I am not cute
Ausrine Stundyte in conversation with Das Theatermagazin
Interviewer : Jürgen Otten
She is considered a specialist for extreme roles, for demonic, fallen, betrayed heroines, for women on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Off stage, Lithuanian soprano Ausrine Stundyte proves to be an extraordinarily reflective personality - with extraordinary views. A conversation about men, life, love, death - and about the impression that Wagner understands little about women.
Ms. Stundyte, shall we talk about men?
With pleasure. Anything you want.
Good. It is noticeable that you mainly sing roles of women who are, firstly, extreme, secondly, betrayed or sold by men, and thirdly, who often die in the end.
Now, that's the fate of a soprano, I suppose.
How many stage deaths have you already experienced?
I don't know. But I haven't counted the men I've loved on stage either.
But death is more interesting than love.
Do you think so?
Yes, because death defines us from the beginning. The moment we step on the earth, we are condemned to it.
Yes, that's true. The only question is whether it's more interesting to deal with it - or perhaps it's better to deal with love.
Is it possible to love men?
Counter question: Can you love women?
Yes, you have to love them.
You see! And the same is true for men.
I would define it differently: You have to love a woman because she is a woman.
You may see it that way. I, on the other hand, find men more interesting than women. I feel more threatened by women, and by that I mean especially those who are deceitful and selfish. I never knew what to do or talk about with them, always found them unreliable and dangerous. Fortunately, I know other women: fabulous, wonderful beings who throw all clichés overboard and testify to the opposite. Men, however, are fundamentally different. They are more direct, clearer. If they don't like you, they slap you in the face, metaphorically speaking. Men are like Germany.
You'll have to explain that to me. What is masculine about Germany?
It's the relationships between people. What is promised is kept - at least in most cases. If people don't like you, they tell you so. And that saves an incredible amount of energy and time. As hard as it may be - I prefer that. Maybe also because I'm a bit masculine - and because my view of things is masculine.
Quite an interesting position for a woman! (laughs)
I know. But I stand by it.
It's all the more interesting that you always take the exposed roles you embody to extremes. There are women on the verge of a nervous breakdown like Carlotta or the title character in "Selma Ježková" by Poul Ruders. There are subjugated women like Judith or Katerina Ismailova. And there are these four Puccini women. All of them have to (or want to) die. Quite a lot of drama.
True. But I agree with you. I, too, have always found death very fascinating. I loved funerals, I loved looking at corpses, all the ceremonies around them.
Even as a child?
Yes. I couldn't understand why people avoid death as a subject, and thus the question of the meaning of life and that of death. I asked my sister when she was 18 years old, "Do you think about death?" And she answered, "No. Why should I?" You see, and this is exactly what is strange to me. Because it is death that gives meaning to life. Death is a mystery in itself. And there was never anything fearful or tragic about that for me. I always felt death as redemption. As something beautiful.
Then you would actually be predestined to sing Isolde. But that's not really your Fach, is it?
No. In general, however, if I have to play something that doesn't correspond to my thinking or feeling, then it doesn't work out. That doesn't mean that I'm the evil, crazy woman in normal life, but probably there's something in me that, although it's not completely foreign to me, I've never allowed myself to be. That energy is then allowed to come out on stage. And I also don't identify with the role I play and sing. I am neither Renata or Tosca, nor Bianca, Carlotta or Salome.
But always Ausrine?
Yes, absolutely. But the Ausrine who stands on the stage and sings. It's strange. But sometimes I think I'm more alive up there than in reality. Besides, as a stage character I'm allowed to do things, or at least think things, for which I would go to prison in normal life.
You get close to the characters, but don't completely creep into them?
How do you manage, for example, to play Bianca in Zemlinsky's "Florentine Tragedy" in such a way that one thinks the whole evening: "That is really Bianca"? Do you take these characters so much for yourself that perhaps unconsciously you are this character after all?
Bianca's feelings are memories of feelings I had myself. They are balls of energy that have a life of their own. If I'm lucky enough to work with a director who supports that and can deal with it, then such wonderful work emerges as in Amsterdam with Jan Philipp Gloger, and then I don't have to be unfaithful to myself. I draw from myself. And that in turn gives rise to that feeling of authenticity that the audience perceives. And they sense quite extremely when I'm not myself. Such roles are not successful with the audience. So I don't know if I'm a good actress. I only know that I cannot do what is not in me.
But what if you meet someone at a rehearsal who is supposed to play your lover, but is just that: a sterile nothing?
To be honest, I have never met anyone like that. But far more often I encounter these narcissistic beings who look far too much at themselves instead of concentrating. In every production, we try anew to create a miracle and to transport the people watching us into another dimension. And that is very exhausting. In order to achieve something together, you have to be able to put your ego aside a bit. But if you have a partner who is only concerned with himself, then nothing comes of it. Then you might as well play with the wall.
Or with a stuffed animal, as you did very graphically in the "Gezeichneten" at the Komische Oper Berlin.
(laughs) Oh yes, that was funny. But seriously, my playing is very dependent on who my partner is. It's like ping-pong, action and reaction; the next step always depends on what he offers. And if there are only dead eyes and hollow singing, well, what can you do. But in my new repertoire, the contingent of good colleagues is large.
That means you have great partners now?
Probably so. When you sing a Cavaradossi, you know: It doesn't matter what happens before and after, in the end it's all about that darn high B. And that creates enormous stress. In other repertoire, the overall result is far more important. And that makes the singers much freer.
Before you go to the concept rehearsal, do you know who Carlotta, Salome or Renata is?
Absolutely not. In the first years, I made the mistake of thinking about it beforehand - wasted time, I save that now. It's much more interesting to let a character develop during rehearsals. One thing I have learned in life: There are things you have control over, and there are things you have no control over. And this is one of them.
If the director presents you with a concept that is weak - what then?
I try to understand what exactly he wants with it, to appropriate it to the best of my ability. I had such a case a few years ago. A great director. But his image of women was extremely strange. He saw women as they might still have been typical of the 1970s: as housewives. And I was supposed to play such a housewife. That went very much against the grain for me.
Looking at the list of directors you've worked with in the recent past, it's striking: Among them is only one woman, Tatjana Gürbaca. The rest are men, some of them patriarchs of the old school. In short, isn't that possibly a problem, that it's men who tell you which woman you have to be on stage? Or is it perhaps just helpful, this male gaze?
I don't see any difference. For me, it's more a question of: Is he a misogynist? Or a lover of women? You can tell very quickly and quite clearly what type of woman the director likes, how he sees women, how he looks at them. And that's how he stages them. It's obvious when a director likes blonde Barbies. It never works with me, and we're both unhappy. But thank God I very often meet directors who like the animal in me. And then the work becomes a success. I've been lucky in the last few years with directors. None of them was afraid of my weird energy.
What is this "weird energy"?
I am not cute. Probably sensitive, but not fragile. Not typically "blond.
In 19th century literature there were, grosso modo, three types of women: the demonic, diabolically destructive character, the domestic angel, and the sexually permissive, the fallen woman. Your Bianca was type three, wasn't she?
That's right. I work very often with animal imagery. And as Bianca, I was a horny, greedy cat in heat. Which suited the story, because it is - which I like very much in principle - not realistic. It's distorted.
Is the impression correct that, whether it's a Bianca, a Carlotta, a Katerina or a Salome, you like to go to extremes?
Yes. For me, opera is the highest kind of fusion of different forms of expression. Singing is only part of it, about 40 percent. 60 percent is acting, movement, energy. That's much more exciting for me. If you want exclusively beautiful singing, you should go to a concert or buy a CD.
Why didn't you become an actress?
I have been singing since I was a child. Singing was an elementary, natural expression for me. And I do think that opera has something that the spoken theater ultimately lacks: you can reach the soul much more deeply through music than through words. Theater is more realistic, opera is unreal. You don't play what exists in real life. You play the feelings. It's like a dance.
The Wagner women you portrayed don't dance.
Right. Wagner is an eternal mystery. I've never really understood him. His personality is not alive.
Does that also apply to Sieglinde, Gutrune, Isolde and Venus?
Yes. The situations in Wagner are human. But the people are not. They are only carriers of ideas. Of good and evil, loyalty and infidelity, and so on... That is too little for me. I can't feel what moves Kundry to be the way she is. I don't see her core. The same with Venus: the core is not clear. I can get that. But something is missing when I sing it.
Did Wagner possibly not understand anything about women? And did he only possess an idea of woman?
He does not even have an idea of woman. He only has a man's idea of the qualities of woman.
Good. Then I quote a woman. "Woman is everything that man desires and everything that he does not obtain."
(laughs) That's very good. Who wrote that?
Simone de Beauvoir. Do you agree with her?
Absolutely. On the other hand, very often women themselves don't know what they are.
Is it because of the social conditions defined by men?
No. Nowadays that's no longer true. Besides, I would expand it. It is man who very often does not know what he is.
Perhaps a promise of something else, something higher?
Man is an animal. Something terribly beautiful.
And what makes him beautiful?
The ability to love.