Sechs Fragen an ... Hanna Schwarz - Deutsche Oper Berlin

From Libretto #7 (2023/24)

Six questions for ... Hanna Schwarz

Mezzo-soprano Hanna Schwarz sings the Countess in PIQUE DAME – a lady of colourful character and the keeper of a secret on how to win at cards

Is love all the more intense for being unrequited?
The three main protagonists in PIQUE DAME, Lisa, Hermann and the Countess, are all addictive by nature. But addicts are not capable of feeling true love. For them, love has to be as intoxicating as their urge to substitute it. Tchaikovsky pushes his characters to extremes, even to suicide. But this kind of love is not a head-over-heels love that is mutually affirmative for both parties.

So why do people sometimes seek out a situation that is not good for them, not affirming?
Our traumas are seared into our desire – and they tend to repeat themselves. It may seem a contradiction in terms, but unrequited love is usually a signal that we are not yet ready to experience true love. It’s sometimes as if we’re scared of how simple and nice love can be. And then there’s the independence element, which also goes hand in hand with love: if you can’t be content in your own company, you can’t find contentment in the company of another person. I also believe that we all have a side to us that wants to transgress boundaries, and at times it can get quite self-destructive. The question is: how much free rein do we want to give to this urge? How hard do we nudge at the boundaries? This opera gives us all these extremes: love, addiction, death. We get to experience all those conditions without the downside of being in danger ourselves.

If it were set in the present day, how would the Countess’s character be represented?
Maybe as a kind of hippie. She’s had a rambunctious past life in Paris, with free love, outside the strictures of marriage. Now she’s come back to her roots and is having trouble slotting back into bourgeois society. She knows her next lover will be her last, which means every flirt with Herman is also a flirt with Death. The act of love as the stroke of death symbolises her being drawn to the abyss.

At what point does desire tip into compulsion?
The vast majority of people have strong yearnings and longings. It may be for alcohol or just an urge to eat chocolate. The common thread is the drive to overstep the mark. Endless battling with temptation, a constant process of opting for or against a healthy lifestyle.

In opera we don’t tend to root for characters sung by mezzo-sopranos and altos. Why is that?
In German and Italian opera these voices are often associated with women in conflict with a female protagonist, but that doesn’t necessarily make them bad characters. You get wise women, characters who are knowledgeable, erotic, instructive.

How does that apply to the role of the Countess?
Tchaikovsky’s themes, more so than with Pushkin, go straight to the inner thoughts of his characters, to their private fears, desires and manias. The lonely Herman finds what he’s subconsciously been in need of: a woman who appears to give him the prospect of satisfying his childlike, erotic yearnings. On the other hand we have the Countess, whose wild years in Paris are now behind her. Her end is brought about by Herman, a man living the life that she no longer has, full of passion, lust for life, liberty and erotica. That’s what makes her fate – and her character – all the more tragic.

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