An interview with Marlis Petersen

German soprano Marlis Petersen is known for her portrayal of characters in the coloratura repertoire as well as in works composed by Bach, operas by Mozart and particularly in the title role of Alban Berg’s opera Lulu. She has been a invited as a guest soloist by many orchestras and has appeared on the stages of: the Vienna State Opera, Berlin Opera, Munich Opera, Opera Bastille Paris, Royal Opera House London, Salzburg Festival, La Monnaie in Brussels, Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Metropolitan, among many others.  In the following interview, Marlis gives some insight into her prolific career.
When did you discover that you had a gifted-voice and when did you decide to pursue a career as an opera singer?
My grammar school was the first institution that discovered my voice. They made me sing little things here and there in school concerts…but the real “call” happened when I joined a church choir at the age of 16. I loved this music and the way of classical singing and decided that I want to study singing. My parents were not happy about the idea and we found a compromise: I studied music education with piano as my main instrument. (I learned it from the age of 7.) I succeeded the auditions in the music high school of Stuttgart and realized after a while that I´m not born to be a teacher, so I finished the basics and switched to singing, which really fulfilled me. I hadn’t even finished my studies when I was engaged for my first opera contract at the Nuremberg opera!
How would you define the qualities of your voice?
In my ears I would say my voice is a light and lyric soprano with coloratura, perfect for Mozart and all repertoires that need good diction and precise singing.
To someone who has never heard your voice, what would be the first song, aria, role or opera that you would recommend that person to hear?
There is a beautiful recording of Haydn´s Seasons with Rene Jacobs conducting…it´s one of my favourites! And if you want to have a visual idea there is a DVD of Haydn´s Orlando Paladino. And out now, is the new CD recording of Mozart´s Zauberflöte (on Harmonia Mundi)!
How many roles comprise your current repertoire?
The complete repertoire contains around 40 different roles. As I do many debuts and contemporary pieces every year, there are not so many “current” roles. The ones I love to keep singing are Mozart´s Susanna and Alban Berg´s Lulu!
How and when did you discover the role of Lulu, which you’ve sung so often?
My first encounter with Lulu was 1997 in Nuremberg. I sang only the first act and was immediately fascinated by the story and its possibilities! Two years later I was able to perform all three acts at the opera in Kassel. After that I sang the role in the productions in Düsseldorf, Hamburg, Vienna, Athens, Chicago and New York…and I´m still not tired of doing it! Italy could be an idea (smile).
How do you study and prepare for such a demanding and exhausting role?
At the beginning of learning such a role, I close myself for hours in a rehearsal room and so spend weeks of approaching the piece just by myself. In the later process, I usually work with coaches. It´s a period of patience and concentration but it is also a very beautiful process!
How do you feel about the roles of Susanna (Le Nozze di Figaro) and Ophélie (Hamlet) that you sung recently in Los Angeles and the Metropolitan?
I love Susanna a lot. She is a smart person, joyful and she is the manipulator of the whole story. Even if she doesn´t have major arias like Figaro, the Count and the Countess, she goes through the whole opera with elegance and  playfulness! Ophélie in Hamlet is a very different character. She is a sensitive woman filled with deep love for Hamlet and has to walk a path of pain until she kills herself. I love to put this wonderful variety of characteristics on stage and  try to find all these aspects in myself to offer it to my audience.
Can you name some of the sopranos and composers that you admire?

I admire different sopranos for different qualities. Maria Callas as the raw model of sensitive and passionate acting, Natalie Dessay for her bright singing and wonderful acting, Christine Schäfer for her clarity, Diana Damrau for her perfection…we could create a very long list here! Concerning conductors, I love working with personalities that have the gift of bringing a beautiful mind and spirit together with musicality and deep perception. If the handcraft is also of high quality I am in paradise.
Is there a particular staging or production that stands out in your mind?
Some of my Lulus are unforgettable: Hamburg with Konwitschny, Athens with Eika Gramms and Chicago with Paul Curran. Also there were some specialties that made a mark, like Hans Werner Henze´s Phaedra in Berlin, or the cartoony direction of Orlando Paladino recorded by arte.
What do you consider to be the most difficult moments in your career?
The most difficult moments for me are “changes.” Changes in my voice, in my personality – aspects of maturing….mostly these are moments for crisis and one has to find the confidence and courage to adjust life and profession to the needs. It is not always so easy, as the profession keeps demanding no matter what…
What are your plans for the future? Is there a special role that you would like or foresee singing in the future?
My general future plan is to find a healthy balance between professional and private life. To sing one opera less per year and do more recitals and concerts could be the first step. But of course there will be always roles and operas that wake up my enthusiasm: Manon in the French repertoire, Mozart´s Sandrina, Händel´s Alcina…… and Traviata, which I will perform for the first time in Graz: in bocca al lupo…..!
Photo Ken Howard – Metropolitan Opera