Erika Sunnegårdh

31 December 2007

Christmas! It’s always been a special time of the year for me. Never because of presents and parties – although I enjoy a good bash and a well-thought-out present as much as the next person… It’s always been about atmosphere. About slowing it down, and taking stock. About coming to the end of something by accepting the truth of something new.
I do see the religious meaning of Christmas as a symbol for how we can open our hearts to that which is new, innocent, joyous and creative – even in the midst of the darkest night we may be experiencing. That the light of hope shines no matter what – And that it actually changes the present, not just some outcome eventually. It impacts how one IS now, hope does…

Besides being home with my family in Stockholm for the first time in eight years, which was wonderful, I had the great fortune of performing in a couple of Christmas events that tickled me to no end.
The first was a series of Holiday Concerts with the Malmö Symphony. I do love this orchestra. They “get” me on some level, and I feel at home with them. The program ranged from one minute singing the big aria from Don Carlos, and the next doing a vintage kids TV-program skit about a Christmas tree made out of the letter “F” with one of my childhood icons, Magnus Härenstam… Hard to explain the monumental meaning of this honor to non-Swedes, but, it’s sort of like being asked to act out the Toga Party scene in Animal House with John Belushi… (except without the nudity and alcohol).
Anyway, it included singing the F-song(!!), an evening dress, a giant F which turns into a Christmas Tree, an orchestra, snowFlakes and Flags and dancing… And, being completely charmed beyond repair by my co-star…
I also got to sing one of my favorite Christmas songs – Cradle in Bethlehem, with a muted shmaltzy orchestra and a true MGM-sounding Men’s Chorus backing me up. I don’t often sing standards with a microphone, but it was so much fun. There is something amazing when the audience just doesn’t want to breathe or make a noise after a song. It’s a magical sense of one-ness…

On Christmas Eve, I got to sing in a small church on an island where my best friend lives. It was a surprise for her parents and parents-in-law to have me be there singing, and given that these are people who are very dear to me and who have supported me for so long, it was amazing. My friend accompanied me on the piano on several wonderful songs, and then at the end, her husband and her two daughters came up and we sang the final song together – a more contemporary Christmas song, with a beautiful message. It was all us adults could do, just holding back the tears, frankly.

The night before, holding Champagne glasses amid candle light in their idyllic country home, we thought we should at least run through the songs for the service. But when her youngest daughter, age 8, started singing the first verse, I immediately started crying. Tears falling I looked up at my friend’s husband, and he was teary too. Not to mention tears dripping onto the keys at the piano. We just couldn’t help it. She was just so fearless and sweet, singing clearly as a bell, delivering the text like she’s never done anything but… Both girls are so precious!

Having the opportunity to be part of her family, and share a small “von Trapp” moment was the most special Christmas gift anyone could have given me. Getting back to basics, sharing music and the promise of Christmas with 50 odd people in a small church is as profound as it gets. Singing with my best friend at the piano was truly beautiful – Because she’s a business woman who sings and plays for fun, because she asked me to share my voice with her community, and because she allowed me the sweet joy of sharing Christmas with her family. After everything we’ve been through in life, making music together is pure blessing!

3 December 2007

Singing in the solo quartet of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is a strange experience. It is probably one of the shortest and peculiarly demanding in the repertoire. After days of light rehearsals and hanging out in hotels, waiting through an hour or two of other repertoire and the first three movements of the Symphony, one is suddenly called upon to sing a few minutes of furiously fast and exposed high phrases. One would think it could not be a seriously difficult task, looking at the music — but there, in the heat of the moment, even the most seasoned artists lose their nerve and cool — stumble, crack, choke, or simply run out of steam. And even after a good performance you’re left in the adrenalin rush of unused energy and preparation…

This weekend I had the great fortune, not only to join a really good orchestra and chorus, a wonderful conductor (Andreas Delfs), and three splendid colleagues for this beautiful piece of music — but also an audience that was as prepared for the out-of-this-world inspiration and excitement of this music as any could be.

It was a truly beautiful program. In the first half they did the Chichester Psalms by Leonard Bernstein, showing off the remarkable talents of a young child-soloist, Mikaela Scheider. Her singing was not only accomplished and intelligent, but absolutely calm, warm, and pure — in it’s youthfulness for sure, but also because of her gentle and sweet person. This is a really fun, poignant, and contagious piece of inspirational music — One that perfectly sets up the more serious Beethoven. It’s amazing to me how great the Ninth Symphony is. Not just because of it’s familiar theme and beautiful message, because that could easily be delivered in a more simple form — But because of the enormous depth from which he delivers this message of hope and joy. Once one arrives at the familiar theme of the last movement, and audience members start bopping their heads and smiles spread throughout the auditorium, a journey has already taken place. There is not a thread of gullible or naïve positivism in this music. It really springs forth from a deep appreciation of the choice to be alive and joyful. The choice that can only be made by people who appreciate the alternatives.

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I think this program moved me especially because I have recently been so aware of how fragile the experience of joy is. Not because there is not much to be joyful about — there is! But, because mature joy is earned — not by experiencing difficulty, but that the joy one experiences is equal and in direct proportion to one’s appreciation of the possibility of choosing “not joy”. Deep joy is the function of knowing what is in contrast to it. And then, the adult choice to throw oneself wildly into the expression of joy that both singing, playing and listening to this symphony is, becomes an absolutely stirring and moving experience.

Times 4500 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts in Milwaukee.

Amazing.

3 August 2007

I am traveling the South Island of New Zealand in between concerts with the Auckland Philharmonia.

Wow!

This is a spectacularly beautiful place. Rich in dramatic scenery and stark contrasts. Inhabited by some of the most geneorus and friendly people I’ve ever met. There is this closeness to nature here that seems to drive each person. Very immediate, and very unadulterated.

I just spent four days in Queenstown and Glenorchy. The land of The Lord of the Rings…. And countless other movies and commercials. Wherever you look there is a more breathtakingly beautiful view than the one before it… It is the most peaceful, gloriously disarming place I have ever seen. I’ve gone jet boating, horseback riding, taken my very first helicopter ride into the mountains and then been dropped off only to treck back a few hours to the car, which was still 45 minutes drive from civilization…

I’ve noticed, in small increments, how life in cities and in the career demands that we (I) armor up…. How, when you’re in the middle of it all, you kind of have to thicken your hide just a little. Not necessarily to survive it, but certainly to manage it with some sort of sanity intact. I am constantly struck by how quickly one has to be able to switch between managing the outer world of politics, negotiations and professional choices – and the relentless and uncompromising vulnerability necessary for doing any kind of musical offering justice. Music demands total presence, as does this spectacular nature.

I don’t know how to adequately express it, but there were moments over the past few days when I could practically feel my heart crack open. Like this welling out over the edges. But not with any kind of fear or discomfort – Just total peace and non-striving. Nowhere to get to, and nothing to do. Just being in the middle of it.

I think this is what we all want to feel in our lives ongoingly. Peace and contentment. Surrounded by the infinite power of nature and the balance that comes from the tests of time. Knowing that left to its own devices, nature will sort itself out. Restore balance. Create vast and inexplicable things of beauty.

I am reading the autobiography of Ariel Dorfman. I will be singing the title role of the opera version of his play “Death and the Maiden” next year. He tells of the incredibly tumultuous time in his life when he fled Chile after the military coup that put Pinochet in power. And he talks about language – about the struggle of belonging to two different languages, two different cultures…. Opposing, yet inextricably part of one and the same person.

And he speaks of his wife, the love of his life. About when he figured out that all other alliances and commitments paled in the face of the possibility of losing his wife. That all things would turn out to be bearable, as long as he could share them with her – and see them through the prism that was created when they met.

I think these are the intangibles that create a valuable life. The abstract, elusive and completely impractical ingredients that contradict our more systematical attempts at creating order and stability.
The truth is, there is no order, and there certainly is no stability. There is no certainty, and even less predictability. There is simply the art of non-attachment. The art of being present. The art of creating from nothing – no matter what happens, or how distant our goals may seem.

12 July 2007

12 July 2007
I was listening to Caroline Myss yesterday, and she said something that flies in the face of what we are constantly told in our romanticized western culture. She said, the most important thing in life isn’t love, it is choice!

Love can be many things; obsessive, clingy, demanding, self-centered, heavy and down right abusive. Or it can be light, generous, respectful, admiring, affectionate, and with no concern for the fulfillment of selfish needs. It can be freedom. A pure self-expression!

It is a choice however. How to love. And what to expect from love.

Choice strikes me as the ultimate form of responsibility. The ultimate expression of being conscious both of the self and of others. How we use our freedom of choice defines who we are becoming in every moment, and as we extend choice to both those dearest and closest to us, and those more peripheral people in our lives, we create a space for the deepest and most authentic expression of love and respect. We literally give them permission to be the way they actually are – not the way we want them to be!

Again and again I return to the point of always trusting that whatever my needs are, they will be met by standing defenseless and vulnerable in the face of perceived challenges and lack. You have to actually believe in attack in order to defend against. And each time I do it myself, or witness it in others, there seems to be no end to the upset and anxiety. It is a self-perpetuating thought system.

Standing vulnerable is an uphill walk however, given that our world doesn’t support it. But, it seems always to be the most moving and ulitmately safe place to find yourself.

It takes trust mainly. Or the choice to trust.

A million times a day.

1 July 2007

Sometimes life gives us lemons so that we’ll have the opportunity to learn how to make lemonade. That’s something that I’ve noticed over and over again in my own life. And let’s face it – nothing wrong with lemonade!

I believe that it is practically impossible to distinguish between the things we really desire and the things to which we have just simply grown accustomed without the forced experience of contrast. How would you know light if you hadn’t experienced shadow, how would you know humor if you hadn’t been bored, how would you choose anything in life unless you had gathered a little bit of information about what makes you tick – as opposed to that which drains you of energy and gumption.

My life has certainly been filled with contrasts. All sorts of good, bad, boring, fun, exciting, mellow, adventurous, safe…
Some jobs are considered “good” simply because there’s some kind of consensus that they should be, while others need to be experienced and “created” in the moment in order for the magic to appear.

After a year or so of jobs that by most would be considered the top of the heap, I am struck by the sheer joy of the two I’ve experienced lately.

The first was returning to my Alma Mater, Aaron Copland School of Music, to do a concert with the student orchestra and Choral Society. We rehearsed more than for all my Met performances put together, and we struggled to find out exactly how one plays a Verdi or Puccini aria with both abandon and sensitive ears. First timers were put on the spot in solos, and the chorus found out that each and every one of them alone had the power of all of them put together. You don’t get to be a wall flower when singing opera choruses…! It was funny and disarming, and completely exciting – Particularly when the result was so wonderful!
I also spent an afternoon working with the students in the opera studio. Four fabulously talented singers, each with their own obstacles, each with their own irresistable personalities, and with such amazing spirits of generosity and openess. Initially I wondered what on earth I would talk about. I am fairly certain they have some pretty good advice coming from their teachers and coaches. But then I figured that I would trust that something would be born in the moment and that we would find out together what would be useful.
And lo and behold, there was some kind of magic going on.
We did talk about technique, and phrazing, and shaping both sound and presence – but ultimately all those things are experiments that they will base their own choices on, and they may end up somewhere completely different than where I would go. And that is the point, methinks.

What I did notice, though, was that just talking about how my studying eventually led to a career really gave them some light at the end of the tunnel. They work so hard, and it is good to know that it actually does pay off – not just in an abstract sort of way, but in real life for real people. People with flaws and obstacles, and even people who struggle with focus or discipline or even such mundane things as money and finding enough hours in the day to practice. It is possible. Because here I am.

One of my reveiws recently said that my career “is not super stardom, but at least it’s a solid career”…. Yippie!!!
I am so pleased he noticed. And I am so grateful for the the amazing experiences a “solid” career gives you, versus “super stardom”. I can only imagine that super-stardom sets you apart so much from “average” colleagues, and the pressure of remaining a star would be detrimental to almost anyone, unless you are one of those rare birds that really is perfect in that elusive exciting way – every time you open your mouth…. I know for a fact, that isn’t me!

And yet, I must confess that working here in Aix-en-Provence on Die Walküre is a close to perfect experience!

First of all, the cast is really amazing. Especially two of the singers stand out as some of the best performances I’ve heard. Lili Paasikivi as Fricka, and Eva-Maria Westbroeck as Sieglinde.
You can pretty much bank on the quality of a lead soprano when the other sopranos in lesser roles are routinely reduced to tears or endless, excited explanations of why she’s SO great!
And it’s all true and no exaggeration. And the praise means so much coming from truly knowlegeable, gifted and experienced colleagues. There’s not an ignorant opinion in the group.

What is even more astounding about this group of women is that each and every one is a wonderful artist in their own right. And every one is a generous and genuinely nice person. Healthy artistic egos and pride in the work, sure… – But not a hint of nasty and back biting insecurity. And you know what? It shows in the work. Imagine that! We all adore getting on stage together, and none of us resents being hired to do a role for which all of us are slightly over-qualified.
It is simply a great opera with great singers and people in it.
And that’s what it’s all about. And unfortunately, it’s not always the case.
But it can all be chalked up to the experience of contrast, I think.
It is important to know what is bad about one situation to truly appreciate what is good about another. It is good to know that there is a choice in life. There is no reason to have repeat bad experiences – not when you know something else is possible.

I read recently that once you have reached a certain level of good energy and vibration in your life, say around success or relationship, then you can’t go backward. You can temporarily lose the external manifestation of your energy (say money, or a particular relationship), but you will inevitably create it anew. At the level you know is possible.

The other day I was marveling at the extraordinary experience I had in a particular relationship, saying that it had raised the bar for what I think is possible. And yet my lack of faith had me also express that I wasn’t sure it would be possible to find it again. One of the girls (one of my dear and fabulous colleagues) countered by saying that maybe it was me who brought a new level of relating into that situation, and if that’s the case, then it is in fact inevitable that I bring it with me the next time too.

In other words, life only gets better – because you are in it!

Ugh!! – The responsibility and possbility of it all…. 🙂

10 May 2007

What strikes me today is the enormous sense of gratitude that I feel for all the things that I am priviledged to experience in life.
Having now finished my run of Turandot at the Met, with a great sense of completion, pride, and such fun, I am struck by the enormity of getting to do such a show. It is a spectacular production. Probably the grandest opera production of its kind.
Tuesday night I was standing in the wings waiting for my entrance, looking at all the dancers and chorus and supers, marveling at the sheer magnitude of it all – The perfection of every part – of every person…., and it struck me as completely absurd that I was going to walk out and belt out “In questa reggia”….., while all these people settled into a still and perfect picture of beauty.
I can’t help but wonder what I have done to deserve such an amazing opportunity to express myself.
I am also struck by the fleeting, yet timeless nature of it all.

As with all wonderful and life altering experiences, there is nothing to hold on to. Nothing that can be captured, confined, controlled or extended. It is a moment in time. Beautiful, sweet, awe-inspiring, moving…. and above all, personal.

The past few weeks of my life have been all of those things.

My heart is soft with gratitude.

14 April 2007

Yesterday in the Greenroom we were having the greatest conversations. All the Turandot cover-guys and myself. We were talking pretty extensively about death and dying. (As one does while covering a show where heads are being chopped off!!) About medical treatment and final wishes, and particularly about amazing and funny stories in the context of terminal illness. I spoke about my friend Harvey, about the way that illness changed him and gave him a chance to experience and express love for people in a way that was new to him. Someone else spoke about losing his brother in a car crash.
But, it wasn’t morbid or depressing conversation, it was about life and the uplifting aspects of it despite such events.

Somewhere there must have been a segue, because I asked if anyone was familiar with the children’s story “The little matchstick girl”? It was my favorite cartoon when I was a kid. We had it on 8mm film, and I would watch it over and over until the film broke. I haven’t seen it since I was about six years old.

The troubling part about it is that I couldn’t remember what actually happened at the end. The last thing I could remember was her sitting in the snow on the street with people’s boots rushing by, lighting her last match stick and then being left in the dark when the fire went out. An image that has stuck with me for a very long time…

My lovely Calaf cover, Stephen O’Mara, said he’d check with his German wife whether she had heard of it, and tonight when I got home I had an email from him with a link to actually watching the cartoon on the web. (He clearly has other talents in addition to singing a mean Nessun dorma!)

I must also mention that my father died when I was six years old, and although I can’t remember much about how I dealt with that fact, or what it felt like, I have deduced as an adult that it obviously had a pretty major impact on all of us in the family. It is hard to separate, in retrospect, what issues ensued from the loss of him, versus the trauma that everyone around me was experiencing, but needless to say it was a big deal with far reaching consequences.

Well, anyway, I threw myself over the link for the cartoon and proceeded to watch this little gem of a H.C. Andersen story for the first time since 1972.

It is beautiful. And this rendition is made even more beautiful by the Emerson String Quartet playing a Borodin piece. (The 8mm didn’t have sound!)
It is all in black and white. Set in what looks like a Russian city. Orthodox Church cupolas in the background. Sleighs carrying the little rich families home with their Christmas presents. And there she is, the little match girl, trying desperately to sell her matches, but with no success.
She finally collapses in a back alley, resorting finally to lighting her matches for warmth, and with every match she lights she has a vision (in color) of hot stoves, sleighs with fur blankets, Christmas trees with glimmering lights. At the lighting of her last set of matches she has the best vision of all — a little country house with a perfect little rosy-cheeked grandmother inside who picks her up and twirls her around in the warm and cozy kitchen.
The vision disappears as her matches go out.

This is where my memory cut out. But now I see that there she is, seemingly collapsed in the snow in gloomy black and white, as her perfect Technicolor grandmother appears and picks her up and carries her off into the ether. Except, her little dead body is still lying there in the snow.

I have pretty much not been able to stop crying since I saw that.
Realizing all at once how desperately I must have needed to see that in the months after my father died — to assure the little person that I was that he was there after all, and that no matter what, he’d pick me up — eventually.
And, no wonder I have suppressed the ending of that story for the past 35 years — when reunion would seem to come only at such a tragic and sad conclusion.

In fact, I must admit that it explains a whole number of my fears and anxieties around loss and separation.

I think it is a most beautiful story. Even in its sadness. And I wish it had been on DVD all those years ago – because, I don’t think I would ever have gotten tired of seeing that sweet little girl picked up into her grandmother’s arms.

New York, 8 April 2007

I love new beginnings! Spring is almost in the air here in New York, and there were actual little shoots on the bushes in the park this morning. I can’t wait for all the green, and the cherry blossoms in Central Park.
Last week I jumped in on short notice and sang my very first Turandot at the Met. It was soooo much fun!!
I just can’t get over that I get to go on stage with all the dancers and supers, chorus and other soloist and sing that great music. It is a dream come true.
Even more surreal is that my brother and his family hooked speakers up to their computer at home in Sweden and laid awake in their beds until 5AM listening to the Sirius Satellite Radio broadcast. How cool is that?
No one would have believed you if you told them that 20 years ago.
Looking back on the past year, I have to say that life is full of surprises. I firmly believe that nothing can come to you unless you can conceive of it. But, I don’t think that means you have to be able to envision it in detail necessarily. I think if you can conceive of the content of your desire, the sense or the feeling of it, then the many details of how, when, where will be gently guided by the universe to its fullest outcome. Sometimes that outcome doesn’t look all that pleasant – but it ends up being the very thing that focuses you to the things you really want and need to achieve.
I marvel at the intelligent and kind nudges that always seem to show up when I’ve gotten stuck in a particular mode of thinking. And the extraordinary ability of the people in my life to step up and say, or do, exactly what is needed at any given moment.
I cannot adequately express how much I adore my friends for all that they are. I am very lucky!

New York, 10 March 2007

The beginning of this year really was fun, and so exhausting. I am certainly on a major learning curve, and one of the things to get under my belt is how to pace myself and how to make sure I stay healthy through stressful periods.
Tosca in Malmö was a complete delight! My singing colleagues were wonderful and inspiring. Working on-stage with Tito Beltran was a treat, as both he and I are pretty comfortable improvising, and we certainly hit it off in terms of going full out in any given moment. It felt very much like a staged drama, even though it was a concert performance. Much play, and so much fun!
Our conductor, Markus Lehtinen, is a complete gem. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone as generous, enthusiastic and completely uninhibited in such a benevolent way. It is amazing to work with someone whose musical and emotional intensity is not inextricably intertwined with being unstable in communication…
There simply was no room, or need, for short fuses or tricky personalities – Just focus, fun, excitement, and an enormous spirit!
To my great joy, Ingvar Wixell and his wife Margaretha came to the first concert. I had just watched a video of his Scarpia from Arena di Verona before I flew over to Sweden, and was reminded of this huge artist. Amazing! And they are just the sweetest and most supportive people.
As an audience member I am often awed and impressed by artists – but then it is sort of filed away at some kind of arms length kind of distance. But, when you work on a role and you live with it and the other characters, and you get to know the intricacies and psychological matter you have to put yourself through to grasp it, even at a remedial level – and then you meet someone who spent their life in that drama, steeped in the personal experience of putting themselves through it on stage night after night – well, it is amazing, because there is this intant recognition and respect. And understanding. You know the depth and twists and turns this person has put themselves through – even if you don’t know them so well personally.
And it is a treat to get to share the experience over generational lines – and get to absorb a little bit of the accumulated wisdom and insight – even by osmosis!

I hope I get many more opportunities to dive into Tosca!

28 January 2007, Sweden

Outside my train window is a pristinely snow white landscape. The sun is at about a 30 degree angle off the horizon and it is just about Noon. There is hardly anything as beautiful as Sweden in the middle of winter – when there is snow and sun too. I’m on an amazingly civilized train ride to Malmö, where I will do my first ever Tosca’s. In concert. You even get free internet with your ticket. How’s that for 21st Century convenience. And there’s a no phone zone. Bliss!

I feel like I’ve come out of a long dark tunnel. I got sick a few days ago. The dreaded “winter stomach flu” (an epidemic in the north apparently). And you know how it is with sea sickness or stomach flus…. You just feel like you’d rather die than go through another minute… And then you finally hit the 16 hour sleep part of it, wake up, and feel like a spanking new baby human – ready for anything. Amazing!

Suddenly you respect your body’s feelings and eat only what is good and gentle, you sleep, you go for a refreshing walk, you call a friend and tell them you’re happy because you’re feeling good (!!), and all at once, this blessed state of “un-ruffle-ability” takes over. There is simplicity. Phew! (No wonder we get sick every now and again. It’s like a cosmically imposed reboot!)

Tosca has me completely in awe!
What a score. And what a character. It’s never occurred to me that I should sing her, and, I admit I sort of accepted the job because it was recommended to me. Not because I knew it would be right for me. And I put all my preconceived notions about who really should sing Tosca aside.
I think it’s a role I’ve had up on a piedestal. Something for those lush italian types.
Lo and behold, she is for me too, methinks…
With all her weaknesses, quick reactions, passions and jealousies. And with her loyalty, love and affection too, which I think only Puccini manages to adequately describe through his glorious nuances and twists and turns.

It’s the first role I’ve done where every last piece of me, and my voice, has to be utilized to express who this woman is. It’s not enough to show icy strength. And it’s not enough to hint at surrender. Everything has to be expressed to within a millimeter of its life…. She is as volatile as April weather.

Really challenging. And really fun.

Can’t wait.