The Dyer’s Wife in Strauss's Die Frau ohne Schatten is often mentioned together with roles like Elektra or Brünnhilde—both of which you’ve sung—as one of the pinnacles of the soprano repertoire. What makes her so challenging?
Challenging is a very good way to put it! The writing of the vocal line is often angular and the range spans two and
a half octaves. I can’t help but giggle when I see an F below the staff written into the part. Not many soprano roles allow you to sing that low. The orchestration is mammoth. Add to that the fact that the Dyer’s Wife is, to say the least, a difficult character to add dimension to. She’s not incredibly likable, and the fact that her husband is the nicest man in all of opera doesn’t help.
What attracts you to the role—musically and dramatically?
Really, everything. Strauss’s writing is so brilliant, it makes her transformation, her journey, so clear just by listening to the music. It gives the singer an opportunity (and dares us!) to do everything—vocal fireworks and an incredible legato line. You have an opportunity to sing with a giant orchestra, and then at the next moment he scales it back to nothing. There is so much diversity. As far as the character herself, the first time I saw the piece, I thought, “Wow, she’s really a witch!” When I finally took on the role, I knew that I had to find out why she is the way she is, what causes her to be so on edge and so awful. It’s not just about her living situation. I think that she is terrified of having children because she will lose a chance at the life she thought she wanted. I think it’s a common thing that women go through when we have children. It’s a big undertaking. I remember when I found that I was pregnant with my first child, I was so incredibly overjoyed, but I was also completely terrified. How would I live my life? We are very afraid of taking the initial step forward, but once we do, we see how much we have to gain, and how little to lose.
The Empress is the opera’s title character, but Barak and his wife are really at
the center of the story. How would you describe their relationship?
Tense! Barak is such a good and patient man. He loves his wife and sees in her things that no one else can see. He
sees the conflict and fear in her, he sees the goodness, he sees, or wants to see, a maternal instinct. It’s what we all hope for in a spouse or partner. Even though the Dyer’s Wife lashes out at Barak rather relentlessly throughout the first two thirds of the opera, she does love him. Her fear drives her further
and further from him, until she finally realizes that she has everything she could possibly need or want right in front of her. I know a few couples like this!
Hofmannsthal’s story is famously symbolic and can be hard to get into for a first-time audience. In two sentences—what is the opera about?
That’s a tough one. If you take away all of the symbolism, you’ll find that it’s about love, sacrifice, strength, trials, loyalty, fear... It’s about humanity and the search for what that means for each of us.
You sang a lot at the Met early in your career but recently we haven’t heard from you that much. How does it feel to be back?
This house will always feel like “home”
to me. I am a native New Yorker—well,
a native Long Islander—and it was the house where I saw some of my first operas. It’s where I trained in the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program. The staff and crew here feel like family to me, and always will. I sang quite a bit here when I was younger and my voice was still growing. All signs pointed to the dramatic repertoire, but that type of voice often takes time to “cook,” as it were. There’s
an entire new repertoire to learn, gigantic sings, gigantic orchestrations. Sometimes it’s best not to do these roles for the first time in a house that seats four thousand.
Are there new roles you’re working on or other future plans you can share with us?
I am going to be involved in a few Ring cycles as Wotan’s most headstrong girl in the next few seasons, the first being at Houston Grand Opera, with Maestro Patrick Summers. There are also plans for more of the strong German ladies in the next few seasons, but there are plans to bring some major Italian heroines into the mix as well. Watch this space! —Philipp Brieler
This interview was first published online in October 2013 and in the Met's Playbill in November 2013.