Miah Persson: A Swedish nightingale

It's just three years since she left Stockholm's Opera College, but already Miah Persson is making a brilliant impact on the world stage. As the soprano tells Martin Anderson, it could easily have been so different
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The Independent Culture

Miah Persson, the soprano soloist in last Friday night's Prom performance of Brahms's German Requiem, is only three years out of the Opera College in Stockholm, and her career is already showing a vertiginous rate of ascent.

In the late 1990s, while still a student, she was recording Michael Haydn, the Swedish composer John Fernstrom's 1942 Songs of the Sea, and Bach cantatas for BIS, the Stockholm-based independent label. Within days of leaving the college, in January 2000, she was singing under the conductor René Jacobs in the Berliner Staatsoper. She has appeared in Brussels, Aix-en-Provence, Paris, Montpellier, Innsbruck, Wellington, Cortona; her dairy for the next few months contains dates in Vienna, Frankfurt and a Carnegie Hall recital in New York. In Jacobs's recording of Handel's Rinaldo, released by Harmonia Mundi in March, she shares top billing with established early-music stars Vivica Genaux and Dominique Visse. Not bad for someone who made her debut only in 1998 - and who, at one point, was set to give up music altogether.

It was in those BIS recordings that she first attracted international attention; what was it that brought her to the notice of the BIS boss Robert von Bahr? "I was in the final of this music competition in Stockholm. We have just one big music competition in Sweden, and it's for all kinds of musicians. So there was me and a violinist and a pianist. The pianist won, but he heard me there and said, 'Can you come and do some recordings for me?'."

What sparked off such a fast-track stage career? "It was just a coincidence, one of those things. One afternoon, my agents called and said, 'Miah, you have to go to Paris and do an audition for René Jacobs'. So I went over to Paris for one day and sang for him and Stephen Lawless. They said, OK, fine. It was just a happy coincidence that it was something I could do, and they liked my voice and appearance.

"I'm still on a fixed contract at the Stockholm Opera, but we're changing that now, because I'm not there! I was doing many concerts abroad, and it started to fill up with opera. Now, from last year, it has started, and I've got into people's diaries and planning. That's the way it is... opera houses plan such a long time in advance."

It does not, however, mean that she will cut back on concert work to con- centrate on opera.

"I'm happy that I can do everything," she says. "Next spring, for instance, in February, March, April and May, I'm only doing concerts, which I'm so happy about, because then you can start using the fine nuances in your voice again. Opera is quite hard work: it's a big orchestra, you're on stage, and you're moving, so you use another way of singing than in concerts and recitals. Then, you can use a small voice, with its nuances and colours, in a different way."

Let's backtrack a bit. I see she was born in Ornskoldsvik - where's that? "Up in the north of Sweden, a nice little town. But I stayed there just for one year, and then I went even further north, to Skelleftea, and then we moved to Hudiksvall, which is where I actually grew up.

"It was quite funny. I was in this local theatre group and was so shy that people had to push me on stage. One day, when I was about seven years old, they said, 'Miah, can you sing this time?'. And I sang - and then everything was fine. But as soon as I stopped singing, I thought, aargh, let me get off the stage!

"I've always been singing - in choirs, in shows, with groups, jazz and things like that. Classical music started very late, in 1992. I got fed up with it at one moment, because we had a teacher who only wanted us to dress correctly, stand correctly; nothing was about music. So I started at university in Stockholm, studying social sciences and law. An old singing teacher of mine was so upset that she said, 'Please, Miah, just apply to this competition' - it was just a small thing in Stockholm, with hardly any money at all - 'Please go there and sing'. So I went there and I won, and she said, 'Please, just give it one more go, and if you don't like it, then you can stop and go on doing your social-sciences and law studies - but please.'

"That was when everything happened. I went to a new private school in Stockholm called Kulturama; the teachers there were really good, and singing became a joy again. And then I continued to Opera Studio 67, which is the pre-school for the Opera College; and then I was accepted at the college, in 1996."

Her Prom appearance coincided with the release by Hyperion of her first recital CD, Soul and Landscape, an anthology of songs by late-Romantic Swedish composers. "The Stenhammar songs people know, but Rangstrom and Sjogren are not so well known." One of the seven songs by Gosta Nystroem, first featured in his Sinfonia del Mare of 1948, has a personal link, as Persson explains: "He wrote it for my old singing teacher, so I have the original, the cassette from when she did the first performance, when Nystroem himself was conducting." Was it a useful template for her own performance? "I couldn't really do that, because it's so slow. It's completely different from my voice. She had a much more lyric, heavy voice than I have. But it's interesting to hear how he wanted it."

"Heavy", indeed, is the last word you'd apply to Persson's voice - when I first heard it in that Fernstrom recording, I was struck by its fresh, light-footed quality. How does she see it evolving? "The more you sing, the more volume you add to it, and the more security you get in your voice, so I guess I'm going towards more lyric parts. But still I'm really happy doing the Susanna, Pamina, Sophie roles I'm doing at the moment [in Le Nozze di Figaro, Die Zauberflöte and Der Rosenkavalier], and I don't want to rush into things. Of course, the goal is, maybe in 10 years, to sing Mimi in Bohème and the Contessa in Figaro."

Friday's concert was her third visit to the Proms - does it still bring a special thrill? "Oh yes! I think it's a privilege to sing there, and I love the Albert Hall. The first time I came in there, I looked up and up, and I thought, 'God, it never ends - this hall is huge'. But when you start singing and hear the acoustics, it just makes you alive. You feel that it carries - you don't need to push. And I couldn't anyway; I have to use what I have."

What she has is something rather special. She'll soon be singing Susanna with Barenboim in Berlin, and is booked for another Sophie at the Salzburg Festival next summer. We'll be hearing much more of Miah Persson. Just as well her old singing teacher bent her ear.

'Soul and Landscape': songs by Ture Rangstrom, Wilhelm Stenhammar, Emil Sjogren & Gosta Nystroem (Hyperion CDA67329)

'Rinaldo': Handel (Harmonia Mundi HMC 901796.98)

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