Nina Stemme in conversation with Cori Ellison

Written By The Wagnerian on Thursday, 14 June 2012 | 6:21:00 am

“When I was first asked if I’d ever consider singing Isolde,” she recalled, “I said, ‘You must be joking.’

NEW YORK likes to think of itself as being the classical music capital of the world. Yet every so often it falls off the flight path of certain eminent musicians. Cecilia Bartoli, Carlos Kleiber, Birgit Nilsson and Brigitte Fassbaender are just a few of the great artists who have skipped New York for long stretches.

The same goes for the superb Nina Stemme, widely considered the world’s reigning dramatic soprano. When the Swedish Ms. Stemme (pronounced (STEH-muh) made her Metropolitan Opera debut, as Senta in Wagner’s “Fliegende Holländer” in 2000, Anthony Tommasini praised her “cool, radiant and often penetrating sound” in The New York Times and called her portrayal “lustrous and winning.” But she has logged a mere 11 New York appearances in all, having returned to the Met in 2010 for five performances of Strauss’s “Ariadne auf Naxos”. And she won’t resurface there until the 2016-17 season, when she will star in both Strauss’s “Elektra” and a new Willy Decker production of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde.”


Until then New Yorkers will have to content themselves with a glimpse of her on Thursday evening at Carnegie Hall, where she will sing the title role in Strauss’s “Salome” in a concert performance with the Cleveland Orchestra and its music director, Franz Welser-Möst.

Ms. Stemme, though now 49, comes about as close as any soprano ever has to the “16-year-old princess with the voice of an Isolde” that Strauss envisioned for his Salome. Video excerpts from her first Salome, in a provocative update at Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu in 2009, reveal a heroine both formidable and diminutive, hot and cold, every inch the “chaste virgin” with “the simplest, most dignified gestures” specified by the composer. After an eerily chaste encounter with the severed head of John the Baptist, she rears backward like a high-school girl after her first kiss, bewildered by the strange new sensations it stirs.

“Who she is offstage is so different from who she is onstage,” said Francesca Zambello, who directed Ms. Stemme in her first complete Wagner “Ring” cycle, at the San Francisco Opera last summer. “In life, she often seems so understated. Then she gets onstage, and some sort of primal creature takes over. She’s an absolutely fearless singing actress for whom no challenge is too much.”

Ms. Stemme, speaking recently from a Berlin hotel between concert performances of Wagner’s “Walküre” in Paris and “Tannhäuser” in Berlin, said: “I am the mother of three teenagers, so I had excellent material for researching Salome. Teenagers are still so innocent in many ways. Often they don’t begin to realize the messages they are sending out.”

Ms. Stemme also handily delivers Strauss’s “voice of Isolde.” Since tackling “Tristan und Isolde” in 2003, in the Glyndebourne Festival’s first-ever Wagner production (preserved on an Opus Arte video), she has gradually emerged as today’s pre-eminent Isolde (never a crowded field, to be sure). Her Isolde can also be heard on a 2005 EMI Classics recording with Plácido Domingo as Tristan. Isolde is now on Ms. Stemme’s itinerary at least once a year, and next season she will perform it at the Houston Grand Opera.

No one could be more surprised at all this than Ms. Stemme herself. “When I was first asked if I’d ever consider singing Isolde,” she recalled, “I said, ‘You must be joking.’ ”

Continue Reading: New York Times