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The power of the voice

Anna Prohaska

Anna Prohaska (photo: Holger Hage Deutsche Grammophon) Anna Prohaska (photo: Holger Hage Deutsche Grammophon)

Since her opera debut at the age of 18, the soprano Anna Prohaska has enchanted audiences worldwide with her voice and her dramatic talent, both on the opera stage and in the concert hall. In conversation with Lydia Rilling, she talks of her artistic versatility and the programme for her residency at the Philharmonie in the 2017/18 season.

Literature plays a key role in your three concerts at the Philharmonie, especially in your «Shakespeare & Music» programme. Do you have a close relationship with Shakespeare?
Shakespeare has been with me my whole life long. My mother is English and studied English literature before she became a singer. For us, Shakespeare is a regular topic of our conversations. He is the universal writer on every subject, whether philosophy, history, or even music. It is wonderful for me to return to Juliet and to so many great memories in this programme. In one of my first public performances, at the age of 16, my brother and I sang the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet five times in succession at the Potsdamer Schlössernacht, with me standing on a balcony six metres up. We interspersed it with Dowland and Purcell songs accompanied by a guitar. That was all the more amazing because we were just the right age for Romeo and Juliet.

For your concert wit hthe OPL and Sébastien Rouland, you have chosen Debussy's La Damoiselle élue. What attracts you about that rarely heard work?
Debussy is a composer I really love. My first opera role ever was as the boy Yniold in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. Ever since, I have always tried to include as many songs by him as possible in my repertoire. When, at La Scala with Daniel Barenboim, I sang his Trois Ballades de François Villon, I found it incredible how the voice is embedded in that fantastic orchestral sound. One thing that is especially characteristic of Debussy is his parlando style, which follows the language so closely. As a singer, you have to pay a lot of attention to clear articulation of the words and I especially enjoy doing that with Debussy in French.

What is the idea behind your «Behind the Lines» programme with the pianist Eric Schneider?
Since I was a teenager, I have always taken a great interest in the history of the First World War and in particular in the fate of the poets who fought or even died on the front line, such as Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Georg Trakl. In «Behind the Lines», I have tried to throw light on as many different aspects of war as possible. On the one hand, the soldier himself, his inner life, and how he suffers. It shouldn’t always just be about heroism. On the other hand, the female perspective too, whether that of a combatant like Joan of Arc or a suffering mother or wife, as in the case of Rachmaninov. Then there is Hanns Eisler’s «Kriegslied eines Kindes», which is a grotesque satire. That is important for me because children are so fond of playing at war and it is necessary to take a critical look at that fascination with war and at the very casual attitude our society has to violence.

I also find folk songs about war moving, for example the Scottish song «My Love Is in Germany», which dates from the Thirty Years War. Many Scots went to Germany as mercenaries and died a terrible death there, while their wives waited for them at home. I start the programme with a simple, but very powerful German song from that war, «Es geht ein dunkle Wolk herein». So far, it has often been those songs that have most moved the audience, because they are so direct and unaffected.