Information about Anne Sofie von Otter's album
El Pais, 2001-02-26
- Fietta Jarque, translated by Alex Valella, Mauricio Moyssén Chávez


Translated by Alex Valella


It is sometimes noted that the human voice is the most perfect of musical instruments. The genius of Elvis Costello has made possible the transformation of the cultivated voice of the Swedish soprano Anne Sofie von Otter into a supremely delicate fiber perfectly adapted to the popular song. This achievement is all the more impressive in that it comes about in a genre –that of opera singers interpreting pop music–, where so many disasters have been perpetrated.

But Mr. Costello denies all this, and shirks the credit for the transformation. "The human voice is a beautiful thing, if you find the right human", he points out with acid humor. It is ten in the morning, and the British musician is dressed completely a la Costello, with hat, glasses and an impeccable black suit. His way of sitting is somewhat sinuous (?Translator’s aside), but he seems at ease. Meanwhile, the soprano, dressed in sports clothes (??), looks out the window at the cloudy, Hyde Park scenery, and does some stretching exercises. She is also dressed in black.

"I very much appreciate Anne Sofie’s voice, but this project stems simply from our wish to work together.. It was an interesting idea because we wanted to create something in which she sang in a different way from her other recordings. To achieve this, we culled through many different songs in varied styles, and in doing so we got to know each other better. I must say that the process of listening to these songs was more fun than recording them", says Mr. Costello.

In For The Stars (Deutsche Grammophon), which will go on sale April 16, there are various Costello compositions -two of them written in collaboration with Burt Bacharach and Ruben Blades–, along with less well-known songs of Brian Wilson (Beach Boys), and other songwriters such as Tom Waits and Paul McCartney. An inspired combination was the juxtapositioning of McCartney’s "Broken Bicycles" with Waits’ "Junk", featuring accordion arrangements by ex Abba member Benny Anderson.

Although she may deny this, Anne Sofie von Otter does not strike one as a great aficionado of pop music. "I have listened to pop music", she defends herself, "people seem to think that those of us in classical music come from another planet, that we have no connection to the real world, particularly with the jazz or pop scene. I recognize that I am not suited to jazz singing because it requires a certain type of freedom and a way of thinking that I could never master if I were to start now. But pop is a different thing. I listened to it when I was in my teens. The music of the sixties and seventies –Joan Baez, Judy Collins– I don’t find to be too far removed from the classical way of singing. These women knew what they were doing, they had much technical knowledge. That is why I don’t find it too foreign.

"You try to launch your voice naturally, without making it come out of your abdomen as you do in opera singing. There are classical singers who can’t avoid doing imposing the classical way of singing on pop singing, because to them it is almost a reflex, they even talk the way they sing," says Ms von Otter imitating them. Mr. Costello is amused by her observation. The end result of their record, however, is a supple form of singing, fluid and yet at the same time controlled to the maximum.

If we talk about the voice as a privileged instrument, it is because in popular music it is not necessary that a singer be virtuosos. Some extraordinary singers, such as Tom Waits or Bob Dylan have relatively unusual voices. But Costello does not agree. "They may sound strange, but I believe that Tom Waits is a virtuoso singer. What happens is that he uses a wholly distinct vocal palette. Particularly in his concerts, he displays a surprising series of tones and colors that the majority of pop singers do not possess. Many have a single register, and that register is only a small part of the overall musical production. The difference with singers like Waits and Dylan is that they are usually recorded in kind of a naked way, the way singers like Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn, artists whose vocal beauty was acknowledged, often were. It’s probable that neither Waits nor Dylan could have ever become a classical singer, but the reason is that they weren’t trained in that way. There are singers who intentionally shy away from conventional notions of what a beautiful voice is, but they achieve the effect in different ways nevertheless. And others who do not possess a broad range, and who sing in too limited a register are capable of achieving astonishing results through the use of concentration, such as Billie Holliday. Achieving so much with so little is akin to painting in just black and white, something extraordinary," maintains Costello.

Costello mentions Mozart, Monteverdi and Strauss as some of his favorite composers. "I am not a big fan of operas with big sceneries, like Don Giovanni on the moon. I suppose it’s done for fear that the audience will otherwise be bored", comments Costello. "That’s what’s good about making records, you don’t have to deal with directors". The goal of popularizing opera, and making it more accessible to the general public has been tried, sometimes to great commercial success such as with The Three Tenors. The question of whether it ever occurred to Costello to do this record with Pavarotti draws from von Otter a small laugh and from Costello an enormous sarcastic laugh. But he turns serious when he addresses the issue. "Pavarotti is still a great singer, but I don’t think he has been very successful in his forays outside his repertoire. I am sure his aim was sincere, but the results were horrible musically. And it’s not as if his role was the worst of it; the arrangements were abominable. Projects like The Three Tenors stem from the marketing idea that famous arias can be popularized taken completely out of context. It has nothing to do with me and I do not condemn it. It’s like comparing an album of folk music with a rock and roll record. They are distinct," he notes.

It’s not necessary for Costello to attempt to avoid such comparisons, because even on first listening, it is clear that this record is a different form of music. One that brings with it an intimacy, and a sweet and solitary melancholy. It is also a very feminine record, full of sentiment. "I also feel that," affirms von Otter. "I know that when I sing leider a similar thing happens, maybe it has to do with the nordic climate. This type of music brings out something particular in me. The lyrics also help."

The connection between classical and pop music in Costello’s career, ever since his project with the Brodsky Quarter, have not ceased. "The opportunities have arisen, and I have taken advantage," he says simply. "The tours with the Brodsky Quartet were exceptional. It was a great experience, because those songs only truly exist in concert. Without getting into the complexity of classical music, these songs are more elaborate. I have had the opportunity of working with other classical composers, last year on a ballet in Italy, and it is always a learning process. It would be foolish to pass them up. And I didn’t learn how to write music until about eight years ago, and by that time I had written over 200 songs. I could get by, but I was having trouble communicating my musical ideas to musicians who usually were accustomed to receiving them in musical language and notations. As soon as I started learning I felt like a novice."

The attempts of contemporary composers, such as Michael Nyman or Philip Glass, to rejuvenate opera do not seem to enthuse either Costello or von Otter. "I haven’t seen these new stagings, but I do not like the minimalism inherent in it, the interminable repetitions. It appears to stem from a lack of imagination. Maybe it works in some movies, such as those of Greeaway, but I prefer the music that comes from the heart to that which comes from the mind," says von Otter.

Despite her satisfaction with the new record, the soprano is somewhat nervous about translating it to the stage. "I don’t know if I will be able to fit it in my schedule," she says somewhat defensively, but adds, "I know I work well in the studio, but I am not accustomed to the kind of audience and staging which this project requires. It intimidates me a bit".

Translated by Mauricio Moyssén Chávez

It is said that the human voice is the most perfect of the musical instruments. The genius of Elvis Costello has achieved that the educated voice of the Swedish soprano Anne Sofie von Otter transforms itself into a very delicate fiber perfectly adapted to popular singing. An achievment in a field, opera singers performing pop, in which so many babarities have been commited.

But he denies so and takes away from him all merit regarding this transformation. 'Human voice is beutiful, if you can find the correct human', points Costello, with acid humor. It is ten in the morning and the british musician is totally dressed as Elvis Costello, with hat, glasses and a impeccable black suit. His sitting in the sofa is a little sinuous, but he is comfortable. Meanwhile the soprano, dressed in sport clothes, looks through the large window the landscape of cloudy London's Hyde Park, and performs some stretching exercises. She's also in rigorous black.

'I appreciate Anne Sofie's voice a lot, but this project simply emerged from our wish to work something together. It was an interesting proposal because we wanted to get her to sing in a different way to howshe did in past recordings. In order to do so, we considered songs in very different styles and while we were choosing them we came to know each other better. The process of hearing them, I must say, was more fun than recording them', says Costello.

In For the stars (Deutsche Grammophon), due to go on sale on April 16, there are seversl compositions by Costello -two co-written with Burt Bacharach and Rubén Blades- along with barely obvious songs by Brian Wilson (Beach Boys) and others from authors like Tom Waits and Paul McCartney. A superb combination ties Broken bicycles, by the former, and Junk, by the second, with acordeon arrangments by ex Abba, Benny Anderson.

Although she denies so, Anne Sofie von Otter was not much into pop. 'Of course I knew some pop music', she defends. People usually think that those of us who come from the classic music world come from another planet, that we are not in touch with the real world and, definitely, with the pop or jazz scene. I know jazz is not for me because it requires a certain kind of liberty and a way of thinking that I would never come to master if I start now. But pop is something different. I used to listen to it all time as a teenager. Music from the sixties and seventies -Joan Baez, Judy Collins- I don't find itas far from classic singing. They knew what they were doing, had deep technical knowledge. That is why I don't see it so distant', she says.

'It is about throwing the voice naturally, without taking it from the abdomen as when you are singing opera. There are singers who can not help but impost it that way because it is like a reflex and they even speak so, with that tone', she says while imitating them. Elvis Costello finds this observation funny. The result on the record is a very sweet expression, fluid and at the same time controlled to the maximum.

If we start talking about the voice as a privileged instrument it is because in popular music it is not so neccesary to be a virtuoso. Even some great singers like Tom Waits and Bob Dylan have very dark voices. But Costello doesn't see it that way. 'It may sound strange, but I think that Tom Waits, as a singer, is a virtuoso. What happens is that he uses a totally different sound palette. Particularly at concerts, he displays an astouning series of tones and colors that most of popular singers don't own. Many have but one register and it usually is just one of the tiny pieces in the big puzzle of the production. The difference with singers like Dylan and Waits is that they usually are recorded in a bare form as they did with Ella Fitzgerald o Sara Vaughn, artists in which everyone recognizes a beutful voice. It may be that neither of the two has as many possibilities as a classical singer, but it is because they were not trained for thar. Many singers escape frome conventional ideas of beauty, but they have it other way. And others who don't have such an ample fan and sing with a very limited register are capable of achieving marvelous things with concentration, as did Billie Holiday. To achieve so much with so little is like painting with only black and white, something extraordinary', sustains Costello.

Costello counts among his favorite opera composers Mozart, Monteverdi and Strauss. 'I am not that affectionate to operas with great scenographic aparatus, the likes of Don Giovanni on the moon. I suppose they do it because they fear that people grows bored', coments Costello. 'That is what's good on making records, you don't have to suffer the scene directors'.

The atempt to make opera popular or to take it closer to the big public has been tried with such a commercial success as that of the three tenors. The question if it had occured to Costello to make this record with Pavarotti provokes a little laugh from Von Otter, and a huge sarcastic smile from him. But he turns serious to answer. 'Pavarotti is still a great singer, but I don't see as very fortunate his versions to themes out of his repertoire. I am sure that his intentions are sincere, but musically they are horrible records. That, considering his part is not the worst of it, but those horrendous arrangements. In products like those from the Three Tenors, the Marketing promotes the idea of popularizing famous arias taken totally out of context. It has nothing to do with me, but I don't condemn it. It is like comparing one acoustic guitar album and a rock and roll one. They are different', he points kindly.

There is no need for Costello to insist in avoiding comparisons for, after listening to him or even during the first hearing, it is evident that this is another musical species. One that immediately submits to the intimacy and a sweet and lonely melancholy. It is also a very feminine record, crepuscular in its feeling. 'I also feel it like that', affirms Von Otter. 'I know that when I perform lieder something similar happens, maybe it has to do with the climate in nordic countries. That kind of music extracts something particular out of me. The lyrics help as well'.

The coming and going between classical and pop music in Costello's career, from his relationship with the Brodsky Quartet, have not ceased. 'Opportunities have aroused and I have taken them', he says simply. 'The tours with the Brodsky Quartet were something exceptional. It was a great experience because these songs only exist in concert. Without arriving to the complexity of classical music, they are quite elaborate. I have had the opportunity of working with other classic composers, last year for a ballet in Italy and is always an opportunity of learning. It would be foolish not to take them. I didn't learn to write music until eight years ago and I had already written 200 songs. I managed well, but I wasn't able to communicate with the people who received a big part of this musical information in their language. Once I started I felt like a fool'.

The efforts of contemporary composers in renewing opera, like Michael Nyman or Philip Glass, don't seem to encorage neither of the two. 'I haven't seen these new assemblies, but I don't like minimalism, the never ending repetitions. It seems to me like a lack of imagination. It may work in films like those from Greenaway, but I prefer the music that comes from the heart, more than form the mind', says Von Otter.

In spite of the satisfaction with the results of the disk, the soprano feels a little shy with the idea of taking it to the scenario. 'I don't know if I will be able to fix it in my agenda', she says as an apology, but adds: 'I know it worked well in the studio, but I am not used to the kind of public and scenery that it would require. It freightens me a little'.


© Copyright DIARIO EL PAIS, S.L. (Miguel Yuste 40, 28037 Madrid-España | Tel: 34 91 33782 00)


'Muchos cantantes escapan a las ideas
convencionales de la belleza'


el_pais.010226_small.gif (3508 bytes)
Elvis Costello y Anne Sofie
von Otter.(MATS BACKER / DG)

Se suele decir que la voz humana es el más perfecto de los instrumentos musicales. El genio de Elvis Costello ha logrado que la cultivada voz de la soprano sueca Anne Sofie von Otter se transforme en una delicadísima fibra perfectamente adaptada a la canción popular. Un logro en un terreno, el de los cantantes de ópera interpretando pop, en el que se han perpetrado tantas babaridades.

Pero él lo niega y se quita todo mérito en esta transformación. 'La voz humana es algo hermoso, si se encuentra al humano correcto', apunta Costello, con ácido humor. Son las diez de la mañana y el músico británico está vestido totalmente de Elvis Costello, con sombrero, gafas de pasta y un impecable traje negro. Su forma de sentarse en el sillón es algo sinuosa, pero él se siente a gusto. Mientras tanto la soprano, vestida con ropa de deporte, mira a través del ventanal el paisaje del londinense Hyde Park nublado y hace algunos ejercicios de estiramiento. También va de negro riguroso.

" 'Como cantante, Tom Waits es un virtuoso. Sabe sacarle a su voz una inmensa paleta de sonidos' "

'Yo aprecio muchísimo la voz de Anne Sofie, pero este proyecto surgió simplemente del deseo de trabajar en algo juntos. Fue una propuesta interesante porque quisimos lograr que ella cantara de una manera distinta a como lo había hecho en anteriores grabaciones. Para eso tomamos en cuenta muchas canciones de muy diferentes estilos y mientras las elegíamos nos fuimos conociendo mejor. El proceso de escucharlas, debo decir, fue más divertido que grabarlas', dice Costello.

En For the stars (Deutsche Grammophon), que saldrá a la venta el 16 de abril, hay varias composiciones de Costello -dos de ellas escritas en colaboración con Burt Bacharach y Rubén Blades- junto a canciones muy poco obvias de Brian Wilson (Beach Boys) y otras de autores como Tom Waits y Paul McCartney. Una soberbia combinación une el tema Broken bicycles, del primero, y Junk, del segundo, con arreglos de acordeón a cargo del ex Abba, Benny Anderson.

Aunque lo niegue, Anne Sofie von Otter no era una persona muy aficionada al pop. 'Sí que conocía algo de música pop', se defiende. 'La gente suele pensar que los que provenimos del mundo de la música clásica venimos de otro planeta, que no estamos en contacto con el mundo real y, definitivamente, con la escena pop o jazz. Sé que el jazz no es para mí porque requiere cierto tipo de libertad y una forma de pensar que yo nunca alcanzaría a dominar si empiezo ahora. Pero el pop es algo distinto. Lo escuchaba todo el tiempo cuando era adolescente. La música de los sesenta y setenta -Joan Baez, Judy Collins- no la encuentro tan lejana de la forma clásica de cantar. Ellas sabían lo que hacían, tenían mucho conocimiento técnico. Por eso no lo veo tan distante', dice.

'Se trata de lanzar la voz con naturalidad, sin extraerla del abdomen como cuando cantas en la ópera. Hay cantantes que no pueden evitar impostarla de esa manera porque es como un reflejo y hasta hablan así, con ese tono', dice ella imitándolos. A Elvis Costello le hace mucha gracia esta observación. El resultado en el disco es una dulcísima expresión, fluida y a la vez controlada al máximo.

Si empezamos a hablar sobre la voz como instrumento privilegiado es porque en la música popular no es necesario ser un virtuoso. Incluso algunos extraordinarios cantantes como Tom Waits y Bob Dylan tienen unas voces bastante oscuras. Pero Costello no lo ve así. 'Puede sonar extraño, pero pienso que Tom Waits, como cantante, es un virtuoso. Lo que pasa es que él utiliza una paleta de sonidos totalmente distinta. Particularmente en los conciertos, despliega una sorprendente serie de tonos y colores que la mayoría de los cantantes populares no posee. Muchos tienen un solo registro y suele ser sólo una de las pequeñas piezas en el gran puzzle de la producción. La diferencia con cantantes como Dylan y Waits es que se les suele grabar de forma tan desnuda como lo hacían con Ella Fitzgerald o Sara Vaughn, artistas en quienes todos reconocen una bella voz. Puede que ninguno de los dos tenga muchas posibilidades como cantante clásico, pero es porque no fueron entrenados para ello. Muchos cantantes escapan a las ideas convencionales de la belleza, pero la tienen de otra manera. Y otros que no tienen un abanico muy amplio y cantan con un registro muy limitado son capaces de lograr maravillas con la concentración, como Billie Holiday. Alcanzar tanto con tan poco es como pintar sólo con blanco y negro, algo extraordinario', sostiene Costello.

Costello señala entre sus compositores de ópera preferidos a Mozart, Monteverdi y Strauss. 'No soy muy aficionado a las óperas con gran aparato escenográfico, tipo Don Giovanni en la luna. Supongo que lo hacen porque temen que la gente se aburra', comenta Costello. 'Es lo bueno de hacer discos, no tienes que sufrir a los directores de escena'.

El intento de popularizar la ópera o de acercarla al gran público ha tenido intentos con tanto éxito comercial como el de Los tres tenores. La pregunta de si se le habría ocurrido a Costello hacer este disco con Pavarotti hace soltar una risita a Von Otter, y a él una enorme sonrisa sarcástica. Pero se pone serio para contestar. 'Pavarotti es todavía un gran cantante, pero no veo que sean muy afortunadas sus versiones de temas ajenos a su repertorio. Estoy seguro de que su intención es sincera, pero musicalmente son unos discos horribles. Y eso que su parte no es lo peor, sino esos arreglos espantosos. En productos como los de Los tres tenores el marketing fomenta la idea de popularizar famosas arias sacadas completamente de contexto. No tiene nada que ver conmigo, pero no lo condeno. Es como comparar un álbum de guitarra acústica y uno de rock and roll. Son distintos', apunta con amabilidad.

No hace falta que insista Costello en evitar las comparaciones porque, tras escucharlo o aun durante la primera escucha, es evidente que se trata de otra especie musical. Una que remite inmediatamente a la intimidad y a una dulce y solitaria melancolía. Es también un disco muy femenino y crepuscular en su sentimiento. 'Yo también lo siento así', afirma Von Otter. 'Sé que cuando canto lieder sucede algo parecido, quizá tenga que ver con el clima de los países nórdicos. Ese tipo de música extrae algo particular de mí. Las letras también ayudan'.

Las idas y venidas entre la música clásica y el pop en la carrera de Costello, desde su relación con el Cuarteto Brodsky, no han cesado. 'Las oportunidades han surgido y las he aprovechado', dice simplemente. 'Las giras con el Cuarteto Brodsky fueron algo excepcional. Fue una gran experiencia porque esas canciones sólo existen en concierto. Sin llegar a la complejidad de la música clásica, sí son más elaboradas. He tenido oportunidades de trabajar con otros compositores clásicos, el año pasado para un ballet en Italia, y es siempre una oportunidad para aprender. Sería una tontería desaprovecharlas. Yo no aprendí a escribir música hasta hace ocho años y ya había escrito 200 canciones. Me las apañaba bien pero no lograba comunicarme con la gente que recibía buena parte de esa información musical en su lenguaje. Una vez que empecé me sentí como un tonto'.

Los intentos de compositores contemporáneos de renovar la ópera, como Michael Nyman o Philip Glass, no parecen entusiasmar a ninguno de los dos. 'No he visto estos nuevos montajes, pero no me gusta el minimalismo, las repeticiones interminables. Me parece una falta de imaginación. Quizá funcionen en películas como las de Greenaway, pero yo prefiero la música que viene del corazón más que de la mente', dice Von Otter.

Pese a la satisfacción con el resultado del disco, la soprano se siente algo tímida ante la idea de llevarlo al escenario. 'No sé si podré encajarlo en mi agenda', dice como disculpa, pero añade: 'Sé que funcionó bien en el estudio, pero no estoy acostumbrada al tipo de público y escena que esto requeriría. Me atemoriza un poco'.

© Copyright DIARIO EL PAIS, S.L. (Miguel Yuste 40, 28037 Madrid-España | Tel: 34 91 33782 00)