The Opera Questionnaire: Marta Herman, mezzo-soprano

DSC_7504darkAmong the cohort of the young Canadian singers who moved overseas to pursue international careers—we follow your trajectories, we root for you, we are proud, girls and boys!—is the always-compelling mezzo Marta Herman. I’ve first discovered Marta in a UoT Master Class led by Adrienne Pieczonka with Sandra Horst at the piano. Could it have been as far back as 2010? Herman sang an aria from Handel’s Hercules, the very first encounter with the work for most of us there, including Pieczonka. Other participants chose arias from the late-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century axis for the occasion, but here was Marta, proposing a mad character from a baroque oratorio in English with some appropriately mad coloraturas. I even remember her outfit! A lot of young singers overdress for these occasions, and her little black dress was a dash of unfussy elegance.

A year later, I happened upon a Music Gallery season brochure and noticed Herman’s name in a Saariaho-heavy program. So I went, and the rest is fandom.

The email with the OQ questions found Marta in Vienna earlier this month, but she is back in Frankfurt where she is based following the completion of the YA program at the Frankfurt Opera.

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The work that is most likely to make a teen intrigued by opera?

Bernstein’s Candide, because it is authentically operatic as well as being truly entertaining. The distinctive music, wacky characters and mix of comedy and pathos make it a great gateway, especially for any teenager who is into musical theatre (like I was at that age!)

The opera that will intrigue a pop-music-savvy adult?

Either one of Nico Muhly‘s two operas, Dark Sisters or Two Boys – he is one of those excellent composers that is equally at home in the classical or pop paradigm, and often combines the two in intelligent and beautiful ways.

And a film buff?

There are two film versions of The Magic Flute which would both pique a film buff’s interest – the 1975 Swedish version directed by Ingmar Bergman, and the 2006 English version directed by Kenneth Branagh. Bergman’s take plays with the boundaries between theatre and film by starting as a traditional theatrical production and then going in another direction entirely, and Branagh’s is all magical realism, set in the trenches of the 1st World War.

The best argument to use with opera traditionalists who argue that productions should be done the one “faithful” way and no other way?

I have so much to say about this. I can’t possibly summarize it in a couple of sentences, but this is a good start: opera is a discussion. Every work comes into being through collaboration, argument and compromise which starts with the work between composer and librettist and runs through the entire process of bringing it to the stage. Almost no one involved gets exactly what they want, but very often the end result is something bigger and better than any one person could have envisioned. Each piece is constantly changing, even before its first performance. This means that there is no definitive version of any opera. Even if you say that the “faithful” version is one that sticks with what is written, is there really only one possible interpretation of the notes and words on the page? Opera is more complex that that, which I think is a wonderful thing.

Have you ever been moved to tears at the opera?

All the time. Comedy or tragedy: it doesn’t matter. I cry when I think things are beautiful, moving, honest, sad, hilarious… Basically, whenever I see something outstanding on stage, it brings a tear to my eye.

Have you ever nearly dozed off at the opera?          

Of course! When I’m working at a theatre, I will often go see the other productions twice or three times, and by the second time I’ve been known to doze off occasionally. Also, I distinctly recall missing at least ten minutes during the middle of a performance of Tristan und Isolde last year. It was a great performance, but even the attention span of an opera singer has its limits sometimes!

What kind of behaviour by the fellow audience members do you easily tolerate and what kind inevitably distracts?

Tolerable: An occasional whisper, well-planned coughing, and I love it when people laugh at the funny parts (In Germany, you’d be surprised how often a chuckle at a part that is supposed to be funny gets glares from neighbours…)

Intolerable: Poorly planned coughing (unwrap cough drops before the show! Cough during the loud bits, not the silences in between!), big hairdos (I’m a petite person, and big hair in front of me does not help my sightlines!)

Name three performances about which you always say to your friends, “You had to be there…!”

  1. José-Maria Sanchéz-Verdú‘s GRAMMA, a world premiere I saw at the Neue Oper Wien in Vienna, 2011. I was there as part of the Holbrook Prize from the University of Toronto Opera School. The dreamy, atmospheric music was paired with some of my favourite classical texts – Dante, Ovid, St. Augustine – and the performance took place in a turn of the century prop and set warehouse. The staging was intensely choreographed, the music was beautifully played and sung, and all of us in the audience were totally transfixed. Modern opera at its finest and most ground-breaking.
  1. Joan Font‘s production of La Cenerentola at the COC in 2011. Elizabeth De Shong sang the title role and I’ve never heard anyone sing it better – she is absolutely my role model for that repertoire.
  1. The new production of Weinberg’s Die Passagierin at Oper Frankfurt this season. It tells the story of a Polish woman that survives Auschwitz during WW2 only to meet her former prison guard on a cruise ship decades later. It is incredibly powerful all on its own, but for this production in Frankfurt, the 92 year old author of the libretto who is herself an Auschwitz survivor, Zofia Posmysz, came to see the premiere and spoke to the audience at the reception afterwards. She stayed at the party until midnight at least, and was smiling the entire time. To see such a moving artwork, and meet the remarkable woman who created it all on the same night was overwhelming and wonderful.

Your choice of arias or works that illustrate how well opera understands love and desire.

All three of the Mozart operas with libretti by Da PonteLe nozze di Figaro, Cosi fan tutte, and Don Giovanni. The texts are full of profound observations about love and desire, and Mozart sets them in ingenious ways. Sincere expressions of love or heartache like Donna Anna’s “Non mi dir” or Cherubino’s “Voi che sapete”, cynical commentary like Despina’s “Una donna” or Leporello’s catalogue aria, everything is in there! My favourites, though, are the arias which are intended to deceive or seduce other characters on stage while letting the audience in on the joke, like Susanna’s “Deh vieni, non tardar” or Don Giovanni’s “Deh vieni alla finestra”.

A piece that illustrates how political opera can be.

Verdi’s Il Ballo in Maschera – it was meant to be a commentary on the actual assination of King Gustav the III of Sweden, but it was heavily censored because it was too contentious, apparently much to Verdi’s disappointment and upset! It shows opera can not only discuss politics in a relevant way, but can also be so political as to be very controversial.

The Met in HD – good, bad, a mixed bag?

Mixed bag – I love that it gives opera a bigger presence in popular culture, I think it encourages people to go see operas in theatres as well as at the movies, and I love being allowed to eat popcorn while watching opera. However, it does unfortunately foster a celebrity culture where a handful of singers with recognizable names (thanks largely to the Met broadcasts) command such high billing that other equally talented singers also singing at the same theatres are sometimes under-valued.

A composer that never ceases to amaze?

This is the hardest question so far, and a lot of these have already been quite thought provoking! I’ll cheat a little bit and split it up. For opera: Strauss. For art song: Wolf. For instrumental music: Haydn. And for all three genres: Debussy. All four have the kind of genius where you keep finding new layers to their music, no matter how well you think you know a piece.

A work that keeps revealing new and new layers of meaning and pleasure each time?

No, I take it back – this is the hardest question! Since I only get to name one (no cheating this time), I will go with a classic – Le nozze di Figaro. So many different ways to interpret the music, so many different possibilities for the dramatic concept, characters and staging, and no matter what you do the piece still shines all on its own.

Imagine I’m an opera house or a funder. Pitch me three new opera commissions.

  1. A carte-blanche collaboration between Kaija Saariaho and Margaret Atwood. Two of my favourite living, female artists from two of my favourite disciplines coming together to create an opera. I don’t even care what subject matter they would chose!
  1. An opera based on Esi Edugyan‘s novel Half-Blood Blues, about black jazz musicians in Europe during WW2, which won the Giller Prize in 2011. Not sure who I would sugges as a composer; it would have to be someone capable of mixing jazz with classical music. Olga Neuwirth comes to mind because of her work American Lulu.
  2. An actual full-length Klingon Space Opera. In Klingon, of course. (You guessed it, I’m a Star Trek fan…!)

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Marta Herman portraitMezzo soprano Marta Herman has been praised by Opera Canada magazine for her “full, rich” voice and “engrossing, utterly winning and stylish” singing with a stage presence that “balances drive and charm”. A member of the Oper Frankfurt Young Artist Program from 2012-2014, she returns in 14/15 for Martinu’s Julietta and Dvorak’s Rusalka. Other season highlights include her performance of Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été at the Palais Wittgenstein, Düsseldorf, and her debut at the Zürich Tonhalle in the Internationale Opernwerkstatt emerging artist showcase 2014. Her roles at Oper Frankfurt include 3rd Woodnymph in Rusalka, Zweite Dame in Die Zauberflöte, roles in Prokofiev’s Der Spieler and La Traviata, covers of Dorabella in Cosi fan tutte and Teseo in Handel’s Teseo, as well as Rosina in the young artists’ production of Il Barbiere di Siviglia.

Especially engaged in the performance of contemporary music, Marta has performed for the Darmstadt International New Music Festival, Tapestry New Opera, The Music Gallery, U of T New Music Festival, and The Toy Piano Composers Collective. She is the recipient of awards from the Solti Foundation, the Da Ponte Foundation and the Ontario Arts Council, has won prizes in the Kammeroper Schloss Rheinsberg Competition, Riccardo Zandonai International Vocal Competition and the Jeunes Ambassadeurs Lyriques competition, and is the recipient of the Yaremko Award and David and Marcia Beach Award from the University of Toronto.

Photos by the Agnes Kiesz Atelier

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