Since the repertoire is narrower for a mezzo than for a soprano, Randi Stene consciously extends hers with recitals, orchestral concerts and oratorios, in radio and TV productions, with old and new music and as a guest artist at young chamber music events as well as the older, more established festivals. She also specialises in chamber music from the mid-war period – most recently Kurt Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins. “That’s where the limit goes now,” she says – amidst a shower of critical superlatives.
In her case, the only deadly sin from an artistic point of view would be not to listen to her inner voice, the one that tells her where she should go, with what and when. And, not least, how long she must wait. She must not allow herself to be tempted too soon. She stretches herself a little further with each new important invitation she accepts, moving slowly and consciously upwards, step by step. But she says she has some years to go before she reaches the top.
Randi Stene’s international breakthrough came in 1993 as Octavian in a new production of Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier at the Châtelet Opera in Paris, a few months after her successful appearance in the world première of Boesmann’s Die Reigen in Brussels and as Page in a new production of Salome at the Salzburg Festival. Her Covent Garden debut came a couple of years later with Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro, the same year she sang Olga in Eugen Onegin at the Bastille Opera in Paris. Since then she has reaped critical praise at the New York Metropolitan and laurels at London’s Covent Garden for her interpretation of Silla in Pfitzner’s Palestrina (1997).
More praise followed her performance of Hansel in Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel at the Châtelet Opera (1997), and with the title role in Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice (Copenhagen Opera and guest performance at the Bergen International Festival, 1998) she achieved new success and was awarded the Norwegian Music Critics’ Prize. Her Carmen at the Brussels opera (1995), which was later performed in Paris and Oslo, was an earlier but very important victory, also at the personal level.
“I waited a very long time before I tackled Carmen. Vocally, I could have done it before, but I needed maturity to shape the role. When I felt ready, it was a victory, but I also know that I will grow in the Carmen role – I have more to give to it today than I did then. Now I am cautiously approaching Wagner, and know that this is the direction in which I shall move. In my field, Verdi’s roles are generally wicked women; Wagner’s characters have more dimensions and are more challenging, and Kundry in Parsifal is a long-term dream.
Her first Wagnerian trial by fire – Brangäne in Tristan and Isolde – was extremely successful and also the only time the mezzo could imagine being a soprano: Isolde’s wonderfully beautiful Liebestod must be the most fantastic thing a singer can do! But Brangäne was fantastic enough, with a debut in 1998 in Copenhagen, where she currently lives and it all began.
Fancy being an opera singer! An unimaginable idea in her childhood, when Randi Stene lived in the rural municipality of Byneset outside Trondheim, although even then she liked to sing and perform. Ever since she was a child growing up on a small farm, she had a feeling that one day she would do something connected with music, although she didn’t quite know what. She played piano from the age of eight and today regards it as having been extremely important in developing her musicality. She regards the time she spent playing the trumpet in the school band from the age of ten as being useful rather than important: the experience of playing with other people was an asset, so was the breathing technique.
The singing was more difficult to pin down. Randi sang in a children’s choir at the municipal music school and later in upper secondary school, where she opted to major in music, and in a gospel choir. She was often asked to sing solo parts and always did well, although her voice was neither light nor angelic. She describes it as being “dark and heavy”, and far from an easy instrument to deal with. It is rather complicated, a voice that it took time to build up technically and whose register had to be extended considerably. The critics call it full and flexible, expressive and voluptuous.
After she finished school, and still not knowing quite where her artistic path would lead, she applied to the Music Conservatory in Trondheim and the Norwegian State Academy of Music in Oslo and was accepted by both. Her intuition obviously told her that the time was ripe for a change. Her home municipality was not big enough for the special field she knew she was to be a part of.
After five years at the Academy, she moved on to the Copenhagen Opera School. The long process of development began with Susanna Eken, from whom the singer still takes lessons, and the teacher did not conceal the fact that it would take time to fully develop her talent. In the meantime, Randi Stene gathered valuable experience as a concert performer with a varied repertoire, which she is still enthusiastically extending. In her third year at the Opera School, she signed a contract with the Royal Danish Opera in Copenhagen.
“The Opera School was uniquely developing, but even though I was an experienced debutante, making my debut as an opera singer was hard. I had to be persuaded very forcefully, there was a lot of resistance to overcome! It’s one thing to sing and quite another to act,” says Randi Stene today, adding that finding freedom on the stage and adapting to life in liberal Copenhagen was a cultural shock for the farm girl from Norway.
There were more shocks in store. The Copenhagen Opera, which also houses the National Theatre and the famous Royal Ballet (and where chaos and rebellion are currently the order of the day), has soul, atmosphere and masses of tradition in its three-hundred-year-old walls. Randi Stene enjoys singing there, although the stage is rather small for grand opera. Her meeting with the big stages in Europe and the US were a different kind of shock. She had to adapt quickly to the acoustic differences between small and large stages, and also between large stages, and she regards the Metropolitan Opera as having the best acoustics of them all.
“Oddly enough, it is often more pleasant at the big opera houses than the small ones. The greatest singers are not prima donnas, they are self-assured and easy to get on with. As you gradually learn to accept the madness of certain conductors and directors, allow yourself to be inspired rather than frightened by them, not to take the things they say personally but extract the useful bits, you also build up the strength to resist them!”
Randi Stene refers to German director Willy Drecker as being particularly kind. Her successful Olga in Eugen Onegin was with him, the most demanding director she has experienced but also the warmest and most generous. She also describes her cooperation with conductors such as Christoph von Dohnanyi and Antonio Pappano as being constructive. The latter was recently appointed to succeed Bernhard Haitink at Covent Garden, which is currently undergoing metamorphosis.
“As a permanent member of the ensemble in Copenhagen you are protected, but at the big opera houses, for example Covent Garden, you are often better looked after. The opera directors don’t let you sit alone in the dressing room after a performance. They know what to say, and give you the feeling that the entire company is creating something together. In Brussels, I felt that they supported and helped me, and that obviously contributed to the success of Carmen.”
Randi does not seek the security of a permanent ensemble. She never enters the stage without trepidation, but she does not need a colleague to hold her hand. She creates her own security in other ways, preferably in cooperation that stretches over the entire production period. She isn’t good at jetting around and jumping into finished productions; she is the kind of person who needs time.
“The expectations after the breakthrough in Der Rosenkavalier were high, but each project can’t be a new Octavian. For me, it is most important to work steadily. I am happy that my singing has become a career that ticks along nicely and doesn’t just involve moving from one gigantic challenge to the next,” says the singer, who is nevertheless facing several, among them Katya Kabanova, and is constantly searching for a new repertoire. She is pleased about the frequent offers to sing her more extreme repertoire – Zemlinsky, Pfitzner, Alban Berg, Weill. Another important challenge is her family. Like so many female singers, she says that childbirth had a marked effect on her voice.
“When you have a baby, something happens to your personality that has a positive effect on your voice. In my case, I dare more, am freer physically. Since my daughter was born, I have been aware of my body in a different way. I have also realised that my daughter is more important to me than I am, and it is extremely useful to find out that the stage is not the only thing in life!” says the singer, who with her Danish cellist husband is expecting her second child this summer, her most important task in 1999.
One of last year’s very special assignments was in her home country, where she was appointed Festival Musician for the Bergen International Festival. In ten days, she gave six concerts with a repertoire chosen by herself, including Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, a recital on the theme of women and love, a concert with the new music ensemble Cikada and the Gluck opera.
“It was exciting but exhausting, and not something I intend to repeat too often! On the other hand, I’m glad that I don’t have to make my living singing Mimi.....”.