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Soderstrom Specializes in Daunting Repertory : Soprano to Sing Haydn, Britten Rarities

February 19, 1988|DANIEL CARIAGA | Times Music Writer

Elisabeth Soderstrom laughs when reminded of how a large part of the audience at her Los Angeles Philharmonic debut in November, 1986, walked out before the end of that concert. The early-leavers thus deprived themselves of hearing one of Soderstrom's most special singing moments, the finale from Richard Strauss' late opera, "Capriccio."

"I think I scared them away, by singing (excerpts from) 'Wozzeck' in the first half," the Swedish soprano said Tuesday. "Oh, well. We'll keep on trying."

The admired veteran singing actress--often named in the elite of that breed--seems to have retained her sense of humor, as well as her artistry, in the 41 years since her operatic debut at the Drottningholm Court Theater in her native Sweden.

This week, Soderstrom points out, the repertory of her next Philharmonic appearance is no less daunting. The 60-year old soprano does not continue appearing on the world's stages for the purpose of performing familiar arias. Tonight and again Sunday afternoon, with Andre Previn conducting, she sings rarities by Haydn and Benjamin Britten.

Britten's 1936 cycle for soprano and orchestra, "Our Hunting Fathers," is, according to Soderstrom, "very important music that should not be forgotten. I have sung it a lot, since I first performed it, way back in 1951. Ever since then, I have been suggesting it to conductors.

"It is a work that exists on several levels. It deals with the relation of humans to animals--and, by extension, to each other. Why is it not performed often? Well, it is very difficult . . . and it has a quiet ending. Some singers don't like quiet endings for an orchestral appearance. But I for one, until the day I cannot sing any more, will continue to suggest it."

There are also several levels to Haydn's "Scena di Berenice," Soderstrom's other assignment on the orchestra concert this week.

Having already bid farewell--"Not officially, but practically," the singer specifies--to performances at the Metropolitan Opera last season, Soderstrom says she is still not ready to retire from the stage.

"I don't want to be a stage director, though many others keep offering me chances to go into that field. But, as a singer, I am not signing contracts three years ahead, as I once did, because I can't guarantee the voice will be there, three years from now.

"So, I regard every day as a gift. And I'd like to make the most of every engagement I accept. At this point, there's no need for me to repeat myself, or take on standard roles that can be sung by the many gifted younger singers we have.

"I want new challenges, things that tickle my imagination. And I'm so pleased to tell you that (American composer) Dominick Argento has finished an opera for me, which will receive its premiere at the Dallas Opera in November. It is 'The Aspen Papers,' based on a story by Henry James--and has been done both as a play and a film.

"In the cast we will also have Frederica von Stade, Richard Stilwell and Neil Rosenshein--quite a family! My role is that of a woman of 90, at the beginning of the opera. Then there are flashbacks, to when she was 30, for instance. Of course, I am looking forward to it. I have not ever sung anything by Argento, but I have studied his songs. I find his style quite congenial."

For Soderstrom, what can happen between a singer and her audience is a musical experience outside the area of entertainment.

"There should be an intensity when people listen to music, since listening is valuable only when it is active. For me, it is more important to communicate than to sing a pretty note.

"This is one of the things I try to tell the young singers who attend my master classes. Try every experience, musically, I tell them. It is worthwhile not to follow in the paths of others, but to find one's own way. Do something different, try something new. What you learn is never wasted--all knowledge is intertwined."

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