At an age when many singers are beginning to wind down their careers, Evelyn Herlitzius is making a splash with debuts in U.S. opera houses on both coasts.
For more than two decades the German dramatic soprano — with emphasis on "dramatic" — has been giving performances of searing intensity in some of opera's most difficult roles at major theaters across Europe, from Berlin and Bayreuth to Milan and Rome.
Now 54, she is finally getting the attention she deserves on U.S. opera stages. She recently triumphed at New York's Metropolitan Opera as Kundry in Wagner's "Parsifal," and in June she will portray Bruennhilde in his "Ring" cycle in San Francisco. (She had previously sung concert performances at Carnegie Hall of Berg's "Wozzeck" and Schoenberg's "Erwartung.")
"I don't know why it never happened before," Herlitzius said in an interview backstage at the Met last month. "It's a waste of time to think about that. It never came up. But it seems to be the right time now. Things happen when they ought to."
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In New York, the critics were virtually unanimous in hailing her arrival. "Evelyn Herlitzius fascinated as the enigmatic shape-shifter Kundry," wrote James Jorden on Observer.com. "Her muscular voice admittedly has quite a few miles on it, but her sterling commitment made even a few yelps standing in for high notes sound organic."
Herlitzius grew up in Osnabrueck and got a late start in opera because she originally set out to be a dancer. When she started vocal lessons, she loved the "physical experience" of singing but had trouble imagining it as a career.
"Singers? ... I found them silly," she recalled with a laugh. "Their behavior, like clucking chickens. ... Could you speak in a normal way, please?"
And figuring out her voice type posed problems, since she had an unusually wide range and could sing high-flying coloratura as well as the low notes of a contralto. "Nobody knew what to do with me!" she said. Her teachers tried to groom her as a lyric soprano, but "the voice was too big already. I almost died when I had to sing Pamina (in Mozart's "The Magic Flute"). It was terrible!"
So she made her professional debut in a major Wagner role, Elisabeth in "Tannhaeuser," in Flensburg, in northern Germany, in 1993, and since then has specialized in heroines of Wagner and Richard Strauss, along with other dramatic roles like the title characters in Puccini's "Turandot" and Shostakovich's "Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District." It was her performance in Strauss' "Elektra" in Aix-en-Provence in 2013 that caught the attention of Met general manager Peter Gelb and led to the "Parsifal" engagement.
When she first turned to singing she found her training in modern dance a liability. "As a dancer you have a totally different physiology," she said. "You have to be slim, no tummy allowed. Don't even breathe, breathe into your shoulders! And as a singer you have to be much more grounded. As a dancer you're up in the air, as a singer you have to be connected with the earth, so it's totally different. It took me a long time to change."
"But later of course it was helpful onstage because as a dancer you know more about bodies, and what could I tell with my head, my shoulders, what could I do with my hands. Some singers have great difficulties with their hands, they're not aware of them."
For the Met's revival of Francois Girard's acclaimed production of "Parsifal," she used her dance training, especially in the second act, when Kundry tries to seduce Parsifal and becomes desperate as he rebuffs her.
"I had to adapt myself because it's always difficult as a singer coming into an existing production," she said. "You have to follow your own ideas about the role but you can't destroy what's already there. I thought for the second act it would be good to invent some of my own choreography. We talked about it, and I think he (Girard) was very happy. I love to improvise."
Her dance training was not lost on New Yorker music critic Alex Ross, who wrote that "it shows in the extraordinary flexibility and focus of her physical movement."
Looking ahead to San Francisco, Herlitzius describes Bruennhilde as a character who over the course of three operas matures "from teenage girl rebelling against her father to an adult woman feeling responsibility for what she's done and for the world."
"It's a journey. And you need five different voices to sing it!" she said. "You start (in 'Die Walkuere') as a coloratura for the 'Ho-Jo-to-Hos.' Then there are so many recitatives it's like a lieder recital. Then you need to be a real mezzo for the Todesverkuendigung Scene."
"For 'Siegfried,'" she continued, "the tessitura is much higher, so the ideal voice would be a huge lyric spin to sound like for 'Aida.' In 'Goetterdaemmerung,' in some ways, it's the simplest. You don't have to change your voice. It stays dramatic soprano. You just have to have the stamina to get through it."
As belated as her U.S. arrival has been, Herlitzius will be back at least once more, singing the Nurse in Strauss' "Die Frau ohne Schatten" in a Met revival in 2021. She had previously sung the role of the Dyer's Wife in the same opera. And she's about to make a similar switch in Janacek's "Jenufa," moving from the title role to that of the heroine's stepmother, the Kostelnicka.
"It's exciting to create another role in a piece I've already done," she said. "You get to develop the opera from another aspect, and understand the characters from a different perspective."