For everyone unconvinced by prevalent notions of Carmen as a singing, dancing death wish, Waltraud Meier's Gypsy arrives as a breath of fresh air. In the Met's new production of Bizet's masterpiece, she flies on like a girl let out of school, radiant in the sunshine, itching to play. Her mind is quick, her spirits high. She has no dark side. The seductive charge of her Habanera is fantastic: seldom can the song have sounded so purely joyous (though Meier's handling of the glinting grace notes is scarcely the last word in elegance). Before the number is over, she is already laying cards, but teasing, wafting nary a shadow of prophetic gloom. The card scene itself comes off strangely: Meier seems startled by what she sees, only mildly disconcerted, and only for a moment.
This Carmen is no tragedy queen. Too self-centered and vivacious to be possessive, she follows her whims, bearing no grudges. The self-laceration of a Don José fills her with blank incomprehension; for her, other people's feelings simply do not exist. Only when Meier flings down José's ring, which she does with the shriek of a cornered tigress, does she see into his alien personality. Whereupon, without flinching, she marches straight into the knife.
Nothing Meier undertakes ever feels second-hand, nor does her Met Carmen -- her first since her career went international in the early 1980s. Hers is an interpretation in which clichés of the vamp and source studies into the char-acter's model in Mérimée's novella play no part.
Above all, Meier's Carmen reflects the clear, bright Mediterranean sparkle of the Bizet score. What defines her character is the music she sings.
Such, at any rate, is the view in this corner of a portrayal that found not a single champion among the principal New York reviewers last fall. The public responded more warmly than the press, without reaching the fevered rapture that greeted Meier's hair-raising account of Isolde's narrative and curse at the twenty-fifth anniversary gala for James Levine last season, or her all-German Carnegie Hall recital debut between performances of Carmen at the Met.
Yet in her indifference to convention and her fidelity to the expression of what the composer has given her to sing, Meier's Carmen fits right into the line of her better-accepted interpretations. The artist's rule from the beginning has been to prepare her material from the score alone. Early in her career, Meier passed up the opportunity to study the Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos with Sena Jurinac, a friend and renowned predecessor in the role. Until she has drawn all she can from her own inner resources, Meier wants no crosstalk from teachers, mentors or recorded precedent.
Her preparations start long in advance of a performance, sometimes years before. "The more complicated a part is," she says, "the more I can discover in it, the easier it is for me. I take everything apart and look at it from every angle. When there's nothing to work with, I despair." As significant as the periods of intense analysis are the extended spells in between, when Meier sets a piece aside for her indispensable "unconscious work." "The role," she explains, "has to work on me."
Whether as Kundry or as Bayreuth's reigning Isolde, or as a Santuzza whose bone structure and undomesticated expressivity bring to mind Garbo at her most haunting, Meier has long enjoyed virtually universal recognition as one of the supreme stage animals in opera today. From the moment she enters, even in concert, the spirit seems to possess her; her impact is instantaneous. Her art does not depend on the trappings of the theater.
Her reading of Mahler's "Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen" at the end of her Carnegie Hall program last fall may serve as one example of what she can achieve by vocal means alone. The poem presents one of those eerie nighttime colloquies between the ghost of a fallen soldier and his bride, who still waits for him back home. In heartbreaking accord with the pianist Nicholas Carthy, Meier evoked the anxiety, the regret and the smothered hopes of the sundered lovers in the misty dark, but that was not all. In the ghost's parting phrases, recalling the place "where the brave trumpets blow" -- the battlefield, in fact, where his corpse now molders underground -- a subtle, contradictory rush of new color conveyed a memory, still unextinguished in the breast of the dead man, of the mad euphoria that carries armies into battle. The ember flared for half a phrase and then died, leaving its afterglow to linger achingly in the mind. It struck me that somehow the ghost might stand as a metaphorical embodiment of Meier's understanding of music itself: "The time factor is so important," she once told me. "Music's above painting in that respect. As a performer, I am able to restore music to life. For a moment, it's all there, filling space, filling time. For that brief moment, it lives. And then it's dead."
Meier began her career twenty seasons ago, at the age of twenty, in her native Würzburg, birthplace of the X-ray, roughly halfway from Frankfurt to Nürnberg. In art-historical terms, the town's legacy is rich (the Düreresque woodcarver Tilman Riemenschneider worked here in the decades either side of 1500; the baroque master Giambattista Tiepolo painted his supreme masterpiece, Apollo and the Four Continents, on the ceiling of the Prince Bishop's mock-Versailles, officially known as the Residenz). But as a visitor soon discovers, the opera establishment functions strictly at the provincial level, which in Meier's case worked to her advantage.
Singing seems to have come to her naturally. She was not, she says, "mechanically clever," but like everyone else in her family, she was expected to play a musical instrument. When summoned to the piano she would slam the lid shut and sing instead.
"I got my first job the way the Virgin got the Child," Meier jests -- in other words, by a miracle. A student of languages and education, she began voice lessons in her late teens with the director of the opera chorus, who put her in line for part-time chorus work at the theater. The house was organized on the time-honored Fach system, each member of the steady ensemble occupying a well-defined niche, with contractual rights to (and responsibility for) particular repertory. When the first dramatic mezzo left the troupe, the choral director urged Meier to audition, and the house installed -- in the place of the departed Carmen and Eboli -- a prospective Cherubino and Dorabella. To start with, though, she was given Mascagni's Lola.
Meier was not fixated on a vocal career. "There was never any stress," she recalls. "I never felt I had to audition, I had to get a job. In the beginning, I thought, 'If it doesn't work at the theater, I'll go back to the university and become a teacher.' In the end, music was stronger." By age twenty-two, she had moved on to the respected ensemble at Mannheim, acquiring Carmen, Octavian and a dozen-plus mostly minor Wagner roles, among them, to her great glee, the aged Mary of Der Fliegende Holländer. Later stops in those formative years were Dortmund (where she first broached Kundry, Santuzza and Eboli), Augsburg and Cologne. Then came the breakthrough -- an unheralded, unforgettable debut as Kundry at Bayreuth in 1983. Got up à l'orientale in harem pants and tumbling turban, she stepped onto Wagner's hallowed stage like Valentino's Son of the Sheik, her dark, wounded eyes aglow with mystery, voicing her very first broken phrases in tones that smoldered. Those out there in the dark of the Festspielhaus squinted at the program to discover her name. Where on earth had she been?
Since then, Meier's Kundry has traversed other productions of Parsifal (not to mention multiple audio and video recordings) too numerous to mention -- an impersonation definitive for our time, yet in constant evolution. Her Sieglinde has opened seasons at the Met and La Scala. After several summers in Bayreuth, her Isolde sets forth shortly to conquer Munich and Vienna, with other venues under discussion.
Inevitably, questions have been raised about the wisdom of her excursions into heroic-soprano territory. Meier pooh-poohs these concerns: "People go on and on about big voices and big houses. It's all Quatsch." Quatsch -- baloney. When conversation gets lively, Meier's classically pellucid stage German often lapses comfortably into slang and the gently rustic cadences of Franconia. "The voice must be like a laser. If the sound isn't focused, it won't carry anywhere. There are small houses in Germany that sound like sacks of potatoes." Much of almost any role, she points out, depends on a well-placed parlando; a so-called "big sound" is called for at most three times an evening. Far more crucial than climactic notes, Meier maintains, is the courage to use the whole dynamic range, from triple piano to triple forte. Also a full palette of vocal colors: a scrupulous (occasionally studied) musician, she disdains the unwritten sobs, sighs and screams that many of her colleagues resort to for lack of fine shadings of timbre.
Whether or not one subscribes to these principles as a general matter, Meier has so far been able to make them work for her. Her readings of the most exposed parts have inspired reviews of rare excitement: a voice "metal-tipped, liquidly vibrant," said London's Financial Times apropos of her first Isolde, in 1993, "lambently affecting and elating to contemplate."
Some singers are generalists, determined to prove they can do it all. Meier is not one of them. Her repertory, for all its diversity, is plainly too hand-picked, too personal, perhaps too quixotic for that. What unheard harmonies encompass the apparent jumble? Meier declines to speculate, even privately. Her choices of role proceed from the unconscious. "Does the character speak to me or doesn't it? It's like turning the dial on the radio: nothing ... nothing ... and suddenly there's a signal."
Though Meier came of age under the Fach system, her international career stands in stark contradiction to any concept of categories, of pigeonholes. First of all, she disregards conventional distinctions between soprano and mezzo-soprano; other singers, of course, have done so, frequently at some cost to their instrument. More to the point, her repertory ranges all over the map, with plenty of Wagner but also plenty of French -- especially Berlioz, Saint-Saëns' Dalila (which brings her back to the Met next season in another new production, staged by Elijah Moshinsky) -- plus selected Verdi (notably Amneris), verismo (Santuzza) and Expressionism (Marie in Wozzeck).
Moreover, she has sung Tchaikovsky's Maid of Orleans as well as the Klytämnestra of Strauss, a part she recorded live, to thrilling effect, in her only stage performance to date of Elektra. She has assayed Mozart's florid Donna Elvira, which probably even her most faithful admirers cannot consider an ideal fit. She still revisits the Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos on occasion, a role for which her vivid timbre and pointed diction are made to order, but has given up Octavian, to whose personality she feels she has lost the connection. Impresarios envision her as the Marschallin, a proposition that does not attract her, and as Salome, a role she signed on for, studied seriously for a while and then abandoned. The one new role in her datebook is Beethoven's Leonore (with the Chicago Symphony, in Munich and at La Scala).
Meier plays no villains, even when cast in roles conventionally viewed as such. "I have so much compassion with Klytämnestra!," she cries. "She isn't evil! She isn't an old witch! Her husband killed her daughter! She wants to make peace with Elektra, and Elektra won't let her. That's what drives Klytämnestra crazy! She's not a caricature. She's suffered tragedies, too." Meier is no less eloquent on the subject of Ortrud, which is not to say she sentimentalizes. "I hate it when people paint in black and white!," she exclaims. "No character is all one thing. Not even Elsa is 100 percent pure. The whole human spectrum is inside every one of us -- from mass murderer to Mother Theresa."
"I'm not exclusively an opera singer," Meier stresses, noting that she devotes fully half her career to concerts and recitals. "I love music in its pure state. It's bliss at the opera when the theatrical form of the production and the dramatic content are in perfect balance. But when either one takes precedence, the whole thing is a disappointment."
Still, are the conditions in opera ever ideal? Meier nods vigorously, swiftly enumerating three recent examples. Two originated at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris: the Daniel Barenboim-Patrice Chéreau Wozzeck and the Antonio Pappano-Luc Bondy Don Carlos. The most recent was the discreetly updated Riccardo Muti-Liliana Cavani Cavalleria Rusticana at last summer's Ravenna Festival.
In fact, the eagerly anticipated Don Carlos got off -- for her -- to a shaky start. At the premiere, the fierce, watchful intelligence and drop-dead glamour of her Eboli riveted every eye, even as discerning ears pricked up in grave alarm. No bel cantist, Meier attacked the melismatic arabesques of the Song of the Veil with desperate bravado -- to no avail, nor could she make her voice behave in the dramatic outbursts that ought to have been more congenial.
"I had a big Italian mezzo sound in my ear," Meier recalls, although from the front of the house she seemed to be recasting the princess along the vocal lines of Ortrud. "I was trying to make a big dramatic noise. I knew it wasn't working, but no one would tell me the truth, and no one knew how to help me." By the end of the run, however, a veteran coach from Vienna advised her to scale back from her heavy Wagnerian artillery to a tone of greater lightness and more flexibility. Suggestively, he let fall the word "operetta." Meier switched gears in time for the live EMI recording, which documents coloratura no less sketchy than at the premiere but decidedly closer to the mark in mood. In consequence, Meier's whole trajectory through the part now makes sense. "My strength is more to the second aria," Meier notes. And now that strength unfolds.
Her criterion of excellence is not perfection but immediacy, truth in the moment. "Es muss immer besser werden," she remarks -- the work must keep getting better, and she does not expect it to be easy. "I'm not here just to sing accurately and in tempo," Meier says. "If that were all there is, I'd stop tomorrow. Music reflects my philosophy of life and allows me to live that philosophy. But it isn't life itself. When I sing, I want to say something, to myself as well as to other people. The goal is to discover -- to discover who I am, what my purpose is, why I'm in this world. I don't know if I can reach that goal, but I can head in that direction."