Mezzo Watch #5: Anne Sofie von Otter
Granted, this edition of Mezzo Watch is actually superfluous. It should be obvious and general common knowledge that Anne Sofie von Otter is among the very best lyric mezzos ever and actually, I wouldn’t need to write anything about this because everyone already knows.
But my history with Anne Sofie von Otter’s voice is also a personal one, since like no other, she is “the” mezzo to whose sound I grew up and into my own (yes, I DO have a history with Swedish mezzos prior to Malena Ernman and her arms).
Von Otter became a household name for me in the early nineties – due to her versatility, her unpretentiousness and her intelligent musicianship. Her sound is the perfect temperance of cool and warmth and she may be the only singer who is, to my ears, equally convincing in Early Music (Monteverdi, the Lamenti recording, the Holy Mary cantatas, THE Ariodante) as well as in classic (Mozart cycle under Gardiner for Archiv, Schubert songs), romantic (the Berlioz CD (oh, that cover!), the Grieg Lieder, the Offenbach recital), modern (Korngold, Weill, the Terezín album) and contemporary (any of her recent Swedish song recordings) repertory.
She produced the only “opera singer hopping onto the Christmas song train” Christmas album (two, for the record) that I will listen to voluntarily. That also goes for most of her other crossover albums, and in particular for the Costello-cooperation, “For The Stars”.
As a pre-teen, I was actually set on a path towards soprano diva worship (I have admitted to my Dame Kiri crush elsewhere) and the day the school’s music director put me from the soprano into the contralto section was a crush in quite another sense of the word. I didn’t want to be a mezzo.
The only mezzo I knew back then was Tatiana Troyanos on my Karl Böhm “Figaro” recording, and her voice was dark and fiery and I shied away from it as if I had known then already that inching closer would have singed me.
Today, the darker, more passionate and rougher voices attract me much more than the even ones, but as I embarked on my rocky teenage years, Anne Sofie von Otter’s voice was like a clear, warm beacon of light that embodied the promise of a future where things would finally make sense, including my own, awkward tomboy-with-a-perm self.
That intellect and craftsmanship enhance beauty instead of diminishing it is something that von Otter’s singing taught me first. And von Otter’s unpretentious femininity and tomboyish charms went a long way in convincing me that smart girls with short hair can make it anywhere. Also to opera singing tops. And that they look good at it, too.
The legendary “Ariodante” cover that had Donna Leon muse about heroes with a cleavage or the “Rosenkavalier” shot with von Otter in a suit jacket framed by Barbara Hendricks and Dame Kiri were iconic images for my teenage self. I still had no name for it, but I had found something that spoke to me, both in sound and in image.
[YTvideo with thanks to GiovanniCarestini]
By the time the 1994 Vienna “Rosenkavalier” took place, the amount of von Otter discs on my shelves was beginning to outshine the Dame Kiri collection (it since has, by a landslide) . And after seeing the Vienna broadcast, the Haitink recording – with its cover facing the room, of course – was the long-awaited birthday gift that crowned my early collection.
Each decade and each generation probably has “their” Octavian, be it Jurinac or Fassbaender (who had left the field by the time I came into my own) or von Otter. By now, it’s perhaps Garanča, but “my” ideal Octavian will always be Anne Sofie von Otter. I already see myself defending this to a couple of youngsters thirty or forty years from now, who have found “their” Octavian in a new mezzo.
To me, it will always be von Otter. Her Octavian is cool without being cold, sensuous without being voluptuous, clear without being disembodied, passionate without losing control. Also, her Octavian is tall, courteous and dashing and the living proof that elegance on a female body does not have to equal curves and cleavage. And that witnessing androgyny can affect your higher brain functions.
It also made me realize that I didn’t want to have Octavian (which would have been okay, since he was supposed to be a guy… or so did my teenage self reason), but that I wanted to be Octavian. (Yes, I do owe much of my coming out and my understanding of lesbian chic to a straight opera singer. Go figure.)
[YTvideo with thanks to rwprof]
As I grew older, and comfortable in my lesbian skin, other mezzos came along. I rediscovered Troyanos and what had scared me earlier turned into breathlessness of a different kind. There was Bartoli, and my first encounter with Kasarova. And then, Aimez-vous Brahms?, Fassbaender.
Anne Sofie on Otter grew a little older as well, and I followed her recordings (and the live performances that I was lucky enough to catch – I’m still convinced I can die happily as I have heard and seen her Ariodante.) as she explored and subsequently taught me new repertory, from early baroque to contemporary Swedish song.
Apropos song: next von Otter’s Octavian and Idamante, her Lieder recordings probably had the biggest impact on me – passed onto audio tape (from the discs borrowed at the municipal library) and worn out by years and years of frequent use. Many a song offered those little “Octavian moments”, as von Otter built a reputation of unapologetically leaving a song’s pronouns as they were and making no difference between female- and male-associated repertory. Anne Sofie von Otter singing Schubert’s “An Silvia” was one of the first moments where my kind of desire suddenly had a voice, and I remember it vividly. In the classic female repertory, her recording of Frauenliebe und-leben remains the only one I can listen to without choking on the text. And her take on Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfahrer made me survive the heartbreak over my first conscious female crush. To this day, I can’t listen to “Die zwei blauen Augen” without an echo of that ache.
And while, in front of our eyes, von Otter is gracefully turning into an elegant lady of a certain age – proving once more that femininity doesn’t need baubles, but thrives on sleek suits and uncompromising intelligence – she continues to be a steady aural presence in my life (coming up next: Bach cantatas!). And she continues to rock a suit jacket. And every year, it is not spring for me until I have sat down on a sunny afternoon and listened to her Grieg Song recording without interruption.
If I tried to put it into the words of prime soprano-shipper Sarah Noble, I’d say that Anne Sofie von Otter is my Yvonne Kenny.
Writing about von Otter’s voice, in working on this entry, has proven to be difficult, and I think it is because I do link so many personal experiences to the sound of her. It’s pure. It’s perfect. She is so much my ideal of clear and even sound that it is hard to describe her voice – how do you define the bullseye if not by the circles straying away from it?
Perhaps it is best described by that sensation I get when I catch, somewhere in strolling through a classical music department, or through the open window of a car passing by, or at a friend’s party in between contemporary pieces, a few notes and recognize Anne Sofie von Otter immediately: her voice, to me, still is that beacon of light that points towards an even, tempered state of serenity.
Listening to Anne Sofie von Otter is, in one word: home.