Three Riddles for Iréne Theorin

An interview with Iréne Theorin after a wonderful Turandot at Opera Craiova.

About Opera: So, we’ll start with three riddles, let’s say, a short interview.

Iréne Theorin: OK, interesting.

Riddle No. 1

A.O.: So, the first riddle: why did you come to Craiova, to sing here?

I.T.: The reason was that I really did not know I was going to end up here. I know Ian Storey really more than I know Walter Attanasi, because with Ian I have been working in many, many productions, for many years. And we always said we should do something together, just get together and sort of do a concert together. Because we always did these opera productions and all the time you are so busy and don’t socialize that much. When you do a concert you have the possibility to do that. And then this came up. And from the beginning I didn’t really think “Oh, I am going to Craiova”. I realized also during the week the whole project, the whole thing, and I’m really happy to be here. It’s different to work like this. It’s different. How should I put this? A different project.

A.O.: Because you told me that somehow you are back to the roots…

I.T.: Yes, it’s back to the basics. And also back to the basics of the work. That’s mainly what I talk about. But it’s also something else: I can see so many things also when I walk on the streets here. I can realize sometimes at home as well that there is something that doesn’t fit in the crowd or whatever, and then people look twice, or talk to each other, or some people come and ask questions. It’s really the same reactions. Sometimes you can get a bit scared about the things you don’t know. And it’s rather obvious when you come to new places.


A.O.: Well, we have here an opera house, it’s not big, it’s small, it’s nearly from the countryside if you are looking at it from the point of view of the opera world, but still, they are trying to do something here. And this is quite interesting.

I.T.: Yes, they do, this is what I feel. And I’ve experienced it this week. Because I didn’t know when I came. Me and Walter, we did not talk about it particularly, like “this is this, this is that”. I didn’t expect anything particularly. And when you don’t do that, you always gain something.

A.O.: I think they told you they have another hall, another opera building, but which is being restored now. 

I.T.: But we were there at first. We did the sitz (sitzprobe – seated rehearsal) there. I had a costume fitting there, so I’ve been there. And the first musical rehearsal was there. But it’s dangerous (she laughs), and I said “OK, should I wear a helmet?” (they laugh)

A.O.: Personally, I think it’s a pity it hasn’t been restored a little bit earlier, since Craiova was a candidate for the position of cultural capital of Europe. 

I.T.: Ah, they did? I didn’t know that. That’s brave! Very brave.

A.O.: Because a couple of years ago the cultural capital of Europe was another Romanian city, Sibiu, which is not larger than Craiova, but still it has a larger old part, old town. And it was a tremendous success, the city managed to collect a lot of funds, to develop a lot because of the tourists coming there, of the theatre festival. And the mayor of that city gained such popularity during that year when Sibiu was cultural capital, that he became president of Romania.

I.T.: Oh! You should be lucky then. Because to have a president who is interested in culture makes a huge difference. I went into politics when I was younger, but I don’t want to make a swap, I wouldn’t like to have that position. Unfortunately, quite few know about culture. They just know the amount of money, but they don’t really know what’s going on in the culture. And it looks like it’s expensive. It really is expensive. Opera is really expensive. But it’s culture. Our whole society is built from this history. And we need to keep it, otherwise we lose ourselves.

Riddle No. 2

A.O.: Definitely. Now, the second question would be about Turandot itself, about the opera. 

I.T.: I didn’t read the book. Wikipedia, where is it? (they laugh)

A.O.: No, no, I mean from the musical perspective. Because it’s a very strange, but at the same time a very successful mélange between the modernity in its music, as there are influences from Stravinsky, form Debussy, and also the great Italian tradition. And this produces a mixture of two cultures, the traditional culture of Italy and the modernity of the XXth century. The vocal parts are somehow divided, too: Calaf and Lìu are more Italian, but Turandot is modern.

I.T.: Yes, you are right. And she’s mean.

A.O.: Yes, she’s mean, but from the musical point of view…

I.T.: Yes, but that’s what I mean.

A.O.: From the musical point of view it’s a very impressive role, fit for Wagnerian sopranos, strong voices, but also round voices. And that’s why Birgit Nilsson had such a success with this role. How about you? How do you feel it? How difficult it is for you?

I.T.: How difficult? Or how easy? (she laughs)

A.O.: Yes, or how easy?

I.T.: No, in fact you learn by doing. That’s the way. And what you said now is like when you hear Calaf and his long lines. And you hear Lìu and you really know where they are going. You can feel where their arias are going. With Turandot it’s really edgy, and that’s what I mean when I say it’s a mean part, because it’s mean from the vocal point of view, the technique is mean. And it’s very high, so I don’t know when you talk about roundness, it’s very easy to have the temptation to do it edgy, to sing it edgy. Because it’s written edgy. And, of course, that has to do with the character as well. So, it is difficult, it is very demanding to do, and every time is demanding. And I have to stay very disciplined when I sing it. Now we talk technique, but if I go out too hard, if I give too much in the aria, I can have difficulties when I come to the riddles, and if I overdo… I mean if you divide the second act, which is my first act, in three, it’s the aria, the riddles, and then it’s the lyric part. And if you give too much and you take out all the edginess and all the corners, it’s easy to force this, that’s what I mean, it’s easy to push a bit too much when you sing this. And then you’re not able to do the lyric part, the phrasing in the lyric part that comes in the end. So, it’s about being disciplined.

And there’s also something else. When I started doing this, I realized it’s so easy to hang up your thoughts that this is a Chinese ice princess. Of course, it’s a fairy tale the whole thing. But me, I’m standing as a human, I’m not cold, I’m still alive and I think that even princesses are not born like this. I mean they learn over the years how they are going to behave. And I think Turandot is the same, even if it’s a fairy tale, and in fairy tales they are allowed to have people without hearts as well. But I look at Turandot as a human being that got caught in this history. Like Romania is also caught in history. We are in different spaces in Europe, in the world, depending on the history. But I look at her as a sort of human being, like herself is in a cage made out from the history, from what happened earlier. But she really is a normal young girl that wants to fall in love and she really sees something else in Calaf, sort of love at first sight. And she has to do this, and she does it. And so, when the third riddle comes, I always try, in every production, I try to give him the answer by showing me. And in this production we never talked about that, me and this Calaf, and it just happened anyway. And that’s when it really works, and when it’s fun, it’s really fun to be on stage. When you feel that I give it and he really gets it, and it just happens. Did I answer your questions? (she laughs)

A.O.: Yes, yes! (they laugh) In the first part, Turandot is mean, she is bad, she is ruthless, she sentences people to death.

I.T.: Yes, but that is in the first act. It’s a robot.

A.O.: She’s icy, and this ice exists also in the Queen of the Night, from Mozart. They both have very high notes, but the Queen of the Night does not fall in love.

I.T.: No, she’s mean all through, she’s a mean woman and she disappears also.

Riddle No. 3

A.O.: Now, in fact I don’t have a third question, but I can’t stop myself from thinking about something since last night, when I saw the opera, and in fact this thought has been following me for days. In Romania there are protests in the streets, people are demonstrating against corruption, large crowds of people, 100.000 people shouting in front of the Government…

I.T.: Yes, I saw it here.

A.O.: You saw it on TV?

I.T.: That also, but also here, in the streets, I don’t know how many they were, they said 4000, and I believe it. And I was there, in the crowd, twice.

A.O.: Romania, as a democratic country, emerged from a Revolution, in 1989, where all the country was involved. But I cannot stop thinking about the large crowds of Chinese in the first act of Turandot, and that scene of “Gira la cote”, people demanding heads of politicians, people enjoying the executions, because somehow they were enjoying them. 

I.T.: I am born in Christianism, and we have killed many people in the name of our religion, many people, but that wasn’t very good. (she laughs) I believe we have been learning and we are a little bit more cultured and we know about other things now.

A.O.: And this is, in my opinion, the metaphoric power of an opera, to make you make connections between this art, which is very beautiful, quite exaggerated, but that’s ok, and the reality, the immediate reality. And not only when you are thinking about a love story, but also about the society, a metaphor of the society. 

I.T.: That is true. I mean opera is as it is in a life. You use all the feelings and you can go as far as you like. I mean, for example, when you come to Italy, you can imagine all these mothers crying over their babies, I mean, that is allowed in opera, and we do it in opera, but it’s exactly the same feelings. I usually think that when we are sitting here, talking,  we use our words, but we also read everything in between, because we don’t know exactly the answer, and we don’t know what question comes, we don’t know when this conversation is going to end. But in opera it is very easy, I can use all the feelings I like, because I’m secure, I know exactly what comes, I know the answer and I know how to react, there are no surprises in that respect. I have to behave as if there were surprises, but that is not difficult, because I think that every person, when you start to live, even as a child, you have experienced all these feelings, the love that you can’t explain, and the anger, and everything, also that you really want to murder someone, you have felt all these feelings. (they laugh) And in opera that’s why it’s not difficult, if we really know how to keep it.

A.O.: And also those intense feelings that you are not expressing in the day to day life. 

I.T.: You feel it, but sometimes you have to keep it back.

A.O.: Yes, you keep them inside and you do not express them, but in the opera you really express them, and if you hate, you really hate, and if you love, you really love.

I.T.: Yes, and that’s why it’s so lovely. And also, you have the words, and you have the music on top of that. And you’re also allowed, as a person, to make a choice where you go. Isn’t that just a gift? When you can go in and see Turandot, you can go and see Elektra? You can go and see whatever you like to. You can go and see a modern piece, you can go and listen to a symphonic orchestra and have fun and see what you like. This is allowed. And there is also something that makes me feel I want to go back to where we started, to where I come from. It’s about the fact that you are allowed to go into it, and you are allowed to open up and you are allowed to feel everything. To come into this world also helps you in your normal life, because it fulfills some of your needs. Without it, I think we are very spoiled these days, because we have been so used that these culture things belong to society. And we never questioned that before, because it was always there.

A.O.: The opera, you mean.

I.T.: Yes, the opera and the music, and everything, it’s always been there. You can’t go into an elevator without having music. We are so used to it being there, for free, all the time, all the information, everything. And now it comes to the generations where one has to fight for it in another way now, as it was the discussion yesterday. Not everyone thinks it’s needed even.

A.O.: Especially classical music, and opera music.

I.T.: Yes, exactly. And if you lose your roots, you lose your future in a way. And we are maybe getting to be more and more spoiled. And we have to be careful, it’s really our mission, to live a little bit longer and go like “Hey, don’t forget!”, like it happened when we were young. I am so open for changes, and I like to do modern things, I like to do everything. Everything has a space and it’s needed. But you should never lose the basics.

A.O.: And the fragility of this world.

I.T.: Exactly, exactly. And there is a reason why this music stays. Because there is so much music that isn’t played, books that aren’t read, but the rest is here for a reason, for fulfilling some people’s needs. There is a reason why this music that we hear is still alive. This music will never die. I’m not afraid that opera is going to die. There will always be people who will love this music.

A.O.: And who will love it with very intense love, the passionates, the connoisseurs, who are madly in love with opera.

I.T.: And we return, there’s an old theatre here, and most cities are having this, and it’s in the city, in its center, and it’s there for a reason. And it really belongs to the life.

A.O.: They have a history here, a long history, and with opera, too. Elena Teodorini was a great soprano. She was, at some point, the teacher of Bidu Sayão, who came to Europe to study with her. Back in the days when she was very, very young, before the time she debuted with Toscanini, before her extraordinary career at the Met. In this country, in the second part of the XIXth century, because of the Latinity, they were trying to get more and more connected with the Western culture. And as such, they imitated and assimilated all the things that belonged to the Western culture. And opera was one of them. There were opera companies coming here and singing, and in the first phase there was a great, great enthusiasm for symphonic music, for opera music. And the theatre here is called “Elena Teodorini”.

I.T.: Yes, this is what I understood, and they also have a competition now.

A.O.: Strangely enough, once every two years there is an international festival, “George Enescu”, which brings here, in Romania, a lot of great players, soloists, conductors, orchestras. The festival lasts for three weeks and has almost 100 concerts, as there are days with three concerts, and it’s exhausting if you want to see them all, even more exhausting if you want to write about them all.

I.T.: You have to be there all the time. (they laugh)

A.O.: Exactly. I think two years ago, when there was the last edition, I was going to get my car and I was thinking “Well, thanks God it’s over, because if it continued for one more week, I think I would get to the car, but fall asleep next to it.”

Well, the problem is that between two editions of the Festival, there is no cultural activity at the same level. Of course, there are things going on, but of national level. And if you do not make a transfusion with quality stuff, then everything goes into mediocrity. And the moments when a great singer comes to an opera house are not to be missed, so I think you have many, many opportunities to come and sing in Romania. And you should come more often.

I.T.: Well, thank you! You know, as I said, I was invited to go to Bucharest, to do a concert with SalomeElektraIsolde, and Götterdämmerung, it was a concert with highlights from all these. But then I got the flu and I was coughing and all the rest, so I had to cancel. And I so much wanted to have the chance to go back, as it was a year ago, and then I got this opportunity, even if I didn’t plan it. And I felt that now I have the chance to give something back. You always feel bad, because when you do an opera and you are ill, the opera is going on, you are just replaced with someone else.  It’s always this way. A concert is also done, this concert was done, but it’s not always easy to find someone who sings all this and can do it. This was not like one day before, I cancelled one week before, and they found someone, I don’t know who it was. But then they had done all this advertisement, you just feel very bad. Happily, I don’t cancel often.

A.O.: And now the last question. Turandot started as a project.

I.T.: I didn’t know about that. I found out later.

A.O.: Yes, sure, but it started as a project, with Ian Storey. And he didn’t make it.

I.T.: Yes, he didn’t make it. I don’t know what happened, but he didn’t make it. And he’s really sorry about this.

A.O.: And luckily the tenor who replaced him was amazing.

I.T.: I have to say that was amazing. During the first rehearsal I was like “What the hell is this?” And also his personality… He’s just perfect for the work. He just fits in. I don’t know if he knows it, maybe he does now. But he’s just a baby. I had the same question for him when we did our first stage rehearsal: “Why didn’t I hear about you?” Usually we meet each other, and I’ve been going on now for some years. I always feel that I’m green and new still, but when the younger generation comes and asks me for tips and ideas, then I am like “OK, OK, maybe I’ve been going on for a while and I have something to share, to tell”. And he did not say at that time, he just said “I hope it’s not the last time”. And then he continued to rehearse and, at a certain moment, he asked me “For how many years have you been working?” And I said “Well, it’s my 20th season now”, and he said “Well, it’s my third”. (they laugh) This was the second shock for me, “Well, it’s not possible!” I really hope it’s going to go well for him.

A.O.: Coming back to Ian Storey, this leaves us with the opportunity to see you singing with him at some point. What’s your next project with that? Are you going to return here, to Craiova?

I.T.: I don’t know anything for sure, because it has to fit in the calendars, but, by coincidence, we talked about the future, about a future concert again, Tristan, the second act, here, sort of in the same way. And it’s going to be in the same time as this festival, it would belong to the festival. Then it would be in the Philharmonie, not in the opera house, not a production. I heard a lot of people from this orchestra also play in the Philharmonic orchestra, so there will be many people that I know from this time. That’s why it’s so lovely to be here, I made friends here, and you don’t always do that. When you come to do a production everyone is so busy with themselves, and me with me, of course, it’s “me, me, me”. And here people talk to you.

A.O.: But they are not looking at you.

I.T.: Usually, I am the same everywhere, so people usually talk to me, but it’s usually quite busy, people are very busy. Now, all the energy is going to this week, and this production, and we meet every day, and we go on and we start to talk to each other. And people, as I said, when I was out walking, they know me, and even here in the hotel as well. When I come in, they know what I want usually. “She was very polite today”. (she laughs) It’s really nice. I both learn and I get quite much back. And of course I have been going on for 20 years, and I didn’t plan what I was supposed to do. There are some people that make choices. My next things are to do more masterclasses, and more openly. I have been doing it for some time, and now I will be doing it officially. I had to learn how to teach, I had to learn how to do it. And I noticed during the years that some people are quite happy for what I tell as well. So I thought I should do this, too.

A.O.: So, you would like to teach.

I.T.: Yes, maybe we will do some kind of combination the next time here. And when you have this festival, you have a lot of people here, so it might be different. Who knows, maybe I will be involved in this competition as well.

A.O.: Thank you very much!

I.T.: You’re welcome!

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