Interview with Anne Sofie von Otter about For The Stars
NY Times, 2001-05-21
- Neil Strauss


Anne Sofie von Otter: Fresh Start

 ny_times.010521_small.gif (2981 bytes)
Fredrick Persson/Pressens Bild, for The New York Times
The odd couple: Anne Sofie von Otter and Elvis Costello in Stockholm last week.

However one describes "For the Stars," Anne Sofie von Otter's collaboration with Elvis Costello — or, for that matter, any of the future nonclassical collaborations she now envisions — she probably would not be offended if the word crossover was used in her presence. She might consider it a compliment.

"To me it's not a dirty word at all," she said recently by telephone from Paris, sick with a cold and unable to appear in Handel's "Ariodante" that night at the Palais Garnier. "I find it's a word that to me means cross-fertilizing."

She paused, then corrected herself. "No, that's not the right word. I'm thinking of when a bee helps an apple tree to go from blossom to fruit. Cross-pollinating. For some people the word crossover has a very commercial contrived smell about it. But to me it's been great."

In almost 20 years and more than 80 recordings, Ms. von Otter has never attempted a pop collaboration. The farthest she strayed from opera and art song was probably a 1999 album of Christmas music with a couple of carols that hint at the almost folksy intimacy that marks the best moments of "For the Stars."

"The West Side Boys and all that is not really my thing," Ms. von Otter said, referring somewhat inaccurately to the reigning pop trend of teeny-bopper bands like the Backstreet Boys.

So when she found herself embarking on a pop collaboration, her first reaction was fear. "I felt very insecure," she said, "because I thought: `Here I am, a performing opera singer next to these great pop guys. What will they think of me?' "

Fortunately, lack of admiration wasn't a problem in the studio. Part of the beauty of "For the Stars" is that its creators worked with great respect for each other but not longtime experience of each other's worlds, especially in Ms. von Otter's case. Instead, they met on a strange middle ground.

It was a meeting place created slowly, over two years, as they exchanged letters and cassette tapes, and Ms. von Otter was exposed to a new world of singers and songwriters she had never really listened to. These include Mr. Costello himself (whose "Almost Blue," an atypical album of country covers, was her personal favorite), Ron Sexsmith (to whom she took an instant liking) and Tom Waits, whose "croaky" voice (as Ms. von Otter describes it) took some getting used to.

After choosing a program, which included songs by the Beatles and the Beach Boys in addition to the above, the next challenge was figuring out how to perform it. Ms. von Otter's voice revels in contrasts: it is beautiful but sad, sweet but serious, earthy but schooled. For the collaboration, however, she wanted to vary her usual delivery by adopting a style with a sharp edge, but found herself blocked by her partner.

"Usually when I do my other songs," Ms. von Otter said, referring to her art-song repertory, "I'll try to hold back or do different things. But as soon as I tried something else with my voice, Elvis would get annoyed and want me to get back to what he called an honest delivery."

As a result, unlike many other classical singers, who choose to interpret pop songs as modern lieder, Ms. von Otter found herself reverting in her mind to her childhood, when her ambitions lay more in the realm of Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon than Maria Malibran and Marilyn Horne. In the studio she was forced to discard much of what she had learned over two decades and start fresh. Instead of projecting her voice and using classical vibrato, she had to rein in her vocals because Mr. Costello insisted she keep the microphone close for a breathier, more intimate pop sound.

Instead of recording a rehearsed program in just a take or two, as is done on most classical albums, she had to sing verses over and over, much to her consternation, to get them right. Instead of working with her regular recital accompanist, the pianist Bengt Forsberg, she worked to get accustomed on a couple of songs to the style of Mr. Costello's longtime bandmate Steve Nieve. And instead of working with baritones like Bryn Terfel, she faced the adenoidal voice of Mr. Costello.

"It's not so easy to sing with him," she said. "When we tried to sing both at the same time, our voices didn't work well. He could feel that also. So on the album we don't sing at the same time. Every now and then he takes a phrase. He said he'd had that experience before, and it's not so easy to have two voices blend, specifically when you have one singing the way he does and me with my well- brought-up, old-school trained voice."

Though it sometimes seemed as if Mr. Costello's aesthetic weighed heavy on the project, Ms. von Otter said that the process was truly collaborative. Not only did she include several songs that were personal favorites, like "The Other Woman," from Nina Simone's repertory, and "Like an Angel Passing Through My Room" by Abba, but she also had the last word. When the recordings were completed, Ms. von Otter decided that the backing music sounded too thin. So she went to the studio with Mr. Forsberg and filled out several songs with organ.

For the most part Ms. von Otter describes the songs on "For the Stars" as simple. But she said no condescension was intended. The collaboration has whetted her appetite for more such endeavors. "Some of the texts may not have been terribly deep, but they were fine," Ms. von Otter said with a characteristic measured enthusiasm that contrasts with Mr. Costello's unabashed fanaticism. "I sing because I enjoy singing, not simply because I need to sing complicated texts."

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company