Soprano Rachel Harnisch

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Rachel Harnisch - classic-business, meToo und my voice

«Concerts demand a lot from me»

Rachel Harnisch is one of the biggest names in classical music. She is on the most important stages worldwide and works with the most influential conductors. The exceptional singer gives in the following conversation very personal insights:

Rachel Harnisch, you will be performing at the Zermatt Festival on September 7, 2019. The title of the concert is "Heavenly Life". What awaits the visitors?
"This evening, the Symphony No. 4 in G major by Gustav Mahler for soprano and orchestra in a chamber music version is given. This symphony accompanies me like a thread through my career. I sing the soprano solo in the 4th movement. Mahler composed the symphony from the last movement. The set poem by Brentano deals with the connection between the earthly and the transcendent, the sky. Described is this concept from the perspective of a child.»

You spoil the Upper Valais festival audience. This year you have already started at the Rhonefestival for song art and the music village Ernen and now you can look forward to your appearance at the Zermatt Festival. What do these guest appearances in Valais mean to you?
"For me appearances in the home are always special. I come back to the Valais and see myself as the little-year-old girl that I once was, who went to school here and who was embedded in a family. I am very aware of my own story here, and that makes it more difficult for me.»

Why this?
"I always have to make a distinction between what I once was here and what I have become. When I sing in Milan, the distance between these poles is much greater than in Valais. Now it's just that I did not just experience beautiful things here. To shut it all out at a concert demands more emotional work from me. If I recognize many people in the audience, with whom I share a common story, this can be annoying. On the other hand, it does not matter where you sing. You have to deal with the voice everywhere and with the constitution of the day, get involved with the competitors on the stage and adapt to the given conditions. In Valais, the road to concentration just keeps on going.»

Your mother is regularly seen in the audience.
"She's turning 90 this year and she's still busy coming to my concerts. With age, some travel becomes too strenuous for them. But she is there where she can, and that makes me very happy.»

"The MeToo movement is getting a bit boring, Rachel Harnisch, soprano

The Rhonefestival für Liedkunst this year focused on works by female composers. If you look at the life of Clara Schumann, Alma Mahler, or Fanny Mendelssohn, you find that they had a much harder time than their male counterparts. Are there still disadvantages in the classical world that women are struggling with?
«The position of women in society and also in the music world has changed a lot. I have never been disadvantaged. But there are certainly women who would give a different answer to this question. In the MeToo movement, which is starting to get a bit boring or annoying, there are certainly women who felt deprived or exploited. But I have never experienced something like that. Even as a conductor, you have every opportunity today if you are really good. I would say the world has taken a big step forward. Even the Vienna Philharmonic is no longer a pure male society and has understood that no restrictions on sex should be made. But maybe the problem will not be the same in all countries.»

The classic world has often been referred to as a shark tank. How do you manage to be undamaged for years to come?
"Whether I survived that unscathed, I do not know. I was still a student when I was engaged at the Vienna State Opera. As a young person, you have your ideas about how this should be done. But then you are confronted with reality. I survived that. Not undamaged, maybe not. But I was always able to get up and continue on my way.»

How did you do that?
"It's extremely important that you do not lose your concentration on yourself. You have to be able to eliminate all superficiality and realize what is important and what is not. There is a lot happening outside the stage cosmos. There are things that are important to good production, but then there are those things that are annoying. You have to hide it and be able to focus on what you can and want. That's a long process. Immediately after completing your studies, you are not in the position to survey and understand everything. Therefore, one stumbles, gets up again, goes on and learns. That's the way to go.»

What did you find disturbing?
"I felt less of the famous jealousy among the singers than it may be among musicians. The pressure comes from outside, from the business. The classic world is a complex business. There are agencies that fight each other, directors who know nothing about singers, directors and even conductors who have no idea about voice and want to put their sheep in production, and other difficulties. You can only recognize all this gradually. At first you are pretty shocked. But then you realize that despite all this is a nice job. It is a privilege to sing. But you have to learn to stay with yourself. How one survives all depends on what one has for a soul ground. Whether you can count on an environment that helps you. What one has to offer qualitatively, helps to assert oneself, but it also needs a strong mental constitution.»

By singers like you, the song gets new attention. Unforgotten your appearance in the Knight's Hall, where you stretched a wide arc from Crumb to Gantertal. What fascinates you about the song?
«The song is a very small cosmos full of concentrated emotion. Each song is a drama or opera in itself and encompasses the whole range of emotions. One must be able to retrieve each of these voice colors in a short time. That's fascinating. In big opera productions you make many compromises. In the song, however, I can stay very close to my artistic statement and convey it. With my longtime pianist Jan Philip Schulze I understand myself blind. The song knows few vanities that the opera sometimes brings with it. It is unpretentious. One resigns as a singer and places herself in the service of the poet and the composer. On the opera stage, it's often more about how loud I am, how great my coloratura are, or how awesome I can get into a character. When all this is no longer important, I start to feel well. That suits me. I do not like to prostitute myself for the superficiality of the profession.»

"I do not like the superficiality of professional prostitution

Your repertoire is of enormous breadth. You recently received great role debuts as Rachel in "Halévy's La Juive, as Emilia Marty in Janácek's" Vec Makropolus, and in autumn 2017 in a demanding triple role in Aribert Reimann's world premiere "L'Invisible ander Deutsche Oper Berlin. You made a name for yourself as a singer of contemporary operas. How did you find access to this new music?
"It all started with Claudio Abbado when I sang the Prometheus Suite by Luigi Nono in New York when she was 25 years old at Carnegie Hall. Each artist was supposed to play with the music of his time-employed. Music is a mirror of the world. I find it exciting to explore how the world in which we live sounds. Artists have always been associated with society and the sense of time. Some operas of Mozart or other composers were unfamiliar to the people of the time, new and some were vehemently rejected. But art only develops when borders are crossed. I think it's important that you do not rest in familiar climes or settle on comfortable islands. I was always ready to get involved in something new. But in the future I will not sing only contemporary music. I need the variety to be challenged.»

Contemporary music is often portrayed as inaccessible and top-heavy. How can music lovers still familiarize themselves with this music?
"You can not force anyone to do it. If someone goes to a concert with a negative attitude and sounds like something, everything is already lost anyway. As a listener you should get involved and say to yourself: <Now I'm experiencing something new. > You can approach this music like a mountain you have never climbed. Like on a mountain tour you can ask yourself: <Can I do this? Can not I do it?> In Antwerp I sang the world premiere Hèctor Parras <Les Bienveillantes> this spring. It is an opera about the Holocaust theme. For

Is it harder to build a classic career today?
"It has become more difficult because so much is visible. In the past, careers played out in a smaller radius. You did not know that many singers. Today the world is open and anyone can go anywhere. Separating the wheat from the chaff has become even more difficult. In addition, other things are becoming more important. When I see which people have made careers, I am sometimes amazed. The visual has become overly important. The marketing is essential. However, careers are faster. There are only a few singers who can hold each other for years. I do not want to be 25 again and start. Sometimes it's scary to see which things matter, whether you're heard and seen or not. I am glad that I have already found my way and can go on.»

Singers who are in the limelight at a young age develop in public. Was that sometimes difficult for you?

«In classical music one is rather anonymous. The inhibition threshold lies elsewhere than, for example, in the pop or film business. I can sing an opera performance in Berlin and then leave the opera, and maybe there are two to 20 people there who still want to do an autograph or a selfie. I try to shield my private life. There are no pictures of my kids on Facebook or anything. But it remains difficult to separate my artistic life from my private life.»

What is this difficulty?
"I was on stage for the first time with Claudio Abbado at the age of 25 at the Berlin Philharmonic. His CDs were on the shelf of my nursery. Suddenly I stood there beside him on the podium. You have to handle that. Then I started to quarrel and sometimes I was too scared. I thought: <I little girl from the Valais stand here with the best and biggest of the music world. > I became uncertain and began to think: <What do people think about me? Am I beautiful enough? Am I good enough?> This conversation was always with me. This can be very tattering, and I had a lot of trouble with it. That sometimes threw me off track. But at some point I scrambled to my feet and thought, 'Yes, I'm good, I'm listening and I have to learn to handle it. > You are very lonely before every concert. Rituals then help me to stay on the ground, to be calm and to breathe calmly. To bring this ego on stage is a long process that I am still busy with today. It is still difficult to take the first step on the stage. You almost die a little, that's how it is.»

As a singer you use the most personal instrument ever - the voice. Do you regularly turn your innermost outward?
"The relationship between me and my voice is special. I became a singer because everyone else said, 'You're good and you have to do that. > But I always have to get the singer off the hook. When I'm with my family or with my friends, the singer is very far away. When I start to work, I make friends with the singer again. I have a love-hate relationship with my voice. It's nice to be able to dock her to my heart. That remains a mystery to me. Why can I manage to transport emotions, I can not explain. But I can. There are singers who are always singers. They can sing at the touch of a button. I never could. For me, singing is a means of expressing myself. But that could have been anything, a cello or another instrument. Now it's just the voice, because I have a talent there. But it remains only a means for me. I am not only my voice, but I am also my voice.»

"I am full of self-doubt

You are always cheered at your performances, but you still know self-doubt?
"I am full of self-doubt. But this is also a guarantee to continue to develop and to constantly improve. I am never satisfied. Never, never, never! I think that's how good artists have to be. I am not an artist resting on her laurels. My CV on paper is pretty nice, but all of that is already a thing of the past when the audience reads it. I have to prove myself all the time. I have to do my best every time I perform. And then I hope my best is good enough. I'm extremely self-reflective and self-critical, but also very disciplined.»

What kind of music do you listen to when you are not working?
"Almost none! My husband always says it's a shame how little music we have. I just need my peace at home. I'm so busy with music so often. There is always music in my head, and at some point I need silence. I rarely listen to classical music at home. I may hear recordings that I get sent, or I hear certain recordings when I learn something new or need a reference to a work. When driving it is different. I'm a jazz fan, even though I do not know enough about it. But otherwise I listen to rock, pop, mainstream, Mundartsongs, Sina, folklore from other countries or the fairy tale CDs of my daughters - all querbeet.»

They are the mother of two daughters aged four and five. What does the musical early education at your home look like?
"I think, normal, as in all other households too. If one of my daughters said that she now wants to play the violin or the piano, we would support that. But they are free. I myself had to play the piano. That never interested me. I always found an excuse not to go to the piano lessons. It just was not my instrument. I think that a talent prevails. It does not matter if you promote it or not. But my kids are naturally confronted with the life of an artist. They experience that sometimes I am not there for weeks. They know life behind the scenes, in hotels or big cities. Even though they sometimes miss their mommy, they get enriching insights into this world. Your way to the music should remain playful. Sometimes they hammer on the piano. There is no constraint. I see how difficult artistic life is. If you are not superb, then it will be even more difficult. I hope they choose an easier way.»

Modern mothers do not have it easy. Bringing one's child and career together is certainly not always easy. Have you found a way to do both?
"When I first got pregnant, I thought, 'How should this work?' I learned over time. But it remains a logistical peak performance. I have a great man and a perfect working environment. They all support me a lot. In addition, I had to gain confidence in the outside care in the hoard, in kindergartens or the school. Long absence, however, remains an emotional ordeal. That's why I try to be there for my children as often as possible.»

"Who in the artist's sense of life, can only fail

How do you experience the change when you give the capricious diva on stage and the grounded mother is asked at home?
"I am very grateful that I have this grounding through my children. I used to suffer from lacking this connection to real life. On stage you are always in an artificial situation. That has nothing to do with normality. Thousands of emotions that you would otherwise have over the year, you experience there clenched in one and a half hours. I used to sing, drink something with colleagues and then go to the hotel. I was alone there. Now I return to my family. That is so beneficial. That grounded me and saved me. I know now that real life is happening here. That's what matters. My children do not care how I sang. The performance is like a rush. But he stops with the last sound. Even the applause is something artificial. My main job is to be mother and partner. That's the most important. I have a reason to be in this world. Who in the artist's life a sense of life, can only fail in my opinion. That alone can not make you happy.»

What do you wish for your future?
"That it stays as it is. I want to sing some nice roles. In the profession you never know how it goes on. I hope my family is well and my girls will have a fulfilling life. For her, I wish she had less trouble than me and that her paths would be a bit more straightforward than mine.»

Interview: Nathalie Benelli