Conversation Piece:


By Bruce Duffie

The American soprano Laura Aikin has been making a name for herself in Europe.  Having sung previously with the Chicago Symphony conducted by Pierre Boulez, she returned to the ‘windy city' in the fall of 1998 for her American opera debut as Zerbinetta.  A few weeks later, she made her Metropolitan Opera debut as the Queen of the Night.

Originally intent on a career in Music Education, she graduated from SUNY/Buffalo (her home town) and Indiana University.  Then a grant allowed two years of study in Munich, and she was a member of the Berlin German Opera for six seasons.  A regular at many festivals, she now makes her home in Milan with her husband and infant son.

It was while in Chicago for the new production of Ariadne that I had a chance to chat with this funny and engaging coloratura.  Knowing that her big aria always results in wild applause just before the musical ending, I began with that question . . .

Bruce Duffie: Does it bother you knowing people are going to applaud too early?

Laura Aikin: No. (Laughs) Not at all. I'm used to it. I sort of depend on it. I'm sure that it happens almost every production.

BD: Do you like playing Zerbenetta?

LA: Very much. It's a very nice role with lots of time to play. There's a little bit of drama in the beginning so you can show your stage chops, your acting chops, but it's an awful lot of fun. Of course, working with the guys is always a riot with the dancing and the flirting and just what we're doing on stage is exactly what the rehearsals are like. We're just having a good time. None of us are dancers, of course, and so there's always a moment when somebody's frustrated and so it's very nice when all five of us have got it figured out at the same time near the end of the rehearsals when things are set and then we can just sit down and stand up and enjoy ourselves.

BD: Do you usually play happy roles or are you also playing some sad roles too?

LA: I've played some really tragic roles. Rosenkavelier can be very depressed actually. Sophie has a lot going on, like  Lulu.

BD: Lulu's not happy, no.

LA: She's got some happy moments though. She thinks she's happy anyway.

BD: She thinks she's happy (Laughs).

LA: And I've done Amenaide in Tancredi. She's got some extraordinarily dramatic moments.

BD: Well, then, does it do your heart good to know that you're going to come and be pawed over by 4 guys in this opera?

LA: Oh sure. I like operas where I'm the only girl (both Laugh). They're a lot of fun.

BD: In Rosenkavalier, its 2 girls and a girl playing a guy.  Is it difficult playing against a guy who's really a girl underneath?

LA: No, no. It depends on how mushy it gets, smushy, smushy, how many kisses there are. One becomes more concerned if it's going to make the audience feel uncomfortable. I did one production of Rosenkavalier that the director had it very sexual and there was quite a bit of heavy kissing going on. Some of the audience members could then really forget that it was two women because of that. Other times, it just depends on your level of maturity to be able to handle something like that.  But it's certainly not a problem amongst the colleagues. We're all aware that this is usually what happens and it's just simply necessary in these roles because they're the young men and they have to have this sort of innocence about them. Having it sung, then, by this voice type – this mezzo soprano –  makes it all that more vulnerable of a character.

BD: Of course, being a young man, the character is a little awkward, and being a woman playing this role is slightly awkward. Does that put the right amount of awkwardness in it?

LA: Maybe in the beginning, but I think it settles down after you've done a couple of productions. You get an idea of how to do that and sell it correctly. In the beginning, you ask yourself, "How do I walk like a guy?" But most mezzos are accustomed to playing a man and they can put themselves in that role and not feel uncomfortable in it.

BD: Do you ever find yourself playing a little extra feminine off of that, or do you just try be yourself?

LA: A couple of years ago I was pretty wild (Laughter). Now I'm a married woman and very calm and stale.  My husband wouldn't agree with that, but I think Zerbinetta is just a girl having a nice time and enjoying her youth and enjoying the attention she gets. My favorite part of her is this very theatrically savvy person who knows how to make the show go on and make it work and inspire her colleagues. I like that. I like to think of myself as being a person like that. She's the one who brings some energy to a production, not just to my own performance. I like that in Zerbinetta because I get the chance to do that on a stage, and off a stage. I've been accused of being a cheerleader for many productions that I'm in.

BD: Well you're supposed to be!

LA: Yeah. Well, unless I'm doing something serious. My biggest kick was when I did Lulu because I had so much responsibility and every single person in the show was dependent upon me. I'm the whole show, and everybody is basically doing duets with Lulu throughout the whole thing.  I love this responsibility and having people depend on me and being able to help them. It was one of the most wonderful aspects about doing that role actually.

BD: I assume you only do the 3-act version.

LA: Yeah.

BD: Then, of course, you get it on with Countess Geshwitz so there you are, back again with another woman onstage.

LA: Yeah. Exactly. That relationship is much more intense than the Composer or even Octavian because that's a woman playing a lesbian. The whole sexual tension there is much stronger. It's not this innocent sort of thing. This is a woman who knows about sex with a woman. It's not a boy having his first kiss. Of course, Octavian knows something about sex too, but he's experiencing it another way when he does it with Sophie than he does with Marschallin of course.

BD: Is Sophie his second playmate?

LA: Definitely at least his second. I would say maybe even a few more. I would put her up the list. I wouldn't say too many. Probably can keep it on one hand. But I would say he's probably had a little bit other experience. Couple of tumbles in the hay with a couple of maids or something like that.

BD: Are Sophie and Octavian happy in the 4th act?

LA: In the 4th act? I think there's a transition for both of them, and assuming the families are happy with the situation, I think that it would be a very good marriage actually. I think that he will have then gotten the experience that he needs to get into a marriage. Of course, how does one define marriage in those days anyway? They weren't meant to be faithful to one another for very long in any case. But, I think that they click. I think it's very clear musically that they click. It's nice then when scenically it clicks too. I think that it bodes well for the relationship in the future.

BD: How much does Sophie then mature at the end of the 3rd act?

LA: In the production I talked about where there was a lot of kissing, Sophie was actually quite sexually aware. She knew what was going on. She had had her little fantasies and she actually knew about Octavian and had fantasized specifically about him. So she was ready for this sort of thing. She was in the convent, but was a bit of a rebel.

BD: Is that why she had been sent to the convent?

LA: No, I wouldn't say that because she had been in the convent her whole life. I think she hadn't reached that point yet. But, when she came out, she probably gave the nuns a run for their money. That's my kind of Sophie. I like doing that. Also, the relationship with her father was very awkward in this production.

BD: Why?

LA: Because she didn't know him. He was basically a stranger to her. Her mother died very young, and the father did not know what to do with this child.  So he just sent her away. Maybe saw her once a year, and when she was home, he was very distant, completely unaware that she was even there. He was always busy with his business, business, business because he is, of course, a businessman. So, Sophie shows up and he's just thinking about selling her. It's probably something he's been thinking her whole life. This is something he will certainly sell someday. If he didn't get the son that he always wanted, at least he'll be able to sell the daughter and get himself a title for it.

BD: So he's looking for personal gain rather than making sure Sophie's happy?

LA: Yeah. Absolutely. I think he doesn't care one bit about her happiness. Otherwise, I don't think he would have matched her up with a man like Ochs. Her father certainly must be aware of the kind of reputation that this man had despite the title. He could have maybe looked a little harder. He could have gone one level lower and looked a little harder. No, I think the father figure in Rosenkavelier is a very negative, very selfish man.

BD: Does that make you, as Sophie, want to do something different in your own marriage with Octavian?

LA: I think she would like to have a good marriage with Octavian and she probably would want to be a woman who is there for her children. Of course, her mother died, so you can't quite blame the woman for not having raised Sophie the right way and taken more care with her. In this production I had done in Berlin, that was very interesting because Sophie, for example, normally has a big wedding dress or is complete and all pretty for the 2nd act. Instead, I was still wearing my convent dress with the concept being that they had basically not really gotten to that point yet. They hadn't really thought about it. They were all worried about themselves and had sort of forgotten to dress Sophie up. It was like she was nonexistent, with everyone looking past her pretending she didn't exist and no one really cared what she thought or did.

BD: So making the sale was more important than the human commodity?

LA: Exactly. It didn't matter to Ochs what she looked like actually anyway.  He says, "She's kind of skinny, but it doesn't matter. We'll fatten her up." You know he doesn't care. He's buying a young sheep. He can make her fat, or he can make her thin. He's just going to do whatever he wants to do with her.

BD: So she's just going to be the official mother of his kids and he'll have other kids elsewhere...

LA: Yeah. He already has lots of kids. He's just looking at her for the money to support his title and the father of Sophie is looking for the title to support his money. So it all has nothing to do with Sophie as a person.

BD: You want to slap them both around then?

LA: Oh yeah. I do. (Laughter) Yeah, yeah.

BD: Could a stage director get too moralistic about that?

LA: No, I don't think so. There's certainly a lot of room to do something with that. I think Strauss can be really boring if everybody's just standing around singing because there are moments when it goes on and on and on and on. So any color that one can bring to it will certainly help to make the evening a little shorter for the audience. All these white wigs and longing looks get old after a couple of minutes. But I think Strauss knew what he was doing when he was creating these characters with their positive and negative sides. I think he would have liked it if they had a little bit of bite to them.

BD: So you be sure that you bring bite to it?

LA: I try to. I don't see any point in doing opera if you're not bringing bite to it. I think it's kind of silly.

BD: What's the point of doing opera?

LA: Coming from a background of musical theatre, I went into opera because I found that it just took the expressions of the characters and of the drama one step further because the music was so much more complicated, more intense and more expressive. And the productions themselves tend to be more complicated. I love when a production has a bit of a modern twist to it, and it's got something that says something to the eye. I like productions that are not conventional. You don't have to have people painted blue or floating around or things like that, but something should make it new. I don't necessarily agree with taking a production and putting in a different time because that causes so many anachronisms. But making a modern painting out of a production can be very effective in creating emotions within the audience. I think it's better for the audience if they see it as a dramatic experience. It's important that the audience feels that they can get involved as much as they would get involved in going to the cinema.

BD: It ain't just a concert?

LA: (Laughter) No. It ain't just a concert. Something else that helps is the surtitles. The audience has instant understanding of what's happening on the stage. Their use is an art and I think the people that run the machines and do the translations have a very difficult job, and one that takes a lot of study of the drama and a complete understanding of staging. People who are on the surtitles should be at quite a number of the staging rehearsals so they know when the punchlines hit, and when they're going to ruin the punchlines by projecting the joke too soon.

BD: Well, let me ask the "Capriccio" question.  In opera, how much is the music and how much is the drama?

LA: That depends on the scene. I think it changes from one scene to the next. There are moments when the music is expressing something far beyond what the words can, just like when you are in a situation and words fail you, but the emotions are bubbling out. In the same way, there are times when you can be very cool and express something with words very clearly without getting emotionally involved. I think the music expresses the emotion and the text expresses the thoughts. So it's going to depend on the moment in the opera which is more important. Certain arias, of course, tend to have less text so that they can be more developed emotionally through the music, whereas the recitatives are just quickly spoken. It's not just to move the pace along, but it's also a moment that perhaps emotions are not quite as strong. And then comes Zerbinetta's aria when God knows what that's all about. (Laughter)

BD: Is it fun to sing?

LA: It's getting to be fun. I've now done it 30 times and the last few times I really feel like I've gotten into it, that I can do a certain out of body experience with it. I'm not inside myself constantly thinking technically about what I've got to do with my body. Now I can just relax and just sing it and know it's always going to be there. I feel very comfortable with it and I can play with the audience more. There were times that I was acting, I was playing with audience when I was just trying to, oh my God, sing this aria. It's a difficult aria, you know. Face it, it's probably the most difficult aria ever written in opera and it comes between two quintets where you tend to be jumping around a lot.

BD: So you're out of breath.

LA: Yes, you tend to be out of breath sometimes and the stage directors usually want quite a bit of movement in the aria. In this production, John Cox was very conservative in his staging.  I showed up and he said, "Okay. Let's do the aria." I'm like, "Okay, what are the props. What's the concept? Where's the slide? Where's the cartwheel where one of the guys throws me around?" Nothing. You've got the rock and that's it.  And we've already used the rock. (Laughter) Okay. Now, what do we do with the rock? So, it was quite a challenging thing. But it actually made me look at the aria more intensely with regard to the text and of really approaching the audience and trying to explain something to them and to Ariadne. It made the context all the more strong because I was not concentrating on whether I could do that cartwheel while I was singing a high E. I've done some wonderful things in that aria, wonderful stagings that I just love. Once, we were on a beach and I did a strip tease down to a bathing suit and I was wearing suntan lotion and we used our shoes as telephones and were tossing shoes around and big beach balls and umbrellas and lots of fun things.

BD: And you still managed to get through all the notes properly?

LA: Yeah. Yeah. But I was worried a lot about the beach ball. Now I have no beach ball. I just sing the notes and it's been quite an eye opening experience actually. I enjoyed it. At first, I was kind of concerned that I was not doing anything. Everything that I'm doing in the aria I forced him to let me do, like walking along the footlights. He was kind of against that for a long time and I'm like, come on, I've got to do something! I had to show some kind of danger. At some point there had to be something dangerous because she's the person that lives on the edge. In the aria, which is basically her credo, if there's no moment of danger, you miss the heart of Zerbinetta. So we came up with this idea of her walking along these candle footlights and letting the others onstage wonder whether she's going to go up in flames or not. That was kind of fun.

BD: I liked that the stage manager comes out with the fire bucket!

LA: I'm really doing a balancing act. It's only a couple of inches wide, maybe like 6 inches wide. I'm singing all this coloratura walking along the front of the stage and there were times when I fell. I didn't fall in the performance, but in the rehearsals, I was almost losing it. At the dress rehearsal I had a real tumble and fell forward.

BD: You're working without a net.

LA: Absolutely. Always. I wouldn't even consider a net.

BD: Is that what Zerbinetta does, work without a net?

LA: Always. That's what Laura does!

BD: Well, how much is Laura and how much is Zerbinetta?

LA: I guess there's a lot of me in this role, especially when I was younger, in my wild days... I really respect the theatrical side of her and I think that is something I try to bring into my own work – this idea of professionality and flexibility, and just not taking it all so gosh darn seriously. Basically, we're all clowns.  We're just out there to entertain. There are moments when certainly this job has a higher significance historically, culturally. But I think the vast majority of it is that we're really out there just to entertain and to give people a good show, and the more energy you put into it, the more love you put into it, the better. There's just no place for the ‘diva scenes.'.

BD: Is that what you try to convey to the Composer in the Prologue?

LA: Yeah, yeah. Just calm down. Just relax. It's not so bad.  "Other composers have sold their works – sold the souls of their works for much less. Don't worry. You'll survive this."

BD: Does the composer survive for a next opera?

LA: Yeah. I'm sure he gets another playing of Ariadne if he can do it the way he wants it to. This happens in theatre all the time–somebody comes up with a bonehead idea and you've got to go with it.

BD: Well, another one of my favorite balance questions. In opera, how much is art and how much is entertainment and where is that balance?

LA: Hmmm. I think it depends on the moment. I think that there are moments, like when you are involved in a new opera, that it's art and it's history. I think it also depends on the production. I think if the production is saying something new, then it's more art than entertainment. If it's a production that, shall we say, is a conventional sort of production in its 10th performance, then I think you are getting more entertainment. The quality of singing, of course, must be very high. I personally believe that these roles are now being sung better than they were when they were first written. I think we're getting more of a handle on them now – how to do them technically. And the orchestras are now more under control. That's a very important thing. Of course, Ariadne's orchestra isn't that large, but I'm referring to Lulu or any opera that has a huge orchestra. That has more to do with color, I think, than volume and now we're able to give them a more accurate playing than they even had when their composers were present.  I have a very good relationship with Pierre Boulez. I've talked to him about this quite a bit and he agrees with me in that respect. He says when Pli selon pli was written, it was considered unsingable. Now, it's a piece of cake. Oh it takes a couple of hours to work on, but in that respect maybe we're serving art quite well now.

BD: Of course, you're talking about the performance end. Have we made the connection now with the audience in works like Lulu and Pli selon pli?

LA: That's a good point. I think that we always have to be responsible and aware of the fact that the audience is new every night. That's actually something which is easy to forget. You kind of just think that it's the same people every night and they'll know that you're singing it better tonight than you did last time. We do have a certain responsibility to each audience to present something fresh and with a full heart and with full attention.

BD: Is there anything you can do as performer of new music to help bridge this gulf between the performers who understand these brand new pieces and the audience that may or may not be resisting anything that's not tonal?

LA: I think the most important thing is to sing the pieces accurately and with a good tone. Just because it's difficult, you can't scream it or fail to sing it accurately. These composers are geniuses. It's undeniable.  Otherwise, we wouldn't still be doing their works. And we need to take them very seriously. I think that when one takes the time to learn the music well and learn it correctly, it becomes, for the most part, very good for the voice to sing. It is not necessary that modern music is going to ruin your voice. If the piece itself holds together better and then you're more confident when you're on stage, then you can open up to the audience more. When I tend to do modern music, I try to put a little bit of drama in it – even to what gown I select to wear. I put as much effort into my presentation of a modern piece as I would in any piece I present to an audience.

BD: Well, from all of this old music and new music, how do you decide what you're going to sing and what you're going to work on? And, then, what you're going to set aside and not bother with?

LA: That has a lot to do with my plan at the time, how much time I have to prepare it, what I'm doing before and where I'm going to be. You're always at the last minute going, "Oh, I've only got 3 weeks to learn this!" I just recently turned down something that I would have done in January because the piece that I'm doing before is completely different. I couldn't be doing one thing after preparing another, so I just had to turn it down although it was a piece I would have liked to do very much. It will come up again. It always does. I still have a couple of years in my career (Laughter).

BD: Are you looking for the long career?

LA: Oh, of course. I think that is why I like modern music, actually, because I'll always have something to do.  I'm very good at learning modern music. I've got a brain for it. I've got an ear for it too. I have no problem. I don't have perfect pitch, but once I get something in my ear, it stays really well.

BD: Do you have a heart for it?

LA: I have respect for it, and for much of it I have a heart as well. Some of it isn't very heartful and I think the best one can do is have respect for it.

BD: Have you done some world premieres?

LA: I've done a lot of modern things in Germany, often a "Berlin Premiere" or "German Premiere." I'm doing a new production of "Alice in Wonderland" by a Russian composer in Amsterdam in 2001. That was a funny thing. They wanted to talk to me for years about Alice, and when the composer finished the work, it turns out that Alice was a child's role written for a little girl to speak.  I was sort of disappointed because I thought Alice would be an awful lot of fun to do – sort of like Gretel on drugs. (Laughter) I was very excited about that. But now I'm doing the White Queen and he wrote a coloratura part for me. I've only turned down things that I think that the composer didn't know really what he was doing. I've turned down even very famous composers' works.  I've said to composers right in their face, "You know, you would never tell a flutist to play a run and then pick up his flute and bang it in on the music stand and then start playing again. And if you want me to sing this phrase, and if I'm telling you this, you better believe me. This is bad for the human voice. And if you want this work to get performed in the future, this is a problem. If you want top-class singers to sing your works, you've got to do things that they sing and then go and maybe sing some Mozart and not be totally fried vocally." They often think that singers are lazy and stupid. I've really spoken to a lot of composers and they do think that singers don't want to put the effort into it and, you know, it's a two-way street. They have to respect us as they would expect to be respected by us.

BD: Good advice for the composers. What advice do you have for other singers who want to do modern music, or who are perhaps getting sucked into modern music unwillingly?

LA: Sing it with a beautiful voice. Sing it well and then people will hear you singing something modern and say, "Ah, that's a voice that could also sing Mozart." They won't say, "Ah, that's a modern-music singer." Very often modern-music singers get pulled into doing something strange, and it's very effective, but the human voice is not meant to do that. Otherwise, we would have been doing that for a hundred years. One can do it for an effect occasionally, but one can't maintain that for very long without tiring the voice. Singing should never be a tiring experience. It can be invigorating. It can need a lot of muscular activity, but you shouldn't leave the stage thinking you can't talk anymore. I've done Lulu. 4 hours of opera and I was only off the stage for 20 minutes. I was onstage the whole time, and at the end of the night I felt fresh as a flower. I wouldn't have been able to do it again that night (Laughs) but I was completely fresh because I sang the notes as they were written.

BD: So Berg really did understand the voice?

LA: Yes. Very well. There's some really wonderful vocal writing in that piece. And he also orchestrated it well, because he didn't really want a dramatic voice for the role. He wanted a coloratura. Otherwise, he wouldn't have written high F's and high E's. The role sits very, very high. Although it has a huge orchestra, most of the time, when Lulu is having a lot of emotional outbursts, the voice cuts through very well. The moments when it's in the middle of the voice, the orchestra gets very thin and very funky and ethereal and the colors are very well balanced. It's a supremely singable opera.

BD: Are you optimistic about the whole future of opera and music in general?

LA: I think if we support our composers, yes. I give my greatest praise to any composer who has the tenacity and the courage to actually write a full-length opera. Today, with the density of the compositional techniques, it's hard to put down on paper a 3-hour piece. It's very easy to come up with a 20-minute piece for this and that, or even a symphony of 45 minutes or so. But to really do an opera and come up with the right librettist, it's quite the challenge. I really take my hat off the Lyric Opera of Chicago. They support their artists and their composers.

BD: Are you at the point in your career that you want to be now?

LA: Yes! I'm farther than I thought I'd be. I'm very happy. Very happy. My career isn't the biggest in the world, but I have a very intact family life, and I consciously put the breaks on my career to allow the man that I have chosen to be my life's partner to catch up and understand what it was all about. Now he is as passionate about my career and our family life as I am. We have a wonderful partnership. The years that I spent "fest" in Berlin were to develop my craft, to get tough, to develop the Language skills. I worked very hard when I was in Berlin. They used me. That was one of the things. They used me as much as I was able to be used. I can't say that I was abused by them, but I was definitely used very much.

BD: But you used it for experience.

LA: Right. I used it for experience. And even though I sang Matrimonio Segreto God knows how many times, or Queen of the Night, even Rosenkavalier, the repetition of the productions and the performance gave them such a depth to my understanding of the roles. I feel very confident about my languages. Of course, nothing's perfect. I'm always working. But I'm very confident of my ability to take staging and to work with a conductor.

BD: I assume singing here at Lyric is a big a thrill for you.

LA: For me, it's actually more of a thrill because it's a new production. New productions nowadays are so few and far between with the co-production concept now. To actually do a brand new production is so rare and to have it be Ariadne and here in Chicago, it was like a dream come true. I found out about this production 2 weeks before I had my son, when I was sort of in a state of, "Oh, what am I doing with my life! I'm having a baby! My career's over! Oh, oh, oh." Then the phone rang with this offer from Lyric. Oh cool. Okay, fine. Life's good. Fine, fine, fine. Alright. I can handle this.

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Bruce Duffie is in his 24th year at WNIB, classical 97 in Chicago, where his interviews with singers, conductors, composers, etc., are aired regularly.  Next time in these pages, a chat with bass Mark S. Doss, who created the central role of Cinque in "Amistad" by Anthony Davis


© Bruce Duffie
Published in The Opera Journal, March, 1999

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