June 2009, vol 73, no. 12
Seattle's New Flame
Cool reason lies beneath Janice Baird's incendiary performances. JAMES C. WHITSON speaks with the fire-and-ice diva as she prepares to take on Brünnhilde in Seattle Opera's Ring cycle.
Portrait Photographed in Seattle by Karen Moskowitz
Makeup and hair by Joyce Degenfelder and Patti Barila-Wilmot/Seattle Opera
© Karen Moskowitz 2009
"I'm brave when I'm absolutely sure of what I'm doing."

Unyielding authority: Baird as Seattle's Elektra, 2008
© Bill Mohn 2009
As the WalküreBrünnhilde in Zurich, 2008
© Suzanne Schwiertz 2009
I confess: after witnessing the absolute unyielding authority of Janice Baird's Elektra just before Halloween, I was fishing for reasons to cancel our lunch reservations at a Greek bistro the following day. Jangling after at least four cups of coffee, I braced myself for gale-force temperament from Agamemnon and Wotan's number-one daughter — and was surprised to meet someone who seemed equally wary of me. 

"She's just cautious at first, like a lot of smart people," says Seattle Opera general director Speight Jenkins. Baird bookends his 2008–09 season as Elektra and Brünnhilde. "She's very direct," Jenkins continues. "You feel her strength when you're talking to her. God knows it was true with her teacher Astrid Varnay. Donald Arthur [coauthor of Varnay's memoir] told me that she never stopped talking about Janice. Astrid really believed in her and felt that, of all the people she worked with, Janice was the one who was taking her lineage with her." 

Baird's musicianship, intelligence, repertoire — even her sound — frequently invite comparison to Varnay. Before I could mention their association, conductor John Fiore jumped straight to Varnay as the singer Baird brings to mind. "It's an organ-like voice. These days you hear mezzo-like sopranos who try to manage the top notes, you hear people with lighter voices who have pushed themselves into this repertoire. Janice is a true Wagnerian soprano. There's a burnished, round, dark quality to the sound, like some of the old-timers used to have." Fiore, in his final season as chefdirigent at Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Dusseldorf, was impressed with Baird's Brünnhilde in the company's 2003 Ring cycle. "She actually jumped in for Linda Watson, [who] had injured her leg during a performance in Washington. Janice and I didn't have to spend an awful lot of time discussing things, because, especially for people who know this repertoire well, you learn to hook into each other, and it was all very — as they say in German —selbstverständlich. It didn't require much discussion at all." 

Back in the Greek bistro, Baird breaks the ice quickly, spraying me in the face with a pickled peperoncino not once but twice. After stifling a laugh, she brings the conversation back to middle C, where her speaking voice usually hovers, and continues a description of what is expected of house singers in Germany: "I remember before a Götterdämmerung in Stuttgart, I was wandering around backstage, and I saw the Third Norn walking around looking very nervous — 'Have you ever sung the Norns?' She had lost her voice, and the poor kid was hysterical. So I sight-read it." She laughs. "I had a Sieglinde lose her voice in the middle of the opera, so I actually sang the duet with myself!" 

Baird's career has been a long and steady traversal through increasingly dramatic repertoire. "It's annoying," she chuckles, "I used to sing Tosca a lot, but you sing a couple of Wagner operas, and people stop associating you with Italian opera." Her frequent appearances as Turandot, Minnie and Lady Macbeth give the lie to this sentiment, and in European houses her reputation is built upon Strauss heroines, namely Elektra, Salome, the Dyer's Wife and Ariadne. But Baird's greatest acclaim comes from her compelling portrayals of Brünnhilde and Isolde. She attracted major attention stateside when she stepped in for Deborah Voigt midway through Act II of the Met's Tristan und Isolde on March 14, 2008. "I was in my dressing room, listening. And they came in and said, 'She's not feeling well and is going out.' You're in shock, and you flip into automatic pilot." Fifteen minutes later, Baird was onstage. "I hope that never happens again in my life. It was very exciting and all, but definitely a one-time thing. It was very emotional for me. I grew up in Manhattan, and when I went out at the curtain I got a standing ovation. I really wanted to start crying." 

"I would consider her and myself to be 'working' singers," remarks tenor Alan Woodrow, who has sung opposite Baird in the Ring, Tristan und Isolde, Ariadne auf Naxos, Salome and Elektra. "She rolls with the punches. If the conductor's kind of a moron or something like that, she doesn't allow herself to get into a state about it. I don't ever feel before a performance that I daren't talk to her because she's going to explode. I think it's probably because she's been through the German opera-house system, where a lot of you-know-what can be piled on top of you. Either you learn to live with it, or you crack up and you retire." 

Met Tristan
As Isolde to Gary Lehman's Tristan at the Met,

© Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera 2009
Baird's childhood and adolescence couldn't have been more precisely engineered for a career in opera. Her parents were both singers — her mother a pianist and her father a voice teacher — and she and her siblings were immersed in music. If they were not listening, they were participating. Baird also credits the strong city music-education system of her youth for her lasting ardor. "I had piano lessons from the age of five, and in my elementary school I even received free violin lessons. At twelve I changed to flute, which I studied seriously through college, and which gave me an appreciation for chamber music. I sang in public for the first time at around the age of six. Later on I sang in choruses and played in school and all-city youth orchestras." 

At seventeen, Baird began serious vocal study with her father, which continued through college, where she also studied Italian, German and Spanish. Her interests then led the ambitious young singer across the Atlantic to their source. "Hearing German and Italian music [performed] by German, Austrian and Italian opera singers and orchestras deepened my understanding of the music." Baird started in Perugia, moved on to Vienna and landed finally in Germany, where she resides, and where she met her husband, director Lothar Körfgen. Baird's keen interest in language has provided access to material she considers key to her characterizations. "I am able to read the journals and the notes of the composers in their own words, not translated by someone else." And although she returns to a few select coaches whom she has "known for many years, and whose ears I trust," Baird finds her most reliable and objective voice teacher to be "Professor Walkman — in other words, I record myself during rehearsals and am able to make corrections." 

Baird was initially pegged as a mezzo-soprano, but after just two seasons singing Amneris, Geschwitz, Santuzza and Eboli, she found that her voice "wanted to go up. Dramatic voices develop later. When you're a lyric coloratura, you know that at twenty-one. It's very clear. But people underestimate the stamina. It's not just singing some lyric roles and then trying the dramatic roles. It's a big step. I'm a naturally cautious person. I'm brave," she laughs, "when I'm absolutely sure of what I'm doing." 

The push toward Wagner was hatched by Birgit Nilsson and realized with the help of Baird's mentor, Astrid Varnay. "I had so many fantastic discussions with her. She was a good friend, and she was always very frank with me. She shared her experiences in Bayreuth with Wieland Wagner, who placed an enormous emphasis on conveying the meanings of his grandfather's text. Richard Wagner created a personal, historic, poetic language, which takes time and thought to really grasp. Astrid and I worked very [hard at penetrating] this complicated and deep language." 

"What is wonderful with Wagner is that you're given an incredible amount of background information about the characters," says director Robert Carsen, who worked with Baird in the 2006 Venice premiere of his post-apocalyptic vision of Die Walküre. "She was very happy for every suggestion — not just about 'go here, go there,' but the psychological construction of the character. She's a very responsive actress [who] manages to make those extreme sounds, those extreme vocal demands seem psychologically motivated, and not just what Hofmannsthal famously called 'Wagnerian erotic screaming.' She actually brings all that off, and the whole thing is coupled with a completely believable and rather mesmerizing physical presence, which makes the predicaments of so many of these young, confused people… I mean, that's what Brünnhilde is: she doesn't understand what's going on with her father, she doesn't understand why the values that she's been brought up with have been betrayed." 

Baird picks up the thread: "By the end of Götterdämmerung, Brünnhilde has had time to process what has gone on with her life. Of course, there is great regret. She realizes that she was manipulated, but she's beyond it at that point. It's very heartbreaking, actually. I think, unfortunately, much of it is lost, because what she goes through happens offstage. She comes back for the immolation scene after having digested that, so you're seeing someone who's already gone through the emotional process and has made the decision to kill herself. She's definitely heartbroken. To me, Brünnhilde is a very emotional person. I don't understand why people see only the exterior and not her interior life. It's all there in the music and the text. She loves her father, she trusts him, and in Die Walküre she's totally convinced that he is going to forgive her." 

As Turandot in Athens, 2008
© Stefanos 2009
The night before, another young, confused, emotional youth exacted bloody retribution for her betrayal. To Baird's mind, Elektra's heart really breaks in the recognition scene. "It's so beautiful," she says, her eyes starting to fill, "and it's so touching because of all the ugliness that comes before and the musical juxtaposition." As Elektra screams "Orest!" the great temptation for most singers is to convulse in an embarrassing array of seizure-like contortions. Baird resisted, keeping her noble bearing as she slowly paced toward her brother, the pain written only on her face. This Elektra wisely let the music do most of the work. "Elektra is obsessed, but she's very clear-headed about what she's doing," says Baird. "She knows how to love, but she's out of her mind in her own way. She's not half as crazy as Salome, [although] I do feel sorry for Salome. [You have to] feel pity for a girl whom nobody taught how to love." 

 presents a terrific challenge for any soprano capable of performing the Dance of the Seven Veils, as Baird has done for productions from Vienna and Berlin to Genoa, Palermo and Tokyo. "Rehearsals are hard for that, because you've got to do all of the rehearsals for the stage and then 'X' rehearsals every day for the dance." The dance at the end of Elektra, however, is a different affair altogether, with the soprano listing heavily from side to side, usually running on fumes. But Baird finished strong at last night's performance, and she smiles wanly at my quip about her Elektra two-step. "God," she sighs, "I hate the Elektra two-step." 

Renata Scotto first encountered Baird in 2002, when she assumed the role of Klytämnestra opposite Baird's Elektra in Seville. The two met again last year in Athens, this time with Scotto directing Turandot and Baird portraying la principessa di ghiaccio. "We gave her this beautiful velvet blue dress and a beautiful headdress," says Scotto, "so by the third riddle, her handmaidens had removed the cape and headdress, so she is only a woman figure. And if you have a beautiful Turandot like her you can do that, she can change her image." It's true that Baird defies the conventional image of a Wagnerian soprano, but what stayed with Scotto wasn't Baird's shapeliness. "When she is afraid of Calàf at the end, when he wants to kiss her — she wants but she doesn't want. You know, you really need a great actress to change her face with what's going on with the character. Janice look at the audience — her face look Cal-las. If you have a great actress, you see all the changes. Otherwise you see a steady Turandot — moves one hand to the right, and moves the other hand to the left. And the arms go up and down." 

I mention the term "crossover" as we finish lunch, and the arctic blast I expected earlier finally arrives. "Oh, it's awful — " Baird splutters before I can finish the thought, "I mean, there is such a thing as style! I hate it. All these crossover guys trying to sing "Nessun dorma" — horrendous! But what can you do? And it is affecting us within the business, [because] it starts to degrade the ear of the listener." 

Baird doesn't seem to mind being baited, so I casually throw the word "amplification" into my next question and smile inwardly as she chews it up. "No mikes. No mikes. Noooo mikes. I believe in the power of the human voice, and if that voice doesn't carry…. I used to love Broadway musicals, because they weren't miked and people who had really great voices would sing in them. The miking of the Broadway musical has destroyed it for me. I went to see Sunday in the Park with George, and it's all too loud and — what a shame!" Her voice has risen to concert A. "I love the physicality of singing, that something is making it from here to there. Human beings have a small throat! I remember hearing Leontyne Price at the Met. I'll never forgethearing that sound in the Met coming up at me." 

She leans back and grins. "I'm Elektra unplugged."  

JAMES C. WHITSON is an architect and writer based in Seattle. 

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