Anna Larsson, a Swedish opera singer, contralto, sang this week in the Philharmonic in Krakow. She worked with many prominent conductors, performed on the best opera and concert stages. That alone is enough to ask Mrs. Anna Larsson for an interview. But when I found out that she and her husband are the owners of - attention! – a CONCERT BARN in Sweden, I knew I needed to talk to her. When visiting Sweden during the last more than 40 years, I saw so many of such barns! Wood painted in this so specific red is a typical view in the landscape of the Swedish countryside.
Władysław Rokiciński: Why did all started from Mahler? Coincidence, or a conscious choice?
Anna Larsson: I listened to Mahler’s 5th Symphony in Stockholm when I was 14 and suddenly understood what kind of music I wanted to sing. I also heard Birgit Finnilä sing Kindertotenlieder at the age of 16, and it was confirmed for me that Mahler’s music was what I wanted to sing. In those days of course, YouTube didn’t exist, so for me it was so important that the orchestras in my city played good music. I went to a choir school, where I had music lessons everyday, and we sang and learned to read music at a very young age. I didn’t have that at home so for me it was really important.
We have to make sure that the schools give all children, with any background, good music education. It will benefit society in so many ways.
You performed with very good conductors. What meaning does it have for a singer, who holds the baton?
It means everything to work with a good conductor. To be led into music by somebody more experienced than you, and to get respect from that person, means you can start to trust your own musicality and begin to build up confidence to show the world around you who you are. The artist becomes interesting when she dares to be personal. But if the conductor tries to control you and the orchestra, we can become stuck in trying to ”do right”, and there is no such a thing in music. We become tense and uninteresting.
Who, do you think, has/had the greatest sense of the human voice?
Singers love the conductors that have worked in opera houses maybe as house conductors or repetiteurs for years, before they start conducting big operas or symphonies. Karajan did that, also Adam Fischer and Antonio Pappano. A lot of the young superstars that immediately start with the big stuff don’t have that experience, and singers often need time for breathing and that the conductor’s understanding of text.
I loved working with Claudio Abbado with the Mahler symphonies and songs, with Brahm’s Alto Rhapsody. He showed me so much and I feel that thanks to him I am not afraid of taking risk musically (“Anna, if you don’t take risk, you are not an artist”), I would rather try and sing pianissimo even though it can be difficult. Also Barenboim has showed me how a great musician can be a communicator. His contribution to the society is enormous.
At the end of January, you will be giving a concert in Poland, in the city of Cracow. Will it be your first performance in our country?
Yes, this will be my first performance in Poland. I have Polish friends in Sweden and I always found it astounding how much contact with classical music and art these friends had when growing up. I’m looking forward to meet this audience.
With what repertoire, are you coming to us?
Me and the fantastic Swedish pianist, Francisca Skoogh, are doing some really special Alma Mahler’s songs, the classic and congenial Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -Leben, the mysterious and beautiful Zemlinsky’s Maeterlinck Songs and will end the program with some amazing Straus’ songs.
Your voice is a contralto. It is a rare gift, isn’t it?
Yes, I always thought that I was somehow strange, not having a feminine and sweet soprano voice. But when I met my teacher, Florence Duselius, she told me that this was a rare gift and as I then realized, Mahler and Brahms wrote a lit of repertoire for me (!). I was so happy. I have also gained the more and more high voice and can now sing also higher repertoire, such as Kundry and Brangäne.
You were singing in many famous opera theatres. And at the same time, you, you and your husband, built – attention! – a concert barn in a small, Swedish locality, which you are coming from. Where’s such an idea from?
We wanted to have our own space for concerts and chamber operas. We have commissioned three operas so far from Swedish composers. It is our playground and experimental place, to try and make the audience involved emotionally in operas, because they are about topics that are truly interesting. This summer’s opera by Albert Schnelzer is about a very famous bank robbery in 1973.
Is the project successfull? What kind of concerts do you organize in your Barn? What kind of audience comes there?
Every summer (in July) we have a festival called Songfest. We do the opera and also concerts with young singers, chamber music concerts and a very popular picknick concert. Around half of the audience comes from other parts of Sweden, and half of them from our area.
In Poland, a discussion goes on, in what way one could make the classical music more popular, and whether it makes sense. Is it similar in Sweden?
Yes. Orchestras are expensive. Operas are even more. Of course, the part of the population that are not interested will protest. But good classical music does save lives, the problem is that people don’t understand it until they have been experiencing it themselves. As Barenboim said: we have a huge responsibility for future audiences, we cannot sit in a tower. We need to communicate.
I think that projects like the ones Bernstein did in New York with ”young people’s concerts” are fantastic, but projects for children has to be really well executed, it has to be even better than for adults, because children see through everything. And schools have to be better in taking the subject of music seriously. Once we have the kids involved we can believe in the future of classical music.
Opera is a living genre of music, new ones are still being created. What title do you particularly value among the modern operas?
I love contemporary opera, it is so important that we give some repertoire for the future as well, and that we try and find ways to make newly composed opera accessible for the audience of today. I like the best known ones, like Benjamin’s Written on Skin, of course also Adams’ Doctor Atomic and Nixon in China. But there is so much more happening now on the European opera stage, with contemporary operas.
And for the end, something about dreaming. If you were to order a new opera, music and libretto, which literary work would you like to honour in this way?
I was saying to my husband the other day: ”We live in a dream”, because this is what we do. But there are some operas I would like to see, that need to be done in a much bigger house than our place with 300 seats in Vattnäs. Some of Astrid Lindgren’s children books would be amazing operas, or of course movies like some of the epic movies about the second world war. But it all comes down to the music. The story has to be told THROUGH the music, otherwise we don’t need to make an opera. Sometimes in contemporary music we don’t have enough of the characters on stage IN THE MUSIC. We need to get how we feel on the stage in the unconscious minds of the audience, without going through the intellect. That’s how the opera becomes really powerful.
Thank you very much for your time and conversation.
Thank you for your interesting questions.
Polish version can be found HERE