Sandrine Piau interview: ‘It’s boring if you only have singers who are just singing beautifully’
David Patrick Stearns
Thursday, April 6, 2023
Soprano Sandrine Piau’s ‘Voyage intime’ album takes her in new directions. She talks to David Patrick Stearns about repertoire choices and relishing a challenge
As we now know her, the soprano Sandrine Piau could not have existed in generations past. The explosion of Baroque opera in her native France occurred in almost perfect coincidence with her emergence, from harp playing beginnings, as a coloratura soprano who could navigate thickets of ornaments while enlivening characters from ancient mythology. With that came recordings by new French boutique labels that continue documenting Piau’s progression from Handel to Lieder by Richard Strauss and, on her newest disc, Schubert. On the opera stage, the era of theatrically astute directors has enabled her to create – to cite one recent example – a magnetic Despina in Così fan tutte who transcends mere comic relief and becomes the conscience of the entire opera.
That last one makes her sigh. ‘Covid!’ she exclaims. The Munich Così production opened in autumn 2022 in the aftermath of the superspreading Oktoberfest. Despite having suffered a light case of the virus and experiencing residual fatigue, Piau is seen on the video singing at her high-personality best, as well as hopping on top of automobiles and setting fire to stage props. It’s also a case of character and singer merging, with a similar world view. The ever realistic maid Despina lives without illusions. And Piau is the eternal pessimist: ‘I’m never surprised when something terrible happens. I’m ready for the worst.’
At her peak, the 57-year-old Piau is sticking to her rituals, which keep her and her voice healthy, but she’s already thinking about a time when she may no longer be singing (photography: Sandrine Expilly)
It’s her safeguard against disappointment, though it’s hard to imagine the animated, often humorous Piau feeling much let down about having had 35 years of superb singing and having nearly a hundred recordings currently in print. ‘I appreciate my life, my husband, my children – Léa and Fabio. I know how lucky I am,’ she says in a Zoom interview from Monaco, where she’s singing Morgana in Handel’s Alcina. ‘I think that older people with dark thoughts … we laugh a lot, or we kill.’
Somewhere in there, an armchair mystic may be lurking. ‘There are many beautiful things in art and music. If I believe in something, it’s the possibility that, with the spirituality of art, people can be something beyond themselves.’
One recent stroke of good fortune was meeting pianist David Kadouch through mutual colleagues after she and her longtime collaborator Susan Manoff had a parting of the ways. Piau found that Kadouch’s pianissimo playing set him apart from many concert pianists who aspire to accompany singers but don’t have the right kind of sensitivity. Although he can thunder his way through Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, he also plays modern composers such as Arvo Pärt and Guillaume Connesson, and he knows the art song world. Between the two of them, they compiled a German–French album with highly distinctive sequencing which became ‘Voyage intime’, recently released on the Alpha label. Schubert, Liszt, Clara Schumann, Wolf, Debussy, Lili Boulanger and Duparc all flow together with an intriguing poetic logic that reflects the pair’s experiences of being cut off from the outside world during lockdown and having to look within.
‘It’s a journey between worlds,’ writes 37-year-old Nice-born Kadouch in the album notes, sounding a bit like Baudelaire; ‘between pleasures past or regretted, between deaths, between losses.’ The 57-year-old Piau (originally from Paris, now living in Marseille) sounds more like Rimbaud when writing about ‘the quest for a fantasised yet inaccessible elsewhere to the last passage, towards death’.
Piau with her ‘Voyage intime’ pianist David Kadouch, whose sensitive playing is perfect for accompanying a singer (photography: Sandrine Expilly)
Whatever this means to listeners, the ‘Voyage intime’ concept was an essential starting point, giving her an interpretative compass for choosing, performing and sequencing the music. Some will question the way that songs from Debussy’s cycle Cinq poèmes de Baudelaire are interspersed with ones from Boulanger’s Clairières dans le ciel. But the words and music have synergy that she considers to be perfect. ‘That’s my obsession,’ says Piau; ‘to take these small stories and build my own story.’
While her ‘Clair-Obscur’ album (recorded 2020 – read the review) had her singing Strauss, Berg and Zemlinsky with an orchestra, the new disc has Piau in the more exposed voice–piano format. Among the more notable moments is the deathlike chill she brings to the concluding low note of Schubert’s song Der Tod und das Mädchen. ‘That note is like the meeting of all the experiences you have in life,’ says Piau. ‘Some things are deep. There’s less happiness. You lose some people. Family and friends are dead. My life is more complex. This part of my voice exists, and it exists more and more.’
‘Bel canto feels like gymnastics – you have to jump, jump, jump … I need music where the voice is not the most important thing’
Piau is quite comfortable with the German language: she would have to be in order to sing Wolf’s Mörike Lieder – repertoire that might appear to be alien to Piau, but is not. ‘Before I became a singer, I was a harpist (at the Paris Conservatoire). “My music” was the Viennese schools. I really was a fan of these kinds of music. And one of my first voice teachers was German,’ she says. ‘I love to sing in German. I love the colour. I’m going back to my first love.’
She sang Berg’s Seven Early Songs at the Hamburg Elbphilharmonie’s opening concert in 2017, and the one work in the world that she would love to sing but which stands just out of her vocal reach is his later, more evolved Altenberg Lieder. ‘Ah, Berg!’ she exclaims. ‘I love Berg.’
The leap from Handel to Wolf to Berg might seem radical given how much German Lieder texts command more specific attention than does Baroque music – but this is something that was true in the era of Joan Sutherland’s Handel and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s Wolf, not in the era of Piau. ‘In Baroque music, each word has to be important. In German Lieder, it’s more the meaning of a phrase that gives the colour of the whole phrase,’ she says. ‘The difference is not so strong. But I think there’s an enormous difference between opera and Lieder. In Lieder, you don’t have to fight with an orchestra. You don’t have to sing loudly. It’s a duet with one instrument.’
Spoken like a once-dedicated ensemble-orientated harpist? Her switch from that to singing was unanticipated but dramatic. Piau made extra money from singing, and found herself studying with William Christie. There were multiple summers at the Aix-en-Provence Festival, including 1989, when she performed Purcell’s The Fairy Queen in an ensemble that would now be considered stellar, with Lynne Dawson, Nancy Argenta, Véronique Gens, Charles Daniels and Jérôme Correas.
Piau became something of a house soprano for Christophe Rousset, who was part of the Christie ensemble but formed his own Les Talens Lyriques in 1991, going on to a dizzying succession of recordings of operas and other works – by Handel, Vivaldi, Pergolesi and others – that few had ever heard of. ‘It was completely exciting and completely new,’ she recalls.
Bel canto repertoire (Donizetti, Bellini) isn’t for her: ‘I was told, “You could have a bigger career if you accept this kind of part.” But I’m not good at it like Natalie Dessay. I don’t have those high notes. You feel it’s like sport, like gymnastics, where you have to jump, jump, jump … People imagine that I have no limits. In Handel you can improvise. You can do something extremely complicated, but if you don’t feel like it that day, you can do something else. In bel canto, it’s written. You have to do it. I need music where the voice is not the most important thing.’
‘Before nobody asked singers to take risks. Eventually, it’s boring if you only have singers who are just singing beautifully’
In Handel, mythical, magical characters who seem hopelessly remote come alive with her voice. In fact, such characters are her starting point for forming her view of an opera. ‘You have a strong base to build the character, to build the psychology of the personality at the beginning and then everything you sing in the opera will be connected with it,’ she say. ‘With Morgana, the singing can’t be decorative but it has to say something relating to revenge. You have to know the reaction of the person in this situation, and that will give you the way to sing it.’
At her considerable best, she theatrically augments an opera rather than defying it. The recent Così fan tutte in Munich, directed by Benedict Andrews, is one example: ‘There’s nothing that’s dark in the music. Despina has nothing slow, nothing melancholy, nothing to explain that she’s had a long life,’ says Piau, who played the character with a subtext of anguish. ‘The stage director wanted Don Alfonso and Despina to be older, to teach the young people about what life is. It was interesting. I love to be pushed on stage, to try different things.’
Maybe not always, though. ‘Some ideas are just toxic,’ she says. ‘But you have to be able to go as far as possible without losing yourself completely. Before, you had wonderful singers and nobody asked them to take risks. Eventually, it’s boring if you only have singers who are just singing beautifully.’
One counterpoint to Piau’s career has been that of American soprano Dawn Upshaw, who has also eschewed bel canto roles and avoided conventional staging, and has become a new music specialist, premiering works such as Kaija Saariaho’s opera L’amour de loin in 2000. Piau saw it in Paris and was captivated. ‘I was young and it was so wonderful. I thought, “Oh, I’ll probably never do this kind of thing.” Many years later, Kaija proposed taking this incredible adventure in Innocence,’ which was premiered at Aix-en-Provence in 2021. ‘My speciality is soft high notes, but in this opera I’m a hysterical French woman, the mother of a killer, which she denies completely. The music is very fast, very aggressive. I said to Kaija, “You know me and wrote for me the exact opposite of what I do,” but the psychology is fascinating.
She tells me she’ll be singing in the upcoming UK premiere of Innocence at Covent Garden, London (April 17 to May 4), but not in Amsterdam (owing to a schedule conflict). ‘I’ve heard about it being done in Australia,’ she says. This performance is yet to be officially announced, and Piau assumes it’ll be a while before it happens: ‘That’s so far away, I don’t know if I’ll still be singing then.’ Listening to her now, it’s hard to imagine such a point in her career. Already, though, she’s given up hope of singing two opera roles (Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier and Anne Trulove in The Rake’s Progress) for which she would still be vocally well suited, as she feels she is too old to be theatrically convincing. A pity. But her vocal longevity is no accident. ‘You have to respect your body. My whole life, I’ve had that in mind. I think Handel and Mozart are my centre. If I can sing them, it’s because I don’t go too far away. If you can’t go back, you’re going too far in one direction.’ She also sticks to what she calls her ‘rituals’, which, as for many singers, includes minimal talking on a performance day (‘I love to speak. I can’t see anybody on the day of a show’), but also sitting at a table leafing through the score and then going over it a second time in her head. Then, of course, come extensive vocal warm-ups, which some star singers have been known to skip in their busy schedules. Piau wouldn’t dare.
She compares herself to a tightrope walker with a stabilising pole: ‘I think life and music are like that. If you go too far on one side you will fall. It’s always a story of balance.’
Read the review: 'Voyage intime'
This article originally appeared in the March 2023 issue of Gramophone. Never miss an issue – subscribe