Becoming Ann

The genesis of an artist is a fascinating journey made of childhood callings, education, research, talent and hard work. This is the story of how Swedish mezzo soprano Ann Hallenberg became one of the world’s most revered opera singers

  • Becoming Ann
  • Becoming Ann

She is one of the world’s most famous and appreciated mezzo sopranos, a Baroque music enthusiast, a generous artist and a proud mother. Swedish singer Ann Hallenberg has been successfully singing opera for 25 years in the world’s most prestigious theatres. In the meantime, she has constantly enriched her repertoire with the rediscovery of amazing arias from unknown Baroque composers, supported in this passionate and incessant research by her husband, the German musicologist Holger Schmitt-Hallenberg. 
We discussed her career, her life and her passions over a Spritz in Venice.
How did you, Ann, become Ann Hallenberg the famous mezzo soprano?
I am actually the proof that the media do have the power to shape a child. I grew up in a house with music. My father was a church singer, so I had music around me but it was mostly church hymns, never opera. And then when I was six I was left alone in front of the TV one day, and there was a televised production of the Bettlerstudent, an operetta by Millöcker. It just got me. I remember crying because it seemed like there would be a tragic finale, and jumping on the sofa when I found out there would actually be a happy ending. The day after, I asked my dad to buy me the record, and my mum to make me a dress just like the prima donna. There and then, I decided: this is what I want to do. I want to become an opera singer!
So, basically you are living you childhood dream?
Yes, my whole life I have been doing what I wanted to do. I am extremely lucky, and I am aware of this luxury. Although as I was studying music, I said to myself “This is ridiculous, you can’t be an opera singer just like that”. Since I had a huge interest in history and I also wanted to be an archaeologist, I gave myself five years after attending the opera school to see if this dream would work. “If it does not”, I thought, “then I will have all my papers ready to become an archeologist”. It was my plan B.
Which was the first moment in which you realized you could make it?
I think it was when I auditioned with very short notice in Oslo for L’Italiana in Algeri. Basically, from day 1 to day 2 they threw me in: I auditioned, said thank you, and I was on my way out of the stage door to catch my plane back to Stockholm when the opera management came running after me and told me I'd got the job! During that opera production I began to realize that it would work. I was four years out of opera school. From then on, my mantra has been “slow growth, quality music”.
Which specific moments in your career did you cherish the most?
There have been many fulfilling professional moments, of course, but personally the most remarkable one was coming home after an audition with Luca Targetti from La Scala one night and telling my parents “I am going to sing at La Scala!”. The joy of my father in his pajamas in the middle of the night is something I will always cherish.
What triggered your passion for Baroque and 17thand 18thcentury composers?
First of all, I discovered Baroque through Swedish mezzo soprano Anne Sophie von Otter and truly liked it. Secondly, I realized that to sing Verdi, Puccini and Mozart I would have to stand one step behind the sopranoand reach for handkerchiefs, and chairs, and be supportive as they sing their arias. By singing Baroque, on the contrary, I would get to sing several arias. And then of course I also realized that it was perfect for my voice.
In your Carnevale 1729album you sang a collection of 14 unknown Baroque hits from the 1729 Venetian Carnival. How did you come up with the idea and why this specific selection? 
The inspiration came from those cheap CDs you can buy at any gas-station: “Greatest Hits 1985”, “Summer Hits 2010” etc. I began to imagine what an album from the 18th century would have been like, what the “hits” of an exciting season in 18thcentury Venice could have been. We ended up picking the year 1729 because the Venice Carnival of that year had so many incredible arias written for the occasion that had miraculously survived. 1729 was a special year also becauseall the big stars of Italian opera had come back home after disagreements with their impresario, Händel,in England. This connection with such a well-known composer was also crucial to help us sell the record.
On that note, how do you cope with the fact that these composers, such as Orlandini or Giacomelli, while being amazing are very little known? Wouldn’t it just have been easier and more profitable to record something by Händel?
I am absolutely aware of this. And I obviously love Händel. In the case of Carnevale 1729, I thought that “using” his name to make people discover the other composerswould be a good idea. The same thing happens when you set up the program for a recital: sometimes it can be annoying, but you always feel that you should add a Händel aria so that people are happy. But recently things are changing, and both record companies and fans are starting to appreciate unknown composers.
Is there a composer in particular work that you think would deserve more attention from musicians and the public? 
Well, there are several. I would say Pietro Torri, Giovanni Porta, and of course Geminiano Giacomelli. Yet it is not easy to popularize work. They are basically unknown, and there is not a single famous piece from them that the public can connect with to get an idea of who they are. Also, you need to do a lot of research because scores and editions are scarce. Finally, there is a negative bias towards unknown composers, the idea that if they had been so good they would not have been forgotten.
If it is not about quality, why is that are some composers more known than others? Why Händel and Vivaldi and not Torri and Giacomelli?
It is about quality, but only to a certain extent. There is no denying that Händel, for instance, was unique. He truly had a God-given gift. But there are other aspects we should take into account: some composers were only present in their time, they wrote music for a living, maybe they didn’t travel much. In other words, they did not think of music “for eternity”(this is something that only became relevant later, with the “genius” culture). They had one commission after another, and they were extremely good at their own craft. So, yes: Händel was a genius, and maybe Torri was a genius too, only he did not manage to have his work performed in theatres for as long as Händel’s Messiah, and thus to become equally popular. Sometimes it’s just that people love to listen to what they already know: and in that sense, everything that is familiar has a great advantage over the unknown.
What’s your favorite genre when it comes to performing?
AH:Opera was my first love
and I have been doing it for 25 years. It is magic indeed, both onstage and behind the scenes. I love the behind-the-scene dance, with people perfectly coordinating to make everything perfect! But it also very hard work, and a lot of time away from home. Besides, singing operas can sometimes be frustrating these days, because the power of the directors has become so overwhelming that it occasionally takes over the idea of the music. So, at this point in my career it has to be something really special. Nobody can believe a singer who sings everything. In this industry you must be capable of saying no. It is brave and refreshing at the same time.
How do you feel about curtain calls? What goes through an artist’s mind in that moment?
After so many years I am still terrified. I think the fear of not receiving an applause is every artist’s worst nightmare. It luckily never happened to me. When the applause comes, it is like the ultimate proof that you did your job well, and that the public is in a way giving back what you have tried to give them. It’s a sort of chemistry.
How do you cope with being an artist as well as a wife and a mother?
I am travelling about 200 days every year, so the real hero is my husband. It definitely is a teamwork, because if he didn’t take care of everything at home and with our daughter I would not be able to travel. I’m the one onstage, the one who gets the applause, but behind the scenes there is someone taking care of all the rest. As for meI remain a normal persondespite my staging career. I still love going out without makeup to buy milk in my hometown.
Your husband, Holger Schmitt-Hallenberg, is in the music field too. Does that help?
Holger is a musicologist, andmy living encyclopedia! This means that we can collaborate and that is just perfect. He has been working in theatres and he knows how my profession works. I never have to explain. But in general, I think that for instance two singers would have a hard time coping with a career and a family, because one of the two would have to step back.  
What do you like to do to relax once the hard work is over?
Knitting! I need to work with my hands. My work is gone the moment I do it. I sing, and it’s air. I need to do something more physical.

Author : The Slowear Journal

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