June 10, 2009 / 5:54 PM / 10 years ago

From ABBA to "Lulu" -- a Swedish singer's progress

LONDON (Reuters) - If someone had told Swedish soprano Agneta Eichenholz she’d make her debut with Britain’s Royal Opera singing the lead in Alban Berg’s sinister and dark “Lulu,” she’d have thought it was a prank.

But that was before her friend, opera director Christof Loy, tapped Eichenholz a year ago to sing one of the most demanding roles in the opera world.

She took a deep breath and signed on to play the femme fatale who is introduced five minutes into the opera as a snake and goes on to destroy almost every man, and even some women, she runs across.

Eichenholz, 38, who has only been singing opera professionally for nine years, and made her mark in Sweden performing in a musical by ABBA founders Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, is on stage almost every minute in “Lulu,” which opened on June 4 and runs through June 20.

It is a role which, in Loy’s spare staging with only a bit of stage blood and a plexiglass screen as props, Eichenholz says makes her feel “naked,” even if she manages to keep her cocktail dress on her slender frame all the way through.

“Actually I feel very naked...even if I’m not. When you don’t have any props you just have to go for everything yourself and that’s of course hard work but it’s so much more interesting when you’re not trying to hide from things,” she told Reuters in an interview this week after her second performance.

Hide she can’t, not from the critics, one of whom said she sang with “bristling, vocal athleticism,” another of whom thought she was not really up to the role and was “overparted,” nor from Jack the Ripper, who in the misogynistic vision of the Wedekind plays the opera is based on, slits her throat in the end.

The following is an edited version of what else Eichenholz had to say:

Q: What do you think of this opera that has been described as deeply unflattering, if not outright hostile, toward women, and which portrays Lulu as scheming, manipulative and absolute poison for all the men she meets?

A: Maybe she is, but I blame a lot of other people for that.... She’s manipulative later on but not from the beginning. She’s more pure. But then she learns how to, and also she loses her attraction and then she gets really obsessed with everything. She’s just got to go on because she doesn’t even have the power anymore.

Q: Berg’s music, which in this opera includes everything from carnival tunes to the atonal style that was in fashion in the 1930s when it was written, is very demanding. Is this a hard role to sing?

A: I can’t find any other parts like this...I have been struggling a lot but it starts to feel quite good...I will always have some notes which are really hard because I am not normally singing this really, really high (range) repertoire.

Q: There’s a lyric in the opera where she sings that if she were a man, she’d want to be her husband. It’s a very odd thought.

A: Yes, that’s a really hard phrase because then you have to be so confident. But she’s so tired of men she wants to do everything for herself. It’s such a stupid thing to say —but not for Lulu.

Q: Isn’t it a long way to come, from ABBA musicals to this?

A: That was a musical which is nearly like an opera, by the ABBA people and it’s fantastic but it’s very typically Swedish. It’s four hours long, like an opera but with a little more modern music... It’s great but I found out that musically for me it is a little bit too low and my voice was working better higher up. I had sung a bit of classical before that...I was singing in churches and choirs and so on. And then I thought, ‘Let’s just try to sing some opera’.

Q: But it was Mozart you mostly sang, with a bit of Handel thrown in. Do you prefer that?

A: Mozart is maybe what I really feel most for, and even Verdi. I just love to sing ‘La Traviata’. I will sing Mozart after this. I have to go back to where my voice really works well and I feel good about it. I don’t think you can sing ‘Lulu’ too much, you have to sing things in between.

Q: Do you feel there is anything of Lulu in yourself?

A: A lot. You don’t go to that extreme, but when I was a teenager of course you have to try out ways. She goes so much further with everything but...she’s quite a normal person. And I have also been through some tough things and then you also react in quite a stupid way sometimes and just try to heal yourself and hopefully I have succeeded a little better with my life than Lulu.

I think everyone has a destructive period...maybe even more so for girls. I think girls can be quite hard on themselves and also to each other. We don’t see much of that because there are not many women in this opera. But if there had been women, the world for Lulu would have been even harder.

(Alban Berg’s “Lulu” is in repertoire by the Royal Opera at Covent Garden through June 20 www.roh.org.uk)

Editing by Paul Casciato

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