Ainhoa Arteta: "No-one owns his voice"
It looks like Ainhoa Arteta has always been there, in and out. It has almost become a popular character in our country. Over the past few years, his career has stabilized, settling a new and mature repertoire, almost that of a full lyric or spinto soprano, facing Puccini's heroines with confidence. This month plays Manon Lescaut (Puccini) in Bilbao -ABAO season- next to tenor Gregory Kunde´s debut as Des Grieux. Ainhoa Arteta talks thoroughly with Platea Magazine about his long career, his experiences and feelings.
I’ve got a feeling your career is now going through a sweet and sober maturity. Please ponder to what extent it is this way.
Yes, indeed it is. I have had several stages in my career so far and besides ups and downs I’ve got right now the equilibrium I had never met before. This is the best moment of my career, no doubt about it. I really don’t know whether I’ll keep on growing up or not but I recognize the worth of everything I lived over the last years. I would even accept and settle for what I’ve got right now, really; it’s a very sweet and satisfying moment.
According to this, what exactly is maturity for a singer?
In my experience, maturity is feeling safe when stepping onto the stage and living the role a hundred per cent, being the master of your own emotions and the master of your own voice. Actually no-one owns his voice and I have already understood this fact, that’s why I state this very carefully. The voice is such a being you’ve got to take care of it, to respect and to listen to; you may only learn all of this throughout the years. Maturity is a kind of inner sensation when listening to yourself and you recognize yourself singing, just like when you’re riding a horse, a well-known horse, an animal which transmits confidence. Confidence is to be aware of the limits you may reach and don’t trespass any further. To know your limits, that’s what I call maturity.
I guess Ainhoa Arteta has fallen and has already raised a few times. Last time you were in a vocal crisis not so many years ago. I also guess you were about to throw in the towel and the support you were given and your strong character prevented you from doing so.
Yes, I’ve fallen and raised up several times. Some days ago I was joking with a good friend of mine, Rubén Fernández Aguirre (the pianist who always comes with me), and I told him I’ve been honoured with a recognition like the Medalla de Oro a las Bellas Artes and I’ve been appointed as Ambassador… and I told him I should have been honoured the Phoenix award instead, as I do believe not so many people have fallen and raised as I’ve done throughout the years. And I’m pretty sure it will always be that way. I’m also a fighting woman; when I fall I throw in the towel and I may even be quite dramatic in a visceral attitude and when I get up next day I pick up that towel in anger. Doubtless, such courage was taught me by my mother, who is my biggest inspiration, an example in my day to day. She brought me to life and taught me how to live.
What exactly is a vocal crisis and how it is perceived? I guess it’s not like waking up in the morning and realizing your voice is no longer the same as it used to be. It may be such a slower and deeper process, loss of strength in your voice, lack of self confidence, etc.
It isn’t like that, of course. I’ve got a theory myself: When a singer is young, reaching thirty, his vocal cords, which are muscles after all, have got the ability to rebuild and to start again, and easily do the cords over from excesses. This ability to rebuild gets lower and lower as years go by as well as it happens in our whole body in the same way. From thirty-five on, your body (and vocal cords) won’t replenish that way. And usually singers, fooled by that ability to rebuild, push our vocal cords to the limit. At the end every single effort starts to take its toll. When you’re thirty-five and over, amber light begins to flash; and reaching forty, unless you take the necessary measures and actions , amber light turns to red and you are in serious trouble.
I suffered from a voice loss mainly in the mid-range; when you can’t phonate the mid-range notes properly, voice breaks. It usually happens throughout the passagio, E-flat4 to F-sharp5. It was a difficult and hard process as vocal cords have got such a kind of memory themselves, when you’ve been doing something wrong again and again, vocal cords tend to go over and over the same path. I worked with Ruth Falcon whose method and help led me overcome that dip in my voice condition. It’s just the same as when a sportsman muscle gets injured: you’ve got to re-work, to do it slowly, very soft until you notice that muscle start recovering little by little and changing the way it works and the way it used to work. And also some great advice from Dr. Kürstein from Germany.
After almost nine months without singing at full condition, my vocal cords had lost their tone. So I started to train a minute a day, then two minutes another day and so on until the time had come. At first my voice broke as soon as I started to sing and I didn’t manage to finish singing even a single highlight. A soon as I managed my voice singing for an hour, I rang my manager. Reaching that point would have been impossible without the support from my people, my mother and my manager Juan Carlos Sancho. As soon as I suffered from that voice loss I realized I lost supports. America managers disappeared and I made myself stronger, each and every career is built on a daily struggle.
Is it hard to take in your failures? I guess some failures are unavoidable in a long-distance race as your career may seem to be, and failures may drag you down or maybe strenghten yourself …
When you manage to get over it you become stronger. I’ve got a motto: Sometimes you win and sometimes you learn. This motto is burned in my mind. Winning is such an easy thing, we all like to be the winners and you get used to it quite easily. On the other hand, the hardest thing is falling and learning. I have fallen several times and I have become stronger at this stage of my career; so I move around without any kind of fear; there are a lot of things out there that scary me the most or make me worry, like the health of my children; but there are really not so many things which may scare me related to the world of singing.
I think one of the keys for a successful career is to learn to say ‘no’ from time to time and this way everything keeps on going easily. I’m talking about your recent resignations: Leonora from ‘Il Trovatore’ and ‘Le Nozze di Figaro’ in Oviedo.
You ought to say ‘no’ a lot of times, and not ‘from time to time’; not only when a role doesn’t fit you as well as you’d like to but also our five years in advance schedule is quite difficult to carry on. Five years is such a long time and everything may happen in these years. Your career, as well as your voice, may change; some projects come and some projects go and you’ve got the right to decide and to choice, and sometimes your choices may be painful and uncomfortable. Some theatres really want you, like La Coruña, like Oviedo, and the theatre staff may understand you and you will never forget that in exchange. They can count on me, no doubt about it. And this goes for every staff theatre which once had to sacrifice something in their programming for me to do something important in my career.
And, of course, you must say ‘no’, emphatically, to all those roles that may harm your voice. Alfredo Kraus once told me that we must listen to the voice and you must never force your voice, as you’ve got only one voice and there are a lot of theatres. In this sense, singers have to be stronger than managers and theatres, and we must preserve our voice even at the expense of losing some money. It’s important to know the following: If I don’t sing, I don’t earn wages; as singers are self-employed workers like so many other people across this country.
We talk about technique so many times and at the end technique seems to be one and not to be any, despite some basics, everything at last is related to the singer anatomy or the artist sensations…
That’s true. Technique obviously exists but each of us adapt it and this adaptation is the technique itself: appoggio so your diaphragm controls exhalation and your vocal cords producing sound, more breath support on low tones and less air on high ones; or the sound may break. That’s something you’ve got to learn by yourself. The voice is the only living musical instrument and it’s the result of the physical characteristics of each of us. Our job is a long-term one, and when you reach forty you should own a fresh and healthy voice, you should know your diaphragm and how to control it… those are the careers that last in time.
Popular music and music crossover projects have always been there in your career. Some people may think crossovers are deviations somehow from ‘orthodoxy’ of a full-fledged career. Despite of this I believe crossovers supply such a thing you wouldn’t get in opera, which is the real backbone of your career.
Popular music reaches some more people. Some years ago popular music was ‘in vogue’ due to a pure and simple reason: record labels didn’t manage to sell classical music and opera singers were told to do crossovers. I was told several times to do crossovers and I didn’t see it that clear; to carry on my career took me a lot of effort and I didn’t want to run into further trouble. Five or six years after Universal urged me to do something like that and the project was triggered by my mother’s death. My mother was the ‘popular party’ at home. When she died I was the one who phoned Universal and I told them to record her songs.
And I was lucky enough to meet Javier Limón, such and incredible human being. We’ve recorded some more projects since the first time we met and everything runs smoothly now. I don’t really care about whether these recordings sell well or not as I do it for fun and right now my voice won’t get hurt. I’m still purist among purists when I get onto the stage. Evelino Pidò, a great conductor and a friend, and also a purist one, may give an account of how nitpicking and purist I may be on stage. I’m a staunch defender of singing just what’s written on the musical score; I guess a particular composer works very hard on a score to get things going and he also knows exactly what he wants. On the one hand about pop music I must confess myself as a freelancer, but on the other hand as a classical singer I’m certainly encouraged by the commitment towards singing what’s written down on the score.
Managers, theatre directors, colleagues, record labels… Is there such a thing what you may call ‘freedom’ in your life as an opera singer?
These are currently hard times for all of us. Formerly, in my opinion, opera singer was a well-considered and well-paid job but today it’s not that way anymore. Three or four opera singers get the chance to experience it the way it used to be but don’t make a big deal of it. I am good friends with Bryn Terfel and even an artist like him doesn’t get as many compliments as he should. Right now stage directors and musical directors call the tune but the tune actually belongs to singers.
In a recent interview with us, Bryn Terfel was referring to how difficult it was to collate family life and a professional career. I think Ainhoa Arteta share that feeling, notably right now, as your son is very young.
I have two children, and it’s almost easier to deal with the younger one than dealing with the difficult teenager. And I dare to say it’s even more difficult being the mother than being the father (talking about artists). I have spoken about this to Bryn (Terfel), Ramón (Vargas), Carlos (Álvarez), Marcelo (Álvarez)… A male singer will experience emotional losses but may enjoy peace of mind knowing his sons are being looked after their mother. Being a woman and being and artist becomes quite hard as men usually refuse to look after children, so we need some help from sitters. I’m very lucky as I’ve got such help, a very important woman to us has been helping me for fourteen years as my mother dies eight years ago. She has raised my children and I regard her like family.
Some time ago Gerard Mortier made it possible, your debut at Teatro Real in Madrid. Nevertheless a lot of Spanish singers were disappointed in him. For those who do not know ins and outs on theatres, managers and such things…How can you explain your absence for years?
Theater and opera are made of likes and dislikes. I’ve been thinking on it and all I can say is I was a Spanish singer but I left Spain when I was eighteen and I was trained as a singer in Italy and the United States. In the meanwhile Spain was in ‘Transition’ and I used to live abroad, somehow my geographical distance was a handicap. I’m not able to find a better answer. I struggled with many theatre directors and thank God as of today a lot of them are friends of mine. There’s not the least bit of grudge in me and everything I do, I do it for music and I do it for myself. It was Mortier who gave me the chance to debut at the Real, I auditioned once and he couldn’t explain why I wasn’t at the Real. I am eternally grateful as he gave the chance. I’m well aware of Mortier’s failures, directing a theatre is highly complex and each director has got his own likes and dislikes. A theatre director wants to make his mark and sometimes you may not be part of the bigger plan, no specific explanation, maybe you just don’t fit. It is a matter of taste rather than personal animosity. I’m aware there might be some specific animus against me in the past but it’s all over now. And I’d like to say there should be such a law protecting us, as Spanish artists, in order to set a proportional part of Spanish artists in Spanish productions. We all deserve a law like this.
In a few months you are coming back to the Teatro Real to perform I Due Foscari. Are you sure Lucrezia Contarini is a role matching your voice right now? It’s such a unique role, a soprano drammatico d’agilità role.
Actually I won’t sing Lucrezia Contarini. The Teatro Real staff is aware of this and they’ve already found someone to sing the role instead. I talked to Joan (Matabosch) and we both reached an agreement. Indeed, I travelled to New York to discuss the role with Ruth Falcon as I felt the role was not for me. Joan was very kind to me; we’ve got a good working relationship. We talked about some other projects at the Real and I’ll be performing there in the forthcoming years.
It’s been a long time now since you haven’t performed La Traviata on stage. I guess the second act would be far more credible than ever. Dare you perform La Traviata these days?
I’m trying to perform the role as it is one of my fetish roles. I think the first act would be right now a stumbling block. I can’t lose faith but performing it again needs to be done soon, as my voice is changing and won’t be suitable. I agree that second and third act would work well, since I’ve been performing La Traviata for ten years at the Met.
You sometimes refer to your singing teacher as a key in making the big decisions about your professional career, as well as the way she was a helping hand in overcoming a vocal crisis a few years ago. Who is she and what exactly over the years.
She is Ruth Falcon, I mentioned her before. She is an American teacher and she picked me up when my voice was changing and going through a vocal crisis. She had done the same repertoire as me and we fit like a glove in your hand. There’s a great communication between us and she is able to tell me some things I may accept easily. She has worked with some great voices like Deborah Voigt and Sondra Radvanovsky. Ruth is a very important person but it would be unfair to forget Campogaliani, who taught me the style and form related to the Italian repertoire, Franco Iglesias in the Met years, when I was very young, for delivering bravery and guidance.
I guess Mirella Freni and Pilar Lorengar (who passed away twenty years now) are among your reference people. What are the remarkable points about them both and their careers?
I have always been told my voice is very similar to Freni’s one. I don’t regard it that way, but I’d like to say that Freni is a such a model herself, the way she develops a repertoire and the way she does her best. Pilar Lorengar highlight is her incredible technique, we all should recognize her as she is quite unknown in Spain and she is a goddess in Germany. Here we’ve got Victoria de los Ángeles, Montserrat Caballé, Teresa Berganza… but let’s not forget Pilar Lorengar. When I performed Don Carlo on stage her Elisabetta role was my inspiration source.
After performing Elisabetta from Don Carlo, Otello's Desdemona from Verdi, Puccini's Manon Lescaut, Tosca, La Wally ... What's next? What are the next challenges? I guess you are thinking on Maddalena (Andrea Chenier) and Madama Butterfly.
In the next two or three years I’ll focus my attention on roles I’ve been working on over the last year, from Alice (Falstaff) to Adriana Lecouvreur through Manon Lescault, La Wally, Tosca and Verdi’s Requiem. At the moment I’m refusing to perform more than one opera a year. Next challenges are Andrea Chenier and Madama Butterfly. I’ll be performing Manon Lescaut in Bilbao, Falstaff, a long recitals tour and then Manon Lescaut along with Netrebko in Moscow, Tosca in Düsseldorf and Sidney, and finally, a surprise.
I also guess that, like any other soprano, you are intrigued by the role of Carmen. Actually I think you don’t mind singing that role once in your lifetime at least. A recording of Carmen was the way you discovered the world of opera.
The surprise is now unveiled (laughs). That recording was Carmen performed by Callas. I want to perform it before I retire, soprano version of course. I’d like to take away that thorn in the flesh
Have you ever thought about German repertoire? Elsa (Lohengrin), Elisabetta (Tannhäuser), Strauss female roles…
I sang the last four songs from Strauss. German repertoire is exciting but it’s out of my scope. Bryn (Terfel) used to tell to me I had to perform Senta and I was very surprised at his words, as there are a lot of German singers performing that role faultlessly. I’m not fluent in German and I haven’t gone beyond lieder: Strauss, Schubert and Schuman, which I perform on stage. I was told to perform Elisabetta from Tannhäuser but it’s not in my plans.
* Traducción: E. Enyedy