Agnes Baltsa: Singer, musician, human

Agnes Baltsa returns to Greece for four performances in Pietro Mascagni’s «Cavaleria Rusticana,» a new production which opens at the Thessaloniki Concert Hall tomorrow. Following her successful performances in Leos Janacek’s «Jenufa» at the Vienna State Opera, the celebrated Greek mezzo-soprano spoke to Kathimerini about her upcoming roles and the world of opera today. Most people identify you with «Carmen» as well as Italian repertoire roles. How did the role of the deacon’s wife in Janacek’s «Jenufa» come up? It was conductor Seiji Ozawa’s and the Vienna State Opera’s wish. In the beginning I thought it was a bit odd. Looking at the score, I realized that it was written for a soprano and wondered how hard it would be to sing the role in Vienna, where the orchestra tunes higher than anywhere else. But I enjoy challenges. I accepted, and the work was splendid. At times, given the tension on stage, I thought I was going to have a stroke. It’s a great thing to have the power, sometimes, to perform harakiri on stage. I never understood why you have to perform well all the time. Being on stage is part of one’s life. So, it’s not spring every day. There’s also blood, ashes and disasters. Therefore, we must have the courage to sing an out-of-tune note, if we want to tell the audience what we want; to express the right feeling. I want those who will come to see the performance to forget everything while they are there. If I succeed in doing this, they don’t need to understand how great my D minor was. I respect the D minor, because I’m a musician and a singer above all. But I’m also a human being who has something to say. Therefore I wish to move people, to enchant them. Do you believe that «Jenufa» would appeal to a Greek audience? It’s a exceptional piece of work and beautifully directed in this case. I wish for this production to travel to Athens from Vienna, in order for people to enjoy it. Another role awaiting for you is Clytemnestra, in Strauss’s «Electra.» That was another of Ozawa’s wishes. This will go on stage in Japan, in 2005. It is not challenging vocally. But I’m interested in the personality. I had never interpreted the role before, because I believed that I might be too old for it – strange as it may sound. When Karajan had suggested I sing Herodias in Strauss’s «Salome,» I was surprised, because I considered that it was role for a singer at the end of her career. But in Karajan’s mind, Herodias was a sexually active, young woman. The same goes for Clytemnestra. What about Ortrud in «Lohengrin»? I will sing her in Vienna in 2006. I’m flattered that a theater such as the Vienna State Opera is trusting me with such a part. It is a dangerous role. She is a shrew. A lot of people seem to think that I’m right for these kinds of parts. Many think you’re the ideal «Carmen.» Aren’t you fed up with that? I’ve said it hundreds of times. But theaters are in crisis right now, and they are aware of the fact that if they stage «Carmen,» tickets will be sold out. How are you dealing with this change of direction, toward more dramatic roles? I don’t see it as a change of direction. Obviously I can no longer sing like I used to when I was 30. It is very important for singers to be able to pick the right repertoire at every stage of their career. It’s not about interpreting a role. What matters is what comes next. In order to accept a part, I must consider whether I can do it, if I’ll spend sleepless nights fearing the performance, if I really want to sing the part in other theaters and, finally, how this part will fit in with the rest of my repertoire, which I don’t want to dispense with. That is why I said no to «Tosca» and «Macbeth.» Looking back at my career, which has lasted for all these years, I think I made the right choices. When a great maestro offers you a great part you are flattered very much, you think that is the chance of a lifetime. If you don’t use your brain and your instinct to take a look inside and measure if you can do it, it might end in disaster. A singer is completely alone on stage. Responsibility, therefore, lies with the one who accepts, not the one who suggests. Let’s be honest: Anyone who says I’d rather sing for five years, rather than 20, is lying. The stage is a bug, but also a great fiesta. When you finally make it on stage it’s God’s blessing. You have taken a number of risks, however. I took risks, first of all, in order not to get bored, and secondly, for others not to get bored. I’m not against living on stage in a panic. But I don’t accept sleepless nights and going crazy. In order to go onstage you need the body, brain and voice to be functioning perfectly. No matter what happens, the fear factor reduces all these functions, but you do end up with a good percentage enabling you to do what you have to. Besides the dramatic roles, you keep Rossini in your repertoire. I keep «Italian in Algiers,» even though it’s very low for my voice. It’s an opera which allows me to control the flexibility of my voice. You have worked with the most conservative but also the most radical directors. Is the director important, or do you consider that a production’s success rests, mainly, with the singers, the orchestra and the maestro? Clearly the most important part is the music. However, besides being a musician and a singer I’m a human being who wants to express something through my art. So if a director is able to bring out the best in me, then all is well. I’m tired of set design, costumes and colors. I can definitely think of singing «Carmen» on an empty stage. If I have something to say, I will say it anyway. I don’t need anything else. In any case, on stage, if I’m able to do so, I want to stand naked. You have sung and recorded songs by Theodorakis, Xarhakos and Hadjidakis. Have you ever thought of something closer to your repertoire – such as works by Kalomiris or Mantzaros, for instance? Why not? I have time on my hands. I’m beginning to get tired of studying things I will never sing again. What’s more, in this financially difficult period we’re in, in order for a theater to stage a relatively unknown opera it must be able to sell the production elsewhere or be able to keep it in its repertoire for a number of years. Therefore, if someone suggested a co-production between a Greek organization and the Vienna Opera, for example, you would have no objection? No. There are many lovely voices in Greece, yet very few young people make it abroad. Why do you think this is the case? It’s not just a Greek phenomenon. There are too many singers, to begin with. Also, a nice voice is not enough. You need a brain in order to develop your natural gifts. We see so many young and talented kids who rise to fame suddenly, only to disappear just as fast. This situation is encouraged by the media and the artists themselves, who don’t know how to handle their success. How long can you cope with your career? Do you know how serious it is when you walk down the street believing that you are the best, that you are irreplaceable? It’s a tragedy. The beginning of the end. You have to stay small, humble and think about things over and over. Divine Callas, the one and only, has destroyed hundreds of singers. Not all girls can be Callases. Let them be perfect as themselves. It also has to do with role models: Every era has its means of expression. I’m not a pessimist. Bouzoukia are great, but that’s not all our kids should be listening to. The same applies to the rest of the world. I’m interested to know why Eminem sells so many CDs. I follow all these things closely because they help me understand our world better. Are there roles you’d like to interpret? I would be interested in singing the title role in «Don Giovanni!» I’m also interested in Shakespeare’s «Hamlet,» even though I know that will never happen, because I’m a singer and there are so many gifted actors out there!