American soprano Carol Vaness made her Seattle Opera debut in the title role of Massenet’s Manon in 1985 and has returned as Anna Bolena in Donizetti’s opera, Violetta in Verdi’s Traviata, Leonora in Verdi’s Trovatore (twice), Desdemona in Verdi’s Otello, the title role of Puccini’s Tosca, Amelia in Verdi’s Ballo in maschera, and the title role of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut. She sings the Marschallin for the first time in the August performances of Der Rosenkavalier at Seattle Opera. Vaness spoke with Ed Hawkins at Seattle Opera’s administrative offices on May 3, 2006.
Ed Hawkins: This production will mark your debut in the role of the Marschallin. Your last appearance here (Manon Lescaut) was also a role debut, correct?
Carol Vaness: That’s right. Speight Jenkins has always been one of the most generous and forward-thinking opera directors in America, because he regularly gives artists who might not automatically be considered for a role a chance to come to Seattle, work on that which they might not normally get to do, and hopefully bring something unique to the part. When he asked me to be the Marschallin I was thrilled because I’ve wanted to sing it for twenty years. Being the summer opera, it would be done with a single cast, which was even more appealing because it meant that we would have more time to work in-depth with the characters. I always find new roles slightly nervewracking; I’m usually better the second time I do something. However, knowing that we’ll have a great deal of time before opening night is a great comfort; it’s a real luxury when you’re coming to a role for the first time.
EH: How does the stress of debuting a role somewhere familiar like Seattle compare with doing a part with which you’re quite experienced somewhere new?
CV: Being in Seattle always makes me feel more comfortable immediately. Even when playing parts here that I’d done before, such as Amelia in Ballo or Tosca, there was an immense amount of rehearsal, allowing for really detailed focus on character and music. Plus, I’ve often been able to sing with such people as Vinson Cole and Greer Grimsley. When you have friends around you, the stress level is further reduced. When it comes to a part like the Marschallin, the stress is totally unlike any I’ve had in my career before. Not only is the character quite different, but it’s also a very long sing in the German of a specific era. I’ve had twenty-five years of singing primarily Italian and French repertoire—I have sung only recital repertoire and Die Fledermaus in German—so to suddenly be faced with one of the most textually important German operas is stressful for me because I always want to be really good at what I do before I get in front of people.
Then there’s the stress of never actually having sung it with people who aren’t my coach. It will be a great pleasure to get together with the mezzo and the bass and the maestro. Here, again, is where the lengthy rehearsal process is a comfort. Finally, there’s the music itself. Strauss is always unusual. There’s some weird tuning. When you’re first learning it, you think, “I have no idea how I’m ever finding these pitches!” But once you hear it, it makes so much sense. You think, “How did I ever miss that pitch?”
EH: How would you rate the vocal demands of the part?
CV: I sing more in Act I than in all of Tosca , but the Marschallin is only in two acts, with a nice rest in between. It’s not as demanding or as dramatic as Tosca, but it’s certainly challenging and interesting. I was surprised when I really started studying the part because I’d always thought of the Marschallin as rather heavy, but there’s much more to it. For example, in the trio between the disguised Octavian, Ochs, and the Marschallin, she actually has a couple licks of coloratura. You really have to be flexible to be able to do it, and not just musically. Once you start to get into the character study, it’s amazing just how much there is to her.
EH: One adjective for the Marschallin that pops up everywhere is “wise.”
CV: She’s incredibly wise; much wiser than I can be even at my age. She has such patience in her wisdom. It will take a great deal of acting for me to find the incredible patience with which she treats Baron Ochs when he arrives. Speaking for myself, Carol, I would kick him out! I would say, “Shut up! Leave the maid alone! Get out!” But she doesn’t do that; she’s incredibly human. She has a great superiority, though not because she thinks she’s better, but rather because she can see that under it all Ochs is not a bad man. He is merely a result of his learning and education. Plus he’s a man, right? And she continuously says, “Well, the men have it like this.” In that century, of course, they did—men could really do whatever they wanted and that’s just how life would go. Hence she has Octavian, because her husband has gone to who knows where, doing who knows what—supposedly out hunting, but hunting for what we’re not exactly sure…
EH: In her wisdom, she keeps some distance from her passions, yet she’s not cynical.
CV: Oh, no. Not at all. I find nothing bitter about her. She has moments of irritation, like when Ochs leaves and she says, “They’re all like that.” She may be irritated with the situation, but I don’t find that cynical. Because immediately she goes into the monologue that demonstrates not only her wisdom, but a kind of whimsy as well. It’s not gloomy or self-pitying; it is amazingly revealing.
EH: It’s a blend of pathos, irony, and humor, rather than flat-out cynicism.
CV: Pathos is absolutely the perfect word. And the pathos comes partly from the audience marveling at a woman of such beauty coupled with such wisdom. I’ve always found any soprano as the Marschallin to be incredibly beautiful, even if the woman offstage is not beautiful. I’m sure that’s the magic of Strauss’s music for her as well as the audience’s feelings towards her.
EH: She is a great aristocrat—in possession of grace, beauty, and high social status. How do you convey all of that and still leave room for comedy?
CV: I don’t think any of those traits have to be compromised, because the comedy comes from the situations. For one thing, I think you must stand tall. I know that a lady who stands tall and confident will be aristocratic. The opera isn’t “made” funny by the characters alone. It is seeing these characters in these particular situations that is funny. If Octavian has left the sword on the floor and Mohammed comes in with breakfast, then seeing the aristocratic Marschallin kick the sword under the bed will be funny to an audience. She takes everything with a grain of salt, and that, in turn, imparts humor to her situation as well as immense grace.
EH: The music in Rosenkavalier is often mentioned by aficionados as among the most gorgeous in all of opera.
CV: I do think it has some of the most beautiful music ever written. And unquestionably one of the great entrances of opera—there just isn’t anything as incredible as that chord that accompanies the Rosenkavalier’s arrival in the second act. Strauss wrote some glorious music for Ariadne but it lacks emotional depth and musically it can’t compare with Act III of Rosenkavalier or the Marschallin’s monologue or even her initial duet with Octavian. There just isn’t anything like it.
EH: So many romantic operas portray love in a very fanciful way—full of melodrama and high stakes—cathartic but not necessarily realistic. One reason why Rosenkavalier stands apart is because it is a much more level-headed examination of the real nature of love, drawing more from the tradition of Mozart and building upon some of the humanistic notions which he was among the first to consider. To this day, the Marschallin presents a remarkably evolved point of view towards romance.
CV: She loves him enough to let him go with grace.
EH: She experiences the loss of love without it being a tragedy.
CV: Right, although, personally, I would consider that a great tragedy! This is where I really differ from the Marschallin. It’s one of the more difficult things for me with her character. I must find a way to include my own passion within this seemingly selfless act. I’m going to work very hard on not being maudlin. She is much more advanced emotionally than, say, Amelia in Ballo, where the king dies and she’s left lamenting “My life is over!” You do revere the Marschallin for her ability to rise above. Still, there is plenty of traditional romance in the opera. The assured idealism of the young Sophie is admirable, as is the passion of Octavian. It’s impossible not to like the young lovers. Their coming together at the end does carry on the romantic tradition very well.
EH: But it’s not exactly “and they all lived happily ever after.”
CV: Not “all,” no. When the Marschallin leaves, alone, there’s something quite missing.
EH: It’s fairly haunting to have a character’s final moment onstage be so unresolved, for her to have “the last word” in such an inscrutable way.
CV: That’s right. You’re just not sure what to think.
EH: Maybe all these unfilled blanks add to the opera’s appeal, in that everyone who sees it has to use his imagination to fill them in, which makes everything that much more personal.
CV: It also really depends on how the very end is staged. We know she gives her hand, according to the libretto, but who is she looking at? Is she looking at all? Where is Sophie? I’ve seen several productions with it done very differently in each. I saw one with Kiri Te Kanawa where she never looked. Once she had said “in Gottes Namen,” that was it. She put her hand out, she never looked, and she walked right out. It was incredible, honestly. It actually gave me the goose bumps. I saw it Vienna with Cheryl Studer, who looked right at Octavian and left. Either choice can be effective. It all depends on the people involved to figure out which will work best for us.
EH: Another reason why having more rehearsal time is so useful, right?
CV: Yes. We can try it different ways and see which feels the most authentic, which is so important in a human drama like this. It’s really a role that one has to grow into. I can definitely imagine doing the Marschallin again. Her story really resonates—especially for women of my age. I’m not in my thirties, and there comes a moment where I don’t want to feel that it’s harder to get up in the morning. I don’t want to be saying, “Oh, my knee hurts. Oh, my leg hurts. My hair is not responding the same way. Why do I have to feel this way? I don’t mind getting older, but why do I have to look older?” And mind you, in this era, the women weren’t even that old when they considered themselves to be old. In that period, things moved much more quickly, although it’s quite interesting how women in modern America struggle with similar messages. All these cover girls and every magazine you pick up screams: “You can still look twenty when you’re fifty!” It is an insult as far as I’m concerned. We don’t have it built into our system that it’s okay to “feel your age.” Whereas in Europe , there’s not that whole stigma of “you have to be twenty to be worth anything.” The Europeans have a wonderful view of the Marschallin, because she’s a very secure woman in just about every part of herself. Emotionally mature. I’m really looking forward to giving it a go. She’s not like any character I’ve played in years and years. The closest I’ve played was Vanessa and Vanessa is crazy . The main thing to try to find with the Marschallin is that her feelings are not only valid but they’re normal, healthy, and so immensely wise. I find her so incredibly touching as my own years go by and time slips through my fingers. It is this feeling of time as a beautiful, inevitable thing (“ein sonderbar ding” in fact) and not a plague as we see it today, that the Marschallin has over all the characters I have played in opera. How can you not love such a character and a chance to be such a woman as this?
Ed Hawkins, a Seattle Opera staff member, is active in Seattle’s fringe theatre community as a director, actor, and sound designer. His artist interviews are a regular feature of Seattle Opera’s publications.