Wesley Horner: I find it very interesting that you are both a violinist and a soprano. What made you put away the violin to become a soprano?
Mojca Erdmann: I always sang. I sang in the children’s chorus in Hamburg at the State Opera, and I was always onstage in opera productions. I always loved singing. But I never thought of becoming a soloist as a singer, or taking private singing lessons. But then a teacher of mine in college told me, ‘You have such a beautiful voice. You should take private singing lessons, and not only sing in the chorus.’
From that first lesson on, I thought that this could be my profession. It was my passion to perform music as a singer. I felt from that first second that I had a much better, much closer connection to my audience by singing than by playing the violin, that I could express my musicality or my musical thoughts much better by singing.
Wesley Horner: Do you play the violin for fun?
Mojca Erdmann: I should, but I lost so much. I studied both singing and the violin at Cologne University and also at Berlin University. But after a couple of years I stopped playing the violin because I didn’t have time anymore for practicing. Then, of course, you lose your technique, your intonation, and everything very fast.
I played a lot of orchestra and chamber music. And now when I’m singing with an orchestra or when I’m doing chamber music with, for example, a string quartet, I know about phrasing, about articulation for the string players. This makes it much easier to work with them, because I know exactly what they are doing.
Wesley Horner: I want to talk with you about the differences between big and small. You are now singing in some of the largest, most famous opera houses in the world – the Met in New York, the Staatsoper. Here in Salzburg you will sing in a very intimate relationship with the audience in a small hall. What are the differences in your technique, and how it feels, between a big house and a small house?
Mojca Erdmann: I think I don’t change a lot. When I’m onstage I try not to think about how many people are in the audience. It could frighten me, I think.
When I’m onstage – when I’m acting – I feel the connection with my partners onstage. And then you have this third dimension of the audience. You feel an energy, but it doesn’t really matter if there are 100 or 50 people or 4,000 as in the Met in New York. Of course, you have to think of singing so that the person sitting in the last row can still hear your voice. You have to focus on that. But not too much, because then you lose yourself. You lose what you want to express with the music and with the words you’re singing. So I try to act and sing with my whole intention and hope that the audience feels it.
Wesley Horner: Is there a special excitement about singing Mozart in Salzburg, Mozart’s birthplace?
Mojca Erdmann: Yes, of course. When I did my debut here in 2006 with a production of Zaide, this was really something, because I always loved Mozart.
My mother comes from Slovenia, from Ljubljana. As a child, because I was born in Hamburg in Germany, we always went by train in summertime to Slovenia. We took the train to Munich. Then from Munich, the next train through Salzburg to Ljubljana. I always said, ‘Oh, Salzburg. This is so fantastic! I would like to spend some time here, because it’s Mozart’s town.’
I always had this connection with Salzburg, with Mozart. Then at a certain time I had an engagement here at the Salzburg Festival to do my debut. And when I did the audition, I was so thrilled. I thought, ‘Is this reality?’ When I was invited to do the production, it was like a dream come true. Then you’re on stage, and it is something! I was kind of nervous.
Wesley Horner: You have also performed some remarkable contemporary music. How is your work different when you’re learning a new piece, a contemporary piece, compared to learning a Mozart piece, which has been performed many times?
Mojca Erdmann: Well, I have perfect pitch. That makes it much easier to learn contemporary music, because I don’t need a piano. I can just work on this new piece everywhere, even in a hotel room. I don’t need to hear the orchestra or the instruments. If there’s a C2, I just hear it and then I can sing it.
When you do a brand new piece, there are no recordings. When you do Mozart, you have thousands of recordings. You can just listen to something if you don’t know it. When you do a brand new piece, you just have to learn it on your own.
I’m very lucky to have composers Wolfgang Rihm and Albert Reimann, both of whom write pieces for me. It’s a big honor, and I can ask them if I have questions about the tempo, about the phrasing, articulation. If there is something written in a way which doesn’t suit my voice very well, I can even ask them very politely, ‘Is there any chance maybe to change one note?’ I never had to do it, but I could. They ask me, ‘Is it OK? Is it good for you?’ So this is wonderful. It’s also very inspiring to have something new written for you when you don’t have any recordings, because you can bring something new to it, with your own personality and your voice and your character. But, of course, it takes a lot of time compared to learning Mozart.
Wesley Horner: If you could ask Mozart one question about a work he was writing for you, what would you ask?
Mojca Erdmann: I think the most important question everyone has about Mozart’s work is tempo, because there are so many different recordings and so many different ideas about it. There are so many conductors who say, ‘This tempo must be the right one.’ There’s another one who says, ‘No, no. It’s completely wrong. I’m the one who knows the best tempo for Mozart or for this certain piece.’ The tempo changes the character of some arias, some symphonies, some works by Mozart a lot. I would like to ask him when he writes andante, for example, in Pamina’s aria, what is the tempo he was thinking of? Or was he flexible about tempos? Could there have been some different possibilities?
Wesley Horner: There are two composers on this program unfamiliar to many of us. Who was Ignaz Holzbauer?
Mojca Erdmann: Ignaz Holzbauer wrote this opera called Günther von Schwarzburg from which I will sing one aria in this concert. Mozart heard the first performance of this piece, and he was thrilled by it. He wrote a letter to his father and said, ‘I just listened to this piece by Ignaz Holzbauer. He’s an old man, but he still has so much fire. There is so much fire and energy in his music.’
Mozart didn’t like the libretto at all. He said it was very stupid, but the music was really wonderful. But no one knows Holzbauer. When I first sang this music and played it through, I was really totally in love with it. It has so many colors.
Wesley Horner: And you have chosen music by Salieri, who had an interesting relationship with his friend Mozart. What made you choose the Salieri for this program?
Mojca Erdmann: Well, of course, everyone knows this connection between Salieri and Mozart, especially after the movie Amadeus. I went through many different pieces by Salieri and didn’t find the right pieces to connect with the Mozart pieces. It is really, really hard to find something which can be heard beside Mozart, because Mozart was just a genius. You always know that he was a genius, but especially when you try to put a program together and to put arias by his contemporaries alongside his works.
But I found these two arias from the opera Les Danaïdes, by Salieri. They are short, both of them about two minutes or two and a half minutes. But they are very, very intense. Both of them have like A-B-A form within these two minutes and both are in g minor. One is very aggressive, very dramatic, and the other is very sad, very lyrical. So I liked these two.
Wesley Horner: In a grand opera, you come on stage in costume with make up. You have the acting to think about, movement around the stage. Compare that to singing arias in a concert situation. How does it feel different? Is it easier, more difficult?
Mojca Erdmann: In addition to my opera work I’m also doing a lot of lieder recitals. It’s the same thing as a concert with an orchestra, but instead only with a piano. You are just two artists on stage in front of an audience. In both the case of a lieder recital and an aria concert with orchestra, you have to be very intense within your thoughts about the part, about the story you’re singing, because you don’t have the staging. You don’t have a costume. You don’t have huge makeup. The more focused you are in your interpretation and on your singing, the more you can connect to the audience. They will get the pictures in their heads, in their minds. You try to take them with you on a musical journey.