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Ten questions to ... Nina Stemme

In the title role of Puccini’s TOSCA Nina Stemme puts her faith in a despot – and comes to grief as a result. The Swedish soprano describes here how she addresses the horrors that Tosca faces – torture, fear, yearning, death – in order to sing of them.

Melodramma by Giacomo Puccini
Conductor: Donald Runnicles
Director: Boleslaw Barlog
With Nina Stemme, Fabio Sartori, Ambrogio Maestri et al.
20, 23 November 2019


Unfortunately, we have to inform you that Nina Stemme had to cancel today's performance of TOSCA (16 November). Karine Babajanyan will take the title role in her place.

What is it about tyrants that so fascinates us?
There’s a bit of a tyrant in all of us. If we don’t own up to these negative elements in ourselves, we’re liable to be carried away by despots like Scarpia, the cruel chief of police in TOSCA. If we want to be more loving as people, we have to acknowledge the despot in ourselves.

How should we react to despots?
We Swedes tend not to be despotic as leaders. That includes people in the art sector, too. That’s why I find it very hard to just follow orders. We assume people will take responsibility for their own affairs and not have to be told what to do. Despotic types sometimes make me nervous, maybe because I haven’t had much experience of them.

What is stronger: love or fear?
At first glance, I’d say fear. I’ve just read a book by the conductor Bruno Walter in which he explains why love is harder than fear to depict onstage. Fear is our oldest and strongest feeling. Love is so deep and powerful that portraying its true face onstage is a difficult task indeed. In everyday life, too, love probably runs deeper than fear, but fear is the first feeling to make itself felt. We may be human beings, but we are also instinctual creatures with deep-seated reflexes. When we’re in peril, we get a massive shot of stress hormones, adrenalin, cortisol, etc, and we acquire superhuman strength. Love is a super power, too, of course, but without the violent aspect. And we haven’t done enough research into this super power, let alone trained ourselves in it, to be able to survive without fear.

What tools do we need to survive under dictatorial conditions?
That’s a tricky question for someone who is lucky enough never to have lived under those conditions. In any case, Tosca was not sufficiently equipped – and she didn’t survive the tyranny. I’m guessing you need integrity, hope. And faith in humanity.

Tosca breaks under torture. Loyalty is always the first virtue to succumb.
In a state dictatorship you know how far you can go, but you still have decisions to take - some big ones, some little ones – in order to survive. People are very quick to learn to act within the permitted boundaries – or they revolt in a group against these limitations on their freedom, just as we are seeing with the Hongkong protests. You need to be strong to stay loyal if you’re banned from speaking your thoughts out loud.

Tosca is explicitly apolitical. Is that at all possible in a dictatorship?
How can you not be political? Being political means being allowed to talk openly about different opinions, which is prohibited in a dictatorship. At school in Sweden we practised political debating and learned to make a distinction between people and the opinions they hold. Lately I’ve noticed a blurring of this distinction: a rigid association is being made between personality and opinion. I you don’t think the way I do, you’re a bad person. This is rooted in a desire for simple solutions. But the world is too complex for that.

How does a singer articulate a horror of cruelty?
How indeed? How do you depict a woman who is hearing her lover being tortured? Or a murderess? I don’t know. I harness my own emotions. You can’t prettify this bit of the opera. I look at the feelings that need to be articulated – but without damaging my voice too much. And right after that I’ve got to deliver this beautiful, delicate aria. That’s the irony of this scene. It’s quite a job, technically. You give everything you got, volume-wise, and then suddenly she’s reflecting on her life and time stands still.

What have you learnt from Tosca?
She’s taught me never to place blind faith in someone and not to fall for flattery. And also to recognise sexual violence for what it is – because Scarpia is a rapist. You have to put a name to what he’s doing. He enjoys sexual violence and even sings about it in an aria. It’s utterly appalling.

In what ways is Tosca strong?
That’s what I have to figure out: how am I to portray Tosca as a woman to be taken seriously, someone above the status of a bimbo? She loves her vocation. She’s living the dream of many artists and is thrilled at the success she’s had. We can celebrate this aspect of her character; it makes her subsequent fall so much harder. At the same time, though, she’s a bit foolish to believe Scarpia. But does she really have a choice? Her lover is being tortured, he’s being beaten bloody. She’s alone and truly believes she can save him. If you’re that desperate and distressed, it’s not hard to take a wrong decision.

Tosca acquiesces to an affair with the despot Scarpia in the hope that she will be able to save her lover. What would you risk in the name of love?
I have three children. If I was faced with losing the love or the loves of my life, I would do anything to protect them. I would risk my life. I’m in the process of realising how privileged I am. Real life is much crueller than TOSCA. Opera falls way short of reality.