A scene from Act I of Verdi's "La Traviata" with Diana Damrau as Violetta.
Taken on March 7, 2013 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. (Photo : Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera )
In the busy café of the Elinur Bunin Munroe Film Center a mother and her two children share an intimate moment. The woman, internationally renowned soprano Diana Damrau, has brought along her children, two-year old Alexander and four-month old Colyn, for an interview with this reporter. The baby lies in his carriage begging for his mother while Alexander bustles about the space, exploring his environment. Damrau looks after Alexander as she picks up Colyn from the carriage and for the next hour, the superstar soprano engages in animated conversation while keeping her two greatest treasures near.
"It's wonderful. It keeps you in the world and makes your life complete," says Damrau as she admires little Colyn resting in her arms.
The life of the opera singer is filled with constant travel and a schedule that is often booked numerous years in advance. This creates a difficult environment to raise a family, but Damrau asserts that "The children are number one. I have to adapt myself to them." More importantly, "it's a challenge, but it keeps me grounded." She adds that artists without families can wind up unhappy in older age. "When the fans are gone, they can't use their instrument anymore. It can be a sad existence," says Damrau.
Fortunately, at their age, Alexander and Colyn can travel with her on all her cross-continental tours, making it easier to maintain her international career. It also helps that both of the children love music. "Alex knows the names of all the instruments in the orchestra and as soon as [he sees] an orchestra he is absolutely focused," she marvels. Regarding Colyn, Damrau notes that "When there is music, he is calm."
However, Damrau understands that as Alexander and Colyn grow up and start school, she will need to make big decisions about her career. She mentions the possibility of remaining only in Europe or making two big trips from one continent to another to continue performing in the United States. She also states that she is considering the possibility of international schools that would facilitate the education of Colyn and Alexander across two continents.
Born in Günzburg an der Donau, Germany, Damrau studied at the Musikhochschule Würzburg with Carmen Hanganu and in Salzburg with Hanna Ludwig. She made her opera stage debut in 1995 as Barbarina in Mozart's "Le Nozze di Figaro" at the State Theater in Würzburg. In 2002, her international career took off when she was invited to sing at the major opera houses of Munich, Berlin, Dresden and Hamburg. She followed these appearances with debuts in Vienna, Brüssels, Washington, Covent Garden and the Salzburg Festival.
Damrau made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 2005 as Zerbinetta in Richard Strauss' "Ariadne Auf Naxos." Other major highlights in her career include playing the duo roles of Gym-Instructress and Drunken Woman in the World Premiere of Lorin Maazel's "1984″ at the Royal Opera House, London as well as being the first ever soprano to sing the roles of Pamina and the Queen of the Night in Mozart's "Die Zauberflöte" in alternating performances of the same run at the Metropolitan Opera; the feat was accomplished during the 2007-08 season.
At the time of this conversation, Damrau was about to end her run of Rigoletto at the Metropolitan Opera in a new production by director Michael Mayer that sets the iconic work in 1960s Las Vegas. Despite the tremendous accolades that the superstar soprano has received for her turn as Gilda, her personal highlight at the Met season is still a few weeks away. On Thursday March 14, Damrau's "utopia" begins when she makes her role debut in Verdi's "La Traviata," the opera that made her realize her life's calling. Damrau explains that when she saw the Franco Zefirrelli film adaptation starring Teresa Stratas and Placido Domingo she "fell in love." She adds, "This is the most beautiful thing humankind can create."
"My singing teacher always said to me, 'Diana you must have plans in your life. You must have goals. It doesn't matter if you reach them one day or not. But it is good to have an idea of what is wonderful. Where you can picture yourself,'" narrates the soprano. "Singing 'La Traviata' became that dream. It was a crazy dream and I kept it to myself."
She was supposed to make her role debut as Violetta Valery back in fall 2012, but her pregnancy forced her to cancel those performances. "I was supposed to sing it last September-October, but I had this production," she jokes as she gestures toward Colyn.
Now she gets a chance to make the long awaited debut at what she considers "a legendary opera house."
"[The Metropolitan Opera is] still one of the top houses in the world. To sing there is a great honor. You always do your best when performing on this stage," adds the soprano. "Everyone is so professional and friendly. It's work at the highest level. You have fantastic colleagues."
Damrau will sing seven performances of the opera alongside tenor Saimir Pirgu and tenor-turned-baritone Placido Domingo (the tenor in the Zefirrelli film) in a widely praised production by Willy Decker. Damrau had seen the Decker production back 2005 when it featured breakout stars Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazon. "I loved it. I loved the symbolism," says the soprano. "It's very clean. You can really focus on the characters, on the people, on the artists."
The Decker production is minimalism at its finest with little furniture and wide open spaces that often require its singers to run about. Damrau recognizes that it was going to be major challenge to make her role debut in such a dynamic setting. "It's not an easy production. There's a lot of pressure on the artist. You can't hide yourself behind costumes."
After her run at the Met, the German soprano heads to Zurich to sing more "Traviata." In the fall, she sings the role to open the Scala season. Damrau is in awe when she reflects on how she will be singing the role to opening the 2013-14 season at one of the world's most prestigious opera houses. "For a German soprano singing 'La Traviata,' THE soprano role at La Scala di Milano, Verdi's opera house, Verdi's artistic town in Verdi's year. I'm very excited," she declares.
Aside from "Traviata," Damrau's upcoming projects include the world premiere of an opera by English composer Ian Bell entitled "A Harlot's Progress" at the Theater an der Wien. "It's a bit of a Manon Story. It's the sister of [Igor Stravinsky's] 'A Rake's Progress,'" Damrau explains.
During the next year Damrau will also be making role debuts in Bellini's "La Sonnambula" and Juliette in Gounod's "Romeo et Juliette." She will also sing Leyla in Bizet's "Les Pêcheurs de Perles" in a stage performance for the first time in her career; she previously sang a concert version of the score. Damrau's hope is to stick to her current repertoire for the next four to five seasons before adding more roles. Among the operas she hopes to perform more extensively are "Traviata," Lucia in Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor," and the title role in Donizetti's "Linda di Chamounix."
Damrau did hint at roles she is considering her future. Among them are the Contessa in Mozart's "Le Nozze Di Figaro" and Fiordiligi in "Cosi Fan Tutte." She also mentioned interest in working on more Richard Strauss, including the title role in "Daphne."
Despite her responsibilities as a mother and renowned opera, Damrau has found rare time this year to engage in one of her favorite artistic experiences: chamber music. This summer, the soprano will go on tour with harpist Xavier de Maistre. Damrau explains that the two met during the soprano's first year at the Salzburg Festival. The two then got together for a musical session and by the end, they had compiled a program that they hoped to perform.
"You can do 85 percent of voice repertoire with the harp," Damrau asserts. "The interpretation of the songs changes a little bit. You can add more colors. You can add more dynamics.
"I love working in a duo because the two breathe together. Then you feel each other. It's a very intimate art form. People get very involved with it."