Elisabeth Soederstroem stands at the head of a long table in the empty Music Center conference room, her back to the door. Having caught a few moments alone, the Swedish soprano is vocalizing and her voice rings out all the way down the corridor.
"Pardon my screaming," she says self-mockingly as she turns around. "But every extra bit of practice counts."
Fifty-nine, and still singing after four decades before the public, Soederstroem must know whereof she speaks. Yet, by some stroke of fate, she has never appeared in Los Angeles. When the singing actress makes her debut tonight with the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Andre Previn, she will do so one season short of her Metropolitan Opera farewell (she intends to continue singing elsewhere).
The irony scarcely fazes her. She pulls out two little green cards from a purse and holds them side by side, comparing her current artist's pass to Lincoln Center--where the New York press just heaped high praise on her Countess ("Le Nozze di Figaro")--to one dated 1963.
"I was absent from the Met for 20 years," she says in honeyed, kittenish tones that sound remarkably like those of Glynis Johns.
"My husband (a naval officer) and I decided that for the sake of our three sons one of us should always be at home. So while they were growing up I confined myself to Europe and our own Royal Opera in Stockholm.
"But I don't feel deprived at all, partly because superstardom has its own drawbacks. A person can be consumed by the extracurriculars of world renown. And then there's no time for the art itself."
What this candid, gracious lady says finds documentation in her career profile. Recognized as a connoisseur's singer, she was asked by no less a pianist than Vladimir Ashkenazy to record several albums of Russian songs--their collaboration was acclaimed by many critics.
Soederstroem traces her artistic persona to "a father who was a frustrated singer and a mother (Russian-born) who was a frustrated pianist. Understandably, they wanted me to study music," she says.
"But my first love was acting. After three years of voice lessons I made my debut at the little Drottningholm Theatre (where Ingmar Bergman filmed 'The Magic Flute") in Mozart's 'Bastien and Bastienne.' That was it. I was hooked."
But in the course of her career Soederstroem has moved from the lyric soubrette roles to heavier dramatic challenges--notably as the heroines of Janacek operas. For her Met valedictory she sings the Marschallin--having already done both Sophie (at the Met) and Octavian (at Glyndebourne), the other leading parts in Strauss' "Der Rosenkavalier."
Talking about tonight's program--which features Strauss, the final scene from "Capriccio," and excerpts from Berg's "Wozzeck"--she leans over confidentially to say, "I believe we're in a difficult age for the opera singer.
"We're fighting a new sound image, an electronic beef-up that amplifies tiny voices a million times on recordings and television. As a result, people experience acoustic shock in the theaters, which are larger. They want to know, where are the voices?'
"And orchestras, even for Mozart, get larger and larger. I wince, looking into the full pit. But set designers no longer provide the acoustic help of old-fashioned frames. Now we must depend strictly on the conductor."
Soederstroem recounts an experience with the late Rudolf Kempe, who "gathered the ('Rosenkavalier') cast together and asked: 'Why are you all screaming?' When we explained that singing over the orchestra required us to he said, 'That's my job, dealing with the orchestra's decibels. Yours is to sing beautifully, expressively.' "
She says she knows Previn to be "just as sympathetic a conductor" and will ask his permission to explain to the audience tonight the philosophical predicament of the Strauss heroine--"in order to fill in the dramatic context."
As for Marie (she sang the role recently at the Edinburgh Festival), the anguished wife of Wozzeck, the singer says this character "does not have to be loud and vulgar--she's merely a frustrated wife, hungry for love her husband cannot give.
"Ah, women," sighs Soederstroem, "they're forever suffering and being punished."