About Female Leading Roles and Mentorship in Performing Arts
Arila Siegert & Regina Fredriksson
The exchange between artists plays a crucial role within the Academy of Arts – especially in performing arts. Academy member Arila Siegert and fellow Regina Fredriksson talk about their perspectives on female leading roles, their personal experiences as a mentor and mentee and their collaborative work on Dido’s Lament-another and Omnia tempus habent. Both performances were developed as part of the JUNGE AKADEMIE artist-in-residence programme and premiered at the Academy.
JUNGE AKADEMIE: Arila, what role do mentorships play in the field of opera, in collaboration between with different players as well as in the development of roles?
Arila Siegert: I had the great fortune of having a gifted mentor in Nina Ulanova during my dance development. She taught me how to train myself, how to prepare a piece, create a rehearsal schedule, and how to best conduct individual and group rehearsals in order to achieve the objective in the shortest time. Most importantly: How to deal with the people at the theatre in order to help them reach their potential – and that one has to remain human until the very last day. I gained a lot from it in regard to how I should behave toward my colleagues at the theatre during my productions. Now and then, interns work on my productions. I always try to explain and familiarise them with the artistic work. At many large theatres, there are opera studios as a kind of protective space for aspiring singers. For example, there was a mentorship in Mainz. It was a cooperation between the theatre and the College of Music, where students and professional singers worked together on both La Giuditta and Dido and Aeneas. And now in Carmen¹ too, there was a student from the University of Music Leipzig and Theatre Chemnitz who took on the role of Moralés. The time spent producing a staging is so tight that you cannot devote yourself extensively to someone. It follows from the work that you brief the young singers, that you help them to develop an understanding of the artistic process and the techniques for preparing a role.
JA: What is the meaning of mentorship for female players in particular (dancers, singers, choreographers, directors etc.) in this field? How important are such “alliances” in view of the equality of all players?
AR: Women are on the rise today anyway. The importance of the women is predefined by the pieces. They usually have the lead role, at least in the repertoire of the 19th century. In dance, the roles of women and men today are mixed. There are hardly any gender-specific forms of movement (anymore), which could also mean an impoverishment. I have never experienced equality as a particular problem. I have always been able to push my ideas through. Art offers the greatest freedom of thought anyway.
JA: Has the importance of mentorships changed over the years?
AS: No. In art, it is always important to pass your experience on to the younger generation. Much of this is empiricism. You cannot learn it by numbers, only through guidance in practice.
JA: How would you describe the development of the opera landscape over the last few years or in comparison to the 1990s? What have been the most relevant developments and changes in your view?
AS: Because of the global “market” for artists, the choice has become bigger and bigger, so that excellent musicians / singers / dancers also work at smaller theatres. This is a big win. On the other hand, theatres are continually being forced to make savings. Fewer people (especially technicians) have to do more and more. This is leading to theatres being bled dry. And seen from this perspective, producing is becoming more and more difficult.
JA: How would you describe the collaboration between you and your mentee Regina Fredriksson?
AS: We got to know each other at Katrin Kapplusch’s master classes in 2018 and 2019. I created small scenes to arias there with the students in order to convey to them the experience of what it means to present a role authentically – not to just sing an aria. I saw potential in Regina and felt the need to help her on the way to the stage. I hope that Regina benefited from our time working together and really finds her way. I hope that she was truly moved by it.
JA: Arila, what drove you to take on different roles and perspectives – those of the dancer, performer, choreographer and director? How do these different roles influence each other when you are working on a piece?
AS: The different roles were always in me. I never wanted to be one-sided. The impulse was my interest in the versatility of the profession of the performing artist: to say something about our existence using artistic means. Everything I have learned helps me to do so – especially at the Palucca School – and over the course of my long career in theatre. In the Palucca School, I had already begun to create my own pieces. This continued at the theatre, with extra work for competitions, internships at orchestra and opera rehearsals (with Felsenstein), smaller choreographies, solo evenings and then full-length ballets – and now directing opera. In art, one thing must develop from another. Seriously engaging with a task is fundamental. Talent equals interest (Bertolt Brecht).
JA: Both of you deal with strong female roles. How do you approach these roles, how do you bring them to life on the stage?
AS: First, you have to address the music and the entire work, including the political environment, the history of its origins and the fate and biography of the author. Based on our current experience, you relate to the work. In this climate, ideas, images and staged sequences are created with the intention of preparing a lively work of art that concerns us all. It is an individual, almost intimate process, unmistakably so.
¹Due to the covid 19 pandemic the premiere has been postponed to spring 2021.
JUNGE AKADEMIE: What role do mentorships play in the field of opera, in collaboration between different players and in the development of roles?
Regina Fredriksson: It is of huge importance in my opinion, but here its significance is very much due to the support and good communication between the different fields. Every collaboration in this area is so important for growth in various fields of art, where personal contact is necessary to develop in the creative process between people.
There are some unwritten rules and a framework in this regard that one might say have to be followed and respected for sure. That being said, I’m also very interested in open communication. In order to promote every person’s potential, to develop a unique working environment and eventually to achieve an appealing result, you have to play around and be open to experiments. So you can develop together as an artist and a mentor during this specific work or project. This is what I find most interesting about being an artist, combining experiences as an open platform within this context.
JA: Has the importance of mentorships changed over the years?
RF: No, not that much. It’s as crucial as ever to continue to grow and become a better artist. It’s also hard for me to say as part of a younger generation. However, it seems to me that the communication between mentor and artist is more open nowadays. Based on my experience of the creative process, I can see how one’s work ethics might be different from a cultural perspective and in different countries, but that doesn’t change the fact that mentoring is a fundamental part of the business in a certain way – almost like a tradition.
JA: How would you describe the development of the opera landscape over the last few years? What have been the most relevant changes in your view?
RF: As my experience is limited to the operas I have been a part of in the current period, I would say that there has not been a huge shift in the field. Except that there seems to be a certain need to find new platforms in order to show new perspectives: a lot of modern and newly written music and operas in particular try to capture and express the present, the here and now. The opera stage doesn’t seem to be the right space to present these kinds of contemporary performances – or rather not in general anymore. It’s more and more interesting to create unconventional performance spaces.
There are also some unwritten traditional roles and so on, and there has been a lot of discussion about whether this is right or wrong. You will always have different takes on this – depending on the cultural background. But again, the need to experiment with how we can breathe new life into these traditions, to search for a different understanding of the same subject by changing perspective and looking into different historical narratives and contexts has become a reality today. Of course, this does not mean changing the entire system; general work ethics, the process of performing an opera on stage and the associated traditions endure. Nevertheless, the market is slowly changing … as a singer, I can see a difference in how voice types are put into various pigeonholes by the structure of the business. A system that classifies you as a singer, and I don’t think it was like that back in the day, so that’s a change I think. You need to know this when you present yourself and in how you choose a repertoire that best represents you.
JA: How would you describe the collaboration between you and your mentor Arila Siegert? You worked together on your performances Omnia tempus habent and Dido’s Lament-another perspective during you fellowship, which premiered at the Akademie der Künste.
RF: I met Arila two years ago at a masterclass given by my singing teacher Katrin Kapplusch and had the pleasure of working with her for the first time. Of course, I was very grateful and nervous at the same time, as I often am when I meet great artists and mentors like her – it’s such an honour.
It’s only now that I really realise how lucky I’ve been to have worked with Arila. I spent a lot of time with her developing two performances during my fellowship at the Akademie. I have grown so much as an artist and am thankful for having collaborated with such an experienced mentor. Looking back at my performance at the opening of Where the Story Unfolds in February 2020, Omnia tempus habent, for example, I can clearly see some changes in my body language and how I move on stage. This requires hard work, not least on a mental level, as I realised throughout this collaboration. But isn’t that what it’s all about? Giving and taking in order to reach your potential, step up your game and be truly creative. I will always take that with me.
Omnia tempus habent (For Every Thing There is a Season), performance, opening Where the Story Unfolds, work presentation JUNGE AKADEMIE 2020
JA: Regina, at the moment you are exploring the opera role of Desdemona, Othello’s wife in Shakespeare’s play. You are shifting gears somewhat, changing your perspective … you recently started to write, for example. What is the motivation behind that and what makes it so appealing to you?
RF: Well, for me, it’s about trying to seek out a connection, looking at and focusing clearly on the unseen – shifting perspectives is a fundamental tool for doing so. You can create different layers in your mind, put them together and use your imagination to hopefully see what’s behind a role, a character. I’ll try to explain this abstract and complicated idea. For example, you can imagine or even invent three different persons for your actual self: me as the person I am meant to be in a specific moment or who I believe and feel I am, the artist and performer in me, and me looking in from the outside. This is the goal and where the real perspectives are or rather the shift happens.
Therefore, it was crucial to me to define and claim my own space or zone, so to speak, within myself – to navigate through time and space as well as through the creative processes. It’s interesting to see how this affects me as an experimenting artist, as a performer who plays strong female leading roles. The more I learn about my personal zone, the more I feel prepared and well equipped for my profession as an opera singer. I’m able to create and take ownership of my own space on an opera stage and contribute to the creative process of an opera performance in this safe and strong mental state.
Being able to embody such strong, independent characters is my work and passion. So I have developed this platform for myself to experiment with the simple fact of being and experiencing all aspects of life, of human existence – delving into these in order to gain awareness. This is very much a psychological approach to the human mind. If you gain such control over your own abilities by searching for new angles, there is no limit to what you can create as a singer and artist. So you can basically explore your own mind, your creative potential; it never stops. Being the best actor and the best singer are connected. This is also kind of my secret, which works very well, which I can see in the results, and through which I also feel a release in some way.
JA: Arila and you focus on strong female roles. How do you approach these roles and how do you bring them to life on the stage?
RF: I have always had a strong connection with and interest in strong female characters, who are often the leading roles in operas. I don’t really have an explanation for this, but I think I can see myself quite easily in these characters; perhaps it’s as simple as that. Somehow, to be honest, I’m a very dramatic person with a sensitive soul. Having the opera stage as a platform to create and interpret these roles is a blessing for me. Somehow it feels like home, like I get lost but always find my way back to where my heart is. This will never end. As we know, opera has a lot of dramatic roles, especially in opera seria (serious opera), a genre that often revolves around women at their lowest point in life, showing their struggles. The focus is usually on how they get out of these situations with pride and strength. To bring these characters to life, you have to use your voice as a tool and work on the colour of your voice to express a certain state of mind.
My intention is to make these specific roles as plausible as possible for the audience when I interpret them on stage. That’s my job of course, that is where the work begins. To do so, I follow my own personal rule: I can’t possibly make a role believable for the audience if I don’t believe it myself. This is the key to and also the motivation behind all of my performances – especially the ones I worked on at the Akademie (Dido’s Lament-another perspective and Omnia tempus habent). Obtaining every available key, weapon or tool in order to portray a character, seeking out every possible way, following every path are both my responsibility and interest in the profession as a singer and performer.
In Omnia tempus habent, I included this extra modern a cappella piece because it’s also the title, in order to give a sort of explanation as to how we come to live out what is planned for us and are able to deal with everything we can do in this environment and in this space in time, to create our own space where there are no limits somehow and where we can be totally free as artists.
This experiment has been my way of finding the right tools to work with, this is also where the interest in and motivation for being an artist and discovering different personal perspectives lies when I’m learning the roles and portraying them. You have to be curious and willing to search for what has led these women to their struggle and how you can relate to that. You have to link your own personal experience to the characters, for example a loved one who has left you without explanation. You need to dig deeper to see a character unfold. That’s why I choose to experiment with this subject; you have to face your own struggles to get to know the role you are playing.
This is where the shift in perspective happens: I can see and understand the character from an outsider’s point of view, I see myself interpreting it in order to be able to come close enough to communicate and share the depth and complexity of a specific role to the audience. This has always been my goal; how can I possibly convey this emotional intensity to the audience and arouse curiosity about a specific aspect of life – from a point of view we can all relate to. Of course, performing requires extensive preparation and technical skills that you yourself have to integrate into your singing in a natural way so you can focus on the acting part as well. But the real work begins when you start the process of portraying a role and a character; that’s the challenging part. When the technical aspects have been dealt with and you are trained to such an extent that it flows naturally, you have to ask yourself how to use your voice and the colour of your voice to actually bring the role to life. This is where it’s crucial to have a mentor to discuss these things and go through the creative process together. You always need to follow a clear structure – if you’re working on a big production for example – but within this framework, you have the ability to create your own space to bring the best into the process. Having the opportunity to experiment, learn and develop different techniques and strategies to be the best artist I can be, using my voice as an expressive tool to say what I really want to say – that’s the fascinating part of singing.
*1986 in Lidköping, lives in Copenhagen
Regina Fredriksson is a soprano. She was educated at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen. She finished her master’s in 2013 and her bachelor’s degree with highest distinction in 2011 under Eva Hess Thaysen and Hanna Hjort as her main singing teachers. Roles she played during her studies included L’enfant from Maurice Ravels L’enfant et les Sortileges and a nun in Dialogues des Carmelites by Francis Poulenc on The Old Stage at the Royal Opera in Copenhagen, as well as the soprano part in Gioachino Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle.More about Regina Fredriksson
*1953 in Rabenau, lives in Berlin
Arila Siegert is a choreographer, performer and director. She comes from dance; she trained under Gret Palucca. Her first engagement was in Berlin in at Komische Oper. In 1979, she joined Staatsoper Dresden as a soloist. In 1987, she founded her first dance theatre at Staatsschauspiel Dresden and later at the Anhaltisches Theater Dessau, where she was an “appointed expert” for the Bauhaus stage. Numerous full-length ballets were created, she performed solo evenings all over the world. One of her most defining experiences was working with Ruth Berghaus on Hans Werner Henze’s Orpheus ballet in Vienna. She directed her first opera in 1998; since then, she has staged fifty operas. Arila Siegert was awarded the Critics’ Prize for Dance in 1989 and the Federal Cross of Merit in 1993. She is a member of the Saxon Academy of Art and of the Goethe Institute’s General Meeting. Her materials are kept at the Archives of the Akademie der Künste, Berlin. The book Arila Siegert. Tänzerin Choreografin Regisseurin was published by the Akademie der Künste in 2014.