Articles & Interviews
A Hundred Different Ways:
Janice Baird on Portraying Elektra and Brünnhilde
By Ed Hawkins
Janice Baird makes her Seattle Opera debut in the title role of Richard Strauss’s Elektra in 2008 and returns here in 2009 to sing Brünnhilde in Wagner’s Ring des Nibelungen. The American soprano frequently sings both Wagner and Strauss roles such as Brünnhilde, Ortrud, Senta, Salome, Elektra, and the Dyer’s Wife in Die Frau ohne Schatten. She spoke with Ed Hawkins in July via telephone while on holiday in Spain.
Ed Hawkins : I hear animals in the background. Are you at home?
Janice Baird : No, I’m out in the country with some friends of mine; we’re giving their daughter a pony ride, a horse ride, actually, her first horse ride.
EH: You were born and raised in Manhattan. How did you end up being based in Germany?
JB: Well, my husband’s German. I came over here, did some auditions, started getting work, then fell in love with a guy. My whole life changed. I stayed over here. It wasn’t a conscious decision. I never thought I would stay, but events happen and you follow where they lead. I like the life here, and after twelve years I’m very Europeanized. I still have things in storage in New York, and I love coming home to America. I just fall right back into life in the States.
EH: In other interviews, you’ve described Elektra as heroic. What about her is heroic to you?
JB: She doesn’t ever give in. There’s something heroic about somebody who waits for so long and never gives in.
EH: Not necessarily “functional,” but heroic nonetheless.
JB: She can’t get rid of the idea that they [Klytämnestra and Aegisth] killed her father, and they’re getting away with it. They just go on living their lives—to her, they’re horrible people! Now in reality, I, Janice, can forgive Klytämnestra, or at least acknowledge that Agamemnon was a bad husband who left her and—so she believes—killed her daughter Iphigenia. But Elektra has a unique perspective. It’s important for me to see things as the character; when I do, I can’t help but admire her focus and incredibly strong will. She is so strong and so tough.
EH: The scene with Orest is known as the Recognition Scene due to the siblings’ recognizing each other. Elektra is very vulnerable and exposed in that scene. Is it fair to say that she’s also experiencing some self-recognition there?
JB: She is very exposed. She is revealing herself, she’s finally found somebody to talk to about what’s going on inside. She is sharing—she finally has someone to listen to her, someone to love, to talk to about all the femininity in her. At that point she knows that she’s destroyed her life, that this whole thing has destroyed her, but she’s probably too far gone, a little too insane, to be having any kind of profound self-knowledge.
EH: Although the satisfaction that she gets from finally being able to make that kind of connection does quiet the demons, albeit briefly.
JB: Yes, she experiences love. For so long, there has been no reality in her life. It’s just bitter projections. She has all these projections about her father—and also about her brother. Then suddenly he’s there and she can barely deal with it. There’s a complete change of character— she just opens up. I love Strauss. And this is one of his great pieces. It has incredible layers and dimensions. And it gets better every time I hear it.
EH: Unlike most operas, there’s not really a romantic element for the protagonist in Elektra.
JB: Not exactly. I actually do think there is a love story. The opera was a product of the early twentieth century, which of course was the era of Sigmund Freud, and his influence is everywhere in this piece. I think Elektra is in love with her brother Orest and I think she’s in love with the fantasy of her father. It might not be a “romantic” love, but I think there’s a lot of human feeling there: the profound sense of loss, the longing for things she can never have, and this incredible fantasy about her father, all ignite very real feelings within her.
EH: So emotionally speaking, there’s still plenty to hang your hat on.
EH: Once you’ve made your entrance in Elektra, you’re there for the duration. What is it like to take the stage in this role?
JB: It’s not something you take for granted. You’re challenged to the upmost in everything you do. It can keep you awake! Every time it’s new.
EH: She gets this big buildup at the beginning of the opera: she’s described as a wild, vicious ball of fire. How are you able to convey some of the more sympathetic qualities you mentioned earlier, after such a dubious introduction?
JB: She’s obsessed; she’s not sympathetic. Her intense longing and love for her father should come across right away—and that can certainly be moving, as I said. But she’s not Mimí; she’s not a “sympathetic” character. She is obsessed with the fact that they have gotten away with murder. She’s hurt and injured and insane. I don’t think she’s simply “terrible” or “crazy.” She’s much more interesting than that.
It’s all there in the music. When the maids are finally gone and she begins this obsessive ritual that she performs every night, talking to her father, you hear this lyrical music in the middle of all of this anger and discord. All of this stuff just pours out of her—emotion, feeling, words. She’s alone for the monologue, then her sister comes out and she’s caught. She’s exposed, and she doesn’t want to be because she’s angry with her sister and she doesn’t want anybody to see her or really know what’s going on inside of her.
EH: She starts out alone and then has a series of confrontations in which more and more is revealed. She gets closer and closer. It’s an inexorable crescendo.
JB: Her sister tells her about her wants and desires—all the worries that women have. I think Elektra shares them but doesn’t want to be weak. She can’t afford to have these “women’s feelings.” But she does, and she’s fighting against them all the time. And it makes her weary. When there is nothing more to fight for, she dies.
EH: Dying not from so much orgasmic obsessive satisfaction as from finally being able to lay her burden down.
JB: Right. “Now I can give in!” Now of course in some stagings she doesn’t die. Like I said, it’s such a strong piece you can interpret it any number of ways. And as an artist, I don’t like to do things the same every time—I prefer to treat a piece like it is new every time. Fresh.
It’s a process. It’s a person who is not just one-dimensional. And that’s important for me in everything that I do. The authors have provided a great deal of expression and dimension, and I want to serve that.
I always look forward to doing Elektra with a new director because I think there are a hundred different ways of approaching the opera and the character.
EH: I’d like to ask you about pacing. While it may not be as epic a journey as Brünnhilde’s, Elektra also has an arc that passes through several “stations,” to use a German theatrical term. Unlike the Ring, however, Elektra’s journey plays out over 100 minutes of uninterrupted action rather than over three operas spread over several years. How do you navigate these disparate rhythms of storytelling while still fully plumbing the characters?
JB: Essentially it comes down to them being different people. You study them each on their own terms, you listen to their music and feel what they’re going through, you read and think about all the words they say. Fortunately, I speak perfect German, so I don’t have a problem understanding what they say. That helps a lot. I know these ladies now. I’ve spent so much time with them, and have developed a more and more profound understanding of how they feel, what they think, what happens to them, what exactly their arc is.
To me the big challenge in finding Brünnhilde in the first place was continually focusing on the story of the whole Ring, keeping all the details of her story in mind the whole time, and trying to be aware of both where you are at any individual moment without losing that sense of the whole story.
EH: Making sure you always know where you are, how far you have yet to go, and that you don’t go too far too soon . . .
JB: Exactly. It can be a challenge to know exactly where you are in the piece and in the development and growth of the character. With Brünnhilde, especially, that takes a lot of work. But that’s why I love doing the whole Ring more than just one of the operas —because getting to tell the whole story helps you stay on top of that. And performing for people who are there to see the whole story is a real treat because they’re going on that journey with you and that really helps. There’s nothing like it.
EH: I think you’ll find the Ring cycle audiences here will be with you every step of the way. They really get into it—even on the off nights, they’re attending lectures and events to keep themselves totally immersed in the Ring. It’s almost like a Grateful Dead concert or a Star Trek convention…
JB: It really is amazing. I didn’t understand it before I’d been through a cycle myself. But now I do. It’s crazy. It’s addictive. Maybe I’m a Trekkie! [laughs] Nietzsche called Wagner a drug, and he wasn’t the only one who thought so.
EH: You mentioned earlier your high esteem for Hofmannsthal and mentioned how he’d been called “the perfect librettist.”
JB: Look at his body of work! Incredible texts, all.
EH: Strauss and Hofmannsthal bickered back and forth constantly about which element—words or music—was more important. They even wrote an opera about it: Ariadne auf Naxos.
JB: Yes. And that tension between them, the friction of their collaboration, is precisely what produced such brilliant results.
EH: Versus Wagner, who wrote every word himself. How would you compare these two libretti?
JB: That’s an interesting question. People may criticize Wagner as a librettist, but his words are just perfect for the music. You can’t do Wagner in a translation. You can’t change that mix of the words with the music and the overall meaning. It all works together. The structure of the sentence matches the musical phrasing. And the meaning of the word creates the musical phrase. That’s tremendous. It’s a dialogue.
Hofmannsthal is the greater playwright—his mastery of text is just mind-blowing, and Wagner’s German can be very difficult, in terms of vocabulary or syntax. But if you’re just listening to their operas, I think you actually understand Wagner better in the end than you do Hofmannsthal, because so much of Wagner’s musical composition is made to convey the text, is in service to the text. In the later Wagner operas the gesture of the word is always fully integrated with the music.
Like I said, I love Elektra. I’m not calling anyone a lesser artist. All of these artists are fantastic—we’re sort of comparing apples and oranges. But Wagner was about his own words. He didn’t have anybody else.
Wagner and Strauss both created the most complex women’s characters—it’s a real pleasure to be able to sing this repertoire and to be able to perform these people who are so full of life and thought and depth. It’s hard work but what a great job!
Ed Hawkins , a Seattle Opera staff member, is active in Seattle's theater community as a director, actor, and sound designer. His interviews are a regular feature of Seattle Opera’s publications.