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A few years ago I sat in Babelplatz – a very central square in Berlin between the Catholic Cathedral and Humboldt University, famous because of the book burnings that took place there during the National Socialist era – and with a beer in hand, I watched Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde on a giant screen. Usually, once a year, the Berlin Staatsoper organizes a free open-air event that they call “Staatsoper für alle” (opera for everyone). In this way, opera can reach different generations and even the occasional stray passerby.
Although one might think that opera is for the few, especially when it tends to follow more traditional parameters, like oftentimes in Italy, it is also true that many places are open to new compositions and interpretations, as is the case in much of northern Europe and the United States, where there are no qualms about presenting an opera on a giant screen in a baseball stadium. I even remember a performance of Don Giovanni by the Berlin Staatsoper in which the historical costumes were left aside to make it more contemporary. Still the cry of the Commendatore echoed in the hall. On the one hand, opera could become more democratic, without losing quality and tradition, in an attempt to get more and more people interested in it.
It was precisely on this point that my conversation began with Elizabeth Hertzberg, a young Californian soprano who has been living in Milan for ten years. Elizabeth studied at the San Francisco Conservatory, was given a scholarship by the Avanti Foundation and has also participated in and won several singing competitions. Her interpretations are varied, from Amenaide (Tancredi), Ilia (Alcina), Rosina (The Barber of Seville), Zerlina (Don Giovanni), Frasquita (Carmen), Valencienne (The Merry Widow), Lucy (The Telephone), Lisa (Das Land des Lächelns) to chamber music and much more.
Hertzberg received a masters in interpretation and vocal technique at the Conservatory in Modena, where she met the esteemed Bulgarian soprano Raina Kabaivanska, who was also her teacher and who organized the recording of an album. The Italian Philharmonic Orchestra and Brilliant Classics met at the Teatro Comunale di Modena to perform and record Menotti’s opera The Telephone. Elizabeth sang the role of Lucy; and she confessed that it was a wonderful experience and when she later found the CD on the shelf of one of Italy’s most important bookstores, Feltrinelli, it made quite an impression. For Elizabeth, it brought great satisfaction and surprise, when, a year after recording the album, she found it in the music section of the Feltrinelli and thought how incredible it was that someone would want to buy it and listen to her voice. In this industry, you work on a project, and when a project concludes successfully, it gives a certain meaning to life.
Elizabeth Hertzberg’s voice has been heard by thousands at Carnegie Hall, the opera house in Sofia (Bulgaria), theaters in Parma, Modena, churches and historic halls in various European cities. In her own words, being a singer means taking music to all corners of the world. And so, her voice becomes the instrument against time and oblivion.
Thank you for taking the time for this interview, between the continuous rehearsals, commitments and concerts. You have been living for several years in Italy, where there is a great lyric tradition, what differences do you find with the productions in other countries?
In every big and small Italian city there is a theater where there are regular productions of Puccini, Verdi and also Mozart. You could say that Italy, being the birthplace of opera, is more traditional if compared to other places like Berlin or Budapest, for example. Productions of contemporary composers are not as common, because they already have Puccini, who is a great. Sometimes it seems that opera is stuck in Tosca, The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni, while in other places there is more experimentation and more openness. For example, at the Metropolitan Opera right now there is a production, Eurydice, which is based on the myth of Orpheus and the rescue of Eurydice from the underworld, but from her perspective. The libretto is by Sarah Ruhl and the music is by a very young American composer, Matthew Aucoin. He is only 31 years old and his music is already being performed on the stage of the Met. It’s important to continue with the traditional great operas, which are filled with beauty and have the power to move something deep inside of us, but it’s important to leave room for new works to be heard. They could, after all, become the next great operas.
Boy, is he young. A few years ago I attended a performance of Don Giovanni at the Berlin Opera and was surprised that although it was the same libretto and music by Mozart, they had taken some interpretative liberties, especially in the costumes, which were contemporary and left out the period feel. I believe that this and the open-air opera programs help a lot to renew the public. Besides the fact that the tickets are not unaffordable.
It’s important to understand the historical period in which the opera was written, but it is also good to be open to new interpretations. It’s also important the way in which opera is being presented. In San Francisco, for example, they have opera at the ballpark which is a live broadcast onto the stadium’s screen from the opera house. It is something necessary for this art to survive, to bring many people to live an experience that touches their hearts. Otherwise, the culture around this art form could die.
True, in a way opera ceases to be for a group of the cultural elite to be able to reach many and appreciate the beauty, without diminishing the quality. Bringing high culture closer to mass culture is undoubtedly an important step in maintaining tradition. On one occasion in Milan, I deludedly thought that I could buy a ticket to La Scala, but they were sold out and a bit expensive for the student budget I was carrying. Not to mention the price tag.
Unfortunately it’s not that easy to get into La Scala. Buying a ticket last minute if you are a student or a young person is complicated. Although there are a number of tickets that they keep for the last minute, you have to go through a long, grueling, all-process just to get a cheap ticket in the balcony. Who can waste an entire day in various lines? Even if you wanted to go, if you don’t have the money, you can’t afford to miss the workday. That really limits the audience. Ideally it should be easier, but we are in Milan and that’s how it works. On one occasion, a guy came in late and sweaty because even though he had a ticket, they wouldn’t let him in at the entrance because he was wearing jeans. So he had to run to H&M to buy a pair of pants that looked more formal and run back.
On a more personal note, how did your interest in opera and your vocation as a singer begin?
I have played the piano since I was six. I already had an interest in music then, but I had not yet discovered my voice. When I was ten years old, my parents bought a CD with different versions of the Ave Maria, and when I listened to it, I tried to imitate singing it and I realized that I could reach the notes. That’s how I discovered my voice. Shortly afterwards an aunt, who loved opera, showed me a video of the opera La Traviata and I had never seen anything so beautiful. I thought it was a dream and that this was the world I wanted to live in. Music seduced me.
Opera is usually in Italian, German and French. How many languages do you have to learn or is it enough to memorize the libretto?
A singer has a very complete training, especially if you are American, because opera is not ours, as it is for Europeans. In Spain there is zarzuela, Italy and Germany have a tradition of opera and chamber music and that’s why most classical music is in those languages. At the conservatory we study those languages, although that doesn’t mean that you speak them as if you had learned them living there. When you prepare, you study the text, you translate it, you understand the meaning of the text and so you are able to express it. Fortunately musicians have a good ear, so we can imitate accents.
You have a very good ear and the ability to imitate; I would like to improve my accent. You have a very complete training, but you are still training, how do you combine training and concerts with motherhood?
Just one word: grandparents. Without help you can’t do anything. Fortunately my mother has been able to spend a lot of time with us. Of course my mother-in-law also helps. And now my father is spending some time here. Then my mother will come for the next concert season.
Grandparents are a fundamental part of parenting. Changing the subject a little bit, which character would you like to play or which of the ones you played is your favorite and why?
What a difficult question, because it’s not that I have a favorite character. I always like to discover new music, not only opera, but also chamber music, like Bach. I always fall in love with the pieces I am studying at the time. For example, right now, I’m working on Lulu by Berg, which is a very difficult opera. Berg was an Austrian composer during the first part of the 20th century and was a student of Schoenberg. Right now Lulu and her aria is the one that has invaded my mind. I found the first and second act scores online, but the third was missing and you could order it for an exorbitant price. A few days ago, I was in Budapest and coming out of the concert, I found a used music bookstore. There, waiting for me, I found the third act. I needed it to understand Lulu better. And there it was, just on the shelf. You know, it’s those beautiful things in life, those little gifts that wait for us and surprise us.
The third act was for you; it was waiting for you where you least expected it. You have this process of falling in love with the piece and then how do you prepare to perform it?
The culminating moment is the concert, and of course it is very beautiful, but my favorite part is all the work that goes into the piece beforehand. The work you do with the musicians is very important, because together we try to understand better what the composer had in mind. Then you can experience the beauty of the music. Singing is something very special, very intimate, because the voice is an instrument and your body at the same time. You have your own timbre and your own resonance and your own interpretation. You learn from the composers, you read their notes and spend time with the texts written by various poets and librettists, sometimes even the composers themselves. The more you go deeper into the text the more you understand things and so you have your own musical experience. And then you transmit that experience to the audience.
About this experience, it can be very moving. Sometimes it is very visible that a singer is moved, but the voice doesn’t falter and keeps on singing. How can you sing if you are moved?
When you sing in public, in a concert, you must have the mental strength to control yourself. Letting yourself get too emotional is a bit selfish because you have already lived that experience, and at the moment during the concert, it is about giving. Sometimes it happens that I get moved while I’m rehearsing. The other day, I was running through Sommerabend and other pieces from Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Heine Lieder. I was aware of the summer atmosphere, the crickets, and the river and suddenly, I was very moved, because I thought, how beautiful it is that this is how we keep these people alive. These incredible composers, their souls and thoughts on paper, come to life in music. We continue to remember them and by keeping their music alive we fight against time and oblivion. I hope to do justice to what they wrote. Because the voice is the heart and the instrument that is able to communicate the past, feelings and life.