overthink it, but certain characters just simply have a certain tone you have to respect.

Perhaps the best counterexample I can give is when I sing a recital. There, the audience doesn’t really expect a role; mostly, they want an eloquent voice. I may have evolved, but I will always strive for that freshness and beauty that belongs to the genre of a lied evening. In that respect, an opera role as the Countess is, of course, a blessing. I can give everything free rein and my voice can sound a bit older in that instance. (laughs)

To reminisce nostalgically, what is your first memory of Tchaikovsky’s music?

He used to be my favourite composer. His music means a lot to me. As a child, I always wanted to become a ballerina, so my parents took me to classical ballet performances from an early age. I think I was eight when I first heard pieces like Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty. I was completely overwhelmed by Tchaikovsky’s romantic, passionate musical world.

It’s very special to be able to perform his music live for the first time. Of course, you cannot quite compare Pikovaya Dama with the huge crowd-pleasers that his ballets are, but you can still find that passionate core in this opera that makes Tchaikovsky so wonderful and that planted the seed for my love of classical music.