Stephen Moss in discussion with Nina Stemme

Written By The Wagnerian on Saturday, 4 May 2013 | 2:14:00 am

Nina Stemme is one of those artists who, if you are having difficulty submitting yourself to the multiple absurdities of opera, makes you believe in the artform afresh. I am jetlagged when I see the Swedish soprano in Tristan und Isolde at the Houston Grand Opera, but she is riveting, that concluding Liebestod thrilling and transcendent. In July she will sing Brünnhilde in the first-ever complete Ring cycle at the Proms, conducted by Daniel Barenboim. Kill for a ticket.

We meet the morning after her performance, in the plush, gated apartment block that is her temporary home. She is the least diva-ish diva imaginable – fetches me a coffee, talks for two hours when we had agreed one, seems to forgive me when I keep getting facts about her career wrong. As the outstanding Isolde and now Brünnhilde of her generation – she has already conquered the US in the latter role and this month sings her first complete European Ring in Vienna – she could swagger and drip with jewellery. In fact, she is friendly, approachable and wearing a sensible linen dress.

"One of my daughters calls me a diva at home sometimes," she says, "and I can be one on stage if I have to be. That's enough for me. Divas have a reputation for being quite complicated, and we can't really afford that in our operatic world. I want this artform to develop."

Stemme tells me she is exhausted but still full of adrenalin after the previous day's performance. She makes the epic role of Isolde look straightforward, but don't be deceived. "It has taken 10 years to get there," she says. "My aim is to make it seem effortless. You learn how to tackle these parts. At the moment it feels, knock on wood, almost easy. Almost. Though you still wonder what you bring across the pit to the audience. I am never sure, never secure. I am always questioning myself – could it be better? Yes, it could. All it can get is better for each performance, even if it's a tiny detail."

She is 50 this month and at her peak as a dramatic soprano. Before 2000 she had performed mainly lyric roles, but she then sang Senta in The Flying Dutchman at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and was surprised by the results. "I thought Senta was on the limits of what I could sing, but with that production my voice developed and it has kept on developing."

Three years later she triumphed as Isolde at Glyndebourne, giving a performance the Guardian's Tim Ashley described as "ravishing". "An Isolde can be sung by a lyric dramatic soprano," she says, "and that's exactly what I was at that time," adding that Glyndebourne was perfect because it was a relatively small house with a very good orchestra. Bad orchestras, she explains, tend to overcompensate by playing too loud, and you have to fight against them. "I didn't have a typical big dramatic voice then, but my voice grew a couple of years after that."

Continue Reading at: The Guardian