Eva-Maria Westbroek - A voice with no need for artificial enhancement head
Eva-Maria Westbroek wore vast fake breasts in Anna Nicole – now she has another huge role ahead of her, she tells Jessica Duchen
Friday 09 September 2011
When Eva-Maria Westbroek put on giant fake breasts to sing the title role of Mark-Anthony Turnage's opera Anna Nicole in February, she made a startling discovery. "I'd never had so many friends in my life," the Dutch soprano laughs. "People really reacted. Everyone wanted to be hugged by me... I almost wondered what I was going to do without them."
Still, Westbroek, 41, is doing fine just as she is. Next week she stars in the Royal Opera's new production of Puccini's Il Trittico, a trilogy of three one-act operas – the latest plum job in a year of spectacular successes for her. Tall, blonde, and with a personality as strong and radiant as her voice, she is a familiar figure on the operatic stage; over the past few years she has bowled over critics and fans alike in roles such as Elisabeth in Wagner's Tannhäuser, the title role in Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, and the one she cites as her favourite, Minnie in Puccini's La fanciulla del West.
Not that creating the role of Anna Nicole was an easy prospect. "I was very afraid of it," says Westbroek. "It was a huge risk. At the beginning it was frightening and overwhelming – but it became more and more fantastic." She worked intensively with Turnage and his librettist, Richard Thomas, deciding on adjustments and cuts.
"This creative process [was] one of the most exciting things I've ever been part of. I really fell in love with Anna Nicole. I felt she was a very pure soul, in a way – someone who shone a very bright light – and she couldn't deal with the whole thing. What I noticed, watching clips of her on YouTube, is that she was very innocent. "
Soon after Anna Nicole, Westbroek was singing Sieglinde in the Metropolitan Opera's production of Die Walküre, the second opera of Wagner's Ring Cycle, starring alongside Deborah Voigt, Bryn Terfel and Jonas Kaufmann, three of the greatest names in opera today – one performance was even relayed live from New York to cinemas all over the world.
The cinecast "was really frightening", Westbroek admits. "It was important that we didn't think about it when it was happening, because you have just that one chance and if you make a mistake or miss a high note, it's going to be in cinemas everywhere – and if you just realise it for one millisecond, you're gone. So it's tremendous pressure. But James Levine, who was conducting, explained that "we should not try to be better than we ever were, but just try to be as good as we always are. That's the potential pitfall: you start thinking you need to be super-extra special."
Still, Westbroek is super-extra special most of the time; there have even been moments in the past when it seemed that her voice was almost bigger than she was. She was born in Belfast – her father, a geology researcher, was working there – and she started to sing as a teenager growing up in the Netherlands.
"I used to play the violin, but I was totally untalented," she says. "Then my dad said, 'look, you're always singing, so why don't you try some singing lessons?' I wanted to sing jazz, but the teacher I went to was actually an opera singer and when she heard my voice, she said I had to do opera. I hadn't listened to opera before, so she gave me some recordings. That was it: I was hooked for life."
Aged 24, Westbroek won a competition in Rome that allocated her the title role in Puccini's Tosca. "I sang it when I was 25, but after that nothing much happened for several years." Part of the trouble was, Westbroek reflects, that a 25-year-old singer is just not meant to have "a voice like that". Six years of singing at the Stuttgart Opera, though, proved a breakthrough. "It really taught me how to be a singer."
Her home base is still The Netherlands – but Westbroek says she is troubled by the financial axe that is currently being swung heavily against Dutch cultural life. "People are very down about it and about the way it's been done," she says. "There's a cultural board that's tried to give their advice on how to do the cuts with the least loss of general level, but the guy in charge threw that aside. I find the whole attitude very peculiar. It's now in vogue to say, 'oh, the arts are just a left-wing hobby,' which is strange because I always thought that the point of the subsidised arts was to make art available for everyone – to make it less elite and more accessible. But soon whole areas of Holland will be devoid of orchestras and concerts."
Her role in Covent Garden's Puccini triple bill is Giorgetta in Il Tabarro. This work, a story about a tragic love triangle, is staged all too rarely, especially compared to Il Trittico's comic turn, Gianni Schicchi. "It's a fantastically written opera," Westbroek says. "The story is about a woman who is having marriage trouble and has an affair with a younger man. Later you find out that her child has died – that's probably why she can't relate to her husband any more. That's why it's psychologically so acute."
Although she regards herself as a "spinto" soprano, lighter than a true "dramatic" Wagnerian, she has committed herself to a new Wagner role in two years: she will sing her first Isolde at the Sächsische Staatsoper Dresden in 2013. Her Tristan will be her husband, tenor Frank van Aken. "I really love working with him," she says. "The only trouble is that if one of us isn't feeling well then it's terribly stressful, because you take on each others' stress."
'Il Trittico', Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, from 12 September. (020-7304 4000, www.roh.org.uk)
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