Soprano Elisabeth Söderström
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
(May 7, 1927 - November 20, 2009)
Born in Stockholm to a Swedish father and a Russian mother she studied
with the Russian pedagogue Andrejewa de Skilondz
(also Adelaïde von Skilondz), former a leading coloratura-soprano
at The Imperial Opera of St. Petersburg and at the Berlin Hofoper.
Söderström made her debut as Bastienne
at the Drottningholm Court Theatre in 1947. The following year she sang
in Grétry’s Le Tableau Parlant. In 1949 she changed to the Swedish
Royal Opera and was to become an admired member
for many years. She appeared in the following roles: Pamina, Sophie (later,
Octavian and the Marschallin), Louise, Violetta, the four
soprano roles in Les Contes d’Hofmann, Regina in Hindemith’s
Mathis der Maler, the title roles in Jenufa, Kat’a Kabanova and The Affair Makropulos,
Tatyana, Mimì, Euridice and a number of
first performances of modern operas. Accepting her teacher’s advice she
sang neither Verdi nor Wagner. She made her Glyndebourne debut in
1957 and remained a favorite singer there until 1979,
singing the Composer, Octavian, the Countess in Capriccio, Susanna and
Leonore. She appeared at the Salzburg Festival and was a
frequent guest at the Vienna State Opera. Her Met debut was
as Susanna in 1959 and she first appeared at Covent Garden with the Royal
Swedish Opera as Daisy Dodd in Blomdahl’s Aniara
(1960). She also visited Australia where she debuted as Emilia Marty.
She gave her first song recital in 1947 and she soon became an accomplished
lieder singer and appeared as a recitalist in
all continents. In 1965 she joined the Stockholm Music Academy. She
was decorated many times. From 1991 until 1996 she was the director of the
Drottnigholm Opera Festival and also worked
successfully as a stage director.
in Drottningholm in 1957]
In August of 1997, Söderström was at the Ravinia Festival (the
summer home of the Chicago Symphony) to give master classes for young vocal
students. She graciously agreed to meet with me, and here is the
conversation that took place at that time . . . . . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: You’ve had a wide-ranging repertoire
in your career. How did you decide which roles you were going to
sing, and which roles you would decline?
Elisabeth Söderström: I’ve only
said ‘no, thank you’ to two parts. One was Arabella because I started
giggling when she was at her deepest emotion. I thought she was
so funny, and the other was Katerina Izmailova. I didn’t like the
idea of poisoning my husband with mushrooms. I had the good fortune
of belonging to a repertoire company, being a member of the ensemble there
in Stockholm, and you had to sing what you were asked to sing. So
the opera management decided for you.
BD: Were there some parts that you looked forward to,
and other parts you had trepidation about?
ES: Yes, especially because very often I was
given big roles. Somebody had stepped out of the production and
I had to learn the role in very short time. So it was tough, but
it was also a fantastic school, and a great treat to have a chance to
develop as an artist within a company. But then when I started being
invited to countries around the world, if I had to choose between different
offers I would choose the part that interested me more than the money.
BD: Musically or dramatically? [Vis-à-vis
the recording shown at right, see my Interviews with George Shirley, Yvonne Minton, and Pierre Boulez.]
ES: Both. I’m not very good at singing
in operas where you live on the arias because I’ve been looked upon as
a singing actress.
BD: Then let me ask the
question. In opera where is the balance then between the music
and the drama?
ES: The combination of the two is the fantastic
thing about opera, and if you one part is missing, that’s when I don’t
BD: In some operas do you have to put in more
drama than is really there to make up for the lack of drama in the opera?
ES: No, I don’t think so. There
are different ways of approaching a part. I always wanted to live
my characters on stage, and if you look upon, let’s say, the big eighteenth
century operas by Gluck — Alceste and Iphigenie
— they seem dusty. But when you start studying them,
and start studying the problems of people who were ruled by the antique
gods, you have such interesting problems and emotional developments which
you would never dream of.
BD: So you have to make them live? You
have to bring them to life?
BD: Is it you who is bringing them to life,
or is it the composer that is bringing them to life?
ES: In opera we have so much help from the
music that we must always be grateful to the composer. However, sometimes
we think it’s a pity that he has already decided what we’re supposed to
think and feel, and how to behave on stage in the part.
BD: When we move into the twentieth century
— and as we head into the next century — the
stage director is taking over perhaps even too much. Are there
times when the stage director is going against the composer and librettist,
and if so, how can you handle that?
ES: Yes, I’ve had a few fights, especially
in the last ten or fifteen years of my career, when I’ve been asked to
do things that go against my wish and belief. I learned not to quarrel,
but pretend to do what they wished for, and then slowly show them that what
they wanted was ridiculous. I remember my last appearance at the
Met where I sang the Contessa in Figaro. It was the second
season of the Ponnelle production, and I said to him that this cannot
be right! We were quarreling about the Contessa. He felt that
she should not be too fond of her husband, and they should have fight and
be cold to each other. I asked why the hell then do I sing my arias,
and then I discovered that what he had done was to build his production
on the next play Beaumarchais, La mère coupable. I
said this is not right for Le marriage de Figaro. I had been
in many other productions, so we worked, but slowly I started to get my
interpretation into the production. Then we had the dress rehearsal,
and he came up to me on stage after. He came very close and looked
me into my eyes and said, “Everything you did
was wrong, and I loved it!” [Much laughter]
That was the last I saw of him because he died very shortly after.
BD: I would think that would be the ultimate
success for you.
ES: I was very moved because he had not fought
with me during rehearsals. He just let me have my way.
BD: Without mentioning names or situations,
were there times that a stage director brought to you something you
thought was outrageous but turned out to be brilliant?
ES: Yes, especially famous was the production
of Jenůfa in Stockholm by Götz Friedrich, who had demanded
eight weeks of rehearsals. I sang the part of Kostelnička.
He came and tore us to pieces, and wouldn’t allow anything that
we suggested. He would say, “You should
do this and that,” and he showed the gestures.
I told him I didn’t want to make these mechanical gestures because
my character doesn’t like this. So he said to me, [in a
bad-tempered way] “But mine does, so you do this!”
Then, little by little, I found that I was just little bit in a big
jigsaw puzzle, and the puzzle was brilliant. So I accepted it,
but even on the opening night, the cast looked at each other and wondered
if this audience would buy it because we felt we were over-acting. We
were doing silent movies. But it worked. It worked like magic
and it was a tremendous success in Sweden. We took it to Germany,
and to the Edinburgh Festival, and elsewhere in Scandinavia. So
there I was wrong. It was only his way of working that I didn’t
like. If we had known, it would have saved four weeks! [Much
BD: Now you are currently an opera administrator?
ES: I have been, yes. I left on the
first of January.
BD: My question is, having had these experiences
— both good and bad — does that
help you when you have to mediate the singers and the directors who are
ES: A little, yes, but I had a tough time with
a stage director there. He and conductor didn’t work very well
together, and I couldn’t solve it. I just found that it was the
wrong combination. We had a performance which the audiences liked
very much, but there were distortions.
BD: Is it possible in this day and age to
put on a correct performance, especially of an eighteenth century opera?
ES: I don’t think you can do it as close as
I had hoped for. We can’t imitate the
style around a performance because there are so many things in the body
language of the eighteenth century to which our audiences don’t have
any frame of reference. So they don’t understand what we mean with
our gestures. First you need to educate the audience if you want
to be very, very correct in to details, but you also have to adopt a
style which can be understood by modern audience while keeping it as
close as possible to what you believe it might have looked like in the
eighteenth century. It’s very interesting.
BD: So in addition to the singers and other
musicians having to be versatile, you’re asking the audience to be versatile,
ES: Yes, we ask a lot of our audiences. [Both
laugh] But I have been on stage fifty years now. I made my
debut in 1947 in Drottningholm and that’s why I
wanted to finish my work in January 1997, because that was exactly fifty
years that I’ve been connected to Drottningholm. During my period
as Artistic Director there, I saw a few pupils in the stage director class
at the Royal School. They staged three one-act operas as exam work,
and all three young people had placed the action in the 1950s. To
me, the 1950s is an ugly period. I don’t like the clothes we wore
during in that period, but then I started thinking. The young people
look back from 1995 to the mid-’50s, and that’s forty-five years.
I went to the Opera School in ’46, and if I look back at the same amount
of time, I would end up at the turn of the century. It suddenly dawned
upon me that they are as far away from 1950 as I would be from 1900.
You forget that when you live long.
BD: So that for them it is history, and for
you it is nostalgia?
ES: Yes, and I just don’t want to live that
time again. Actually it was a wonderful time because the borders
opened and the Great War was over, and you could again travel. I sang
a lot in England and in the Scandinavian countries, and also in Hamburg.
I saw all these places in ashes, and they were starting to rebuild
the cities. It was an exciting time from that point of view to see
how quickly the musical life around Europe was brought back.
* * *
BD: You’ve also done some contemporary operas.
BD: Is opera continuing to move on in a linear
ES: [Sighs] The problem of contemporary
operas very often is because the libretti chosen are not down to earth,
as an opera libretto should be. Think of the operas have worked.
Wozzeck and Lulu are going to be there forever.
I’ve seen many things by the Swedish composers Karl-Birger Blomdahl (1916-1968)
and Ingvar Lidholm (b. 1921). Blomdahl’s opera, Aniara (1959)
was very successful. [Besides
the stage versions, Söderström
appeared as Daisy Doody in the 1960 Swedish TV movie of this work, along
with Erik Sædén, Arne Tyrén, Bo Lundborg, and Ragnar Ulfung, conducted
by Sixten Ehrling.] It’s about a space ship,
and they’re going to start a trip from the Earth to Mars. It was
a routine evacuation trip because people could not live any longer on the
Earth. So they were brought to Mars, but on the way they had to turn
so as not to collide with an asteroid. They lose their trajectory
and end up in orbit, and they’re then doomed to orbit forever. The
opera is mostly about when that collision happens, and how people react
when they realize they’re going to be locked up until they die. It
was very scary when it was first performed, but nowadays when we tried to
revive it, people didn’t find it at daring at all because this is what happens.
Also, we’ve seen what Mars looks like, but at the time, that opera
really was a revelation. It was what a contemporary opera can be.
I also remember in 1950 we had Menotti’s opera, The
Consul at the Royal Opera, and it was fantastic because it showed
the problem of people trying to get a visa to go to another country
to avoid the political problems in their own place.
BD: This was at the height of the Cold War.
ES: Yes, and it dealt with the tragedies that
you see in the Consulate when they don’t get their papers. That
was also a very, very strong performance.
BD: Does opera always have to be about real life
and real problems, or can it be fantasy also?
ES: It can be fantasy. I loved very much
doing The Aspern Papers by Dominick Argento because I thought
that was also a real drama with point. So I loved doing that.
BD: [With a gentle nudge] You mean opera
has to have a point???
ES: [Laughs] If you get the right subject
in the libretto, and the opera is performed at the right moment, when
it’s actual, opera today has a very great chance to live.
BD: Then let me ask the big question directly.
What is the purpose of music and opera?
ES: We are there to suffer the problems which
people are afraid of in the real world, perhaps. I have found that
there’s a great need of not only entertainment, but of keeping people
busy and interested in something during all the leisure time they have
nowadays. We also have to fight all the entertainment which is
pouring over us without us having to use our brains to receive it. I’ve
studied the brain very thoroughly, and I want music to be used in rehabilitation
for brain-damaged people. Music affects the place in the corner
of the brain which is the last part to go if you have senile dementia,
or if you’ve had something happening to your brain.
BD: You lose your motor skills and other things
ES: Yes. I’ve seen it help very many
people to use music as therapy, but also I have seen it in homes for what
we call ‘vegetables’ — people who sit there day in
and day out without any interest for anything. If you can reach them
with what we call ‘fine culture’ during their active years, then it is
a great help for them when they come to an age when they cannot move around
as much as they used to. They can listen to music which activates
their minds, which activates their brains, and, let’s face it, classical
music does. If you go to a Lieder recital or an opera, to enjoy
it properly you have to prepare yourself. In so many places in the
world you have preparation hours before the opera starts, and that’s a fantastic
thing not only because it helps them enjoy the performance, but it activates
their minds, and it activates their brains. I always say to my pupils
to learn new things because the more you use your brain, the easier it gets
and the better you feel. If you stimulate your brain, you stimulate
your whole system — your body, your immune system,
everything. That has been scientifically proved, so it’s not only
BD: So opera and music can not only be something
essentially uplifting, but it can be stimulating for the mind too?
ES: Yes. We’re really working for to
make people healthy.
BD: Not just for the old, but for the young
ES: Yes. We must do something to save the
hearing of the young people because they’re in great danger.
BD: That’s hopeless because of the loudspeakers
everywhere. [Both laugh]
* * *
BD: Is the music that you perform, and the music
that you studied all your life, for everyone?
ES: It can be. When I first started in
Stockholm we had very scarce audiences, both for opera and Lieder
recitals right after the War. I started singing professionally in
Vienna in 1947 when I was still at the opera school, and you had to think
up new ideas to attract audiences.
ES: No, but, for instance, a way to present
a Lieder recital when people in the audience didn’t understand
German or French or even English. I tried every possible way, and
it varied because of who was in the audience. If you have a very
studied audience, you don’t need to go into details, but there are always
a few people who perhaps have never been to a concert before. Around
1972, Kjerstin Dellert and I did a very popular series on television called
Prima Primadonnor. These programs had a mixed-bag of music and
little stories between things, and they became extremely popular.
During that period I was invited for a recital for an audience in Sweden,
and they had asked me for, among other things, Frauenliebe und Leben.
When I arrived, I was met at the airport, and the man in charge of the
concert was very pale. I asked him what the problem was, and he said
that it was sold out.
BD: [Surprised] That was a problem???
ES: He said, “We have 800
seats, but usually only 150 people come to these concerts. The others
have never been to a concert like this before, and they have come because
they’ve seen you on television.” I said that
was my problem, and he was not to worry.
BD: He was afraid they wouldn’t understand?
ES: Yes, but I told him it’s going to be great.
So I started the recital as usual, but then there was a little rustling
in the audience. So I said, “Would you like
me to tell you what the songs are about?”
There was a big roar of “Yes!” from the audience.
So I did, and when we came to Frauenliebe und Leben, we had a
wonderful chat about how it is to love a man, and have a child by him,
and then suddenly he dies. It was fantastic. So everything
depends upon whom you are singing to, and who has come to see you, and
what they expect of you.
BD: So aside from the 150 that usually come,
you had 650 new converts?
ES: Yes, and that is the thing which has made
me most happy in my long life as a singer. I treasure those letters
when people say, “Thank you for helping me open the
door to this fantastic world of classical music because I’d never been to
a recital.” Or, “I’d never
been to an opera until I heard you sing this, and it has changed my life
completely.” And, “I
feel so rich, and look forward to all the things I’m going to meet now.”
[Sighs] That is really a reward. When I started singing, I
never thought that anybody else but I would have any pleasure. I
enjoyed so much being on stage, and I never thought about the people sitting
out there. Then year by year I found I could share my happiness,
and what this kind of music gives me I could communicate to other people.
It was a new revelation.
BD: Now that you’ve left the singing part of
your career, you’re instilling this same kind of idea of sharing, and
the love of the music into the next generation?
ES: I’m very happy that there’s something
I can do. It was very difficult to decide to give
up singing but I solved it partly by taking the administrative job.
I think they gave me that job at Drottningholm to stop me! [Has a huge
laugh] I’ve been very busy. I’m used to doing master
classes, and I found that it’s very good for the young singers. But
they have such a tough time trying to get publicity, or getting to sing
in front of audiences, so it’s good for them, and it’s good training for
all these horrible auditions that they have to do nowadays. They
have a very tough life, and I admire them so much because they seem so calm,
and they look so composed. However, when I say ‘thank you’ and press
their hands, they’re cold and wet! [Both laugh] They have
suffered so much, but they are so good. You don’t hear it in the
voice that they are scared.
BD: They are good actors?
ES: Yes, they are.
BD: Is it much more difficult to break into
singing now than it was fifty years ago?
ES: Yes, because there aren’t many real places
where they can develop gradually. San Francisco has this wonderful
Merola project, and also Houston where they take good care, and also at
BD: Chicago has the Lyric Opera Center for
American Artists. [Originally established in 1973 as the Apprentice
Artist Program, subsequently named The Lyric Opera School of Chicago, and
now the Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center.]
ES: Yes, so it does exist, but it’s not the
safe way of earning a living when you’re on your way up. But,
of course, with a voice you can never be safe. [More laughter as
she starts to sing gently from Noel Coward’s Don’t Put your Daughter
on the Stage] ‘It’s a loud voice, and no it’s not exactly flat.
It takes a little more than that to earn a living wage! Repeat
Mrs. Worthington! Sweet Mrs. Worthington! Don’t put your
daughter on the stage!’ It’s one of my favorite songs.
* * *
BD: We’ve been talking quite a bit about operatic
roles, and we’ve spoken of Lieder just a little bit. Can
I assume that in a song recital you have much more control over what you’re
going to sing?
ES: Yes, you can decide yourself. Looking
back upon my life, I’ve realized that I’ve gone through varied periods.
When I first started out, I was, how shall we say, snooty. I wanted
to give original concerts. For two years I started all my recitals
with Lascia ch’io pianga [Let me cry, oh my sad fate] by Handel.
I would sing loads of eighteen century music, and then contemporary music,
and Russian songs, and French songs, and people didn’t understand a thing.
But I had a wonderful teacher who fed me with all these things from
my very start. I started my lessons with her when I was fourteen,
so at the age of twenty I had a very wide repertoire to choose from...
BD: ...which they discovered and then exploited!
ES: Yes. At the composers’ class at
the Royal Academy, they would come with a sheet of music and say, “I
just wrote this song. Can you please sing it so I can hear what
it sounds like?” [Much laughter] This
rumor spreads immediately. Here’s a silly singer who’s ready to
sacrifice her vocal cords on the art of contemporary music. So that
led to invitations to Cologne, to the Westdeutscher Rundfunk, where they
have the center for contemporary music, which then in turn led to other
engagements. So I started really had a quick take-off [imitates
the sound of a rocket launching]. It was fantastic.
BD: Do you have any regrets about that?
ES: No. I worked very hard because I don’t
have perfect pitch, and it took me very long to learn these things.
It gave absolutely no money, but it started me off. At the
same time I was engaged at the Royal Opera as a student at the opera school,
and then I got a contract, which meant that some weeks I could be on
stage seven nights a week.
BD: In major roles?
ES: In major and minor roles. You had
to do everything. I was a Page in Lohengrin and the Shepherd
in Tannhäuser, and things like that. Then the next evening
it was Martha by Flotow. We also did things Mathis der
Maler of Hindemith.
BD: I would think this would keep you grounded
— to sing the lead role one night and the Page the next night.
ES: Yes, very much so. You’re not allowed
to grow too far in Sweden, no, no.
BD: You have sung a bit of Mozart, so is there
a secret to singing his music? [Vis-à-vis the recording
shown at right, see my Interviews with Teresa Berganza, Michael Langdon, Margaret Price, and Kiri te Kanawa. Also note
that these last two future Countesses sang very small roles in this recording.]
ES: Mozart is for every musician whether
it’s an instrumentalist or a vocalist, and I’ve always wondered why
because it’s not easy to sing Mozart. I’ve become very cynical over
the years because the style of performing him changed every decade.
We had a discussion about that at Lincoln Center a few years ago, and I
was invited to speak. They had put me last, so I summed up the
whole thing. I said to them that the good thing about genial music
like Mozart is that you can’t kill it, whatever you decide to do with
it. I was in Bern for a festival where I was supposed to sing the
Contessa in Figaro, and also Fiordiligi in Così Fan Tutte
in the same week. We started with Figaro, and our conductor
said, “In Mozart’s music everything is there in
the music. You don’t have to add anything; it’s not necessary.”
So we tried to forget everything about appoggiaturas, the
fioritura, and just sing what’s written, which was difficult when
you have sung it for so long. Then we did our performance, and started
rehearsing the following day for Così Fan Tutte, where the
conductor said, “It is so wonderful with Mozart
because he gives you all these chances for embellishment. These appoggiaturas
are there to stress the sorrow or the passion, and it’s so wonderful.”
BD: So it was completely opposite?
BD: Do you find with every conductor that
you have to unlearn the past, and come to it new?
BD: That must be terribly confusing, especially
after a number of performances, or a number of productions of the same
ES: Yes, you have to have a clear brain.
You must be sober.
BD: On to another composer in your repertoire.
Is there a secret to singing Richard Strauss?
ES: Yes. My singing teacher [Andrejewa
de Skilondz, also known as Adelaide von Skilondz (1882-1969)] was
one of Strauss’s very early Zerbinettas. [Skilondz recorded
the aria of Zerbinetta on March 6, 1913, less than five months after the
world premiere of the original version.] I asked her if Zerbinetta
was a very difficult role, and she said, “Oh, no.
It’s so well-built into the tessitura of sopranos. I found it so
easy.” If you approach Strauss as the benefactor
of the soprano voice, you have already come a long way. He has given
you so many wonderful scenes to sing. Also, if you forget about being
very strict bar by bar, and let your voice float, then you have come a
little way on understanding Strauss’s music and how to sing it.
BD: Use his score as the take-off point, rather
than as the ending?
ES: Yes. There are also so many fantastic
songs by Strauss. I’m so glad some of my pupils are singing them.
* * *
BD: I feel like you’ve really answered this
question, but I do like to ask — is singing fun?
ES: Yes, if you don’t have a sore throat!
[Much laughter] But then on the other hand, you have a sore throat
so often that you better learn to work with the sore throat.
BD: [Genuinely surprised] Really???
ES: Yes. If I tried to call my singing teacher
to say I can’t come today, I have a cold, she’d say, “Today,
you must come! You should learn to sing when you’re not supposed
to because any amateur can sing when they feel well. But you will
be professional.” [More laughter]
BD: So I take it then you very rarely would
ES: I have not canceled very often,
but there are a few things that I’m allergic to. For instance,
air conditioning has been very dangerous in my life.
BD: Because it’s so dry?
ES: Yes. That hampers social
engagements and parties.
BD: [With a gentle nudge] You mean singers
should have a social life???
ES: [Laughs] Yes, but I haven’t so far
this week because I’ve been going to bed at 7 PM and sleeping until 2
o’clock at night.
BD: Did you sing differently for the microphone
than you did for the live audience?
ES: Occasionally, yes. I’ve done so
many different kinds of musical performances. On radio we did musicals,
and I’ve sung small songs and popular songs. We did a lot of opera
on radio during the ’60s.
BD: What about commercial recordings?
ES: On the commercial recordings with opera
orchestras, you sing as if you were on stage.
BD: What about for a song recital?
ES: For song recitals I also have sung as
if I were on stage, but there you can afford a whisper. What has
been most important is that I was allowed to do both Lieder and
opera, because in opera you paint with a very broad brush for its big
lines and grand style. When you come to Lieder, you have
to work in detail, and you can do so many wonderful things that really
don’t work in the same way on an opera stage.
BD: I’m so glad that you’re now working with young
students and passing all of this along to them. It can become very
infectious in a good way.
ES: There is so much one can do. Now
from the technical point of view, to cross the difficult language border
between audience and performers in Lieder, we ought to try new
ways of helping the audiences. But I don’t want surtitles.
BD: You don’t like surtitles?
ES: In opera it can work, but there are difficulties.
The language is difficult, but I don’t know the answer to the question
of what we should do for the Lieder concerts.
BD: Are you optimistic about the whole future
ES: Absolutely, because when I see this enormous
amount of young singers who learn Lieder and opera parts, and
who want to spend a life in classical music, it would be strange if we
couldn’t help them.
BD: Thank you for all of the music, and for coming
ES: Thank you.
© 1997 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in Chicago on August 6, 1997.
Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following year, and WNUR in 2011, and
on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio in 2013. This transcription
was made in 2017, and posted on this website at that time. My
thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed
and posted on this website, click here.
winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in
Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February
of 2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines
and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on
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