Soprano Nadja Michael made her San Francisco Opera debut exactly seven years ago in the title role of Richard Strauss’ Salome. Directed and choreographed by Séan Curran, the Bruno Schwengl production was packed with shock and awe. Nadja’s artistic resources – colossal vocal chops, Olympian grace, histrionic clout – were suddenly the talk of the town. At the drop of her seventh veil and free exchange with the head of the preacher man, Nadja advanced to the center ring as a high dramatic soprano. Since then she has performed Salome at the Bavarian State Opera, Hamburg State Opera, Municipal Theatre of São Paulo and come November/December at the Royal Swedish Opera. In 2014, she returned to Munich for her role debut as Emilia Marty in The Makropulos Case, then repeated it at the 2015 Munich Opera Festival. When SFOpera announced in early January that she would sing Emilia in the Fall 2016 revival of Frank Philipp Schlössmann’s production (premiered in 2010 with Karita Mattila), up went a collective gasp.
Nadja trained as a contralto at the University of Stuttgart. But later at the University of Indiana she and her teachers agreed that her ultimate arrival would be as a high dramatic soprano. Getting the voice there – clearing the upper chambers for the High B-flats and Bs she would eventually display in such roles as Cherubini’s Médée, Verdi’s Lady Macbeth, and for both Venus and Elisabeth in Tannhäuser – would take time and opportunity. Along the way, Nadja sang through the mezzo-soprano repertoire. YouTube has an early rendition of the “Seguidilla” from Carmen that shows her exit from the contralto rep and the appealing agility of her upper register. In April 2017, Nadja marks her role debut as “Elektra” at Teatro di San Carlo.
“I knew I was not a contralto,” said Nadja the day before the opening of The Makropulos Case at SFOpera. “Some thought I might be a dramatic mezzo. I was not a spinto soprano in the true Italian sense. I knew I was a high dramatic soprano and that I had to choose my roles carefully. I do not want to be pushed into roles I’m not ready to sing. I want to feel at ease, that my voice is ready.”
One way to appreciate the fanciful plot of The Makropulos Case is to simply peer above it with the same lens used for an episode from The Twilight Zone. The controlling gimmick is a magic elixir concocted for Rudolf II, King of Germany from 1575-1612. The potion promises the consumer 300 years of perpetual youth. Suspicious of its contents and guarantees, Rudolf ordered the inventor/physician to have his daughter drink it first. Three centuries later, the girl – now known as Emilia Marty, an operatic prima donna assoluta – needs to obtain the recipe because the clock is ticking down on her dose of the very-slow-release age defying/death defying tincture. She knows where it’s hidden and who to seduce to get it. The particulars regarding Emilia’s many identities, lovers, accumulated wealth, and countless descendants are almost inconsequential. What matters is Janáček’s exquisite score and his creation of an uber role for a mega dramatic soprano. I asked Nadja Michael about her own proactive measures for staying in shape.
“Yoga,” she replied.
“Emilia does have a comic element to her, but there’s not a lot of that onstage. She doesn’t allow anybody to come very close. She has this secret. We all know what secrets do – they keep you detached from the world. It’s horrible and very lonely. In my reading of it, she needs to substitute onstage. That way she can be the great lover. That’s why all the men fall for her. What they think they are seeing, what they think is the truth – is that here is the great lover. In reality, she is not at all what she is onstage.”
I alerted Nadja to a trick question. It is 1913 – “What roles would be in Emilia’s repertoire?”
She laughed. “Oh, no!”
“The reason I ask is that in the lawyer’s office is the clerk’s daughter, a young wannabe singer. She’s been clutching some posters of Emilia, saying over and over how great she is, then suddenly declares, ‘I’ll never be as good as her!’ What roles do you think Emilia would be known for?”
“Aïda, Elisabetta [Don Carlo], Leonora in Trovatore – all the great lovers. Everybody just falls for her.”
“In other words,” I replied, “if this were a Hollywood musical, Emilia Marty would play the leading blonde soprano who is carried through the streets on the shoulders of all the local cadets as they sing in four-part harmony about how much they adore her. So, what role might Emilia have been singing down at the local opera house that would have aroused this level of response?”
Perfect! Bellini’s “Norma” – High Priestess of the Druids – the ultimate measurement of what would have absolutely set Emilia apart from every other soprano. In the final scene, Norma cleanses her soul through self-immolation, thus uniting herself with the Divine. Emilia’s time is up and the formula has been torched. Born as Emilia Makropulos in 1585, her last words are, “Pater Hemon” – “Father in Heaven.”
Click here to purchase tickets on-line: The Makropulos Case