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The voice is ever-so-slightly guttural, in a sexy sort of way. The rolled r’s trip off the tongue like everyday French. The melodies lie somewhere between the boulevard, the variety show and the smoky allure of cabaret.
The genre is known as “chanson” – the French word for ballad or music-hall song, although “song” is too general a description for the titles Anne-Sofie von Otter has added to her repertoire in recent months. The Swedish mezzo-soprano, renowned for her exquisite vocal deportment in Bach, Berlioz, Mozart and Mahler, is showing her adventurous side. After 30 years at the top of her profession, she has started singing “Parlez-moi d’amour”, “A Paris” and “Padam Padam” – mid-20th century chansons made famous by Yves Montand, Edith Piaf and others, and now recognised as timeless.
For most classical singers this would be risky, not to say foolhardy, but few have von Otter’s language skills, stylistic versatility and spirit of musical inquiry. Over the past 15 years she has proved a dab hand at switching genres, without making it look like crossover. In a string of offbeat projects she has collaborated with singer-songwriter Elvis Costello, Abba’s Benny Andersson, American jazz pianist Brad Mehldau– and even survivors of Theresienstadt, the Czech concentration camp out of which came a rich repertoire of art songs, cabaret songs and lullabies. The results have never been less than engaging.
Now it’s the turn of Douce France (Sweet France) – the Charles Trenet song that gives its name to von Otter’s new double-album of chansons and art songs, extracts of which she will perform at solo concerts this month in Paris, London, Amsterdam, Venice and Lyon. “I enjoy singing chansons: they seem to suit me, and people react positively,” she says, dispensing tea and cake in the kitchen of her homey Stockholm apartment.
“I like repertoire that’s non-classical, because you can do other things with your voice. I feel I can be creative. With classical, everything is written out. With chansons, you have a lot more freedom.”
Von Otter, 58, the daughter of a Swedish diplomat, has been familiar with the idiom since adolescence. Her parents had LPs of Montand and Piaf, and packed her off at 18 to the south of France to learn the language. “There has never been a time when I have not sung that repertoire,” she chuckles, recalling early boyfriend experiences in Montpellier and Aix-en-Provence.
But it’s not enough just to “enjoy” chansons or savour their romantic sentiments. They need to sound authentic: a challenge that goes beyond pronunciation. Acquiring the unwritten nuances took time and effort, she says.
“When you watch films of Montand, you can see he was an overall artist, so natural compared to American crooners. The great chanson singers sang in everyday French, pulling the words together, sometimes not pronouncing certain syllables. It can be quite hard to decipher. “A Paris” [a Montand classic] has so much text – I had to sing it over and over again to get my tongue around the words. “Boum!” [a Trenet song] took me years. You need to ‘chatter’ the lines.”
Judging by these and other tracks on Douce France, von Otter wears her hard work lightly. But that has always been the case, ever since she graduated from London’s Guildhall School in 1982 and joined the opera ensemble of the Basel municipal theatre in Switzerland, where I first heard her as Hänsel (Hänsel und Gretel), Clairon (Capriccio) and Alcina (Orlando Paladino). Tall but down to earth, von Otter went on to conquer Covent Garden, the Met and Salzburg. She has achieved just about every goal, and sung most roles, that a mezzo could desire. Married to theatre director Benny Fredriksson, she also mothered two boys, now in their twenties.
A case of “Je ne regrette rien”? Mention of Piaf’s signature song brings a wry smile to von Otter’s blonde features. “You can’t get anywhere near her,” she confesses, adding that this was one track she knew she had to avoid. “Piaf had such intensity – she chose a certain type of song that suited her. They don’t suit me.”
But two Piaf songs did make it on to Douce France, transposed down “so that I can sing them with my natural voice. Some classical singers can’t do that, because their voice training has become so much part of their muscular reflex. If it lies too high, I have to start pushing, and it just sounds wrong.”
What von Otter finds extraordinary is the family link between the chanson repertoire and the songs of Fauré, Debussy and Reynaldo Hahn that make up the second disc of her album. “It’s not just the vowel sounds that they have in common. Barbara [the chanteuse] and Charles Trenet [composer of “Boum!” and “La Mer”] think classically. They knew their music theory.”
And the classical composers had their jazzier side, as von Otter’s selection makes clear. “There’s something night-clubby about Hahn’s songs, as if they were meant to be crooned from the piano with a cigarette between the lips,” she says.
But there is no escaping the impression that von Otter’s cool, aristocratic voice glides over the art songs less willingly today than 10 years ago. The way she has successfully and gracefully managed the transition from mezzo-of-the-moment to maturity, adapting her repertoire to prolong a front-rank career, is a lesson to all.
“I’m always the oldest now,” she quips, referring to her latest opera project – Baba the Turk in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress in Vienna. “A lot of singers don’t realise you have to work very hard if you want to keep going. There’s more technique involved, because you can’t take things for granted any more. The vibrato is bigger: you need to keep that in check. When you’re young, you just open your mouth and the sound is more or less pretty all the time. But I have a high energy level, and I’m always thinking about new projects and different people to work with, so that I don’t do the same thing over and over again.”
Does this mean von Otter has escaped the creeping curse of ageism? Far from it. “The business wants new names and fresh voices that don’t run into difficulties. That’s natural, but it can be frustrating. A new actor, singer or pianist always creates that extra bit of excitement, more than someone who is extremely good but you’ve seen before. But I’d like to think people would want me back because I’ve got something to say.”
Anne-Sofie von Otter sings at Milton Court Concert Hall, London, November 23, barbican.org.uk
‘Douce France’ is on the Naïve label, naive.fr