The diva once told an interviewer, “I’m a simple person, really, absolutely not complicated.”
Sure, just like Henry Higgins was “An Ordinary Man.”
Coming from Leonie Rysanek, a veteran prima donna, a soprano who at the time of the interview, in 1986, had achieved 37 years on the opera stage, the statement was disingenuous in the extreme. Denizens of the opera house, those survivors of the vocal marathons and career decathlons of musical drama, are among the most complex personalities on the planet--everyone knows that.
Yet, if Rysanek were to repeat the statement now backstage at the Music Center’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, it might be believeable. For Rysanek is a woman of clear charm and lavish sincerity; she simply exudes, or seems to exude, honesty. She has done it on the stage for four decades. Offstage, it also appears natural.
Still, she contradicts herself. She says she loves a long rehearsal period--"For the ‘Katya’ in Paris, we had seven weeks of rehearsal. A luxury!"--but doesn’t have the patience “for long philosophical discussions” at rehearsal.
She claims that “five or 10 years ago, applause was more important to me than now,” then talks about the “ecstatic” feeling that came over her at the ovations which greeted her concert performance as Kostelnicka in “Jenufa” in Carnegie Hall in March.
She says one of the secrets of her vocal longevity has been that “I never oversing. In fact, I almost always under sing.” Yet, talking about the stage intensity that has always characterized her performances, Rysanek admits, “I’m much calmer on the stage now, much less wild.” Indeed, for some in her audiences, wildness, even the wildness that caused some notes to leave their true pitch, was what they came to witness.
It is Aug. 2, two months before the opening of Los Angeles Music Center Opera’s presentation of Janacek’s “Katya Kabanova,” and Rysanek is sitting in her dressing room chatting with a reporter between rehearsals. She sings the role of Kabanicha, the heroine’s mother-in-law, which she played last spring in France, in the same Paris Opera production to be seen here. (After the two dress rehearsals in August the “Katya” company disbanded until the opening.)
“We had been warned that the Parisians were planning not to like it,” Rysanek recalls.
“But the actual audience and critical reaction was startling--it was a great success, with ovations after every performance, notoriety for the singers and, most exciting, sold-out houses and scalping of tickets. Very gratifying.”
The same production team--conductor Jiri Kout and stage director Gotz Friedrich--mounts the opera here; in addition, as in Paris, Karan Armstrong sings the title role.
For Rysanek, it is another triumph--"Always unexpected,” she claims--in a late-career string of achievements not necessarily related to the triumphs of her youth.
After making her debut, in “Freischutz”, at Innsbruck in 1949, the young soprano moved quickly up the ladder. She appeared in Bayreuth in 1951, at the reopening of the Vienna Staatsoper in 1955, was first brought to the United States by Kurt Herbert Adler of the San Francisco Opera in 1956, then came to the Metropolitan Opera in New York, as Lady Macbeth and Aida, in 1959.
Rysanek experienced a career and vocal crisis in the mid-1960s, one she doesn’t wish to talk about today--"I talked about it too much at the time.” But she came back, giving thanks to, among others, then-Met manager Rudolf Bing and her second husband, Ernst Gausmann, whom she married in 1968.
Then, starting about 10 years ago, the Viennese-born Rysanek began refurbishing her operatic repertory (mostly, she does not sing concerts or recitals, she says) to include those villainesses she had eschewed earlier on, vocal challenges for a resourceful and experienced singing actress. Among these have been Kostelnicka in Janacek’s “Jenufa,” Ortrud in Wagner’s “Lohengrin” and, perhaps most evil of all, Kabanicha.
“When I look for a role, I remember first that I’m not 20,” Rysanek, who will be 62 next month, says matter-of-factly.
“Also that, no matter how extreme or complicated the character, I should be able to find somewhere in me a response to what happens to that character.”
About Kabanicha, she comments, “Really, I have studied this woman very closely and, believe me, there is nothing good about her. Yet, I remind myself, there are women like her. It’s not so far-fetched. With most of my roles, of course, I am able to find more facets. This one is all bad.”
Another bad-behavior mother coming soon to Rysanek’s gallery of characters is Klytemnestra, the mother of Elektra in Richard Strauss’ shocker of that name.
“I look forward to that, which I will sing first in Marseilles, in early 1989, then later in Geneva and Vienna. Then I will have done all three roles in that opera--Elektra, which I sang only on the film--it is a murderous part, but one which attracted me. Then Chrysotemis, which I have sung hundreds of times with Birgit (Nilsson, as Elektra). And now Klytemnestra.”
Rysanek speaks of the now-retired Nilsson with affection.
“To her I am always grateful. When I would look around for new challenges, and friends or fans would encourage me to take on the heavier, more dramatic roles, several things kept me from overextending myself.
“First, there was always Birgit. I never wanted to compete with that voice, so overwhelming, so huge.
“Then, there was my musical father, Karl Bohm, who, from the time he first engaged me for Vienna (in 1954), always advised me. He would say, don’t do this, and I would follow. With such protectors, I have been very lucky.”
The soprano’s own astuteness has provided the timing of her farewell to roles she has considered special.
“There were three parts that were me: Senta in ‘Fliegende Hollander,’ the Empress (Kaiserin) in ‘Die Frau ohne Schatten’ and Sieglinde (in ‘Die Walkure’).” In recent years, Rysanek gave up first Salome and then Senta. Last spring, with performances at the Met and in Vienna, she sang her final Sieglindes.
The good news, Rysanek hastens to mention, is that, even now, she has signed contracts to sing at the Met through 1992, though her roles are not yet ready to be announced.
“I told Jimmy (James Levine, the Met’s artistic director) that I can still sing a lot of roles. But--to promise to be able to sing a particular role on a certain day in a certain year, three years from now, that is a lot. I can’t promise. But I can plan.”
At this time, the pleasant life style that Rysanek and her husband pursue seems to make further performing a clear possibility.
“We lead a life that is very quiet. I can’t stand parties--I never could--and Ernst doesn’t mind,” the soprano says.
The couple have two homes, one in the mountains of Bavaria, not far from Munich, the other north of Malaga in Spain. “It’s very boring, and we love it--there is no telephone. We will be there just before we come back to Los Angeles in October.”
And she acknowledges that, even in maturity, she can be irritated at anything less than full professionalism in her colleagues.
“I can be very forgiving, except when people turn out to be stupid or dumb or unprepared. To arrive at the first rehearsal without knowing every aspect of your role is inexcusable. Unfortunately, I say so.” A hearty laugh puts that statement in perspective.
“Mostly, I am for getting on with things. Make a decision, and go. At rehearsals, I can be impatient with endless philosophical discussions. I say, let’s get on the stage, and do it!”