By Sebastian Spreng, Visual Artist and Classical Music Writer
Helen Donath and Jonathan Michie share more than one curious coincidence. Both are American singers, he is at the start of a promising career while she is enjoying a deserved glorious sunset. Both went to Germany, made Mozart a staple of their repertoires and will sing in Miami January 26-27. Michie will perform as the irrepressible Papageno in Magic Flute and Donath in a recital that resumes her life as an artist. I spoke with both of them about their experiences and lives as musicians on the road. Read below for my interview with Helen Donath and click here to read the Q&A with Jonathan Michie.
Half a century ago, a brave girl from Texas went to Germany. After many triumphs, the Germans gave her the honorific title of Kammersängerin (Singer of the Court). Still, she is the same down-to-earth effervescent Helen, the same woman who watched The Great Caruso with Mario Lanza as a teenager and felt the call to become a singer. The Corpus Christi native is one of the purest Mozart sopranos in history, with Bach, Handel, Strauss, Wagner and “the rest” following in line. In more than fifty years, Donath has “happily survived” teachers, countries, directors and conductors (from Karajan to Solti, from Richter to Harnoncourt). She even married conductor Klaus Donath, who became her great guide and inspiration. Donath, 72, has amassed an immense legacy of recordings and roles while keeping her voice in immaculate condition. A musician for the ages, Helen Donath is a model artist and technician. Between performances and teaching all over the world, she is in Miami to give a recital comprising half a century of life on January 27.
SS: How do you see your career after half a century singing from Monteverdi to Piazzolla?
HD: For me, it’s a never-ending story. I believe at this stage of my life I should try to be an example for the new generation, in how to take care of the voice. It is vital to take care of what we have been given in order to give joy back. A voice is a gift, something we must cherish and polish – not something that we own. We must give people the chance to come, sit and enjoy refreshment and rejuvenation through art.
SS: You started your career going to Europe, specifically Germany. Is it still the place to go?
HD: Young people now have the opportunity to “make a name” in the US. But, to some degree, if you want to have an international career you must have Europe as a platform. It is very important that you perform in as many countries as you can – in Europe, Asia and everywhere. In Germany, the theaters run the whole year, giving you an opportunity to perform a vast number of operas. Here we have a “season system”. Nonetheless, we now have many more opportunities here than when we did when I was a young singer.
SS: What has changed between then and now?
HD: I arrived in Cologne in January of 1962. When I sing on January 27th it will be 51 years! It was very different and very challenging then, as it is today. That’s why you must arrive very well prepared. A “finished artist” is expected from the beginning. But it is important that the process doesn’t make you into a “finished singer,” literally burnt out after a couple of years of overworking. Learning to say “no” is one of the more important things to ensure a long career. Just one letter less than the word “yes” and it can save you from disaster! And, you have to be lucky enough to have the understanding of conductors, directors and “intendants.” The difference now is that there is much more opera in America, despite all the current financial problems. Remember, people always need art.
SS: Is Mozart one of your secrets to sing well for decades?
HD: Mozart has to be approached literally like a child. In German, the name itself carries the secret to performance: the second syllable “Zart” means “tender, soft.” Mozart must be approached with the tenderness of a child and openness to allow him to flow through you. That is one of the most important ideas in order to reveal his world.
SS: As one of the greatest Paminas, what is your advice to the young cast currently performing Mozart’s Magic Flute at Florida Grand Opera?
HD: I can hardly wait to see it here! Remember “Mo-Zart”! My advice is to look at the architecture of the music. Pamina goes through a big metamorphosis during the opera, from an innocent girl to a mature wise soul. To portray her, you need to look for naturalness and avoid over-exaggeration.
SS: Can we add Bach and Handel to a safe singing diet?
HD: Bach can be a huge danger if approached unwisely. Also Handel. There is no composer without big challenges. I worked with composers like Orff and Egk and each music must be approach with a technical understanding. Again, the challenge is to avoid repertoire that is not good for you in certain periods of your life. You must be very careful. I went through difficult years, even to the verge of losing my instrument. Thanks to the great bass-baritone George London, I met Paola Novikova, the teacher of Nicolai Gedda and many other stars, and then, Hanna Scholl-Völker, daughter in law of the legendary tenor Franz Völker and wife of Georg Völker, the best Beckmesser of his time. They and my husband conductor saved me.
SS: Are there any roles you will not sing?
HD: Certainly. When they offered me Mozart’s Vitellia it was not right for me. Once, I was asked to sing Puccini’s Tosca, even Wagner’s Isolde!… and I had to laugh. I always have Klaus on my side, he prevented me from singing Figaro’s Countess too early and he gave me the ok when I was ready. I then sang it for many years. The same thing with moving from Sophie to the Marschallin in Rosenkavalier, and so on…
SS: Which roles do you adore?
HD: They are all like my children. I love each of them. A role has to evolve and flow from you, otherwise is not worth doing. Interestingly enough I was killed many times, but I never sang a role where I killed someone!
SS: What is missing in singing today?
HD: Sadly, a lot of what is missing today resides very often in the architecture of the music. It’s sad to experience people forced to sing with one dynamic, forced to sing only loud. We must return to singing through valleys and hills, not always on top of the mountain. In singing you need to have the Dead Sea, Mount Everest and all the differences in between. If you sing only forte, there is no relief. We must understand that making music is like the coming and going of breath, like an ocean, like the 24 hours of a day, you can’t live in perpetual afternoon. Singers must learn so sing softly without becoming artsy. Singing should be speaking into singing, is about taking the audience through a walk to another land.
SS: Now you are dividing your time between singing and teaching?
HD: Yes. Now I am teaching at Eastman in Rochester NY and serving as a visiting professor in the Reina Sofia in Madrid, Spain. But, I have to say that my first master class was thanks to William Hipp in UM. When I come back to Germany I will be honored by the Mahler Society in Hamburg, then sing Britten’s The turn of the Screw in Cologne and chamber concerts in Amsterdam, New York; then receiving another honorary degree in Mainz, then Dresden, Salzburg… a full year.
SS: Is your long and successful journey the theme of your upcoming recital in Miami?
HD: Yes, and I really hope people will understand it is not bragging, but sharing my life experience and joy of over half a century. The whole program is going to be a surprise. No program, just sit back and walk the walk with me. I have been a lucky lady. More than lucky, at 72-and-a-half I feel absolutely blessed. I have a cornucopia of blessings over my existence, starting with Klaus, who guided me since the beginning like nobody else. He is the one. I warmly recommend everyone to sing, very important for your physical and mental health, but to become a singer you have to be called. You have to receive the gift by nature and have that burning desire to serve music, which I still have and made my life worth living wherever I am.
Helen and Klaus Donath in Recital: January 27th at 3pm; St. Martha in the Shores: 9301 Biscayne Blv.; 305-751-0005/458-0111; www.saintmartha.tix.com