This interview was first published in 2014 on ilteneromomento.com. Photo : Elisabeth Frang
She was an outstanding Dido, a brilliant Serse and a fascinating Sesto. Every single performance by Malena Ernman is special, because she gives everything to the audience and always takes risks. She’s a superstar in Sweden, where she also works as a business manager and a TV host. Most of all, Malena Ernman has a modern and refreshing view on opera. She is currently singing with Cecilia Bartoli in a new production of Alcina in Zurich, with a huge success.
Can you tell us about what decided you to sing and about your debut ?
I was obsessed with music, voices and sounds at a very early age and I spent my entire childhood singing or arranging sounds and music into scores. I was the « wonder child » of my little home towns church choir. My first love was The King’s Singers! I wrote down every single note they sang on every single song and then sent it to them. Of course they were pretty surprised … and I actually got to see them live at the age of 14 in Zürich. My father was a tax expert for a Swedish multi national tool company called Sandvik and we were living in Orleans at the time. It was probably the biggest day of my life.
I was accepted at the Conservatoire in Orleans at a very young age too. I was 14 and classmate with Veronique Gens, who took care of me and helped me during those years. Then we moved back to Sweden after a couple of years and my debut was at Stockholm Opera in a modern opera Staden by Sven David Sandström with Anne Sofie von Otter and Loa Falkman (Peter Brook’s Escamilo many years ago). I stole the show, as they say.
You have worked as a TV host, have sung for the Eurovision contest and recorded « non-classical » CDs. Is it important for you to diversify your activities and to show another aspect of the life of an opera singer ?
Yes! I believe that we as opera singers are no different than jazz singers, pop singers or actors. We are performing artists. Or we should be ! Sure, our work is more demanding in many ways, but then again we also receive billions of Euros every year in tax money so I see no reason for us to complain. Pop and jazz gets nothing. And I believe that unless we are able to entertain an audience our art form will die. Not today. Not in a hundred years maybe. But one day it will… We have to take care of the artists of opera. Because there are not too many, and more than often they are excluded from the business at a very early age. Talent and skill is an absolute must le= »font-size: 12pt; »>We have to take care of the artists of opera. Because there are not too many, and more than often they are excluded from the business at a very early age. Talent and skill is an absolute must of course but charisma is hugely underrated. There are very few who dare to take real risks. I realize that we are tradition bearers but that can never be enough if we want to survive.
You’re currently singing with Cecilia Bartoli in Zürich Opernhaus’ Alcina. Does this production mean something special to you ?
Every production is special but working with Cecilia is always extra special. This is the 4th or 5th production for us two. I believe that no one has done more for opera than Bartoli since Jenny Lind. Simply because she is the only one since the days of Verdi and Wagner who has really succeeded in turning the volume back down, and therefore allowing the music to be gentle and musical again. Not just louder and louder… This is also a very feminine action in an art form created and completely dominated by men, with all the traditional male qualities being treated superior to the female virtues. Bigger, louder, stronger, etc. Loud is fine and loud is great, but there has to be dynamics ! Cecilia gave us back some of the dynamics.
You have worked several times with René Jacobs. What makes it special to work with him ?
We have worked many, many times and he is a brilliant conductor. He’s extremely demanding but I like that.
Can you tell us about your main projects for the future, and about the role you would dream to sing ?
I do not have a dream role. You see, I have worked for most of my life with an art form where lots and lots of the audience come to boo. Because they believe that opera is a tradition rather than an art form. My dream is to see real joy in opera. My dream is to see opera opening up to other art forms. My dream is to bring real opera a tiny bit closer to the non traditional opera audience. After all, Opera came to be as a kind of revolution against the all ruling power of the church but now opera is conservative to the very bone. I dream of that little revolution again !
You sang last year in big French Festival « Les vieilles charrues ». Can you tell us about this rather unusual experience ?
It was wild! 120 000 people in front of the main stage. We did 5 or 6 encores and it was pure, wild joy ! I’ve never done drugs but I imagine it would be something like that.
Apart from music, do you have other hobbies or passions ?
I run a production company and a small indie record label so that is about all the hobbies I have time for. In the autumn 2014, we will produce a new production of Xerxes in Stockholm with Ensemble Matheus and Jean-Christophe Spinosi, Kerstin Avemo, David Hansen, Loa Falkman. This is a 100% self financed opera. No grants. No sponsors. No donations. 30 performances. We want to do it as if we were an early, touring baroque company rather than a modern opera house. Because we believe that what we are working with came to be through theater and music artists making do with whatever they could… Performing!!
Our website is called « il tenero momento » after an aria from Mozart’s Lucio Silla. Do you know this aria and would you like to sing it one day (or have already done it !) ?
No I dont believe I have sung it. But I am wide open for suggestions !