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|Anne-Sofie von Otter - The baroque diva who has turned to pop
By Norman Lebrecht / October 21, 2004
While engaged in Monteverdi, Anne-Sofie von Otter defends her current Abba sessions
Down in the classical recording bunker, nothing has more diehards diving for the hemlock than the news, first reported here, that Deutsche Grammophon is preparing an album of ABBA songs, performed by the mezzo-soprano Anne-Sofie von Otter.
DG has been the arbiter of classical excellence for half a century. Otter is, with Cecilia Bartoli, the only baroque singer to achieve name recognition beyond the narrow fandom of exceedingly old music. Sedately Swedish, she is no barrel-scraped artist to be bullied into inappropriate repertoire.
Otter, 49, knows her own mind and speaks it without constraint. She is composed, self-possessed, astutely aware of her strengths and limitations. 'No-one ever made Anne-Sofie do anything she didn't want to,' maintains a close associate.
So why, in a rewarding life of operatic summits and art-song recitals, is she trilling Money, Money, Money? It's a question that begs a rational answer - and not just for those who regard her crossover a betrayal. The question is one of pertinence: why apply a refined instrument that is trained to achieve a supernatural range on the works of a band that groomed itself for the most feeble-minded of musical conventions, the Eurovision Song Contest?
The diva gives the matter due consideration. 'I've always loved pop music,' she begins. 'Not Swedish stuff, that was terrible, but the Beatles, the Mommas and the Poppas, Crosby Stills and Nash. That's what formed me - Sixties pop and Tchaikovsky's ballet music.
'Then I lost touch, I was caught up in my classical education. But I enjoy using my voice in the other way. When I'm at home I sing in the kitchen and I'd never dream of doing an operatic sound. I sing with my natural voice.'
So does everyone else, I retort, but they don't think it's worth recording.'I find some pop music just as wonderful as classical,' protests Anne-Sofie von Otter. 'I don't see myself as a classical singer, first and foremost. A real opera singer has a bigger voice, which doesn't come with a long neck like mine.'
She first heard Abba in the Eurovision finals in 1974 and rooted for them patriotically, without getting overexcited about the victory of Waterloo. Some years later, homesick at Basle Opera, she went out disc shopping and bought an Abba album, The Visitors, 'because it was Swedish. It was very good music, told a lot of stories. I went - Aaah. I became a complete fan.'
In Stockholm, where her husband Benny Fredriksson is director of the City Theatre, she has been to see Benny Andersson's 1996 musical, Kristina fran Duvemala, four times. It is a story of Swedish migrants to America, a musical transition from Swedish folksong to global melting pot.
She met Andersson. He offered to write her a song. She called him in as accordion player on her first DG crossover, an Elvis Costello collaboration. 'Elvis said to Benny, "would you like to play piano as well?" So we did one of his songs, Like an Angel Passing Through My Room, which I think is the loveliest thing on the disc.'
Her Abba album, out next year, will feature three songs from Kristina, two from Benny's previous musical Chess, four prime Abba hits and the rest from Benny's post-Abba esoterica. She calls it The Benny Andersson Songbook. DG have announced it as Anne-Sofie Sings Abba. 'We're still talking about this,' she says grimly. I offer to buy her dinner at a Michelin-starred restaurant if she gets the label to settle for less than the crass commercial title.
We are sitting in her dingy dressing room in the Theatre de Champs Elsyees where she is playing Ottavia in a camped-up David McVicar production of Monteverdi's L'Incoronazione di Poppea - full of crotch grabbing and simulated fellatio (the opera transfers to the Barbican next week, mercifully in an unstaged version). Aside from Seneca, who commits suicide on a TV chat show, Ottavia strikes the only note of severity in the deconstructed cavortings. Austerity is Otter's trademarked stage personality, most strikingly as Glyndebourne's icy Carmen in 2002. Her career, three operas a year, is built around her need to be home with her husband, two school-aged children, some lifelong friends and her mother tongue. I wonder what her regular accompanist Bengt Forsberg, a rigorously intelligent classical pianist, makes of her forays into pop.
'Bengt gets very frustrated,' she admits. 'He thinks I'm a fool. He attacks me about it, and about other things. But sometimes, sometimes he can see why I love it so much.
'I like to think that I do it very carefully, not cheaply. I'm not a Bocelli. I don't have big showbiz arrangements. I do it to my own taste and I like to think it's quite sophisticated. I'm not doing Benny's songs for a commercial reason. No music makes me cry as his does - like pushing a stupid button.'
A diplomat's daughter, she grew up in London and came back to study at the Guildhall 'because I was too scared to try Italy'. Her formidable teacher Vera Rozsa entered her in competitions, found her an agent and bawled her out when she went wrong. She regularly shows up in London, but never for some reason at Covent Garden where she last sang in 1995.
On record she is one of the last opera singers with an exclusive contract. She admits the trade-off. Singing pop pleases label bosses and allows her to make low-sale classical recital discs. 'My records are mostly me and a pianist - not very expensive - so they let me do strange repertoire.'
Scrupulous about vocal production, she maintains classical standards of pitch and articulation in pop renditions. She was uncomfortable duetting with Costello - 'a bit like beauty and the beast' - but mesmerised by his musicality. 'There are people who are adore our disc, and others who think it's the worst piece of shit,' she admits. I detect a trace of irony when she begins a Brian Wilson song with the words 'I know perfectly well I'm not where I should be.'
She is bluntly unapologetic about the transition. 'We can't live without music, but it doesn't have to be classical,' she shrugs. 'I worry about the ecology, the polar cap melting. That's terrifying. But if I had to give away my money I'd rather give it to greenpeace than to saving classical music.'
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