The diva once told an interviewer, "I'm a simple person, really, absolutely not complicated."
Sure, just like Henry Higgins was "An Ordinary Man."
Coming from Leonie Rysanek, a veteran prima donna, a soprano who at the time of the interview, in 1986, had achieved 37 years on the opera stage, the statement was disingenuous in the extreme. Denizens of the opera house, those survivors of the vocal marathons and career decathlons of musical drama, are among the most complex personalities on the planet--everyone knows that.
Yet, if Rysanek were to repeat the statement now backstage at the Music Center's Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, it might be believeable. For Rysanek is a woman of clear charm and lavish sincerity; she simply exudes, or seems to exude, honesty. She has done it on the stage for four decades. Offstage, it also appears natural.
Still, she contradicts herself. She says she loves a long rehearsal period--"For the 'Katya' in Paris, we had seven weeks of rehearsal. A luxury!"--but doesn't have the patience "for long philosophical discussions" at rehearsal.
She claims that "five or 10 years ago, applause was more important to me than now," then talks about the "ecstatic" feeling that came over her at the ovations which greeted her concert performance as Kostelnicka in "Jenufa" in Carnegie Hall in March.
She says one of the secrets of her vocal longevity has been that "I never oversing. In fact, I almost always under sing." Yet, talking about the stage intensity that has always characterized her performances, Rysanek admits, "I'm much calmer on the stage now, much less wild." Indeed, for some in her audiences, wildness, even the wildness that caused some notes to leave their true pitch, was what they came to witness.
It is Aug. 2, two months before the opening of Los Angeles Music Center Opera's presentation of Janacek's "Katya Kabanova," and Rysanek is sitting in her dressing room chatting with a reporter between rehearsals. She sings the role of Kabanicha, the heroine's mother-in-law, which she played last spring in France, in the same Paris Opera production to be seen here. (After the two dress rehearsals in August the "Katya" company disbanded until the opening.)
"We had been warned that the Parisians were planning not to like it," Rysanek recalls.
"But the actual audience and critical reaction was startling--it was a great success, with ovations after every performance, notoriety for the singers and, most exciting, sold-out houses and scalping of tickets. Very gratifying."
The same production team--conductor Jiri Kout and stage director Gotz Friedrich--mounts the opera here; in addition, as in Paris, Karan Armstrong sings the title role.
For Rysanek, it is another triumph--"Always unexpected," she claims--in a late-career string of achievements not necessarily related to the triumphs of her youth.
After making her debut, in "Freischutz", at Innsbruck in 1949, the young soprano moved quickly up the ladder. She appeared in Bayreuth in 1951, at the reopening of the Vienna Staatsoper in 1955, was first brought to the United States by Kurt Herbert Adler of the San Francisco Opera in 1956, then came to the Metropolitan Opera in New York, as Lady Macbeth and Aida, in 1959.
Rysanek experienced a career and vocal crisis in the mid-1960s, one she doesn't wish to talk about today--"I talked about it too much at the time." But she came back, giving thanks to, among others, then-Met manager Rudolf Bing and her second husband, Ernst Gausmann, whom she married in 1968.
Then, starting about 10 years ago, the Viennese-born Rysanek began refurbishing her operatic repertory (mostly, she does not sing concerts or recitals, she says) to include those villainesses she had eschewed earlier on, vocal challenges for a resourceful and experienced singing actress. Among these have been Kostelnicka in Janacek's "Jenufa," Ortrud in Wagner's "Lohengrin" and, perhaps most evil of all, Kabanicha.
"When I look for a role, I remember first that I'm not 20," Rysanek, who will be 62 next month, says matter-of-factly.
"Also that, no matter how extreme or complicated the character, I should be able to find somewhere in me a response to what happens to that character."
About Kabanicha, she comments, "Really, I have studied this woman very closely and, believe me, there is nothing good about her. Yet, I remind myself, there are women like her. It's not so far-fetched. With most of my roles, of course, I am able to find more facets. This one is all bad."
Another bad-behavior mother coming soon to Rysanek's gallery of characters is Klytemnestra, the mother of Elektra in Richard Strauss' shocker of that name.