Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski’s Chantefleurs et Chantefables was the Norwegian soprano’s entrée to the international music scene. The work was first performed in 1991 at the BBC Proms with the composer conducting and young Solveig, to whom he dedicated the work, as soloist. Only later, when all the invitations flowed in from the US and Europe, did she understand quite how great it was. Following the Grieg centenary in 1993 and numerous Solveigs in Peer Gynt, she forged ahead in all the musical genres: opera, as a soloist with orchestras, chamber music.
Solveig had made her mark in Norway and Scandinavia well before then. After starting her studies at the Norwegian State Academy of Music, she moved to Musikdramatiska Skolan in Stockholm, where she learned twenty-five roles in three-and-a-half years and was thereby well prepared for the luck that accompanies a talent like hers. In 1987 she stepped into the role of Papagena in The Magic Flute at the Stockholm Opera at a moment’s notice without ever having performed on stage. She had no costume or wig – the measurements were taken during blocking – and didn’t have time to be nervous. She sang the role twenty-five times, a wonderful flying start. After that she sang Zerlina in Don Giovanni in Stockholm and Mimi in La Bohème at the Norwegian National Opera, being awarded the Critics’ Prize for the latter role.
Work and will power
Everything may therefore appear to have been easy for Solveig Kringelborn – born with a voice, a guest singer at the Vienna Opera at the age of 27, summer-blonde hair, sky blue eyes, pearly white teeth and peachy complexion, the epitome of Norwegian beauty. Easy? She had her first singing lesson when she was twelve and has worked constantly, with considerable self-discipline, to develop her voice, technique, musical expertise and repertoire from an age when most others spend their time putting caps on tramlines. Always with pleasure. Iron-willed pleasure.
“The first time I was at the opera, I saw La Bohème with my class. The boys threw paper aeroplanes at each other throughout the performance and I, who knew Musetta’s part, thought immodestly that I could do it better than the singer on stage. I know better know, but I also know that there were many raised eyebrows when I made my début as Mimi at the same opera house a few years later. No-one really believed that a light soprano voice like mine could bring life to the consumptive Mimi. I knew better then too – I’m no bubbly, twittering soprano,” says Solveig Kringelborn from the depths of the red sofa at her home in Drøbak, east of Oslo. The big windows look out over the floodlit Oscarsborg Fort, which guards the narrowest point of the Oslo Fjord. She has sung there, too.
It is February, only a few days before she goes to Covent Garden in London to sing her first Senta in The Flying Dutchman. She won’t be home again until June. Just like a world class athlete, she needs the support of a good team. Hers consists primarily of her husband and three children, all under the age of eight, her agent at IMG, who came into the picture the same year as the Lutoslawski performance, and her singing teacher, David Harper, a New Zealander living in London who also teaches Anne Sofie von Otter and Barbara Bonney. Her husband, Bjørnar Borlaug, formerly a newspaper editor, now has his own CD production company with all rights to and full control of his wife’s recordings. They are tired of other people making decisions for them and smile a little at the image of themselves as two control freaks, but if anything goes wrong they will at least only have themselves to blame. They met at the age of sixteen and have supported each other in all their ventures since then.
Fun in childhood
She grew up not far away from here, in the small town of Ås, as the third of five children, all musical – a kind of local von Trapp family. At family gatherings, the clan was so big that it provided a genuine audience. Solveig sang from the age of two, had a good voice and knew all the nursery rhymes and all the hits from the Eurovision Song Contest. “Do the Belgian one!” demanded her school friends, and she sang her way through Europe in the breaks. She quickly taught herself to play the piano, sang in a choir from the age of six, played guitar from the age of eight and always loved performing.
“I had fun in my childhood,” says Solveig, outlining a past reminiscent of an old film with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney producing a show in the barn. Eleven girls, who still stick together, produced a circus in Solveig’s garden every summer and guess who was the ringmaster! The entrance fee was sixpence, the swing frame the stage and the skipping ropes microphones. The costumes came from a creative local mum with an attic full of wigs and clothes from jumble sales. “We went on with these games until we were sixteen or seventeen and really too big for them, so we called ourselves a “drama group” to allow ourselves to continue!”
“Solveig has too much mercury in her backside!” said her teacher. She was an active child, involved in everything from girl guides to handball and Ten Sing. Today, she thanks her sporting background for part of her drive to find out how far she can push herself. Nevertheless, music and singing were her main interests – plus the fact that she was crazy about the theatre. She loves drama, which is obviously one of the reasons why she is so popular among today’s big opera directors. Her first question when offered a new role is who is directing, and she has very much enjoyed working with people such as Luc Bondy (Reigen and Cosi Fan Tutte in Brussels, The Marriage of Figaro in Salzburg), Peter Konwitschny (Eugen Onegin in Barcelona), Willy Decker (The Marriage of Figaro and Cosi Fan Tutte in Oslo, Eugen Onegin in Paris), Nicholaus Lehnhoff (The Bartered Bride at Glyndebourne) and Johannes Schaaf (Oberon in Zurich).
“Opera has been taken over by the directors now, and they are as concerned about your appearance and acting as about your voice. Sparks can fly between directors and conductors under the new regime. In Zurich, where they do eighteen new productions every year, John Elliott Gardiner and Johannes Schaaf had a row at the press conference before Oberon. It was a great success – but who are you supposed to flirt with?” asks the soprano with a big laugh.
“It’s exciting to take part in new productions. Two days before the première of Wozzeck in Zurich I thought I was on a sinking ship, but the house is so well run that when they put the pressure on they can turn on a sixpence and it was an enormous success. When the great maestro von Dohnanyi, who otherwise only says “Gut!”, “Sehr gut!” or “Wir müssen arbeiten!” said to me: “Das muss ich sage – Sie sind erste Klasse. Nein, die Erste in der ersten Klasse!”, I was really proud. You can also be extremely satisfied with yourself and get booed by the audience. Willy Decker was booed after Onegin at the Bastille Opera.
Her route from Ås to Covent Garden and the Metropolitan has not been through medium-sized German opera houses, as is otherwise so often the case for young singers. Solveig Kringelborn knows what is best for her. She doesn’t want to be one of all those pounds of new meat that are consumed in two very hot years and then cast aside, exhausted and forgotten. She was allowed to test herself (against the unions’ will) in a guest contract at the Norwegian State Opera while Antonio Pappano was musical director there. She then followed him as a guest to La Monnaie in Brussels, and now that he is the new musical director at Covent Garden, he takes her over there. Incidentally, her first teacher, Randi Helseth, sang major roles at the Oslo Opera, while her teacher and adviser in Stockholm was the fantastic Hjördis Skymberg, Jussi Björling’s partner.
Kringelborn has sung with the world’s leading orchestras and operas under conducters like Abbado, Mehta, Jansons, Salonen, Marriner, Rattle and Davis, and she regards Nikolaus Harnoncourt as being the most knowledgable person she has ever met. “We melt together!” she says of the maestro who wants singers to do their own thing.
Perhaps that was the decisive factor on a state visit to Poland in 1990 when the young soprano was a member of the Norwegian cultural team. She was nervous, had a bad cold and found encouragement in two small, smiling people in the front row. Only at dinner after the performance did she discover that they were not politicians but the famous Lutoslawski and his wife. He had had Chantefleurs et Chantefables lying in his drawer for years waiting to find the right voice for his settings of Robert Desnos’ seven beautiful poems, written in a concentration camp during the war to create a glimpse of light in a cruel existence. Six months later, the BBC called; Lutoslawski had made his choice, which brought Solveig to the Albert Hall and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
Her Fiordiligi in Cosi Fan Tutte in Salzburg in 1993 was the next major boost for her career. An outsider, she won the role in tough competition with ten others in an audition that went on for several rounds, won the “meat stamp” as she calls it. After singing Mozart everywhere for several years, Tatyana in Onegin was the next step. Offers for everything from Queen of the Night to Brünnhilde poured in during the same season.
“Of course I said no to both, but the offers say something about me as an operatic potato – I can be used for a lot of purposes! If you come from the Nordic region, they often put you in the German repertoire. You therefore have to make a real choice, in addition to what you are offered. I still have a light, lyrical voice, but in the longer term I shall have to use some of the other brushes in my paintbox – dare to take major steps, particularly in the direction of Wagner and Strauss. I have never sung Verdi and only a little Puccini but I would like to do Tosca when the time is right. I must also dare to accept an offer for four years hence, assuming that by then I shall be able to sing well what I can just about manage today. The offer of the Dutchman came in 1997, and after consulting with my agent and teacher I decided that the time was ripe. But my agent said that I couldn’t accept Mahler’s Fourth at the Proms the same year because that would confuse the audience! For the same reason, I had to say no to the Countess in Dresden, ‘if you don’t absolutely have to have the money!’ as my agent put it.”
The time for cattle calls was over. Solveig regarded the audition for Solti as a meeting with a legend. Her last audition, for James Levine in 1997, led to her imminent Metropolitan début as Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni under his baton and with Bryn Terfel, Cecilia Bartoli and Renée Fleming in the star-studded cast. Later in the autumn she will be singing Tatyana and in the 2001-2002 Met season she will be doing Eva in Die Meistersinger and Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus.
2000 is the big Elvira year. With the Israel Philharmonic she will be doing a concert version of the role on a comprehensive tour of Israel and at the Bastille Opera. In Zurich, Elisabeth in Tannhäuser is waiting in 2001, in Barcelona she’ll sing Lisa in Tchaikowsky’s Pique Dame in 2003 before doing her first Lady Macbeth from Mtzensk in San Francisco in the autumn.
In the midst of these demanding roles, Solveig Kringelborn is maintaining the “small format”. She enjoys singing lieder, where she can give most of herself and determine the tempo, interpretation and repertoire. When she was eight months pregnant with her third child, she sang Norwegian composer Irgens Jensen’s Japanisher Frühling to such ovations that this will be her next Norwegian presentation abroad. It will be recorded on CD for EMI by the family company Muzik this summer and more CDs of Norwegian music, including Grieg, are being planned.
“Phrases, feelings and colours are my goal. During the process I am quite cold and very critical of myself, pick each note apart, spend time establishing my voice and approaching the core – but when everything is in place the emotions come and sometimes the tears. When I sing the Vier letzte Lieder it all overflows,” says the singer, rather embarrassed. As she sits laughing in the sofa in her blue jeans with a biscuit in her hand it is difficult to imagine her as a remote opera diva on the biggest stages in the world. But then, that is precisely what she is not. It’s impossible to be a diva when a five-year-old stomps into the room in the middle of a rehearsal, screaming “I’ve had enough! Now shut up!”