by Lydia Perović
For about a month now I have been corresponding with a new friend in the Netherlands. There are sixty messages in the folder I named after her — the number will grow before I finish this article — and she probably has at least as many from me. In spite of all the lively conversation, I know little about her. I’m certain of her gender, and I trust that she gave me her real name, but that is about as full of a biographical sketch as I can give you. The rest is covered by impenetrable cyber mist. We don’t talk about each other. Since we discovered we share a diva assoluta, there is nothing else more pressing to talk about than the mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter. Never underestimate the bond that two strangers can establish when they discover that in the world of competing paganisms they worship the same divinity.
Not unlike Calisto and Linfea, two of the nymphs in Cavalli’s 1651 opera La Calisto who inhabit the Arcadia under the spell of the goddess Diana, we meet at river banks, so to speak, and feed each other’s adoration for the Huntress. Has she heard this hour-long interview in French in which von Otter says that you could seduce anybody by playing them a recording of the second movement of the Ravel’s Piano Concert in G? Have I read the Austrian reviews of her recent Baba the Turk in Vienna and would I like her to translate them for me? Has she seen the images of von Otter as a grandfatherly Orphée? Do I know of this site, which archives the scores in the public domain? She heard Otter live in Rotterdam last year, I heard her live for the first time this February in Toronto. We are planning to meet in June in Germany, my Dutch blood relation I never knew I had and I, so we can see von O as Charpentier’s sorceress Médée at the Frankfurt Opera House. Eventually, our conversation will circle around to mundane matters like age, vocation and the rest, but once there is evidence of the esthetico-visceral kinship that is shared diva worship, the rest is mere details.
Much has been written about diva worship, female and male, in the last twenty years. Female and male, yes, but somehow always inevitably queer. (If you know of any straight men-produced body of work around diva worship with all its requisite primeval components and self-effacing, you must call me. Beineix’s film Diva does not qualify.) Many straight men do get the unruly and complex gendering in the opera — Verdi’s valiant messenger Roger Parker, for instance — but like the operatic mad scenes, diva worship is primarily the domain of women and queens. (I always misspell worship with an “h” after “w” for some reason. Worship to the point of whoring of the soul?) For this occasion I will skip the remarkable gay men’s oeuvre, spanning from Wayne Koestenbaum Diva’s Throat to the dazzling and hilarious Parterre.com, as well as the growing blogosphere of straight women fainting-while-posting over male singers. This essay is within the tradition of queer women obsessing about opera — and women being queered by their opera obsessions — and particularly queer women mezzo whorship. I meant, worship. Terry Castle famously came out as a Briggy-flapper in the early ’90s with “In Praise of Brigitte Fassbaender” and showed that there is a long history of women behaving badly over their divas. If you ever wonder if you’ve lost your marbles, consult Castle’s piece and you’ll see that since even Queen Victoria did what you do, it can’t be that bad. Can it?
Collections like En Travesti, Queering the Pitch and The Diva’s Mouth were further milestones in lesbian operantics. Besides, we all write and listen to the music in the formidable shadow of the feminist women and men of the New Musicology, who ushered in a new era of musical analysis, the kind that raises questions about the meanings of the music and its historical, political, national, sexual and other contexts. Susan McClary, for her now classic Feminine Endings and everything else she’s written since, deserves a strand of diva-worship all of her own.
But let me introduce you to my tribe. One very prominent sect of the queer opera-goers are the Mezzo Pazzi, mostly female, mostly queer voluntary slaves to the mezzo-soprano voices.
Many spectacular trouser roles that now allow mezzo- and alto-range women to sing powerful male characters have been inherited from the roles sung by the castrati, but not exclusively: once the castrati disappeared, composers continued writing trouser roles for women well into the twentieth century. In Handel’s time, according to Richard Somerset-Ward’s Angels and Monsters, while castrati covered the higher tessitura fandom, the deep female voices like Mlle Maupin achieved their own share of mad following. Anna Renzi, for whom Monteverdi composed Ottavia and who would today be classified as a mezzo, was the Callas of her time and probably the earliest diva to receive fan fiction and very high-brow fan fic at that: Le glorie della Signora Anna Renzi is a collection of writings and poems by her notable contemporaries eager to elaborate the finer points of Renzi’s gloriousness. Those who presume that the mezzo owes everything to the castrati therefore should be corrected and spanked. Mezzos get it on with other women on stage not because castrati used to, but because it’s an artistic phenomenon that’s been appreciated by audiences throughout operatic history.
It took the 19th century and Verdi and later Puccini to blend two rather contradictory things — helpless femininity in a dramatic character and a soprano voice of enormous stamina and technical mastery — for the features that we now associate with soprano divadom to emerge. A straight niche within the opera further affirmed itself with the establishment of the soprano-tenor-baritone and soprano-tenor-bass triangle as the basis of some of the operatic dramas.
The history of the dramatic mezzo-soprano runs parallel to the development of this traditional triangle. The mezzo-soprano is often an outsider, sometimes a liminal creature with superhuman features, either racial or sexual or metaphysical mestiza who knows too much. (In these same operas, there was also a remarkable degree of bromance and Eve Sedgwickian homosocial ties, seemingly of competition, but in effect of bonding between male characters.) So in spite of the fact that yes, Puccini and Verdi’s works haven’t seen many gender-busting stagings in their history — the baroque and the early bel canto, the Classical period, Wagner, the operetta and the 20th-century music have seen many more — the gender politics of their works is not unequivocal.
That is the preamble, then; the sets of the stage which, while important and duly noted, belong in the background of the music about to start.
Anne Sofie von Otter, like many a lyrical mezzo, wore the trousers for Mozart’s Cherubino first and continued on to sing trouser roles and redefine not a small number of them. In his Singers of the Century, J. B. Steane recalls noticing von Otter in 1985 and even her first recording in 1983, and observes then what many will later: a lavish voice moderated by a style of restraint. After so much listening and viewing I can, unburdened by the concerns of restraint, describe it like this: the volcanic adjusted for human-scale consumption of energy. The unleashing withheld for our own good. Procedures in place to avoid getting too close to the sun. All the talk about von Otter’s timbre being “Nordic silver,” reports of her sedate and cool demeanour, the many Scandinavian composers whose work she has recorded and still performs in Lieder recitals with the fluency in aural ice — all that is there for this reason: to prevent us from burning.
The printed editions of the Oxford Dictionary of Opera were in on this already in the mid-’90s. Under “O,” a very short and to the point entry can be found which, before listing a few of Otter’s debut dates and early roles, ends with “Possesses an outstanding voice and technique.” It’s a surprisingly short entry, almost cryptic, certainly stingy. This is also for a reason. The reference book is in effect saying, All under control, moving on, don’t hold up the traffic. Mobbing must be prevented.
I was born too late and then wandered about too many lands too distant from the action to have been able to hear live von Otter’s classic trouser roles. Every now and again I will meet, online or in person, somebody who had heard von Otter as Ariodante in Paris in the ’90s, and they will inevitably, and rather smugly, reiterate that it was a highlight of their opera-going life. An older friend from New York told me she saw her as Mozart’s Sesto in two different production, and each time “every note was made of awesome.” Luckily, there is the CD of Ariodante (baton Marc Minkowski) and Serse (baton William Christie), a live recording of Giulio Cesare with Otter as Sesto and a studio Hercules/Dejanira (both Minkowski) so von Otter’s stage Handel is far from being exclusively a matter of oral history. She still occasionally performs selected Handel arias in recitals and sung Ruggiero at Drottninghol in 2003, but her interests have moved away from Handel. The definitive Ariodante of the last quarter century now lives in recordings. You can take “Scherza infida” and “Dopo notte” and be crushed in the relative safety of your own home.
I’ve also talked with people for whom von Otter is the once appointed and forever exclusive Octavian of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier and who’ve listened to her for many years, sometimes decades. I’ve met those who had had her recorded voice accompany many important occasions in their life and consider it a home. I envy them violently, but I listen to their accounts, defer to them, join them in Otterhood as you would listen to an elder of a tribe who has experienced much more than you. I come late to the party, but I’m very much here now. For me, von Otter’s voice is not exactly a home. It is L’Isola d’Alcina, a fantastic place of several Ariosto-based operas where the sorceress keeps the privileged victims of her magic in various animal, vegetal or human-somnambular forms. It promises — or threatens — to stay Alcina’s fantastic domain for years ahead.
The Otter Octavian lives on in recordings, one of which is a DVD of the Carlos Kleiber-conducted Vienna Staatsoper production. What lives on as oral history only is the missing link of von Otter’s bel canto. There are a number of sumptuous bel canto roles for the mezzo-soprano, some in trousers, others in skirt, all offering plenty of room for vocal pyrotechnics and drama, but after the early successes von O dropped the bel canto repertoire entirely. Except for the uniformly positive newspaper reviews archived in libraries and a lucky crossing of paths with somebody who was in the audience, I will never really know what Otter’s Romeo sounded like. She debuted the role at the Covent Garden at the beginning of the ’90s and that is where the story ends. On YouTube you can find a 1986 recording of her singing “Non più mesta,” the final aria of Rossini’s Cenerentola (another role that she sang at the ROH and promptly abandoned), and a bootleg (bless you, the pirate of my heart, whoever you are under your YT handle) of her Tancredi in Geneva from 1990. And that is it. Why did she stay away from this repertoire so doggedly? When she tells the interviewers that bel canto was never her favourite thing, they never pursue this but move on to ask her about Elvis Costello. So we dig away on our own, the Otter bel canto Illuminati, treating it as a missing book of the Bible, an apocryphal and very idiosyncratic gospel in the canon of Otter.
How to name us accurately, I wondered? The Otter Nutters. The von Hotter fire brigade. Les demoiselles jouissantes de Madame von Hauteur. Lotterio’s valets. Perhaps better to stay faithful to the imagery I started with, Le nimfe di Diana.
What do we talk about when we talk about operatic voice? Not primarily the voice. Certain anatomical parallels have been drawn since the humans started thinking about singing. Assuming connections between the throat and the female sexual organs goes as far back as Galenic medicine, and doesn’t end in our time. The scientific inquiry into it now looks much different and mostly concerns the hormonal body, but the paradigm has not been abandoned as entirely baseless. Singers are also aware of it and the brave ones talk about it: legendary German mezzo Christa Ludwig was quoted as saying in no uncertain terms that the “vocal cords are very much like the vagina — it is the same tissue.” (In this 1999 interview by Tamara Bernstein for Toronto’s National Post.)
In her 2004 book Monteverdi’s Unruly Women, Bonnie Gordon lists the many wildly imaginative links between the throat and the vagina or the uterus that have been suggested over the centuries. It doesn’t end with the parallel mechanics of the two organs, of course: the effects of singing were believed to mess with the well-ordered body as a whole. “The heat that came from singers’ amplified circulation of air and breath mimicked the intense blood flow of sexual activity” (p. 33, chapter ‘Mouths, breath and throat in early modern Italy’). This wisdom has also survived as an intuition, particularly among opera lovers and diva worshippers. To say that singing and the adoration of the singing voice are sexual processes is an old hat of an idea indeed.
The downside of this idea is that a woman’s vocal credibility gets tied to her age. The opera circuit is as ageist to its women as Hollywood is to its. Approaching the birthday number 50, opportunities drop and the tenor of media criticism changes. Try to read the reviews of the women over 50 and compare them with reviews of singers under 40 and a pattern will emerge. Adjectives used to describe their voices are actually describing the fantasy (that the author and his readers likely share) of their bodies. Voices start being described as “frayed,” “thinned” at the top or bottom, “dry,” “forced,” and I’ve even read “hysterical” a few times; voices also become “bigger” after the singer has a baby. The body spectre in a younger voice appears more pleasant than its older equivalent, which causes unacknowledged anxieties to emerge in the reviewing. It’s very surprising that opera, which in its fantasies welcomes all kinds of freakishness and monstrosity, still struggles to accommodate the rather ordinary and irreversible phenomenon of aging for its women, although it succeeds in doing so for its men.
(I am not sure if the ageist reviews will happen to my diva assoluta — I suppose we will see in the next few years. If it does, we who came to the party a little later hope she toughens out the transition period, from when people start noticing that a singer is over 50, till the period when people have gotten used to the thought.)
Apart from talking about sex, then, another thing we talk about when we think we are arguing about the technical aspects of the voice is style and personality. The best voice critics have a plethora of tools to describe the many sides — technical, dramatic, linguistic — of the singing voice, and that is a shared vocabulary. What often happens, however, is that the conversation about singing quickly turns into a conversation about matters intangible and ethereal, like charisma and style. So even as we speak of a singer’s technique and analyze the seemingly easily measurable highs and lows of a performance, what we are really communicating is our irrational passion for one kind of style and our total resistance to another.
All the same, let me try and talk about von Otter’s voice for a bit before I inevitably end up talking about the intangibles and the elusives. Her voice is usually described as consistently rich and muscular from its bottom register to the top, as having a bendy and taut vibrato, and as almost chameleonic in its potential for dramatic expressiveness. (Forgive me if some of this sounds rather smutty — I didn’t create the vocabulary.) The timbre is often said to be all light and silver, almost sopranistic, although the more of her recordings I amass, the more I disagree with this description. True enough, nowhere is the light more obvious than in her Mozart trouser roles. Otter’s Sesto in the recording of La Clemenza di Tito sounds lighter in colour than his beloved Vitellia, soprano Julia Varady, and her Idamante in Idomeneo (both works c. John Eliot Gardiner) as if she is permanently stationed at the fountain of youth. Many of her Scandinavian and to a lesser extent German Lieder have the quality of light: much of Otter’s Grieg and Sibelius brings to mind the play of refractions of light in a crystal.
But that is only part of the story. While many say the average Otter color is white chocolate, I’d insist that it is rather café au lait with many significant forays into the darker macchiato. There is a certain forcefulness in von O’s voice that never dwells in anything remotely girlish. When I first heard her Dido in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (baton Trevor Pinnock) I thought it was refreshingly butch; dozens of listens later and it’s still the voice of a queen rather than an abandoned soprano. For days now I have been listening to her Nuits d’été in which if there’s any light at all amidst the ecology of many shades, it’s of the underwater kind. Vivaldi’s cantata “Cessate, omai cessate” (in Lamenti, c. Reinhard Groebel) in her rendition never fails to terrify me with its aggressive fury. Why do I go back to it over and over, as if I can’t resist a dangerously shaky makeshift bridge over an abyss? I don’t know. Maybe von Otter’s voice has the ability to make a masochist out of one? This is, then, yet another reason it can’t be called bright-light. On that same disc there is at least one other lament that I’m trying to stay away from. Enter “Incassum, Lesbia” at your own risk. I have been engulfed in such awful hair-rising sadness by it too many times.
There are occasions when her voice acquires even a deeper shade. It has nothing to do with the tessitura. I am talking about her Phèdre (Rameau, Hyppolite et Aricie, c. Minkowski (Mezzo TV broadcast)), Médée (Charpentier, Médée, c. William Christie (CD Ombre de mon amant)), and some Sibelius Lieder like “Svarta Rosor.” Here, it is precisely in the high sopranistic reaches that von Otter summons the darkest horror.
Don’t let me mislead you: not all is demanding in the land of Otter. There are few stable floats in this world and Otter’s joyous Ah is one of those. You will find it at every turn in the Offenbach CD (c. Minkowski) and the Cécile Chaminade mélodies (piano Bengt Forsberg). In the same sprit are the Korngold-Shakespeare songs (Korngold recital DVD), but for the unadulterated lust for life see Carmen (c. Jordan, d. McVicar, Glyndebourne DVD), which redefined the role with her gruff, Amazon eroticism. How could we have ever forgotten that Carmen is undoubtedly a top?
About that Carmen.
The author of the short story about Carmen in the DVD booklet is Jeanette Winterson, who decided to narrate the story from the perspective of a Don José losing his bearings. Not because the Don is a particularly interesting character, but because with him we can observe, adore and misunderstand Carmen. Winterson’s novels abound with opera references, and they also abound with adoration for red-haired women (Written on the Body, The Passion, GUT Symmetries). Von Otter’s Carmen is atypically red-haired, and so is Carmen in Winterson’s story. Whether this was by heavenly accord or by way of McVicar phoning Winterson and informing her of the color of von Otter’s wig matters less than the perfect rhyme of it all. “Somewhere between fear and sex passion is,” says a character in The Passion, and some years later von Otter’s Carmen shows this on stage.
This warped kinship with Winterson’s characters is yet another reason for von Otter’s prominence in the pantheon of queer icons. In particular, icons to queer women, as there is often a disparity between lesbian and gay icons in the opera world. Which does not mean that only queer women fall for Otter: everybody falls for Otter, women, men, children and animals of all persuasions, but they will have to write their own paeans.
According to En Travesti, the North American lesbian worship of von O took fire the night of the Met Gala 1991, which Otter MC’d as a stunning Prince Orlofsky, but I am sure the European Sapphisticates noticed her much earlier. The lack of recorded video for the earlier years is a pity. I thought that the Orlofsky of that gala (recently released on DVD by the Met) was a love child of Bjorn Borg and a Scandinavian slalom skier type, though I’ve read comparisons with the young David Bowie, that are equally apt. None will entirely capture the suavity, debonair-ism and gallantry she brought to this and other trouser roles, not to mention the naturalist, what’s-the-big-deal attitude about courting women on stage.
In Otter’s vast and diverse recording output, just about any CD, no matter the composer, will inevitably contain a high percentage of Lieder, mélodies or songs sung to a woman. Perhaps a conscious nod to her queer fans — “Yes, I know you’re there, and you matter” — but, more likely, a reflection of a relaxed attitude to re-gendering in music. It’s more probable that the pieces are chosen first, then the genders noticed, rather than gender noticed first and room for queering assured, but either way it’s splendid news. Together with other Otterians I have searched for the rare uniquely straight CD by von Otter, and it took some time. It must be the Schumann cycle Frauenliebe und –leben, as my Dutch relative suggested. The recent Love Songs comes very close though doesn’t entirely make the cut. The pool of candidates remains slim.
“I don’t mind being made ugly on stage; in fact, I welcome it” (Die Welt, Nov 2010). “Music can’t just be a beautiful sound. That’s not for me. Something needs to be off, unusual, disturbing, there need to be points friction. Otherwise, it’ll be boring.” (French Radio Classique, Dec 2010). Lucky for us that this is von Otter’s policy, as it has brought some daring interpretations. Among those have recently been the portrait of Orphée as a very old man in the Royal Swedish Opera’s 2007 Orphée et Eurydice and Baba the Turk in Theater an der Wien 2008 production of The Rake’s Progress. In the Stravinsky/Auden opera, Baba the Turk, apart from being the only likeable character on a roster of the debauched and the sanctimonious, is a circus attraction. Instead of a long beard, in Martin Kušej’s contemporary staging, Baba is sporting a dangly organ of a different kind. We Anglophone Otterians must rely on Austrian reviewers who understandably avoid spoilers about if and how the said organ makes its appearance when, in the opera, the original Baba unveils her beard. Was Baba the intersexual, transsexual, transvestite or a tall woman with a strap-on? How much did the audience see? Yes, I sound like I’m getting very close to the mindset of a voyeuristic circus goer / prurient media consumer that the Kušej staging warns against, but there you have it — another Otter effect on relatively reasonable people.
If you were to own only one recording from the Otterworld, dear queer-estvuyushchi reader, that must be L’Incoronazione di Poppea DVD Aix-en-Provence AD 2000, c. Minkowski, d. Klaus Michael Grüber, plus a stellar singing cast. Desire for a woman can’t get more restless and more ruthless than in von Otter-played character of Nerone. To the already excruciatingly carnal score of Monteverdi, who musicalized the sensuous and sexual exchanges of Nerone and Poppea (and Nerone and Lucano’s about Poppea) through interweaving, teasing and surrendering vocal lines, an intriguing kind of stage movement was added. Mireille Delunsch’s Poppea is the one who adopts the position of introversion and passivity even though she controls much of the situation. This is in accord with her chromatic score — as if she can’t be bothered to sing up or down more than a semitone and so tantalizingly stays there. When she is with Nerone, she is being looked at and encircled, and that is where her pleasure is derived. Nerone, on the other hand, is a nervy restless lad with the fingers and tongue that are out of control, warranting their own choreography. I wasn’t sure who was behind Nerone’s stage movement, Grüber and Minkowski, Grüber and Otter, Grüber only? Whoever thought of it first, it is Otter who renders it most beautifully obscene.
On other L’Incoronazione occasions von Otter sung Ottavia, Nerone’s repudiated wife and one of the most written about operatic characters by musicologists, feminist and otherwise. Musicologist Susan McClary analyzed Ottavia as an early model of a woman speaking in a public sphere and another feminist musicologist, Wendy Heller, looked into Ottavia’s idiosyncratic musical material, the sources from the antiquity used in the libretto, and the possible effects of such a character in the not too women-friendly artistic and civic circles that Monteverdi and the librettist Busenello belonged to. Then there are the writings about Anna Renzi as Ottavia. One von Otter Ottavia can be heard on the Gardiner-conducted recording of Incoronazione from ’96. There are snippets on YT of a televised broadcast of René Jacobs-conducted, McVicar-directed Incoronazione in which Otter as Ottavia steals the opera and coolly takes it home. Of course, it’s expected of Ottavia to steal the show, which is why Ottavias are most carefully cast, but few succeed amidst so much rich music given to all the other characters. Immediately after “Disprezzata regina,” the first angry lament by Otter’s Ottavia, one begins to realize that Nerone is making a mistake by going for the young, lazily chromatic thing and by her final “Addio, Roma” it becomes obvious that the problem was that Ottavia was not pliable enough, possibly too formidable. The words of her laments deserve their own essays: this ardent feminism avant la letter would make Simone de Beauvoir and Shulamith Firestone smile.
Perhaps the only thing that von Otter doesn’t play easily on stage is helpless femininity, and for this I will be eternally grateful. Although I’ve read interviews in which she expresses disappointment at being asked to sing Debussy’s Mélisande only once even though the role sits hand-in-glove to her tessitura, I could understand why she is not everybody’s idea of Mélisande. Here’s somebody who has to work hard to assume a position that women have been taught for centuries to accept as their most natural. Fewer Otter-sung Mélisandes just may be the price worth paying for this clear anti-conformist, liberatory way of being in the world.
A similar attitude is traceable in von Otter photographs. Her expression always points to a slightly ironic detachment from the situation, the awareness that this business of trading in fantasies should be mocked. Otter in photographs is also someone who firmly returns the gaze. It’s very heartening to see, compared to countless photos of gratuitous cleavages, armpits, legs, wind-blown hair, wind-blown hair extensions, pouty lips, eyes languidly looking somewhere indeterminate beside the camera, that still dominate CD covers and publicity shots. She also refuses to take part in any kind of self-branding. Off stage, her clothes run the gamut of the old t-shirts to track suit to Bill Cosby sweaters.
A Swedish paper once assigned a writer to shadow von Otter for an entire day, from first alarm clock to lights-off. The accompanying photograph shows her at her kitchen table reading papers after breakfast, still wearing pyjama pants. We learn that she lives in a Stockholm apartment with her husband of 20 years and their two sons in late teens. She cooks dinner for them, runs errands on her bike around Stockholm (helmet worn, natch), borrows music scores from the public library, meets for coffee with a friend whose children went to the same school as hers. After dinner, her husband falls asleep by the TV while she works on the scores, then spends way too much time dawdling on the Internet before going to bed.
To say that von Otter’s personal life is rather ordinary, coming close to boring of the middle-class variety, wouldn’t be unfair. But this turns out to be a necessity.
Otter doesn’t need the diva infrastructure — the publicists, the entourage, the bag-carriers. The diva industry is too cumbersome and takes too much energy away from the main task.
Which is to be the messenger from the other worlds: somebody who decodes the latest from Olympus and Hades. A kind of vampire slayer who off hours just wants to get on with her life. Somebody who channels the Weltschmerz, then needs some time in the garden. The voice for monstrous passions who must take a nap if she’s to continue to be able to speak monstrese.
If you, a resident of a metropolitan town with an opera house happen to cross paths with a tall, silver-haired woman, with no makeup and dressed in jogging-ware, maybe carrying multiple bags from the farmers market or cycling ahead in your bike lane, perhaps taking her time at the library photocopier — that may be the greatest mezzo of our time, so behave. She’s on a break. In her day job she’s expanding what’s possible for humans, with a direct access to whoever are the deciders in these matters.
Anne Sofie von Otter photo by Richard Dumas and Naive.