“Orest and I are very nice to one another,” the opera star Waltraud Meier said during an interview at her light-filled penthouse in West Berlin. “This time around, we’re going to do everything differently.”
She was speaking not about the mythical character, but about her small black cat, which she adopted in Greece. In Richard Strauss’s “Elektra,” Orest returns home to kill his mother, Klytämnestra, avenging the murder of his father, Agamemnon.
And the role of Klytämnestra is how Meier will bring her 47-year stage career to a close at the Berlin State Opera on Friday.
She will retire in the Patrice Chéreau production of “Elektra” that she originated at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in France in 2013. Chéreau’s “Elektra,” the last of his series of acclaimed opera productions, adopts his typical classical, humanist style.
Klytämnestra is one of the roles that have defined her career. Known for her captivating stage presence, intellectual approach and distinctive, tonally complex mezzo-soprano voice, Meier first made her mark in Wagner operas: as Ortrud in “Lohengrin,” Kundry in “Parsifal” and Venus in “Tannhäuser.” A daring leap into the dramatic soprano repertoire in the early 1990s made her a generation’s defining Isolde.
As Orest occasionally nuzzled her, Meier discussed her career, her work with music and text, and the importance of listening onstage. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
How do you approach a new role?
First, I read the text. Everyone’s text: It’s more important to really know what the other people onstage are saying. Then I listen to the music as a whole. I ask myself, What do I want to say? What could I be in this role? And then I decide if I should do it, and how I’ll do it. The conversation about how to do it vocally comes after.
What have you learned about the role of Klytämnestra over the years?
Patrice Chéreau and I had the strong feeling that we wanted to give her back her dignity. The story is a tragedy. There are two sources for the Electra story: Euripides and Aeschylus. Patrice based his direction more on Aeschylus. Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s libretto is so influenced by Freud — so in Hofmannsthal’s “Elektra” we get too much of the point of view of Elektra, of how she sees the story.
But that’s not necessarily the real story. Clytemnestra is not just this man-murderer. She had a reason to murder her husband. Her daughter was sacrificed, and Agamemnon came back with a lover. Not that it’s justified, but she had a reason. And she knows her destiny is to be killed by her son. In Greek tragedy, it’s always the son who avenges the father. And his son avenges him. And so it goes for generations and generations. Clytemnestra did what she thought was right, to regain her dignity and some justice.
The story for Klytämnestra [in the opera] is really tragic. She comes in; she has the strong need to finally talk to her daughter. But in the whole conversation — that half-hour scene between Klytämnestra and Elektra — they don’t talk about what happened. She wants to talk about it, she comes in for that, to talk, so that her nightmares can disappear. But they are not able to talk about it. It’s really sad.
And you get the character away from Grand Guignol.
That would be so banal. This other way goes much deeper. And it’s much more true.
What did you learn most from your years of work with Chéreau?
I learned to be true and natural. To take every word seriously. To believe what I am saying. How to walk. Patrice always hated that singer walk that doesn’t express anything. He didn’t like singers just facing the audience. He liked the diagonal; it gives more tension in the body.
He took music seriously. He prepared us by first reading the role, just the text, at a table, like a play. We spoke it in our language. Then we learned the music, and then we went onstage. That’s not what other directors do, unfortunately.
How do you overcome a production that hurts a piece? Do you try to bring something you learned from before?
Yes. You can’t totally step out of the “regie” [“direction”], but I always wanted to at least give my role, my interpretation — or incarnation, as I prefer to call it — a stronger truth. In general, I tried to avoid productions like that. And then there is that wonderful word: no.
What creates truth onstage?
Seriousness. Taking the words and the music seriously. Not mocking yourself, not interpreting it. No irony. As I said about Klytämnestra: Believe her! Be it! Don’t make a comment on it. I did several productions with the director Klaus Michael Grüber, who told me to imagine the whole audience was 11 years old. An 11-year-old knows already everything about love, hate, hope, betrayal, all those feelings, but he doesn’t like irony and sarcasm.
Are there roles you considered singing that you didn’t, and regret?
No. There were two occasions when I had signed contracts and then decided not to, and it was the right choice. I had a signed contract to do Brünnhilde in “Die Walküre” at La Scala. Daniel Barenboim thought I could have conveyed new things in the role, and I agreed, but couldn’t figure out how to sing it.
I also had a contract for Salome at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, when Götz Friedrich was the intendant [artistic director], conducted by Giuseppe Sinopoli. But looking at the music, I thought, No, I am not Salome. To sing it — that’s soprano soprano. You have to have a silver voice. I’m copper. Of course, you don’t hear those silvery Strauss voices as much now.
Did you ever wish you could sing something for a different voice type — a tenor, or a baritone?
The Ingemisco in the Verdi Requiem! And seriously, in “Don Carlo,” Philip’s aria from the fourth act, “Ella giammai m’amò.” But, you know, if you have the chance to listen to it when it’s sung by someone that is touching you deep down in your soul, then it’s better you have not sung it yourself.
What are your reflections on your years singing at the Metropolitan Opera?
Well, let’s not talk about the “Carmen”! I always loved the Met. I always felt I had the support of people there. Joe Volpe was the best intendant ever. “Only a happy singer is a good singer,” he said. He made us feel comfortable, feel good showing our best.
It’s a big house. It’s different to sing there. You have to act bigger, sing with more sound. Real theater-making is maybe not the thing you should ask for at the Met. A subtle gesture like I might make at the house here in Berlin will maybe be perceived up to Row 10, and then be lost.
You mentioned earlier that the silvery Strauss voices are not as often heard now.
For me, there is a sad trend of singing too loud. I miss the nuance. What makes it difficult to go back is that the audience loves when it’s loud. When singers give too much volume, the success misleads them. For me, that’s not music. Music is something else. Music is so refined, singing can be so refined. It’s much more interesting to really sing piano, mezzo piano, mezzo forte and not always fortissimo.
Do you imagine yourself teaching after retirement?
I don’t have the patience for real vocal teaching. If I did a master class, then I’d do it not in the sense that it’s done now, where you have two days, and singers have an hour here and there, and they work on an aria. That’s not what I’m interested in. I’d prefer a master class with a team of singers where we can really work on a scene. Then I could teach them how to listen. Listening is much more important onstage.