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Waltraud Meier is one of the most fascinating singers in the opera scene, with people travelling across Europe to see and hear her. This rigorous actress is attentive to nuances, language and meaning. She will be at La Monnaie for an exceptional evening of lieder by Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann and Gustav Mahler, which she has called 'Frauenliebe und –leben'. Her performance will convince us once again that she is not only the legendary Wagnerian with whom all stage directors dream of working, but also a deeply moving performer in the intimate and special atmosphere of a recital.
For several years, you have been one of the singers and actresses most sought after by stage directors. When you give a lieder recital, you do not have to meet the demands of a stage director and are not playing a role. Who are you in a recital?
I am the character I am singing about in the lied. I create images, scenarios, a story, connections, etc. The source of expression is exactly the same as in an opera.
When you prepare a recital, there is probably more personal work to be done based on the literary and musical material, and you invent yourself and your inner journey. Is this true?
Yes. It would obviously be wonderful also to have someone such as Patrice Chéreau to guide me in the interpretation of lieder. But in any case, I always have suggestions and ideas regarding the staging of the works I perform; or at least my body language – if I am fully conscious of how I use it – often becomes an essential element for the stage director.
Therefore, when you step on stage for a lieder recital, you have your own staging in mind.
Is the closeness to the audience very different during an evening of lieder and an opera?
Yes. And I like it when there is a little bit of light, not only so that people can read the text at the same time, but also because I want to see their faces. I enjoy interacting with them and having a true dialogue. In an opera, I have this dialogue with another singer, and in a lied I have it with the audience. In this case, even a monologue is a dialogue.
Does the performance of a recital have an influence on the way you approach opera?
Yes, absolutely. And not only regarding vocal techniques. The attack of the sound in a lied is much finer, more precise and cleaner. It is of course very beneficial to apply this to opera. But I also have to concentrate on what I am saying: it must be sincere. This is always important. I must sing as though I am talking to someone.
The text is very important to you in an opera and in a recital. Who has taught you the most about understanding the subtleties in a text and about working precisely on the poetic impact of texts?
I think I have always been like that. In fact, I wanted to study languages. I have always had an affinity with language; I am interested in the meaning of each word, and I wonder why a sentence is written in one way and not in another. It must have a very specific meaning. I have always been interested in this. And this approach has been reinforced by certain stage directors such as Patrice Chéreau in particular. I might also say that they encouraged me in this respect.
'Singing is being.' Can you expand on this idea?
In singing, I express everything in me. I can hide things if I want to, but if I really want to reveal myself, I can do it better by singing – more thoroughly than if I limit myself to talking. In singing, all of the nuances are heard.
Do you have the feeling that with experience you are able to achieve more nuances than you could a few years ago, and that this allows you to be even more sincere?
Yes, I think so. But I think that when we live life with full consciousness and never stop questioning the essence of things, we are in touch with reality and with who we are. When we wonder, 'Is this really true?', 'Is that what I really think?', 'Am I authentic and sincere?', then we evolve as human beings.
Interview by Christian Longchamp