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Christiane Oelze in Interview with Melanie Eskenazi

The plush lounge overlooking the idyllic garden of the extremely opulent and trendy Portobello Hotel was the setting for my interview with the delightful soprano Christiane Oelze, who declares herself a devoted Anglophile, especially when it comes to English gardens, one of which she is at present trying to establish at her own home. It is hardly surprising that this soprano likes England so much, since she cherishes happy memories of her performances at Glyndebourne and Covent Garden, and returns here often to sing in both opera and recital.

She is scheduled to sing Ilia in ‘Idomeneo’ under Simon Rattle at Glyndebourne in 2003, and I asked her about this role and its place in her repertoire, since she has now sung most of the major Mozart roles which suit her voice, such as Zerlina, Despina, Konstanze, Pamina and Susanna, so she has come to Ilia at a relatively late stage in her career. ‘ Ilia presents so many challenges, so it’s not always a good idea to have her sung by a very young soprano; it’s not just the lovely arias but the dramatic parts of the role I’ m thinking about – it needs a little weight in the singing, maybe not so much as, say, Donna Anna, but it’s certainly not a soubrette role! It reminds me very much of the role of Iphise (in Handel’s ‘Jephtha’ which she has recorded with John Mark Ainsley and Michael George in the other leading parts.) It’s a part I am very happy to sing now, in the middle of my career, and one I am very happy to sing at Glyndebourne, which is so special to me, partly for that wonderful country setting but also for the feeling of history and tradition in the place. The rehearsal period there is perhaps a little too long at eight weeks, but that is a small price to pay compared to the feeling I get from singing there, since I am so happy to be able to be a part of that tradition.’

Christiane is also singing her first Sophie in ‘Der Rosenkavalier’ in Spring this year, another role which is often the preserve of the very young singer, but since this sought-after soprano is not in a fixed contract with an opera house, she has been free to select her roles so as to sing them when she and her teacher feel it right to do so; ‘I could have sung Sophie ten years ago when I was in my twenties but now I can do it with so much more colour in the voice, and I have also reached a different understanding of her character – I used to see her as stupid but I don’t feel that way anymore, since so much depends on her need to show ‘Demut’ (humility).

When I first heard Christiane Oelze sing Strauss, I felt that her voice and manner came very close to that of the great Lucia Popp, perhaps the finest Sophie of her generation, and this comparison was received with great delight, although it was clearly not the first time it had been made, since her ‘very good-looking voice doctor’ in Köln has also heard the likeness. Will she, too, go from Sophie to the Marschallin? ‘Yes, I hope so, I like to think that one day I will sing this part; she is such a great figure, it’s such a marvellous role, not only vocally but from the point of view that she is such a human figure, and what she says is so affecting. She’s only supposed to be thirty – three, but you never really get a 33 year old singing her – of course, women became old at an earlier age then, so to speak. ‘

Oelze regards Strauss as the logical and natural continuation of Mozart opera, and says that as well as the bigger lines for the voice, which she regards as being very healthy to sing, Strauss’ soprano roles are also deeper. Her love for the composer does not extend to his songs in quite the same way, since with a few exceptions she finds them lacking in intensity, although she loves the ‘Ophelia’ songs and is always eager to programme them.

She is of course well known as one of today’s most in-demand recitalists, and in this repertoire ‘I always come back to Schubert, Brahms and Mahler. When I listen to Mahler there is such a direct emotion, it’s so overwhelming!’ This comment led me to ask her what she thought about a German critic’s description of her as ‘Die Intellektuelle mit Herz,’ which called forth whoops of mirth – ‘Not at all! I do not see myself as intellectual, although like all singers I hope that I can achieve a balance between emotion and thought in a song. I gave a recital last week in Bonn, and one of the audience told me ‘It’s amazing! I can understand every word! The singing is poetic!’ Of course, you always aim to sing ‘along the poem,’ but that’s hard – very hard indeed; my aim is to sing beautiful bel canto with an understanding of the text.’

Her recording of Goethe Lieder provides a fine example of her art, and she was clearly very happy to be told that I consider her singing of ‘Erster Verlust’ to be on a par with that of Matthias Goerne, although her own feeling about this recording in general is that her voice was then too ‘Mädchenhaft’ (girlish). I asked her if planning such a recording presented problems such as fear of overloading the market, since virtually everyone who has ever stood in front of a piano wants to sing Schubert’s Goethe settings; ‘Yes, there is always the problem of finding a good selection for a recital disc, and there is plenty of Goethe set for women, so we tried to include some songs which not everyone sings, such as the more exotic ones. I wanted to do ‘Der du von dem Himmel bist…’ but Elizabeth Schwarzkopf said, ‘Why are you considering that? People want to hear that from Fischer – Dieskau, but not from you!’

Oelze is not a singer who keeps to the well – trodden ways of Lieder composers; she longs to sing more Eisler and Schoenberg, since she feels very ‘at home’ in the ‘Neue Wiener Schule,’ and is also keen to explore repertory such as the songs of Alma Mahler, which she is programming with Wolf, Schönberg Op. 6 and (Gustav) Mahler. I asked her if we might be hearing this at the Wigmore Hall; ‘Of course, I am dying to be there! I so much love the audience at that hall; so knowledgeable, but in such a loving way, not as in ‘Right! we want to hear how you do it!’ There is nowhere in Germany like that, nowhere with such an open, appreciative public, so I very much hope that one day………..’ a sentiment which the present writer heartily endorses.

Christiane has the unusual distinction of being the soprano soloist on two of the leading recordings of the ‘St. Matthew Passion’ ( under Rilling with Schade and Goerne, and under Ozawa with Ainsley and Quasthoff) and I asked her about these very different recordings; ‘ Rilling is a very self – effacing conductor, he may not be sufficiently respected for what he has done, since he is so wonderful with singers and especially choirs, for the very quiet but persuasive way he helps you to find the balance in a piece. Working with Ozawa was of course a different kind of experience, and the recording itself is unique; unlike Rilling, he did not have around him a set of people with whom he had worked for a long time; it was really a collaboration of musicians who had come together especially for this, including wonderful Japanese choirs who sang all by heart! I would not say that it is a better recording, just different in that it is exotic, a real meeting of such different cultures – but there is no doubt that it is still truly Bach!’

She is clearly a singer with little taste for limits, and she declares that she most enjoys the kind of operatic role which she describes as ambiguous, such as Mélisande; she likes to be challenged as far as acting is concerned, which does not always mean a very avant –garde production, although she is more positive than many other singers are about the experience of working with such directors as Peter Sellars. She says that she has ‘…no problem with avant – garde ideas, so long as the approach comes from inside, and I can put up with a lot if the director is able to rise to the most important challenge of all, that of managing the characters and their motivation. When I worked with Graham Vick on ‘Pelléas et Mélisande’ I saw that although he did not say a great deal to me about my role, I understood what he was aiming at. He had thought deeply about the psychological circumstances involved, and was deeply engaged in the piece.

Christiane’s interest in the forward-looking and unusual is well shown in her newest recording (on DG), an admittedly small role in an extract from Lortzing’s ‘Wildschütz’ which she shares with Thomas Quasthoff, who had asked her to join him for this disc. Lortzing is not a composer often heard much outside Germany, so it will be interesting to see how much interest in his work is generated by Quasthoff’s advocacy of this piece. The selections are conducted by another major musical figure on the German scene, Christian Thielemann, of whom she speaks in glowing terms.

So what does the future hold for this versatile and individual soprano? Apart from her upcoming operatic debuts, she looks forward to performances of the ‘St. Matthew Passion’ under Corboz, as part of the Gulbenkian Festival in Lisbon, recitals at the Schleswig-Holstein and Schubertiade Festivals, in Köln with Ian Bostridge, and in New York with Mitsuko Uchida, as well as a Proms performance in July and, soon after our meeting, a ‘Deutsches Requiem’ with Matthias Goerne in Berlin. It was while we were talking about the emotional impact of Brahms’ great work, and how it was so movingly used as part of a television series on War, that we had one of those small – world moments, for we discovered that Christiane’s husband, a distinguished actor, had provided the German commentary for that series – on which my husband had worked in London! Accordingly, we have arranged to meet up when she comes here for the Proms in July, when I will be looking forward to hearing more about the ever - increasing success of this warm and personable singer.


Melanie Eskenazi


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