Irina Antesberger: Critics worldwide praise her “big, potent soprano”, her “clear and lovely tone throughout her range” as well as her ability to “sensitively feel out her roles and parts”. Today she`s here and I am very glad she found the time to come! Thank you so much for joining us – Betsy Horne!
Betsy Horne: Thank you for inviting me!
A.: Something you probably get asked a lot – how did you start your journey?
H.: Well, my grandmother was an opera singer, I grew up in Southern California, in the desert. There`s not a lot of opera there, at all. My grandmother was a choir director and she had also studied voice. I heard the operatic voice while growing up and I was very interested in acting in plays, I was always good at reciting poetry,… So I was kind of a stage animal, I guess, from a pretty young age. I had voice lessons with my grandma, got more into the musical singing and even country music – I was in a high school band for a while. But I never actually heard any opera. I heard my first opera live when I was nineteen, it was “The Ballad of Baby Doe” by Douglas Moore, which is played quite often in the States. I was kind of bitten by the bug and really infected by the human voice and opera. I was always wanting to learn more and more and more. Then I came to Germany. Actually, this is a pretty long story, it always kept on progressing. The next step always came and I was working hard and ready for it. So, this is sort of my journey in a nutshell.
I.A.: Now you`re an opera singer, a very successful one, to be accurate. When you go into a new character, making it yours, what is your process? Do you have some kind of routine, what first, what next?
B.H.: Normally, if I sing something in a really foreign language to me, I really start with the text. With the translation and the phonetic – I write everything out phonetically and then speak the text in rhythm. I also always try to get my hands on the literature or maybe even the play the opera is based on, because I want to know about the story and the character`s background. And then I go to the music…
I.A.: “Elsa”, “Arabella”, the “Marschallin” – the German Fach and Betsy Horne. That`s a true lovestory, isn`t it?
B.H.: It is. I came to Germany because I was fascinated by the German Lieder and I had a little notebook with all the art songs I wanted to sing. A lot of it was Schumann, a lot of it was Strauss. I didn`t know much about Wagner, then. I was always very fascinated by the German language and those beautiful melodies. I truly am a romantic-composer-loving person and I instinctively knew it would suit my voice, somehow. In college, I got a record player from a music teacher and then bought a 1$ record of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf singing Strauss` “Four last songs”. I didn`t know what they were about, but I remember sitting there crying. I knew I would sing that, somehow. And I am so glad I found my home there because it suits me in so many ways and I am really grateful I get to sing some of these amazing roles.
I.A.: Opera has changed a lot during the past decades. Nowadays, productions often hang on to some sort of “contemporary style” and directors feel the urge and need to keep step with the zeitgeist. In addition, digital culture has made opera more accessible than ever before – artists can no longer ignore this development the classical world is going through. How do all of those changes and transformations of our time affect you as an artist?
B.H.: Well, I don`t know if they`ve affected me directly. I am such a Regietheater-baby (laughs). I grew up singing in some very strange productions as a student in Mainz, I`ve done a lot of world premieres and very new music. I never had a problem with modern productions. In my opinion, it is important that a director respects the work and the singers. I also think that singers are capable of a lot, maybe even more than people think. There`s this stereotype that singers just go on stage, open their mouth and then leave, but we have to do a lot of almost acrobatic things. Not necessarily in this almost traditional production of “Otello” I am doing in Klagenfurt at the moment, which is somehow an adjustment for me, since I have already done some extremely strange things, for example singing Tatiana`s letter scene swinging and so on. But I actually really enjoy that, because it`s so important that we keep opera interesting and alive and that we appeal to all kinds of audiences. I also think an audience knows if a director is really being true to a work. A lot of times, the aesthetic is secondary. If the real figures are being respected and the relationships and the music are true, I don`t think it matters what kind of staging it is.
I.A.: After many years of experience, has your access to the music changed?
B.H.: That`s interesting, because I, for example, did the “Marschallin” in “Der Rosenkavalier” in 2013 for the first time, which was a very young Marschallin. Though – with Hoffmannsthal she`s, I think, 32, so maybe I was already too old (laughs). I have done two more productions since then and I have definitely been through a lot in the past few years in my personal life, so, of course it changes. Every director has their own take of a role, but certainly you do draw on your personal experience. Every artist has their own thing they bring to a role and it is very important to keep that. Although it can adapt with the time, of course.
I.A.: Something non-music and non-opera public might wonder about is how singers do cope with the immense pressure and the permanent “strive for perfection”. There is not only the big task of removing all doubts and “well-meaning” opinions around one, there will also always be a number of people who question what one`s doing. Have you sometimes found yourself sailing against the breeze?
B.H.: Yes, definitely. In the question you say “removing all doubts”. You will never be able to remove all doubts. A lot of singers have this kind of “impostor-syndrome”, thinking, “Why do people think I would be allowed to go on stage and sing something like the “Marschallin”?” There`s this little voice inside my head that is questioning what I am doing. And that`s healthy, and it should be inside of you. It is so important to have this inner voice that is telling you the right way to go. When I was changing from mezzo to soprano, for example, there were a lot of people saying, “You have a job as a mezzo, why would you risk that?”. I was at a pretty good house in Wiesbaden, I had my job, which is not necessarily given in this business, and there are many people who would love to have one of those positions at an opera house in Germany or in Austria. But I knew inside that I needed to change something and that my “real” voice was going to be coming out. But I also had people who supported me, so you really have to filter who is well-meaning, but, above all, you need to know what you want to do, what your direction is. I am grateful that I have a strong opinion and a good instinct of myself. As opportunities have appeared I have been able to take them and get rid of the doubts enough to trust that I should take the next step.
I.A.: You have been in this business for 12 years now. It is said that there is a thin line between limelight and darkness, between light and shady sides. The artist`s life is not always glamour, sparkle and dolce vita, is it?
B.H.: No, it is a good life, an interesting life. You are always meeting new people, you are always learning about yourself. And I love that part. I also love seeing new places, trying out new foods and seeing the sights. But, of course, we`re in a new town to sing. Though.. I once heard a great quote that we don`t get paid to sing, we get paid to wait. And I think that`s true, because I would sing for free, it is great fun, but sitting around, taking care of your health, … There are a lot of things that are not glamorous, but – it`s part of the deal.
I.A.: On the one hand, there`s the possibility of “escaping” into the artificial and beautiful, “ideal” stage world, on the other hand, there`s the off-stage reality. How do you manage to keep the balance?
B.H.: Well, I would not say I escape from reality on stage, it all melts into each other. A lot of people think that we go on stage and we`re “carried” by the conductor and so on. Sometimes you really have a conductor that`s watching your every move, but, I mean – our antennas are so out. You have your voice going, you practiced and learned that, but there are so many things on stage you have to constantly consider. I once did a show of “Otello” where one of the pieces of the stage was drawn up into the proscenium and broke a halogen light, so there were glass shards all over the stage – I was barefoot. So I had to see what Otello and the conductor were doing and, in addition, be careful in order not to cut my feet on the glass shards. The reality is that it is a glamorous job, but it is a job. I am trying to take a lot of the mystique out of singing and to see it as a part of my life, but not the most important one. Obviously, the “singer Betsy” takes over a lot of my personal, private life, so there aren`t really two separate parts.
I.A.: We were talking about the German Fach earlier, but you also do many slavic roles. You have very successfully debuted as Katia Kabanova in the United States, have sung, for example, Tatiana in Eugen Onegin and your next production will be “Sadko” by Rimski-Korsakow, a piece that is rarely played. Can you tell us something about your relation to this kind of repertoire?
B.H.: Well, I love the Czech language, It is so interesting, you can truly “paint” the words. I also love the stories of Janacek, because I have a dark, melancholic side, for sure. And the development of a character like Tatiana, for example, is so amazing, she has a huge arch that spans so many years, and then there`s this fantastic music… The next production I am doing, “Sadko”, is some sort of a “fairytale opera”, a bit like “Rusalka”. I feel drawn to those languages, Russian is very great to sing and you have a very open throat. I am very interested in exploring all of that. I was just telling my Russian coach yesterday that I would somehow like to learn Russian. I think the hurdle at the beginning is to get past being able to read Cyrillic. But, of course, the grammar and the vocabulary aren`t easy, as well. Maybe one day I`ll get to that…
I.A.: Well, then – toi toi toi for everything you are doing, good luck and all the best!
Irina Antesberger: Das werden Sie sicherlich von vielen gefragt, aber: wie haben Sie ihre „Reise“ begonnen?
Betsy Horne: Ich bin in der Wüste Südkaliforniens aufgewachsen – dort hat Oper keinen sehr großen Stellenwert. Da meine Großmutter Chordirigentin war und Gesang studiert hatte, kam ich allerdings schon früh nicht nur mit dieser Art von Musik in Berührung. Ich war schon immer gut im Rezitieren, hatte dann Gesangsstunden bei meiner Oma und war sogar eine Zeit lang in einer High School Band – also schon immer eine Art „Rampensau“. Irgendwie wurde ich von der menschlichen Stimme infiziert und wollte immer mehr und mehr lernen. Gott sei Dank hat sich die harte Arbeit ausgezahlt und ich war immer bereit für den nächsten Schritt.
I.A.: Wie gehen Sie beim Erarbeiten einer neuen Rolle vor?
B.H.: Ich beginne meistens mit dem Text, also der Übersetzung, der Phonetik, etc. Es ist auch wichtig, sich mit der literarischen Vorlage der Oper zu beschäftigen.
I.A.: „Elsa“, „Arabella“, die „Marschallin“ – Betsy Horne und das deutsche Fach. Das ist ja ein wahre Liebesgeschichte…
B.H.: Das ist es. Früher war ich sehr fasziniert vom deutschen Lied, vor allem von Strauss. Irgendwie wusste ich wohl, dass das zu meiner Stimme passen würde. Und ich bin so froh, dass ich in diesem Fach meine „Heimat“ gefunden habe und einige dieser tollen Partien singen darf.
I.A.: Die Oper als Kunstform ist einem ständigen Wandel ausgesetzt, es wird versucht, mit dem Zeitgeist Schritt zu halten. Wie beeinflussen all diese Veränderungen Sie als Künstlerin?
B.H.: Ich weiß ehrlich gesagt nicht, ob ich direkt betroffen bin. Ich hatte immer viel mit modernen Produktionen zu tun und habe viele Uraufführungen und generell neue Musik gesungen. Meiner Meinung nach ist es hauptsächlich wichtig, dass ein Regisseur das Werk und die Sänger respektiert. Das spürt auch das Publikum sehr deutlich. Die Ästhetik ist oft sekundär.
I.A.: Nach so vielen Jahren Erfahrung – hat sich Ihr Zugang zu Ihren Rollen verändert?
B.H.: Das ist sehr interessant, ja, denn die „Marschallin“ im „Rosenkvalaier“ habe ich 2013 zum ersten Mal gesungen – in den letzten Jahren hat sich in meinem Privatleben viel verändert, natürlich verändert sich somit auch der Zugang zu einer Partie. Aber jeder Künstler hat im Grunde genommen seine eigene Art, eine Rolle anzugehen, auch wenn sich das mit der Zeit entwickelt.
I.A.: Hatten Sie jemals mit „Gegenwind“ zu kämpfen?
B.H.: Oh ja, definitiv. Es ist dabei sehr wichtig, auf seine innere Stimme zu hören, die einem sagt, was richtig oder falsch ist. Als ich den Fachwechsel vom Mezzosopran zum Sopran vollzog, gab es viele, die sagten: „Du hast einen fixen Job als Mezzo. Wieso würdest du das nun aufs Spiel setzen?“ Ich bin dankbar, dass ich meine Meinung und Position immer sehr klar vertrete.
I.A.: Das Künstlertum besteht nicht nur aus Glamour und dolce vita… Wie hält man die Balance zwischen Bühnenwelt und Realität?
B.H.: Nun, ich würde nicht sagen, dass das zwei komplett separate Dinge sind, eher verschmelzen sie miteinander. Ich versuche generell, viel von dieser „Mystik“ herauszunehmen. Das Singen ist ein Teil meines Lebens, aber nicht der allerwichtigste.
I.A.: Und wie ist ihre Beziehung zum Slawischen Fach?
B.H.: Ich liebe diese Sprachen und habe definitiv eine dunkle, melancholische Seite. Außerdem sind die Geschichten wunderbar und die Entwicklung der Personen ist beeindruckend. Ich würde sehr gerne Russisch lernen, doch noch sind Grammatik und Schrift eine Hürde. Aber wer weiß…