Soprano Anna Tomowa-Sintow

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie

Anna T-S

This conversation was held in Chicago in October of 1985 and first published in Wagner News two years later.  I am pleased to be able to share it again now, in 2008, on my website.  Much more information and many more photographs are currently available on her website.  What follows is the text which was given to the Wagner Society of America for their magazine 21 years ago.  The photos have been added for this internet presentation.

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Anna Tomowa-Sintow is one of the select few artists who sings regularly with Herbert von Karajan.  She has given performances with him of operas by Mozart, Strauss, and Wagner.  Other composers figure into her career, especially Giuseppe Verdi, and Chicago has enjoyed her both as the title character in Aïda, and as Leonora in Il Travatore which she sang to open the 1987-88 season.  In 1985, she sang another title role, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly in the Hal Prince production which was taped for PBS TV.  Between performances of that tragic heroine, it was my pleasure to speak with Miss Tomowa-Sintow at her apartment.  She spoke some English, but Ursula Eggers, a top administrator with Lyric Opera, was also there to provide a translation.  It was quite an interesting afternoon, and here is much of what said…..

Bruce Duffie:  Tell me the secret of singing Mozart!

Anna Tomowa-Sintow:  There is no secret, just a love for Mozart, and he is very well suited to the voice.  It took a little while before I started with Mozart.  In Bavaria I studied at school, and I was engaged in Germany almost immediately after the conservatory.  It took a little while before I started Mozart.  Four years after the start of my career in Germany, Donna Anna was offered.  Then came the Countess and Fiordiligi.  I was very proud to sing Mozart with Maestro Karajan in his home-town of Salzburg, and also Donna Anna with Karl Böhm, both of whom/which were instrumental in introducing me to Mozart in the proper way.

BD:  What is the proper way to sing Mozart?

AT-S:  You have to have the inner affinity and flexibility to interpret the music.  The vocal chords in the voice have to have the flexibility for the instrumental singing.  It helped a lot that I was a pianist and had played Mozart.  I was very familiar and liked the style.  But thanks to Karajan and Böhm, I got the courage to sing Mozart not like an instrument, but with a human voice.  While Mozart, obviously, represents so many inner feelings and has so many nuances, it is very good to present the instrumental side of the singing.  But there has to be a human soul and that has to come out in your own interpretation not only through clear singing, but there has to be a personality and the soul.

BD:  Did Mozart understand the human voice better than any other composer?

AT-S:  It is known that Mozart is the best medicine for the voice.  I am quite sure that he knew what he was composing, but it is clear that it was very intuitive.

BD:  Is this what we’re losing today – composers who understand the workings of the human voice?

Strauss CDAT-S:  You should start and get to know what a voice can do, but you should also know what is fun to sing so it can come out.  Even if it’s a tragedy, it should be a pleasant experience to sing it.  The style ends with Richard Strauss and after that comes the “modern” music.  You can’t forget that Strauss’ favorite composer was Mozart and his favorite opera to conduct was Così.  It’s something special if a composer can awaken feelings within you that you can bring out through your own interpretation.  That, I think, is what Mozart did to Strauss in his composing.  He gave you the ideas.  The general consensus is that you have to scream and shout when you sing Wagner, and that was not really the idea of Wagner.  That’s why he built the pit in Bayreuth, which is entirely covered.  Eva and Elisabeth are sung with instrumental lines.  If you sing loud, it’s the interpretation of what comes out of your human feelings for the part.  It’s the length of the operas of Wagner that calls for the stamina, but within the operas there is so much lyric music and caressing music.

BD:  Has Wagner been falsely accused of being a voice-wrecker?

AT-S:  Yes, falsely.  Wagner wrote some of the most beautiful music to sing, but not to shout!  There’s lots of thought behind his music and you have to really feel it, and everyone who sings Wagner has to know that and has to interpret it.  Then it’s not dangerous to sing Wagner.  The problem is whether the singer understands Wagner or not.

BD:  Wagner doesn’t treat the voice as an instrument, does he?

AT-S:  I feel that the human voice is an instrument to interpret the music through the individual personality.  I am not on the stage to represent Tomowa-Sintow, but to interpret the role and to bring out of it what the composer intended to do with the role.  I don’t feel that the singing is instrumental in itself, but the whole work is a work of art and has to be interpreted as such.  An example of where the human voice was used as an instrument would be Beethoven.  Each of Wagner’s operas is a complete circle and therefore chorus, orchestra, and soloists are one.  But I doubt if he really intended to have the voice as an instrument.  For singers who are schooled in Bel Canto, Wagner should be no problem.  Strauss maybe a little bit more…

BD:  What did Wagner learn from the Italian School?

AT-SRienzi is a totally Italian opera.  Lohengrin was not done like an Italian opera; it was not copied, but it was his own idea.  The melodies just flow like an Italian opera.  Obviously, during that time when he wrote music, Wagner was inspired by Italian opera.  It’s known that lots of Italian singers sing Lohengrin.  There is early Verdi and late Verdi and Rigoletto has nothing to do with Otello.  The same is true in Wagner.  Die Walkuüre and Die Meistersinger are totally different from Rienzi.  My favorite Wagner opera is Tannhaüser.  It is complete, not just from the feeling, but also in thought.  It’s very human, with a theme that would, even today, be very up-to-date.

BD:  Are Wagner operas more unified because he was his own librettist?

AT-S:  It’s a question of taste.  I like the texts very much because they were felt by him, his own feelings.  It’s his idea and his thought, and very much in line with his music.  Every syllable in every word fits the music that it’s written for.  Every sigh or thought is a pause in the music, also.  Most of the stories that Wagner wrote are full of large symbolism, and can seem to many people to be a bit abstract.  I am very much convinced about what happens within the operas.  They interpret many secret thoughts and it’s sometimes difficult, but, like every creator, some of his libretti are stronger than others.

BD:  Are these the secret thoughts of Wagner, or of mankind?

AT-S:  They are of mankind.  When I studied Elsa, I felt that he wrote one thing, but when you started thinking about it, there was almost the opposite behind it.  When you look at the words, they are almost worse than Ortrud’s.  Elsa wants to be good, but when you read the words without any understanding behind it, the character seems worse than Ortrud.  Therefore you have to interpret that onstage and be very natural about it.  Just like in life, you want to be good, but it’s not the words that count.  Therefore she says her secret thoughts.  It’s like in everyday life – you can do one thing but your inner thought is your own and you act in a different manner.

BD:  Are Elsa and Ortrud two sides of the same coin?

AT-S:  Yes.  They’re both women so they have the same kinds of ways about them.  After that, it comes to the question of individual strength and deficiencies.  In ways they are very much the same, yet they are very different.  Elsa is basically weak, so she lets herself be infected.  Wagner apparently intended Elsa to be his ideal woman, as she should have been, not having made all the big mistakes.  But she has not been perfect, so Elsa is a typical woman.

BD:  So Elsa and Lohengrin would not have been happy even if she’d not asked the fatal question?

AT-S:  I don’t think so.  He comes from a world too high for her.  His standing is too high.  If she hadn’t asked the question today, she would have on another day; if it was not that mistake, another mistake would have been made.  That’s why Elisabeth in Tannhaüser is the best representation
– a woman who can, in the end, forgive and forget.

BD:  Is there any other link between Elsa and Elisabeth?

AT-S:  Yes, the belief.  For me, Elisabeth is the stronger woman.  You need a very strong woman to bring about the contrast from Ortrud, but what Wagner gives us in the story is Elsa’s weakness.

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BD:  Are the productions of Karajan more unified because he is both producer and conductor?

With HvKAT-S:  There seems to be something in Karajan that was also in Wagner.  It would be very difficult to get back from another person the same ideas or thoughts when you are that high a level.  That’s one side.  On the other side, his feelings for the music are so strong.  He always stands at the podium and wants to feel as a complete unit.  So most of his productions are very conventional and the personalities are very close to what the music expresses.

BD:  Are the unconventional productions of other producers a mistake?

AT-S:  There are no mistakes; it’s a question of what you understand in the unconventional productions.  Old-fashioned and boring I don’t like.  In modern productions where the producer thinks about the thoughts of the composer it’s OK.  What I don’t like is where you only notice the producer.  To interpret everything from his point of view and to do something that nobody else has done before and to ignore anything that the composer has intended just to make yourself more noticeable, then I would rather have something more conventional – as long as it follows the original thought of the work.

BD:  How far can you stretch the original thought?

AT-S:  It’s a difficult question.  As an interpreter of the roles, I must agree with what the role should be, and as long as it stands within that framework it is OK.  I don’t like it when the piece is put in a totally different time-period.  Maybe if it’s moved to the period when the composer lived, that I could accept.  But if Aïda is played with costumes from Bohème, or when Forza is moved from the cloister to an asylum, that I cannot accept.

BD:  In some stagings of the new Wagner productions, you see the figure of Wagner, himself, on the stage.

AT-S:  If it’s done well, it could work.  The only part that would really fit him would be Tannhaüser.

BD:  What about an additional, silent character of Wagner manipulating the action?

AT-S:  I would have to see the whole concept, but it could complete the thought of the production.  It depends on how it is done.  I believe in the truth, and anything that merely furthers the importance and glorification of the producer is unacceptable.  Any opera can be interpreted thousands of ways.  That’s the phenomenon of great art.  The main thing is that you have the essence of the composer, and everything else should serve that.

BD:  Is Wagner great art?

AT-S:  Certainly.  All of the well-known composers are, but you cannot compare one with another.  Each has his own way and is great in his own way.

BD:  Are there are any “standard” operas that are not great?

AT-S:  There are many.  Not everything is absolutely great.  When comparing anything, there are greats and commons.  Even from great composers there are works that are great and some which are just average.  Some producers are very good with certain composers, the same as singers and conductors.  There are some pieces which are created at a great moment.

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BD:  Do you enjoy making recordings?

AT-S:  I feel just awful when I tape a recording.  I don’t like microphones; they bother me.  But I learned from Karajan to keep apart from all the technical aspects.  Especially during the recording of Rosenkavalier, the atmosphere in the studio was that of a regular performance.  That is the most important thing in a recording session, to create an atmosphere that serves the work.  You can’t just say, “Now we have to record this piece and I must show off my nicest voice.”  I prefer to record only parts that I’ve already sung on the stage so I can interpret the right feelings on the recording.  The recording of Don Giovanni was a pure joy to make.

BD:  Does opera belong on TV?

AT-S:  From an audience stand-point, there is no comparison of what you would experience onstage from what you see on television, but television is a great thing for everyone in the world to experience something that otherwise you might not experience.  I’m a very big fan of Callas and it would have been wonderful to have documentation of her because it would serve other generations - and not just Callas, but also other great singers and productions and conductors.

Frau in MarseilleBD:  To enjoy or to learn from?

AT-S:  Both.  I never learn just to learn.  It has to be enjoyed.

BD:  How are the publics different from Europe to America?

AT-S:  They are all human.  There are differences from city to city, and every singer learns to adjust to each one.  I find the American public to be fabulous.  The people are open and react very spontaneously to anything that is beautiful.  I’ve noticed that in the last few years the audiences have become more competent, and they don’t only wait for the large effects.  They need to be engaged with what happens onstage and they expect more all the time.  They want to be captured.  It’s not just enthusiasm, but they want to experience, and anybody onstage will realize that.  You get that feedback.  You’re not just blinded by what you see, you get involved.

BD:  Does the public ever expect too much?

AT-S:  No more than what they should actually receive!  The audience always expects the right amount, but there is a large segment of the public that is oriented towards big names.  This is not bad, generally, because the name is not a name in itself; there is a quality behind it.  It is wonderful when the public is true to being fans of that name and supports them.  I like it when the audience expects a lot.  What I don’t like is when the audience is a little skeptical.  That’s not just for America, but for all over.  If the audience expects a lot, that’s fine.  But if they have a skeptical view or have a certain preconceived idea, that’s different.  That’s what I like about the American audience – they are very open.  They are more apt to let themselves be surprised, and the reaction is very spontaneous.

BD:  How do the acoustics of this house compare with those elsewhere in the world?

AT-S:  The singers here feel very good, but you can judge the acoustics better from the audience part of the house.  I’m not governed by the acoustics, however.  It is well-known that at La Scala there is a special place which has the best sound and the singers fight to stand in that spot.  That’s not very interesting, though.  I would rather stand in a spot that is not well-known and still make a big impression!       

BD:  It seems that you enjoy singing.

AT-S:  That is my life and has been since I was a very little girl.

BD:  Thank you for being a singer, and I hope you will come back here soon.

I’m looking forward to coming back to Chicago.  I like the high professional atmosphere here.  It’s a big family of artists and a wonderful audience. 

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© 1985 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded on October 1, 1985.  Portions were used (along with recordings) on WNIB in 1987 and 1996.  This transcription was made in 1987 and published in Wagner News that December.  It was slightly re-edited and posted on this website in September, 2008.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.