From Libretto #3 (2022)
Eight questions for ... Kathryn Lewek
Soprano Kathryn Lewek makes her debut in LES CONTES D’HOFFMANN singing three separate roles that couldn’t be more different in character.
Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta – three women, three voices. How do you go about practising that?
I go back to roles that I’ve done before. I started off doing linear coloratura stuff, like the Olympia part. Antonia is more lyrical with a different kind of legato, quite like a lot of roles I’m doing at the moment. The Giulietta is musical in quality and has more depth of character; I want to evolve more in that direction. It’s as if I’m travelling back and forth in time within my own biography.
The women are figments of a man’s imagination, Hoffmann’s. How do you approach that?
That’s precisely what makes them exciting. We might think Olympia is the dullest of the three, just a pretty shell and a lovely voice, but her attractiveness grows in the way she interacts with Hoffmann. In fact her bloodless appearance is what outs him as a man focussing on surface beauty. It’s not my job to confer depth on Olympia but to show Hoffmann up as stupid.
Do you have a favourite among the three roles?
Antonia, no question. She represents pure and heartfelt love, requited love. It all seems so perfect, which makes it all the more tragic when she’s prevented from singing and can’t express it. Her despair is quite close to the bone for me. If I knew that the act of singing would actually kill me, it would be absolutely awful. Who knows, maybe I would prefer to die, like Antonia does.
And yet you’d like to evolve more in the direction of Giulietta, voice-wise. Why?
You could say I’m drawn to the mystery and complexity of the women. I don’t fully get why Giulietta does what she does. If she’s sincere in her love for Hoffmann, why the lies and deception? My first thought was that her motive might be part of a backstory that we’re not given in the opera itself. But the more involved I get in the work, the less interested I am in getting answers. Because however much she’s acting from her own free will, she still exists only in Hoffmann’s mind, veiled in a secret that only he can solve. And as a singer, I have to keep this secret.
Some productions of CONTES cast three different women for the three roles. Any advantage in that?
I’ve always declined requests that just have me singing the Olympia role. There may be good reasons for casting rigidly according to voice, but I think you lose something in the process. I see Olympia, Antonia and Giulietta as three aspects of the same woman – Hoffmann’s opera-singer lover Stella.
A woman who is, at once, a bloodless shell, a pure and sincere lover and a puzzling cheat?
There are many sides to Stella. If you ask me, one of the key messages of the opera is: “Women contain multitudes”. It’s possible that Hoffmann is using his tales to narrate the course of their love story. He saw her first in her capacity as an opera singer but doubted she had depth of character. After that, they fell in perfect love – and in the end she betrayed him.
Sounds like a woman who’s a good deal more modern than she appears at first glance?
I wouldn’t go as far as that. The image presented of women in LES CONTES D’HOFFMANN remains a patriarchal one, very much a product of its patriarchal time, but that was no different to most operas back in the day. The big question is: how do we approach that material today? What I see is a woman with facets to her and a man who’s not sure how to deal with that. Can he get on with a woman like her, with the full package of qualities and weirdnesses? He’s the one who has to step up, not her.
And which way is he going to tip? Because the opera leaves it open.
If the audience goes away wondering exactly that, if people go away talking like they’ve been afforded a glimpse into a world that might actually exist…, then we’ve done our job.