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“I don’t have a steely voice,”: Katarina Dalayman (The MET's 'other' Brunnhilde)

Written By The Wagnerian on Sunday 22 January 2012 | 6:08:00 am

The New York Times' Matthew Gurewitsch interviews the MET's 'other' Brunnhilde -  Katarina Dalaymen (images and video add by "The Wagnerian")

IN burlesque, in popular prejudice and all too often in the opera house, big-gun German opera comes off as a clash of the titans, with the roles of Brünnhilde, Isolde and Elektra constituting the soprano’s triple crown. All three have scenes of great tenderness, but more often than not their defining moments are tempestuous, even savage. For a quarter-century beginning in the 1950s Birgit Nilsson of Sweden hurled their battle cries and curses with the thrust, edge and metal of so many Viking spears. Three decades after her farewell performance even opera lovers determined not to live in the past may still think that no other way will do. But where is another Nilsson?

Her compatriot Katarina Dalayman, who has inherited these great parts, is nothing like her.

“I don’t have a steely voice,” Ms. Dalayman (pronounced dah-LYE-mahn) remarked backstage at the Vienna State Opera last fall. Days later she would make her house debut, as Brünnhilde in “Ring des Nibelungen,” conducted by Christian Thielemann.

“A steely voice is impressive,” she continued, “but after 15 minutes you want something more. I think my sound is big and round, with a strong core. Mainly — how should I describe it? — I try to find more colors. It’s not something I decided. It’s just what I do. I try to find the human being.”

Where Nilsson hurled spears, Ms. Dalayman aims javelins: lighter in impact if no less thrilling in their flight. And though the fiercer Nilsson also encompassed the great heroines’ more vulnerable aspects, Ms. Dalayman’s deeply felt portrayals of Brünnhilde and Isolde at the Metropolitan Opera in the last few seasons render comparison academic. This season Ms. Dalayman returns as Brünnhilde in Robert Lepage’s new production of “Götterdämmerung,” which opens on Friday, and in the first complete presentations of the Lepage “Ring” cycle this spring, alternating with Deborah Voigt.

Wagner — opera of any kind — is a far cry from the music Ms. Dalayman heard as a girl. A daughter of a Turkish engineer and a Swedish seamstress, she grew up listening to Dean Martin and Dionne Warwick. “We had four or five albums in the house,” she said. “That was all.”

She sang in the school choir, where her voice never blended in. And she was a class clown. People expected her to wind up in theater. But when she was in her late teens a voice singing an aria on the radio sent her on her way.

“I don’t know who the singer was or what she was singing,” said Ms. Dalayman, who turns 49 on Wednesday. “But I knew that this was what I had to do. And I knew I could do it.”

At the Stockholm Conservatory her teacher started her off with Mozart’s Susanna, in “Le Nozze di Figaro.” “The voice was built step by step,” Ms. Dalayman said. “I realized even then that it would become bigger and more dramatic, but you never know how soon. If you take it easy, you keep your voice. If you want to sing a long time, it’s a good choice.”

Unlike her classmates she confined her singing to the studio, taking no auditions or outside jobs. So in the school’s annual showcase for the graduating class on the stage of the Royal Swedish Opera, with full orchestra, she seemed to emerge full blown from nowhere. Contrary to custom the material chosen demanded big, mature voices and had a cast of only three. It was Act I of “Die Walküre.” The experiment seems to have done little for the tenor and bass. But Ms. Dalayman has more than kept the promise of her precocious performance as Sieglinde.

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