American soprano Corinne Winters shot to fame in the UK when she starred in Peter Konwitschny’s controversial staging of La traviata at English National Opera – a real tour de force for the soprano who is barely off-stage for the entire evening in a production which plays through without interval. Last month, she returned to Konwitschny’s production in Seattle, where she makes her role debut soon as Káťa Kabanová, but it’s the character of Verdi’s Violetta with whom she has been inextricably linked and is the focus of our conversation.
What is it like, returning to Peter Konwitschny's Traviata again after nearly four years?
It's surreal! This production literally changed my life. It was my first taste of Regietheater, launched my international career, and sparked my love affair with London, where I now live. I have amazing memories from that time and I enjoy the nostalgia. However, my voice and artistry have evolved. I must create as the artist I am today, in this production or any production, for my work to be authentic.
Konwitschny was unable to come out to Seattle, but his "right-hand woman" Mika Blauensteiner (who assisted him on it in the Graz première and subsequent revivals, including ENO) revived it. The framework of the production is the same, but Mika encouraged us to infuse it with our own idiosyncrasies. I love this approach because the characters live and breathe. Otherwise, revivals can be fraught with archetypal acting – what performers think a Konwitschny heroine should be – which is neither fulfilling for the artist nor moving for the public!
What are the challenges particular to Konwitschny’s staging?
There are almost too many to list! In essence, the piece is raw emotion. The set is non-existent and the acting is so visceral it's uncomfortable. Without 19th-century aesthetics and social graces, the emotional temperature runs high all evening. There's no interval, and most of the moments where Violetta rests are cut. People are stunned when they hear this, and frankly so was I when I first undertook it, but it works. The vocalist in me prefers an interval, but as an actress, I love entering Violetta's psyche and remaining undisturbed for the duration of the show.
A few years ago, I was lucky enough to witness Gerald Finley's astonishing Winterreise in Philadelphia. He sang the entire cycle without an interval or even a drink of water. The audience experienced what he was experiencing: the toll of an intense physical and emotional journey. We definitely felt it! That's our aim with Konwitschny's Traviata.
You’ve portrayed Violetta in a number of productions and are bringing her to the Royal Opera House this summer. What does she mean to you? When you took on the role of Violetta for the first time, what sort of preparation did you undertake?
Violetta is my life's work. I've been living with the role since my first year at the Academy of Vocal Arts in 2007, and I hope to perform it until at least 2027. When I first learned Traviata, I read La Dame aux camélias – the only book I've ever actually cried through – and watched the 1930s film Camille starring Greta Garbo. I still think her interpretation of Violetta (Marguerite in the book and film) is one of the must nuanced I've seen. After the ENO Traviata, I went to Paris on a pilgrimage to Marie Duplessis' grave. Maybe I'm over-romanticizing it, but being there with her felt mystical.
As I mature and evolve, Violetta reveals new things to me. Right now, I'm connecting deeply with her duality. She blends masculine and feminine, dark and light, cynical and romantic, guarded and authentic. When faced with the choice between freedom and love (which I don't believe are mutually exclusive, but in her society they were!), she chooses love. Reputation, artifice, and self-preservation evaporate once she's been in the presence of true love. Her open-hearted riskiness inspires me in both my personal relationships and my performances… so much so that I got an enormous camellia tattooed on my shoulder!
Corinne, you and I love to listen to the great sopranos of the past on disc… were there any particular singers you listened to and what did you learn from them?
Anna Moffo, Rosanna Carteri, and Virginia Zeani exude classic beauty and elegance, a lost art in the 2017 opera world. Diana Soviero and early Anna Netrebko speak to my fiery sensibilities! Renata Tebaldi recorded an amazing Violetta in her early years, but since she never had a high extension, she transposed the aria down a whole step. In my opinion, who cares?! It's glorious singing. Last, but definitely not least, La Callas – "ma maîtresse" – who is the Queen Violetta. She is strength, vulnerability, beauty and rawness wrapped into one.
Technically, which parts of the role are the most challenging for you? And where are the emotional challenges? Is there a danger that if you get so emotionally involved that it could inhibit your vocal performance?
Act 1 by far. My ego loves to flair up, telling me to sing perfectly (which we all know is impossible!) and poof: I'm out of the moment and in my head. The exposed vocal lines require relaxation and ease of tone, which are impossible when the mind is going haywire. Plus there's the pressure of singing an iconic aria, but I try not to fixate on that.
Act 2 comes the most naturally to me and Act 3 just flows organically. If my voice breaks a little, it's fine – in fact, I hope it breaks! There should be broken moments. I try to let the emotions out fully in rehearsal so they have a chance to dissipate before the première. They have only gotten out of control twice in performance: once in the Germont duet, and once in the final scene of Onegin. Luckily I was able to recover quickly.
“Sempre libera”… how often do you take the high E flat? And how far in advance do you decide?
I always take it because, for some freak reason, I've always had that note. I can't sustain the tessitura of most sopranos who sing E flat, but it's a weird extension. It works perfectly in roles like Violetta, Manon, Thaïs and Juliette who generally sit in lyric soprano territory but access the extension. I'm sure it won't be there forever, so I'll go for it as long as it's there!
Are there any Traviata productions out there which you’ve not done before which you’d love to do?
Yes! David McVicar and Willy Decker. They're at the top of my wish list.
Beyond Violetta, last year you had an incredible schedule – so many new roles! Which characters did you really connect with and want to revisit? Many of the productions sounded very ‘intense’. What was it like rehearsing roles like Mélisande with Dmitri Tcherniakov, for example?
Last season was mental, but I've grown more than ever in the past year. I did Liù, Fiordiligi and Alice Ford for the first time in concert with some of the most prominent conductors in the world, each on 3-5 days rehearsal. Talk about a test of nerve and preparation! Now I know that if a German repertory house calls and needs a replacement at a moment's notice, I can do it. I wouldn't have had that confidence before.
Desdemona and Mélisande were both deeply psychological productions with long rehearsal processes, challenging me to work with a new level of detail. In Otello, director Michael Thalheimer had a clear concept, but let me take the reins with my physicality and expression. Dmitri Tcherniakov's Pelléas et Mélisande was my closest experience to Method Acting. Golaud was my psychoanalyst-turned-husband after we met in a psych ward. Dmitri recorded footage of me "going crazy" at a real-life hospital in Zürich, wearing one of their hospital gowns, and played it onstage intermittently throughout the show! It was so intense. Luckily, Mélisande is all about the acting and a very easy sing. Desdemona was my favorite role of the season, but Alice Ford was a breath of fresh air indeed.
Have you ever taken on a new role and decided, nope, it’s not for me and sworn never to return to it?
Honestly, Mélisande. I don't regret having done it because the artistic experience was so rich; however, it's not vocally rewarding enough for me. Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte is my favorite Mozart role, but I'm not sure Mozart is for me. It doesn't feel organic, vocally or dramatically. I'm much more calculated about which roles I take on now. I ask myself: does this role fit both vocally and dramatically, and does it highlight my strengths while still challenging me?
Very soon you have another new role – your first Kat’a Kabanova. Why Kat’a for your first Janáček?
I am unexpectedly in love with Kat'a. I didn't seek it out because I assumed the role would require more steel in the voice than I possess, but I've always loved the music. Luckily, Seattle Opera had the foresight to see what I couldn't!
How’s your Czech coming along?
I started working on it phonetically, but as the music and text become more familiar, I'm learning words and some basic sentence structure. I've sung quite a bit in Russian, and I've found many similar words in Czech. When I'm studying an opera with a unique tonality like Janáček, I tend to listen to loads of recordings to get his soundscape in my ear. While I'm doing that, I'll work on text and rhythm. No note-bashing happens until I've worked on the text in rhythm and really internalized the harmonies. I'd love to do Jenůfa and Emilia Marty down the road.
How has your voice changed over time and is there a dream role you’d love to take on once your voice grows in a certain direction?
I used to prefer roles like Mimì and Micaëla which suit my dark color, but are quite soft-edged. The more my voice grows, the more I excel in roles with an "edge". Some of these include Violetta (Act 2), Desdemona, Tatyana, Kat'a, and some new roles I have in the works (stay tuned!). I'm hoping that I'll eventually mature into Butterfly and Manon Lescaut, which are my dream roles. I love the big Puccini heroines!
How do you stay healthy with such a demanding schedule? Is there a regular routine for performance days?
Sleep. I never get less than seven hours per night, but I aim for eight to nine. I'm pretty low maintenance, but sleep is non-negotiable. I also have a budding yoga practice which is great exercise, and it's grounding rather than depleting. I try to treat show days like rehearsal days: strong black coffee and morning reading, meditation, light exercise, nourishing food, and a slow, methodical vocal warm-up. When I don't over-hype a show day, I stay more calm and centered for the performance.
And finally… If you woke up and discovered you were a mezzo-soprano for the day (again!) which role would you want to sing?
There are two: 1) CARMEN! The role is amazing start to finish, but I particularly love the Card Aria and the final scene. 2) Komponist. Strauss is magical, and I love the Composer's raison d'être "Musik ist eine heilige Kunst". Plus, both of these roles have been sung by sopranos, so maybe there's hope!