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What does it take to be Isolde?

Written By The Wagnerian on Monday, 1 October 2012 | 9:59:00 pm

One of the wonders of the internet age is the manner in which one can find articles from the print media that once would have appeared and then vanished - consigned to never be read again. Oh, of course  it was possible - and still is - for the highly motivated researcher to spend hours trawling through years of micro- filch in a dusty room, but this was both tedious and the results difficult to reproduce. With this in mind we present the following article from the Guardian originally published in 2009. Here Martin Kettle discuses the role of Isolde and talks to many of those who have sung it, including, Nina Stemme and Anne Evens .

Isolde – the mother of all soprano roles

Many fear her, a few turn her down and some of those who play Wagner's famous heroine in Tristan und Isolde never quite recover. We talk to singers who have been brave enough to take her on
If Wagner's works are the Himalayas of the operatic repertoire – peaks only to be attempted by those with the experience, equipment and stamina to conquer them, then the role of Isolde is a soprano's Mount Everest.

"Singing Isolde requires a sort of state of being," says Nina Stemme, the Swedish soprano who first sang the role of the Irish princess at Glyndebourne in 2003 and who now sings it in the Royal Opera House's production opposite Ben Heppner's Tristan. "You have to enter the Tristan und Isolde world completely. You have to give it 100% all the time. It's a big journey. It's a marathon."

Anne Evans, who sang the role in Berlin and Dresden, as well as for Scottish and Welsh National Operas in the 1990s, says: "You have to work yourself up into a lather at the start. But other times it's like flying. It's my favourite Wagner role, but you have to know what you're doing. You can blast yourself into bits in the first act and have nothing left for the third. It's very varied. It's like owning a huge chest of drawers and opening the one you need at each different stage."

And what a role it is. Isolde is there when the curtain goes up after the prelude, fury incarnate as she screams defiance at one of the sailors who is taking her across the sea, against her will, to marry King Mark of Cornwall. And, around five hours later, when the curtain begins to fall, she is still there, expiring over the dead Tristan in "Höchste Lust" – a very Wagnerian notion that variously translates into English as "highest love", "supreme bliss" or "utmost rapture".

"It's not one of those roles where you can just come on stage and turn on like a tap," says Susan Bullock, (Isoldes for Opera North, English National Opera and Frankfurt). "You have to be revved up well before it starts. She goes off like a firecracker. But you still have to be focused at the end, when you have to produce your best singing of the evening."

In between, in one of the longest roles in the repertoire, Isolde must summon up an extraordinary range of emotions and colours with her voice: fury towards Tristan at the start, contempt towards his servant Kurwenal, vulnerability and determination in her dark musings with her maid Brangäne, explosive passion as her true feelings towards Tristan are revealed, and uncontrolled excitement as her lover's visit nears. Then, with all of this already under her belt – we have still only reached a quarter of the way through the second of the three acts – she and Tristan must sing some of the lengthiest and most difficult love music ever written. Finally, after a long rest off stage while Tristan raves towards his death in the third act, she must return and sing the crowning pages of the opera, the Liebestod or Love-Death scene by which many in the audience will judge her entire performance.

"Isolde is a severe test for the voice," the Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad – Isolde on the famous recording under Wilhelm Furtwängler – once observed. "Either it can be completely destroyed, or it can grow, as mine did." But Isolde is a great acting part, too. "It isn't all loud and screamy like the stereotypes," says Bullock. "It's a Shakespearean role, really."

Not surprisingly, many sopranos are nervous when the idea of Isolde is first mooted. In the 90s, the late Sir Georg Solti asked American soprano Renée Fleming if she would sing the role for a production he was planning. Fleming looked at the score, decided that her voice would never be the same, and refused. A generation earlier, Dame Margaret Price was persuaded to sing Isolde for a recording under German conductor Carlos Kleiber. The result, made up from several takes, is one of the most outstanding recorded Isoldes. Efforts to tempt Price to do Isolde on the stage, however, never came to anything. "I'm not a long-distance runner," she insisted. "I'll sing it to my dogs."

Price's performance has had lasting effects on today's Isoldes. Before her, the role belonged to sopranos such as Flagstad and the late Birgit Nilsson, massive of voice, with a laser-like precision of tone. Price came from another, more Italianate vocal tradition. Bullock says: "Isolde wasn't something I was thinking of until I was asked. But listening to Price made me realise it could be done. I think if I had started by listening to Nilsson I would have committed suicide."

Stemme adds: "I thought my first offer of Isolde was a joke." Stemme, at that time, was more a lyric Mozartian singer than a dramatic Wagnerian. "But a seed was planted. I went away and studied the role and realised it would be possible."

The role can certainly take its toll on a soprano's voice. As a young woman, the Scottish soprano Linda Esther Gray won great acclaim for her exceptional interpretation of the role under the renowned Wagnerian conductor Reginald Goodall for Welsh National Opera in the 70s. But Gray was rarely the same singer afterwards and her career was sadly cut short. The fine Viennese singer Helga Dernesch was another whose career struggled to recover from Herbert von Karajan's decision to cast her as Isolde in performances and on record in the 70s.

But if Isolde can be unforgiving it can also be incomparably rewarding. If there is one singer whom today's Isoldes revere more than any other, it is the Berlin-born soprano Frida Leider, who dominated the role in the interwar years. "Ah, Leider, she is the winner," says Stemme. "She's got it all." Evans agrees: "There's never just one way of doing anything. But it's the vibrancy of her sound that marks Leider out. All those colours in the voice."

Leider's recordings – sadly only of excerpts from the opera – point a path to the heart of the role. In her autobiography, Leider explains with great clarity how she approached Isolde. "I always tried to sing in the Italian bel canto style, and above all, I endeavoured to incorporate this style into my Wagner interpretations. I put my enunciation under the microscope. I accentuated very sharply but tried to do this while sustaining my vocal line."

It all sounds so simple. But it is the key to climbing the Wagnerian Everest and surviving to do it all over again a few nights later. Isoldes of this class are rare. Price came close, but only in the recording studio. The late Hildegard Behrens, who made an extraordinary recording of the opera under Leonard Bernstein, was probably the best of the rest in recent times. Now though, there is another name to add to the list. When I ask Evans to name her favourites, she replies: "First Leider, then Behrens – and now Nina Stemme," she responds. "I think she is very special."