Jane Henschel — An Interview

There is scarcely a major international opera house at which Henschel has
not delighted and astonished audiences; and, she’s been a regular
performer at festivals including Edinburgh, Glyndebourne and Salzburg. Her
repertoire encompasses practically all the significant mezzo roles by Verdi,
Wagner and Strauss, plus Puccini, Jan·ček, Bartok, Stravinsky,
Schoenberg, Weill, Henze, even Bizet and Berlioz. Moreover, Henschel has
regularly appeared on the concert platform, in works such as Mahler’s
Eighth Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde. Critics repeatedly admire
her powerful, clear singing and the magnificent warmth of her voice, as well as
her attention to dramatic detail.

I meet Henschel during rehearsals for the revival of Willy Decker’s
production of Peter Grimes at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden,
where she is to perform the role of Mrs Sedley. She has previously appeared in
Britten’s tense, tragic opera about the tortured and alienated fisherman,
taking the role of Auntie (in Salzburg and Dusseldorf), but this is the first
time she has played the eerie laudanum addict who is such a sinister and
persuasive force within the Borough community. I point out to Henschel that she
seems to be making a habit of playing, ‘the baddie’ — having
recently performed Jan·ček’s steely matriarchs, Kostelnička
and Kabanicha, and Strauss’s femme fatale Clytemnestra. Henschel

“It’s one of the advantages of being dramatic mezzo rather than
a dramatic lyric soprano; I love getting my teeth into these roles, taking an
audience by surprise … and I really enjoy playing ‘nasty’

Indeed, earlier this year her imposing impersonation of the Witch in
Hansel and Gretel at the ROH won many accolades: “Henschel was a
Witch of heroic Wagnerian calibre” but she was no “mere
caricature” and the performance was “all the more malicious for
presenting a properly sung portrayal”. She instinctively appreciates and
integrates the way music and text cohere to create meaning, producing
convincing drama of deep expression and emotion. As one critic observed,
“With high-voltage singing combined with a detailed portrait,
[Clytemnestra] was much more than the cardboard-cutout evil one normally

JANE-HENSCHEL---JAN-10---CO.gifJane Henschel [Photo by Barbara Eichinger]

There is much ‘evil’ in Peter Grimes, but it is a more
subtle, cloaked and ambiguous malevolence, a malice which is deeply
disconcerting and troubling:

“It is one of those pieces that is more moving for the audience than
for us on stage. It’s the old truism — we shouldn’t cry, we
should make the audience cry. We have to find a distance; and because some of
the most moving scenes, such as with the child, are not actually on stage,
it’s a little easier to get that distance.” Other than Ellen, the
characters have little pity for Grimes, and while Ned Keene and Balstrode are
less judgmental, they cannot ignore or overcome the collective verdict of the
shipping village; and, this production emphasises Grimes’ existential

“The chorus is actually the biggest role in this piece
—musically it’s a very tricky role — and this makes the
atmosphere so claustrophobic. “

I remark that when I saw this production in 2004 I felt that the
rigidity of the community was emphasised, particularly in the church
scenes when they are literally all ‘singing from the same
hymn-book’, and that this is a very ‘anti-religious production.
Henschel agrees:

“And, the set helps this, with the high, straight walls, and the
tavern with its imposing back wall. I imagine when you see it from the front
it’s rather daunting. It’s very bleak and

How does she see her own part in the persecution of Grimes?

“In this production, Mrs Sedley has a crucial role — she’s
always watching what is going on, and she disapproves of the tavern, even
though she’s drug-dependent herself. In fact, her hypocrisy isn’t
emphasised in this production, because although it reveals her flaw, her
weakness, here it is her strength which is emphasised.”

Henschel trained at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles,
before moving to Europe where she sang in local repertory houses in Germany
— “that was actually my training” — where she was
fortunate to be able to sing many big roles away from the spotlight.

I ask Henschel if she thought it was usual, or necessary, for young American
singers to come to Europe to ‘learn the trade’.

“For a while there were very few American singers coming to Europe
because when the [Berlin] Wall came down lots of very talented Eastern European
singers travelled to the West, and perhaps they were willing to work for a bit
less money … but also, in America there more singing programmes, more
small opera companies and greater opportunities to sing, so there was not so
much need to come to Europe. But, now, finances in America are so tight that
young singers are again travelling here to begin their careers.”

Henschel truly values the opportunities she had as a young singer in a
German house; although the big Strauss roles came later, she was able to tackle
many of the major repertory roles, including Tristan,
Lohengrin and nearly all of Verdi — this is especially important
to her, as many of these roles she now no longer sings, except for Mistress
Quickly in Falstaff and Ulrica in Un Ballo in Maschera,
because, she says wryly, “no other mezzos want to do it!”

“In the end you have to find the place where you are better than most
people and stick with it. It’s great to be able to sing exactly what you
want to sing, but it doesn’t always work that way. […] I started
with dramatic repertory, even though I was just 24, because I was hired as a
dramatic mezzo — and it’s bad advice for any young singer but it
just worked out that way and I was able to sing all of those roles without
hurting my voice. But, I was always happy though to do the Messiahs and Bach
… and I still warm up with Rossini every day, because I believe that
really any dramatic voice should be able to move at least somewhat. If the
voice is so tense and so pushed that it won’t work quickly then you
don’t have the dramatic flexibility.”

I wonder if there any of the numerous roles she’s explored have been
less fulfilling.

“There is one role that I’ve done quite a bit but it’s not
my favourite role and that’s Kabanicha in Katya Kabanova.
I’ve done only one production, but I’ve done it all over, and
that’s the Salzburg production by Marthaler. And he had Kabanicha in her
bedroom along the side of the stage and so she was watching quite a lot of what
was going on; it made the role more interesting and more sympathetic, as it
showed another side of her. But, basically she’s a harridan and she has
no redeeming factors, and she screams all the time! On the other hand,
Kostelnička in Jenufa, is much more beautiful to sing; and, she
asks for forgiveness.”

Simultaneously, we both remark that in fact Kabanicha and Mrs Sedley have a
lot in common! They are similarly hypocritical; and, both push an individual to
the brink, enjoy doing so, and carry the community with them. “But Mrs
Sedley is more fulfilling to sing; they’re totally different — Mrs
Sedley is quite low whereas the other is quite high — it’s just not
screaming at people all of the time!”

Henschel also relishes teaching. Although previously she did teach
beginners, for the last three years she has taught only young professionals as
they start out on their careers. “I find it’s very rewarding, I
learn so much. You have to figure out what the problem is and why it’s
there. How am I going to get the singer to change it? How am I going to explain
it? And I find that although there are some things you say to every student,
there are other things that are individual — everyone is different. And
I’ve had to think about what I do, and it’s made me analyse my own
singing. […] I think singing needs to be as close to speaking as
possible — it sounds ridiculous but the more difficult you make it
… there are so many different ways of approaching it because you
can’t say ‘move this and don’t move that’, or
‘relax this but not completely’.”

Home is in Dusseldorf, and Henschel is always pleased to sing before her
‘local audience’, but future projects will continue to take her all
over the world — in the next few months to Madrid, Moscow, and Valencia.
The one role that Henschel admits that she would perhaps have liked to have
done is Santuzza in Cavalleria rusticana but she’s just
delighted to have “had such a wonderful career and it’s wonderful
to have been a part of this family here [at Covent Garden] for so many years.
I’ve been lucky too — there’s always a bit of luck
involved.” I point out that you need luck but you also have to take all
the opportunities that arise, to which Henschel astutely replies: “You
also have to be ready for them”.

Good advice for any aspiring performer. And, there may be many of those in
the audience of the schools matinÈe on Friday 17th June, when Henschel marks
her 100th performance at Covent Garden — an anniversary that, with
typical modesty, she fails to mention.

Claire Seymour

Peter Grimes opens on Tuesday 21 June 2011 and runs until Sunday 03
Jul 2011.

image_description=Jane Henschel as Elektra (Deutsche Oper Berlin) [Photo courtesy of Askonas Holt]
product_title=Jane Henschel — An Interview
product_by=Interview by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Jane Henschel as Elektra (Deutsche Oper Berlin) [Photo courtesy of Askonas Holt]