Olivia Vermeulen just sang in the very successful production of Il Primo Omicidio at the Paris Opera. We had the chance to admire a magnificent voice, very moving and full of light. Before joining again the maestro René Jacobs to sing Donna Elvira on tour, Olivia Vermeulen has agreed to answer our questions.
Can you tell us about what decided you to sing and about your debut ?
I always had a big interest in Classical music, since I was a little child. I sang a lot in school and I played the piano from 6 years on. But then one day I woke up, I think I was about 17, and I knew I wanted to be a singer, that was very sudden. I remember very clearly that I got out of my bed, went to my mum and said: I want to sing. “Where?” did she ask me. “In my life”I replied.
Then I took singing lessons, but a lot of people advised me not to study singing, since I was quite a shy girl. But despite that advise, I was convinced I wanted to become a singer. It took me a while though to get there, and I first studied one year of musicology, and I also went to Italy to learn Italian. I applied and studied classical singing in Detmold and Berlin, Germany, quite far away from my home, in Holland.
How would you describe and define your voice at this moment of your career ?
I always have felt very much “at home’” with the baroque and classical repertoire, singing lots of trouser roles in for example opera’s of Mozart and Handel. I like to sing coloratura, and my voice it quite flexible, and as a higher mezzo, it also has the possibility to go both high and low, so this is why I have been casted quite a lot for castrato roles. For example, on the “Didone Abbandondata” CD, released for Deutsche Harmonia Mundi, I sing the role of Enea, written for the castrato Gizziello (Gioacchino Conti). At his moment, I am slowly trying a little bit of “bigger” repertoire. I am going to sing my first Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni next month, also with René Jacobs. And I have concerts coming up, including the Missa Solemnis of Beethoven.
You just sang in Scarlatti’s Il Primo Omicidio at the Opéra de Paris. Could you tell us more about this project ?
From the beginning on, I was very touched by the story of Il Primo Omicidio, that of course we all somehow know. But combined with this music, you really see and hear the struggle of Caino, and I was very intrigued by that.
This production has been a fascinating experience. It is very different from all opera productions I have done so far, but maybe this is also because it’s not really an opera, but an oratorio. There is not much interaction between characters, and that made that we are all a bit isolated in this production, singing to the audience. I think also the staging of Romeo Castellucci contributed to this, since he is really a visual artist, and he created images around us, that we most of the time had no idea of, because we couldn’t see what is going on behind us.
Also, Romeo made almost a kind of choreography for us, with movements on the singing we were doing. This was not always easy for us, because we are more experienced moving around a lot, but it was interesting to do, and I learned a lot from it. I hope that we created a production that pleased the audience!
When did you start to collaborate with René Jacobs ?
My first production with René Jacobs was at the Berlin State Opera in 2016. I, again, sang a castrato role : Turno in L’Amor vien dal destino by Agostino Steffani. It was vocally one of the most challenging roles I have ever sung, and the production demanded a lot of energy from me, since I had to play a kind of warrior, and I also had to fence and I had to be very aggressive all the time. René wouldn’t take less than 100 percent effort of me, and that wasn’t always easy. But, thanks to his insisting, I managed to really give everything I had, and my debut there became a big success, and I am very grateful for that. I think he has the ability to see the capability of every singer, probably because he was one himself, and he always looks to find the best way for you how you can ‘own’ your role, and how to present it at it’s best.
Another thing I deeply admire about him, is the way he is devoted to the every piece of music he is doing. His scores are art works on its own, with lots of very precise descriptions. He is there during the whole rehearsal period, from day 1 on. And he will never stop inventing and trying out new things, and I think this makes his interpretations very vivid. For example, in order to prepare Il primo Omicidio, I of course also listened to the recording he made of this piece, about 20 years ago. But this time, he did everything so different ! Different tempi, different variations, different instrumentation as well. It became a new piece, our piece!
You have recorded Mozart’s Great Mass with Masaaki Suzuki, is it important for you to sing non operatic music ?
It is very important to me, almost more important than opera, to be honest. As an opera singer, you are sometimes a bit of a “marionette” in a big production, since so much depends on the director, the set, the costumes, etc. And as much as I love to dive in to a character and role, and as much as I like to play on stage with my colleague singers, I am more than happy to just concentrate on the music, and also be able to give more of my own interpretation to that.
And there is also so much repertoire that I am devoted to, for example the music of J. S. Bach, that is non operatic. I couldn’t imagine not doing that.
Is it important for you to sing with period instruments ?
I have been lucky to have worked with very good orchestras, both modern and with period instruments. I worked with fantastic modern orchestras, with a fantastic sound, so it is not that I would say that I prefer one over the other. But the sound of an orchestra with temporary instruments is incomparable of course. And what comes along with the period instruments, is the tuning, that can make a big difference for the voice. For the role of Donna Elvira for example, which I will be singing with the Freiburger Baroque Orchestra, the tuning will be 430 Hz. And although this is only a quarter tone lower than the tuning of 440 Hz, with modern orchestra, it makes a very big difference for my voice. And since Donna Elvira is very high, this is very welcoming. In other cases, it has the opposite effect to me; for example when I sing the alto soloist in the Messiah, this is very low for me. If I sing this piece with a baroque orchestra, the tuning will be 415 Hz. This is even half a tone lower, which makes it for me much harder to sing.
What are your main projects today ?
After the Paris, I am singing a concert performance of Il Primo Omicidio at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, and I’m very much looking forward to that, since it’s in my country. After that, I will record some Bach Cantatas for Sony, and then the Don Giovanni tour starts, with Freiburger Baroque Orchestra and René Jacobs. We will go to Korea, China, and Bahrain.
This spring I will do two other operas; one modern one, called The Hunting Gun (by Thomas Larcher), a revival of the worldpremiere that I did last year at the Bregenz Festival; this time we will go to the Aldeburgh Festival in the UK. Then I will also sing Cherubino again, at the Granada Festival.
This summer, I will come back to France, to do some concerts of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, together with Jérémie Rhorer.
Which artists would you like to work with ?
The most important thing for me is, that I work with people that are curious and willing to discover, and that, what seems logic but it isn’t always like that, really put the music above all. And that doesn’t always mean that you have to be historically correct, although I have a lot of respect for artists/conductors that search for this. But there are so many opinions on this, and for me, only to be historically correct, doesn’t necessarily make it interesting.
I have been really lucky to already work with great conductors, but for me for example Iván Fischer is such a musician, that is always willing to try out new things and also likes to push boundaries and explore further. I admire him a lot.
An artist I would have loved to meet during his lifetime, is Fritz Wunderlich. To me, he is one of the greatest singers that ever existed.
Apart from music, do you have any hobby ?
I have two small children, so I have very, very little time for anything ! And I guess my biggest hobby is sleeping. And, but this is hard to admit, I am a series junkie. During my time here in Paris, I watched Dix pour cent for example, and I really enjoyed it ! In order to stay healthy, I try also to eat good food and I do yoga and like to go for a run. Maybe these are also kind of hobbies?