Von Otter, Anne Sofie
Anne Sofie von Otter
Swedish opera singer Anne Sofie von Otter has earned an international reputation for her flawless voice and adroitness in interpreting a variety of roles. She is best known, however, for her “trouser” roles—in opera parlance, the part of a young boy once given to castrated males—and critics deem her signature character as that of Octavian in Richard Strauss’s 1911 classic, Der Rosenkavalier. Though she has appeared onstage in some of the world’s greatest opera houses, von Otter is far more active in the studio, and her label, Deutsche Grammophon, issues frequent recordings of her work across a variety of classical genres. Von Otter’s singular specialty is in what is classified as “early music”—the first operas ever written during the Italian Baroque period—a genre to which “she brings intelligence, dramatic imagination, musical discipline, and a superb natural mezzo-soprano voice governed by a complete technical apparatus,” enthused Boston Globe reporter Richard Dyer.
As befitting the daughter of a diplomat, von Otter can sing in several languages, among them her native Swedish, German, French, Italian, English, Russian, Finnish, and Norwegian. She was born in 1955 into a well-to-do Swedish family, but her father’s posting brought the family to a new home in London when she was seven. Von Otter would spent much of her formative years in the city, even as a young adult. She returned to Sweden for her formal training in voice, graduating from the Stockholm College of Music in 1979, but studied further at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. During her Stockholm studies, her talents came to the attention of a conductor, Arnold Ostman, who invited her to perform at the International Vadstena Academy Summer Operatic Festival in southern Sweden. In one of her first performances, von Otter sang in a 1668 opera, La Comica del Cielo. As Astrid Lande, an executive with the Vadstena Festival, told Opera News correspondent Brian Kellow, those at Vadstena “knew that she would have a brilliant career. With some … you feel it from the beginning.”
Her work at Vadstena led von Otter into a contract with the Basel Opera in 1982, where she excelled in roles such as the flirty page Cherubino in Mozart’s La nozze de Figaro and as Sesto in Handel’s Giulio Cesare. She also sang at the Munich Opera on several occasions in the mid-1980s and was offered a contract with the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon label in 1987. She made her debut at the Royal Swedish Opera in 1988 as Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier. Remarkably, it would be the only time she ever performed there. That same year, she made her Metropolitan Opera debut in New York as Cherubino. In 1990, she reprised Octavian with the Lyric Opera of Chicago. With her technically superb performances, steady stream of new records, and striking Scandinavian looks, von Otter gained a steady following among opera lovers in North America. USA Today reporter David Patrick Stearns praised von Otter’s “shimmering, dark (but never matronly) voice that you can listen to for hours.”
Von Otter has also been cast in Der Rosenkavalier at London’s Covent Garden, the Bavarian State Opera, and Vienna State Opera. In 1995, a series of engagements with New York’s Metropolitan Opera in the Octavian role “rank[ed] among the most vivid and memorable pieces of comic operatic’ acting,” noted Commentary writer Terry Teachout. Von Otter has sometimes earned comparisons with another mezzo-soprano, Cecilia Bartoli, as well as Frederica von Stade, who sang at the Met for many years. “Occasionally, I’ll hear her sing and think it’s me!” she confessed to Stearns in USA Today about the likeness to von Stade’s style. The pair once met in the cafeteria of the Metropolitan Opera and carried on a conversation in which they “just talked about our children,” von Otter reported.
Von Otter made her New York recital debut at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall in April of 1996, in which she sang works by Swedish composers as well as selections from Strauss and Franz Schubert. She also appeared that year at the world-famous Salzburg Festival. “While she will probably never become a ‘superstar’—the technical perfection of her singing, and the emotional restraint characteristic of her recorded performances, are not qualities that tend to
For the Record…
Born in 1955 in Sweden; married Benny Fredriksson, a theater director; children: Fabien, Hjalmar. Education: Graduated from the Stockholm College of Music, 1979; further study at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London.
Made debut with Accademia Santa Cecilia, Rome, 1984; signed to Deutsche Grammophon, 1987; became regular performer with the Basel Opera, 1982; made Royal Swedish Opera debut, and Metropolitan Opera of New York debut, both 1988.
Awards: Recording Artist of the Year, International Record Critics Association, 1990; Artist of the Year, Gramophone magazine (U.K.), 1996; Grammy Award, National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, best classical vocal performance of 1999, for Mahler: Das Knaben Wunderhorn.
Addresses: Record company —Universal Music Group, Worldwide Plaza, 825 8th Ave., New York City, NY 10019.
inspire hysterical adulation among opera buffs—she is now generally regarded as one of the world’s finest classical singers, and the warm audience response at her New York recital suggested that wider popularity may yet be within her grasp,” asserted Teachout in Commentary.
A review of a 1998 recital recording of arias, Anne Sofie von Otter, from Ralph V. Lucano of American Record Guide served to elaborate on the divided opinion among opera-lovers about von Otter’s talents. Lucano described her voice as “near-perfect” and “astonishingly proficient”—but pined for “some nubs in the smooth vocal fabric, some peculiarity of diction, some personal quirk that would stick in the mind.” Yet other reviewers of her recorded work offer more enthusiastic words. Her performance on a 1996 release, Wings in the Night— featuring works by Scandinavian composers from the early twentieth century, including Edvard Grieg—prompted Opera News writer Kellow to note that von Otter’s “power to convey a specific mood is unerring here, whether she’s setting forth the eerie intimations of immortality in ‘En svane’ or the emotional peaks and valleys of Haugtussa, Grieg’s distaff answer to Schubert’s Die Schone Mullerin in which Von Otter sets the scene so vividly you can practically smell the crisp mountain air.”
Conductor John Eliot Gardiner, known in classical-music circles as a demanding, perfectionist maestro and leading figure in the early-music revival, has been influential in presenting challenges for von Otter to overcome that have allowed her talents to shine. She has also worked closely with Swedish pianist Bengt Forsberg, with whom she has made several recordings. Their 1997 work, La Bonne Chanson, highlights von Otter’s adeptness in switching to other styles of music. This recording of French chamber music from the nineteenth century won praise from Stereo Review critic Jamie James. “Von Otter’s program may at first seem like a strange selection of exotic, even alien oddments—and so it is! But it grows on you after a few listenings and becomes an increasingly easeful garden of unearthly delights,” James concluded.
A 1997 release from Deutsche Grammophon, Mahler: Songs of a Wayfarer; Five Ruckert Songs, includes compositions by a contemporary of Mahler’s, Alexander Zemlinsky. “The songs present a fascinating amalgam of the musical crosscurrents in 1910 Vienna, and … von Otter captures their spirit magnificently,” wrote George Jellinek in Stereo Review. In 1998, the mezzo-soprano was feted with an Artist’s Album by her label, which offered a retrospective of some of her best performances in a deluxe scrapbook-edition CD. The following year, von Otter shared a Grammy award with baritone Thomas Quasthoff for the Deutsche Grammophon release Mahler: Das Knaben Wunderhorn recorded with the Berlin Philharmonic. “Von Otter draws joyous propulsion from the lilting triplet waves” in certain songs, opined Joshua Rosenblum in an Opera News review, while skillfully negotiating the more tragic passages in the opera—moments in which, the critic stated, she “takes the drama to a much higher level.” A Los Angeles Times critique by Richard S. Ginell concurred: “Von Otter is marvelous, pointing out each word with emotional commitment and intensity.”
Von Otter released a collection of Christmas songs in Home for Christmas in 1999, which included some unusual selections such as “Corpus Christi Carol” from Benjamin Britten. The mezzo-soprano remarked in an interview with Billboard writer Bradley Bambarger that for this record, she had wanted to assemble “something cozy, with good humor, something that sounded like Christmas in Sweden—the dark, lighted candles, ginger cookies, skating on the lake in cold, crisp air.” The opera star prefers to spend her own holidays in Sweden with her family. She is married to a theater director and has two sons. “A lot of my colleagues travel around and don’t really live anywhere,” she told USA Todays Stearns in 1996. “It doesn’t help them at all, about how they feel about their lives.” Though she maintains a home in Stockholm, she almost never performs in her native country and has only appeared at the Royal Swedish Opera on that one occasion in 1988. “I don’t work much here, because when I’m in Sweden I want to be at home,” she told Kellow in Opera News. “It’s important to me to be there in the evening to put my children to bed. And of course I prefer to work abroad, because that’s where the good, interesting work is, and needless to say, they pay better abroad.”
Von Otter made another brief recital tour in 1999 with Musica Antiqua Koeln, performing songs from a recent recording together titled Lamenti. The effort showcased von Otter’s skills in Baroque music from the seventeenth century, including works by Vivaldi and Monteverdi. “On Lamenti and other records, her voice registers with much beauty, force and inscription,” noted an Opera News review. After witnessing one performance, the Boston Globe’s Dyer gave particular praise to von Otter’s rendition of a cantata from Vivaldi, which he described as “a torrential outpouring of feeling that sent her voice cascading over two octaves of despair.” British musician Elvis Costello is another fan of Von Otter’s, and the mezzo-soprano plans to record with him in the first year of the new century. “Elvis has got a ton of ideas,” she told Billboard’s Bambarger. “I don’t know anyone who is more productive than he is.”
Von Otter has been called “an unusual diva” in her Artist’s Album anthology. “I guess I am an unusual diva, in that I have no patience for being a diva,” she conceded in the interview with Bambarger. “I do my work to the utmost, and that is how I put out my energy. One’s career is so short—really, life is so short—that I don’t want to waste my time or anyone else’s.”
Tchaikovsky: Eugen Onegin; Levine, DGG, 1988.
Gluck: Orfeo et Euridice, DGG, 1989.
Handel: Der Messias; Arien; Chöre; Pinnock, DGG, 1989.
Brahms: Lieder, DGG, 1991.
Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro; Levine, DGG, 1991.
Grieg, Lieder, DGG, 1993.
Weill, 7 Todsünden; Gardiner, DGG, 1994.
Strauss: Der Rosenkavalier; Lott; Kleiber, DGG, 1994.
Beethoven: Symphonie No. 9; Gardiner, DGG, 1995.
Wings in the Night, DGG, 1996.
Opernarien; Pinnock, DGG, 1997.
La Bonne Chanson, DGG, 1997.
Mahler: Songs of a Wayfarer; Five Ruckert Songs, DGG, 1997.
The Artist’s Album, DGG, 1998.
Recital, DGG, 1998.
Korngold: Quintett/Suite/Lieder, DGG, 1999.
Home for Christmas, DGG, 1999.
Mahler: Das Knaben Wunderhorn, DGG, 1999.
Lamenti, DGG, 2000.
Folksongs, DGG, 2000.
American Record Guide, May 1996, p. 222; January/February 1998, p. 232; September/October, 1998, p. 304; January/February 2000, p. 229.
Billboard, December 4, 1999, p. 101.
Boston Globe, November 15, 1999, p. C1.
Commentary, June 1996, p. 55.
Los Angeles Times, August 29, 1999, p. 51.
Opera News, February 22, 1997, pp. 41-42; May 1997, pp.8-12; October 1997, p. 41; June 1999, p. 61; October 1999, pp. 61-62; April 2000, p. 103.
Stereo Review, April 1997, p. 75; September 1997, pp. 105–106.
USA Today, September 18, 1990, p. 7D; April 8, 1996, p. 4D.
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