Erika Sunnegårdh

7 September 2008

Most of the past few months has gone by in a 100 mile/hr haze. What is it about deadlines and expectations that makes 24 hrs seem like not enough? And it’s always the alarm clock in the morning that is too early…

I’m in Malmö at the theater where I made my professional debut exactly four years ago, and I am actually even staying in the same building, except I’ve graduated to the top floor apartment… The neighborhood and the walk to the theater every day are bringing back great memories – as well as a bit of confusion as to where the past four years have gone…?

It seems the past couple of jobs I’ve had, as well as a variety of situations in life at large, have been training in doing what we can about the things we can, and releasing everything else into the cosmic sea of “hope it will turn out… eventually…. fingers crossed…”
Being somewhat of a control freak, this is not something with which I am comfortable. Having all my ducks in a row is important – mostly for that deep, restful night’s sleep….

The other day, I was running in the park here, and suddenly I had to come to a complete stop and wait with all the other humans – there was a path crossing going on – A pair of swans with their SIX babies. Mommy up front heading into the grass, and Daddy standing on the path, waiting for each baby to step out of the water, shake themselves off, and calmly stroll across the path into the field.
The family unit was perfect – each child with their own pace and their own place – Complete order – And PATIENCE!

I have never had patience. It’s a good thing I am tenacious, or I’d never get to the finish line. In the meanwhile, I do experience so much of my own frustration with the process though, and sometimes that takes its toll.

But I am learning from the lovely people around me. Thank goodness for wise and “real” people!!

This new opera, which we are premiering in two weeks, is the hardest thing I have ever had to learn. Musically, emotionally, and just plain vocally. My character is a complex and damaged woman who gets the opportunity to face her demons, in real life. The music is intricate and complex, and demands an enormous amount of stamina, ingenuity, courage and just plain old fashioned imagination from each of us as individuals. Add an almost three octave range for over two hours of non-stop singing, and what you have is a stressful and taxing eight week rehearsal period.

This libretto by Ariel Dorfman, based on his award-winning play, Death and the Maiden, is a complete privilege to be involved with. It is an incredible story, expressed in what I can only call miraculous language.

I came here under-prepared to say the least. The score was six months late and I was busy with other performances that took too much of my mental and emotional energy. Working on several projects at the same time is a challenge – one I must start to master… In the meanwhile, I am so reliant on my coach in New York to learn new music, and although we worked like dogs through the month of July, nothing could prepare me for the process that would set in once here with my colleagues.

I like arriving fully prepared and “competent”… And it’s very difficult to step into a new group of people and immediately be willing to show up with all your weaknesses and “stuff” that goes into your learning. My coach knows me well and I trust him with witnessing me at my worst, digging through the muck of learning and being reduced to being a “beginner”. It is something else to share that with a large group of colleagues you don’t yet know…

What I am learning is that it’s OK. It’s OK to figure it out, ask for time, ask for help, be insecure in public, and still go home and be able to sleep well in the knowledge that everything is going to be fine the next day. That everyone is going to come back to work and simply keep plugging away at what clearly isn’t easy at all…

I am also learning to appreciate my own level of self-expectation in terms of standards. I just don’t give myself a break. And sometimes that isn’t totally productive. Being too pedantic and judgmental towards oneself can really put a stick in the wheel.

I still don’t know HOW we are going to get this show to “work” by two weeks from now…. But, I do trust myself and my dear colleagues to keep passing each other the ball and keep our feet moving. Nobody in this group is going to sit down on the bench in the middle of a difficult game. We are more likely to try to reinvent the game… They’re teaching me that!

22 March 2008

Salzburg Easter Festival

Once in a while you have one of those experiences that palpably heighten your quality of life. The kind where you can feel everybody around you respond and shift. The kind when it’s really difficult to just sit still, rather than leap to your feet and shout, “YES, YES, YOU GOT IT!!”

Tonight I had the immense pleasure of taking my mom to hear the Berlin Philharmonic play at the Easter Festival in Salzburg. It’s part of a week of celebrating her 80th birthday.
First of all, how lucky am I to be able to share my life with my 80-year old mother? The fact that I can take her back to Salzburg, 40 years after she and my father spent Summers here teaching at the Mozarteum, is amazing to say the least.

She is so proud of me, and bringing her here to hear me sing is quite thrilling. The fact is that I’ve been walking around this place for the past few weeks wondering what on earth I’ve done that has me spending my time singing and frolicking with my fellow Walküre sisters for a living…. What a life!!

But back to tonight’s program…
They played Brahms 1st Symphony at the end – And it was truly amazing. It’s one of my favorites anyway, so I knew I’d be a happy camper. But it was moving and exciting, and simply put, I have just never heard such gluey, seamless, and absolutely unified playing from any string section ever. I’ve rarely heard such stupendously solid and beautiful horn solos, and their principal flutist (a star in his own right) has the most flawless and distinct sound. Not to mention the oboist. Anyway, they ARE impressive, and it is a visceral experience to hear them.

In the first half, Heinrich Schiff played the Dvorak Cello Concerto. He is according to rumor recuperating from a stroke a while back, and I am sure that people who know the piece well, or who know his playing from before can tell what’s good and what’s not.
I, however, am blissfully ignorant of both these things, and simply appreciated being there.

And I believe, so did he!

There were beautiful sections of chamber playing between principals in the orchestra and him, and there were some incredibly tender and moving moments of a kind of distinct sweetness that, I believe, can only come from someone who truly knows that impressing is not the name of the game. Expressing is.
And maybe more importantly, BEING there NOW is!

I can only imagine that he must have been experiencing the blessing of his body actually being able to do this at all!

We are so exceptionally lucky to be able to make music with our bodies. It will end at some point – either because of age or injury. And we will need to find purpose in other things. But there is something awe inspiring about the physical feat it is to perform at this level. I think it is why we sit spellbound during the Olympics. It is as if all of us, from the perspective of our most authentic non-physical reality, are appreciating and LOVING what the body gives us to do.

I love the saying, “it’s all just a game, but you could play it like your life depended on it!….”

There is no time to waste. Neither with my mother, nor in music-making, nor in love and life at large.

3 February 2008

The past few weeks have been nothing short of extraordinary!

All opera roles are clearly not all created equal…

Salome is the role of lifetime for me. It is as if it was written for my particular set of talents and sensitivities. And I guess I have known that intuitively for quite some time, but it was nevertheless shocking to see it materialize inside of three weeks in a very snowy Milwaukee.

I was once again blessed with an amazing group of people to work with. Though I must confess that even compared to my great experiences of the past, this group was special. I have almost always felt a great affinity for the people with whom I’ve had the pleasure to work, but never before have I felt so protected and taken care of during both rehearsals and performances.

It was as if our rehearsal space was this sacred little space where I was afforded the opportunity to discover and make friends with “my” Salome — A girl with whom it is indeed necessary to make friends if you are to live with her for any length of time. She is demanding and draining, but also one of the most amazingly complex and special characters I could imagine. The amount of fearless abandon and vulnerability necessary to make her “work” is daunting to say the least. But my colleagues made me feel not only safe and protected, but also encouraged to continuously take it one step further.

I am also completely blown away by both my director and my choreographer. I had worked extensively on the dance already before arriving in Milwaukee, which was crucial, I think. It is hard to make that dance work even with wonderful choreography and plenty of rehearsals, but doing it inside of a very short rehearsal period would have been impossible. As it was, we were able to just plug our dance into the rest of the staging. Kathryn Posin helped me create a very appropriate dance for me — Making the most out of me both as a dancer and an actor. Every aspect of Salome, her strength, beauty, playfulness, seductiveness and audacity — as well as her fractured psyche — all of it came out in the dance.

As her worthy counterpart on the directorial side, I had the amazing fortune to be working with John Hoomes. He is the rare bird that actually watches, as well as listens and adjusts his direction to, the person with whom he is working… It was a revelation to work with him, and to experience what is possible when you feel completely understood and gently guided to go beyond your own limits. His sense of the absurd is spot on — And in combination with both his understanding of deep psychological terror and imbalance, as well as an amazing sense of the physical balance needed onstage, he just managed to paint an amazing picture of both the characters and their environment.

The overwhelming feeling by opening night was that I would follow him pretty much anywhere to get the opportunity to do this kind of work again. It was by far the most fulfilling artistic experience so far in my life.

Upon arriving back in New York after our very successful performances in Milwaukee, I met up with my teacher, Catherine Malfitano for a lesson. Salome of course, was one of her champion roles, and it has been an amazing resource to be able to work this repertoire with her. She is probably the most imaginative person I have ever met — with an intense relationship not only to the various possibilities of interpretation, but a deeply passionate, uncompromising and intimate sense of self inside the character.
It is always eye-opening to bring new repertoire to her. Each time I am bowled over by the infinite possibilities of expression.

I knew when the curtain came down on opening night that something bigger than me had taken place through me that night. The tears just pummeled me and it took me a good ten minutes to stop actual crying noises…. (I hate it when that happens…). But when I saw Catherine she said, “yes, of all the roles in my career, she (Salome) was probably the hardest to let go, to give up”…

That makes so much sense to me now. It’ll probably take me a whole career to explain and justify — But put simply, I am just completely in love with her and the music she brings with her!

12 January 2008

Every year for the past many years, I have sent out a holiday letter – a summary of sorts – about the past year, to my friends. In certain ways this letter is “normal”, but I also have used it to express my thoughts about life as it seems to me, as I experience it, and as it challenges me.
It started out going out to a small number of close friends. People I shared my thoughts with regularly, people close to me by all measurable standards. As a few years passed, I started including family members (who at times it feels the most vulnerable to open up to) and new friends and colleagues.
Every year I feel an intense sense of “risk” when putting together my list of recipients. Having to make a choice whether or not to share so openly with this person or that…
It’s a fascinating experience.
What always seems to make the choice for me, is the answer to the question, “Have I ever had a meeting of the minds, or hearts, with this person?”.
The question that never gets to make the decision is, “Am I scared of what this person will think of me if I share this?”
Every year I have to summon all my courage, and forsake all my personal sense of significance, and just trust that my letters will affect each person exactly the way it is supposed to.

I am a ridiculously loyal and devoted person. Once someone has moved my heart in some way, I am unlikely to ever let them go in terms of sensing kinship. And I know this is both unbelievable and maybe even uncomfortable for some people – especially in the opera business where loyalties seem to shift with the winds and the nearest tails…
But my career is nothing if not about setting a different “tone”. And in the face of that I can’t allow myself to apologize. And certainly not buckle…

The list gets longer each year, so I guess I am doing something right. And every year I get responses from the most unlikely persons. People sharing wonderful thoughts and feelings – Connecting the dots.

It is a risk worth taking, methinks.

This is a quote I really love:

“I must learn to love the fool in me – the one who feels too much, talks too much, takes too many chances, wins sometimes and loses often, lacks self-control, loves and hates, hurts and gets hurt, promises and breaks promises, laughs and cries. It alone protects me against that utterly self-controlled, masterful tyrant whom I also harbor and who would rob me of human aliveness, humility, and dignity but for my fool.”

– Theodore I. Rubin, MD