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When it comes to having a sustained operatic career at the highest level, soprano Adrianne Pieczonka doesnít take a back seat to anyone. Now 22 years into a major career, Pieczonka is considered by many opera cognoscenti to be the Canadian prima donna of our time. Sheís certainly one of the hardest working divas around, in demand at the major houses in Europe and North America. This past year has been a Ďdream seasoní of triumphs and accolades in particularóher San Francisco Opera Tosca was simulcast to tens of thousands in AT&T Park; she had her first Met in HD telecast as Amelia in Simon Boccanegra opposite the great Placido Domingo; her first-ever Empress in Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Teatro Comunale in Florence last April was hailed for its warmth and other-worldly luminosity. A Juno Award for her Puccini CD on the Orfeo label and the Opera Disc of the Year Award from the 2010 BBC Music Magazine for her recording of Lohengrin drew a perfect season to a close.
When we reached her by phone, she had just landed in Berlin. A bit jetlagged, she was getting ready for rehearsals of Tosca and Arabella at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. After almost 18 years in Europe, Pieczonka moved back to Canada a few years ago. She now makes her home in Toronto with her partner in life and in art, mezzo-soprano Laura Tucker, and their four-year old daughter Grace. The two women met at the COC Die Walkure in 2004, where Pieczonka was singing Sieglinde and Tucker was one of the valkyries. Wagner seems to be a good-luck charm: Pieczonka has since sung Sieglinde to great acclaim at Bayreuth and the Met. Shortly after they met, Pieczonka moved back to Canada from London, where she had lived for 12 years. It turned out to be a felicitous decision. The soprano has managed something that is the envy of many of her diva colleagues: successfully balancing a high-level international career with personal happiness and a fulfilling family life. Since the last time LSM/TMS met the diva (The Music Scene Spring 2004), Pieczonkaís famous drive and ambition to be the best in her profession is now tempered with a newfound wisdom and a stronger perspective and focus on the most important things in life.
LSM: Since we last talked, your car≠≠≠≠eer has been one of non-stop debuts and triumphs. While some singers take the summer months off, youíre a staple in European festivals. How do you maintain such a hectic schedule?
AP: I have a wonderful family that gives me the energy and the desire to keep singing. I work very hard on my voice and my craftóyou have to always keep learning. This summer is actually a bit of a departure for me; I donít think Iíve ever been home in late May. Iím going to be home for parts of July and August for the first time in 15 years, and I love it! Usually in the summer Iím singing in Bayreuth or Munich or Salzburg. As I get older, the idea of having a bit more time off appeals to me. It gives me more time for family and to enjoy other things in life.
Would you say having a family and a child keeps you grounded?
Totally. Thereís nothing against my diva colleagues who donít have children. If you look at the schedules of Karita Mattila and Angela Gheorghiu, they probably perform more than I do; they are free to travel the globe. To be married and to have a child, you have to take the other person into consideration. Itís very rewardingóitís no longer just about me and my singing and my voice anymore. I think I am less neurotic about my voice, always worrying about getting sick. Having a child gives us a lot of loveÖ itís been a wonderful blessing for us.
Singers often say that having a happy home life helps them sing better. Do you agree?
It makes sense. I can think back to the time when I wasnít so happy and clearly your singing suffers when youíre not as grounded. I think itís always a balance. You have to work on a marriage, to work on being a parent; you canít be complacent and take it for granted. Nobody says itís going to be easy. I do think our lifestyle is very challenging. Iíve been doing it for 22 years nowÖ the life on the road with the travel and hotelsÖ it takes its toll. Part of me wonders how many more years I will do this. Would I do it another 10 years? I think vocally I could, but who knowsÖ
How does it feel to have two singers in the family?
Well, sometimes itís challenging. We only have one piano and sometimes we have to negotiate: Ďok, youíre rehearsing one hour and I can have the other hourÖ wait, whoís going to look after our daughter?í Iím very proud of Laura. She hasnít really had the career on the level, say, of me. Sheís been the one making the sacrifices to be at home to raise Grace, to be the constant one. When Grace was very young, we traveled for the first two years as a family. Now that sheís in junior kindergarten, we realize that she misses home. We just came back from Italy; after 10 days there, we found that Grace missed her school. Laura and I love to sing together, and I love to accompany her. Sometimes itís hard to give and receive criticism from a partner. I sometimes find it difficult to hear criticism after a performance, but in the long run itís for the good. She has good ears and she wants me to be the best.
Do you have plans to sing together?
Yes weíve done several recitals together, and weíll be singing together in Westben Concerts at the Barn this summer. And in March 2012 in Seville, weíll be doing Ariadne auf Naxos together. Itíll be Lauraís first Composer and sheís extremely excited about it!
Tell us about your upcoming concert at Orford and your collaboration with Kent Nagano. Were the Ariadne in Munich and Messiaen in Montreal your first collaborations with him?
No, our association actually goes way back in 2001 in Los Angeles, where he was music director of the LA Opera. I did Elsa in Lohengrin for him right after September 11; we were all shaken up; it was a very emotional time. I followed that with the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier and the Countess in Le nozze di Figaro. Heís really lovely to work with, and Iíll do Ariadne and Four Last Songs with him when the Bavarian State Opera goes on tour to Tokyo in the fall of 2011. Itís nice that he has invited me to the ĎNagano and OSM Weekí at Orford. Iíve never been there and I havenít sung in Quebec very much. I know itís a very good festival, and the performing space is lovely.
Whatís on the program of the Orford recital?
Iím doing something Iíve never done before: a completely German program. Iíll sing Schubert, Richard Strauss, and the Wesendonck Lieder, which I love very much. These songs fitmy voice very well, and I think itíll be a very interesting program. Brian Zeger is my pianist. Iíve done a few recitals with him, including one at Roy Thomson Hall in 2006. I started working with him four or five years ago, when I started singing at the Met. I love working with him, but heís very busy at Juilliard and at the Met, so Iíll have to make time to go to him. Iíll go to Ravinia this summer where heís teaching to get some intensive rehearsals for the recital.
Congratulations on the excellent notices for your first Empress in Die Frau ohne Schatten. Did you enjoying singing this role in Florence? What other new roles do you have planned?
The Empress fits my voice very well. I was a little nervous at first since itís very highósheís got a top D, lots of Cs and C sharps. I did a lot of work on my technique. I felt it was a very healthy thing to do for my voice. Now with Tosca, those high Cís are no problem at all. But we encountered major problems with the general strike in Italy. Of the four performances, we only sang two. It was very frustrating as we worked so hard on the piece. Iíll do it again in Vienna in 2011 in a big revival with Franz Welser-MŲst. Senta in Der fliegende Hollander is my next new role. Vocally Senta is a big challengeóvery dramatic, particularly in the duet and the trio. Wagner wrote it when he was very young, and I donít think he had the vocal writing fully figured out yet. When you compare Senta to Sieglinde or Elsa, she is more uncomfortable to sing. When I do a new role, I often think Ďoh, Iím not sure if I can do it.í I think a lot depends on the production. Iím doing it in Paris with Willy Decker, one of my favourite directors. Itíll be a very interesting production.
On the subject of productions, youíve done your share of ďRegieopera.Ē What is your view on this approach? I seem to remember you liked the Don Carlo in Barcelona directed by Peter Konwitschny a few years agoÖ
Here in Berlin Iím doing two performances of Tosca and the revival of Arabella. The set is in some sort of parking garage with two cars on stage! For me, Arabella is about a Viennese family: itís a kind of an old-fashioned piece that doesnít really lend itself well to bizarre staging. Iíll have to try to make sense of it when I go to the rehearsals. Iíve heard a lot of comments about Konwitschnyís work, but I really had a good time in this Don Carlo. Somehow it worked for me. Iím doing it again in Vienna in April 2012 and itíll be fun!
Saturday, August 7th at 8 p.m., Orford Festival, arts-orford.org
Adrianne Pieczonka, soprano, Brian Zeger, piano
Lieder by Schubert and Richard Strauss; Wagner: Wesendonck-Lieder
July 24 at 8 p.m., Opera arias and duets with mezzo Laura Tucker, Westben Concerts, www.westben.on.ca