The last few years have been a whirlwind of achievement for the singer, who turns 40 next month. But the triumphs have come after years of dedication. Born in the Bavarian town of Günzburg, Damrau’s life changed at 12 when she saw Franco Zeffirelli’s film version of La Traviata. She realized instantly what she wanted to do.
Going professional at 24, Damrau sang at provincial theaters in Mannheim and Frankfurt. Then came her 2003 British debut in Mozart’s The Magic Flute at Covent Garden, where her jaw-dropping performance of “Der Hölle Rache” brought her international acclaim.
The aria is one of opera’s most challenging, and includes several wine glass-shattering Fs above top C. Not only did Damrau hit the notes with technical perfection, but her dazzling looks and acting brought an unforgettable emotional intensity to the role. “Der Hölle Rache” became Damrau’s signature piece, until she decided to forgo it for a time—owing to the recovery each performance of it demanded.
This summer in Tokyo, Damrau will be playing the lead in Donizetti’s Lucia with the Met. For a performer who views singing and acting as equally important, this role with its famous “mad scene” offers plenty to sink her teeth into.
“I went to a psychiatric institute and spoke to two professors,” Damrau explains. “I said that [the character’s] emotions seem to switch on and off like a light, and they said that today this would be diagnosed as bipolar disorder. The doctors said these emotions accumulate until they boil over, which helped me with Lucia, as she destroys everything around her.”
Understanding the character’s psychology has affected her performance as well as her singing. “It helped me build my own interpretation and embellishments,” Damrau says, referring to the bel canto form of opera, where soloists add their own notes between the composer’s phrases.
Last year the soprano’s life took a surprising turn while performing in Strauss’ The Silent Woman, the story of a singer who wants to wed a baritone. Damrau, who is married to French baritone Nicolas Testé, discovered she was pregnant with her first child during the run.
“At first they were trying to hide my belly with veils and things,” she remembers with a laugh. But as the singer approached her seventh month, it was decided to write the pregnancy into the script, prompting the character’s reluctant uncle to finally consent to the marriage. “It was fun to do it that way, and fitting, since it is a story about family. Also, the baby loved it. He was completely silent when I was singing, and when I wasn’t it was like he was saying ‘Hey, let’s hear some more.’ He already loves opera.”
Opera tickets can be notoriously expensive, but Damrau thinks strides are being made toward a greater accessibility. “If you look backstage at a rock concert, you may see 50 people on the staff. With opera there are hundreds, so it is expensive. But the Met offers cheaper standing room seats as well as well as video broadcasts,” she says, referring to the Met HD program which provides high-definition screenings at cinemas, including Shochiku theaters in Japan.
Damrau previously visited Tokyo for just three days, and is looking forward to a longer stay this time. “I want to go to karaoke, because it has become such a tradition in Japan,” she says. What would a world-class soprano sing at karaoke? “Nothing!” she says with a giggle.
“That will be my time to watch other people sing.”
- Diana Damrau and New York’s Metropolitan opera perform the Donizetti opera. June 9 & 16, 6:30pm; June 12, 3pm; June 19, noon, ¥24,000-¥64,000. Tokyo Bunka Kaikan, Ueno. Tel: Japan Arts Pia 03-5774-3040.
- Met HD screenings in Tokyo: www.shochiku.co.jp/met