I first met Nina Stemme the night I heard her live as Minnie in Christopher Loy’s magical production of Fanciulla for the Royal Opera Stockholm. After what appears to be a vintage film sequence on the main drop, featuring Nina herself astride a horse through what seems the New Mexico/Arizona landscape, the soprano burst through the paper curtain, with classic six-shooters in hand–A theatrical move that could have been cliché if not handled with perfect timing and physical energy. She was brilliant! As Minnie is the only substantial female figure onstage, her presence must be enormous to counter that of the two powerful tenor and baritone leads and the male chorus as well. She radiated an energy of such intensity that one wonders if anyone could match it even though all her colleagues on stage were magnificent. I had befriended her teacher, Micaela von Gegerfelt a couple of years before and a couple of my students were singing in the production. Consequently I was able to meet her after the performance. She was as down to earth in real life as she was otherworldly onstage. We ended up having a beer together in the opera café.
A few months later she came to Berlin to sing a concert including Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder and Rachmaninov songs accompanied by the Deutsche Oper Berlin Orchestra with Donald Runnicles at the helm. I greeted her backstage before the performance and asked how she was doing. “Allergies!,” she said matter-of-factly. “But what are you going to do? Gotta sing!” Singers in perfect health wish they could produce the tones she produced during that concert. Wether loud or soft, tender or passionate, she was in complete command of her resources. That is a professional and that is what we should all aspire to.
Whether singing in Italian or German, she is flawless. Her idiomatic expression in both is uncommon for a non- native Italian. I know she speaks German, Swedish and English. I would not be surprised if she spoke fluent Italian as well. We talked also after the performance and it was mostly about family, being on the road and the fun of making music with colleagues from before.
The next two performances, Salomes, a year apart turned me into a total admirer. In New York’s Carnegie Hall with the Cleveland Orchestra under Franz Welser-Möst, Nina sparkled, truly topping the all-star cast. If she had not been too familiar to New York audiences, she won them over that night. She soared on Salome’s high tessitura commandingly, calling on every dynamic shade and practically dwarfing the orchestra with her radiating resonance–All at the service of a deft musical and dramatic interpretation. That concert Salome was more “femme fatale” than “crazy lolita!”
A year and a few months later, the Stockholm Salome took on dimensions both vocally and dramatically that were hinted at in New York. The simple but profoundly multidimensional staging by Sofia Jupiter must have contributed to this. She was buttressed by the vocally superb Austrian baritone Josef Wagner as Jochanaan and one of my clients, Niklas Björling Rygert, perhaps Sweden’s most gifted singing-actor on the male side, was her unforgettable Herodes. Nevertheless, these magnificent artists only supported the central figure which is Nina Stemme’s Salome. My girlfriend, who had also experienced the New York Salome, was so impressed by Nina’s “girly” demeanor even when singing giant dramatic soprano tones. Strauss created a version of the opera whereby the orchestra is reduced to facilitate the possibility of a lighter voice singing the role in order to emphasize the childlike nature of the character. Those incarnations have always left me wanting more voice. This is a piece written for a great actress who can give the impression of a young girl while erupting in rich tones that leaves the fullest orchestras in the dust. This Nina Stemme does! Her portrayal left nothing wanting. The capacity house was on its feet for more than 15 curtain calls and they would have continued their rhythmic standing ovation (me included) if the stage manager had not called for house lights.
At the post-premiere reception, I was speechless, not knowing what to say to this magnificent woman. So I said simply: “How?…” “Every day is different” she replied. “I must find it each time…” But in fact I knew how. This is the kind of results some singers used to get in their youth because they were talented enough and took a year to prepare a degree recital, where every note was carefully studied. Most top professionals can put out a very good product that would please most critics, but this level of specificity and effortlessness in the production of an Olympic level effort is not accomplished because one is “gifted”. Jussi Björling used to get upset when people assumed singing came easily to him. He wanted people to know how difficult the preparation was in order to make it look easy. Nina’s work ethic was already noticeable by her friends in the Stockholm youth choir, as one of her former colleagues revealed to me recently. That work ethic has only matured. Hers is a big voice for big roles, yet she can sing the most ravishing pianissimi without losing any part of her rich timbre. This requires great skill, hours of practice, determination…
As I wait for a too early flight from Frankfurt to New York, I could not take my mind away from the powerful emotions I was left with after that performance a few days ago in Stockholm. I felt compelled to put these thoughts here. Yet I know I am too fatigued right to be as eloquent as deserves Nina Stemme’s unique, far-reaching skills. I will only say this: If I were to chose one performer I would recommend for my students to emulate, it would have to be Nina. Every time I see her, I have the strong feeling that the art of opera is alive and well and it remains “noble”! Thank you Nina!