Fuoco sacro – A Search for the Sacred Fire of Song

Facts

Music Documentary, 93 min, 2022

Directed by Jan Schmidt-Garre

—— Theatrical release in Germany: 21 April, 2022 ——

Opera nights can be thrilling – they can be boring. Sometimes they are life-changing. Anyone who saw Callas still talks about her today. And they are very very rare, but they still exist: singers who pierce our hearts. This film presents three of them, explores what they do, how they do it and what that does to us: Ermonela Jaho, Barbara Hannigan and Asmik Grigorian. Like Stanislavski, who used to spy on great actors in the hope of uncovering their secrets, we observe them: How do they spend the day before an opening night? What does their dressing room look like? What happens in the seconds before the entrance? The ladies open up as they rarely have before, revealing to us the self-forgetfulness as well as the abysses without which no great art is created. A film about three individual singers that transforms into a film about the heart of opera.

Musical highlights are: Ermonela Jaho as Violetta (La Traviata), Cio-Cio-san (Madama Butterfly) and Angelica (Suor Angelica, rehearsed and conducted by Kirill Petrenko). Asmik Grigorian as Salome, Iolanta and Tatyana (Eugene Onegin). Barbara Hannigan as Mélisande (Pelléas et Mélisande), Gerda (The Snow Queen), and as a soloist in songs by Satie and in Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, which – in a world premiere – she sings and conducts at the same time.

Director of photography: Thomas Bresinsky
Editor: Sarah J. Levine
Producers: Marieke Schroeder and Jan Schmidt-Garre
Directed by Jan Schmidt-Garre
Cameramen: Bernd Effenberger, Thomas Keller, Ralph Netzer
Sound: Johannes Kammann, Vilius Keras
Sound mix: Eberhard Weckerle
Colour grading: Jürgen Pertack
Assistant director: Milena Smaczny
Commissioning editor Arte: Monika Lobkowicz
Commissioning editor BR: Maximilian Maier

Dedicated to David Esrig, from whom I learned, to ask the questions of this film.

A PARS Media production
In co-production with Bayerischer Rundfunk
In collaboration with Arte, Naxos Audiovisual, NRK, SVT and Versión Digital


Press

Please scroll down for the english version

Kino Kino, 26.4.22
Ein Dokumentarfilm auf der Suche nach dem Geheimnis großer Stimmen: Der Regisseur Jan Schmidt-Garre begleitet drei Operndiven, zeigt sie bei der Arbeit und versucht ihnen bis in die verstecktesten Winkel ihres Gehirns zu folgen, um das Wunder ihrer Stimmkunst zu erkunden. Er lässt sie selber über ihren Gesang nachdenken und sprechen. Ein hinreißender Film, der die Schönheit des Klangs feiert und zugleich tief erschüttert. Nicht nur für Opernfans ein bewegendes Leinwand-Ereignis.

3sat Kulturzeit, 25.4.22
Asmik Grigorian aus Litauen, die Kanadierin Barbara Hannigan und die albanische Opernsängerin Ermonela Jaho. Alle drei Sopranistin stehen im Fokus der Dokumentation „Fuoco sacro“ von Jan Schmidt-Garre. Auf der Suche nach der Seele des Gesangs hat er alle drei intensiv beobachtet. Ein außergewöhnlicher Dreifach-Portrait-Film, der zeigt, wie Operngesang den Menschen im tiefsten Inneren berührt.

Fritz Göttler, Süddeutsche Zeitung, 21.4.21
Eine gequälte Seele hilft dem Künstler, wenn er etwas ausdrücken will, sagt die Sängerin Ermonela Jaho. Nach seinem Film „Opera Fanatic“ macht sich Jan Schmidt-Garre erneut auf die Suche nach dem heiligen Feuer, dem Gesang. Er beobachtet drei Sängerinnen (neben Jaho noch Barbara Hannigan und Asmik Grigorian). Unglaublich bewegend, Kino pur ist das Zusammenspiel mit anderen Künstlern: Barbara Hannigan und der müde alte Reinbert de Leeuw, der sie bei Saties „Socrate“ begleitet. Sie setzt sich am Flügel an seine Seite, kurz nach den Aufnahmen ist er gestorben. Oder Jaho, wenn sie in München Puccinis „Suor Angelica“ probt, Kirill Petrenko dirigiert sie liebevoll, vom Flügel begleitet, und verspricht ein Pianissimo: I will disappear ...

Ralf Schenk, Filmdienst, April 2022
Eine besonders intensive Sequenz setzt Schmidt-Garre fast an den Schluss. Ermonela Jaho hat sich eine Luftröhrenentzündung zugezogen, tritt aber dennoch vor das Münchner Publikum. Als der Vorhang fällt, ist auf der Tonspur nur ferner Jubel zu hören, dafür umso lauter das eigene Atmen, ein erlösendes Klopfen auf die Brust. Die Kraft, die dieser Abend die Sängerin gekostet hat, und ihre Erschöpfung sind auf ihrem Gesicht deutlich ablesbar. Erst nach einer Weile wird der Beifall lauter, dringt ins Bewusstsein der Protagonistin. Die experimentell verfremdende Bild-Ton-Collage lässt eine Ahnung von der Endlichkeit dieser Kunst, den Gefährdungen der Stimme und des mit ihr verbundenen Glückszustands aufkommen. Es ist ein zutiefst cineastischer Moment.

Ulrich Amling, Tagesspiegel, 21.4.21
Schmidt-Garre gelingen einfühlsame Blicke hinter die Kulissen der Oper. Er zeigt die tiefe Einsamkeit, aus der die Kunst des Gesangs strömt und lässt den Preis erahnen, den seine Protagonistinnen dafür zahlen, ihr Publikum zu berühren. Durch alle Orchesterfluten behauptet sich die menschliche Stimme. Umfassend trainiert und fragil zugleich.

Jürgen Kesting, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 22.4.22
Als Auftakt fünfzig Sekunden wie aus einem neorealistischen Film. Eine Frau hastet auf die Statue einer Madonna zu und klagt gegenüber einem entsetzten Mann: „Die Wahrheit! Turiddu stahl mir mein Glück und die Ehre, und Euer Weib hat mir sein Herz geraubt.“ Es ist Santuzza in Pietro Mascagnis „Cavalleria Rusticana «. Aus dem Klang ihrer heftig vibrierenden Stimme dringen die Qualen verratener Liebe. Schnitt: „Fine «. Mit dieser kurzen Szene endete der Film „Opera Fanatic“, mit dem sich der Regisseur Jan Schmidt-Garre vor gut zwei Jahrzehnten auf die Suche nach dem „Geheimnis des expressiven Singens“ gemacht hatte. Keine der zehn Sängerinnen, die er damals in den Zeugenstand gerufen hatte, blieb ihm in so schmerzlich-schöner Erinnerung wie Carla Gavazzi.
„Ich konnte mir nicht vorstellen, dass mich eine Stimme noch einmal so treffen könnte, doch dann...“, so erzählt der Regisseur als Icherzähler zum Auftakt seiner filmischen Fortsetzung, „hörte ich während einer Autofahrt die Stimme der albanischen Sopranistin Ermonela Jaho: „Da war er wieder, der Gesang, den nur die Seele hören kann.“ Für Schmidt-Garre war es die Herausforderung, mit drei heutigen Sängerinnen – neben Ermonela Jaho mit der litauischen Sopranistin Asmik Grigorian und der Kanadierin Barbara Hannigan – das tiefste Geheimnis sängerischer Expression zu erkunden: das „Fuoco Sacro“, von dem einst Petrarca gesprochen hatte, von einem „Zittern in der größten Hitze und dem Glühen unter dem kältesten Himmel «.
Was verbirgt sich im Nebel des Begriffs „Expression «? Zu unterscheiden sind drei Formen: das vokale Agieren, die musikalische Expression und der Ausdruck der Seele. Das vokale Agieren – die Nuancierung der Aussprache und die Färbung des Tons – und die musikalische Expression – Gradierungen der Dynamik, Hell-Dunkel-Tönungen (» Chiaroscuro «) und rhythmische Spannung – lassen sich technisch definieren. Aber worin liegt das Geheimnis des „heiligen Feuers“, wie lässt sich der Ausdruck von Seele im Gesang erkunden? Handelt es sich, wie ein Skeptiker einwenden mag, nur um Gefühle, oft nur die dumpfe Reaktion des Geistes?
Und was bringt drei Sängerinnen dazu, sich auf der Suche nach einer Antwort in ein Gefühlslabor zu begeben: sich bei Proben beobachten zu lassen; Antworten zu geben auf die Frage nach ihrer Identifikation mit der Rolle und oder die nach der Kontrolle der eigenen Empfindungen; zu sprechen über Angstmomente vor dem Auftritt und über die Beziehung zu jenem wankelmütigen Tausendtier, das Publikum heißt; endlich zu (er-)dulden, das Gesicht minutenlang dem mikroskopischen Blick der Kamera auszusetzen? Zu den erstaunlichsten Momenten gehört ein „Test“, bei dem der Final-Monolog der Salome mit einem inneren Monolog von Asmik Grigorian überblendet wird, die sich mit geschlossenen Augen über Kopfhörer selbst lauscht. Wie in einem Spiegel sind in ihrem Gesicht die Ekstasen der Figur zu sehen und die körperliche Anspannung zu verspüren, wenn sie ihrer Stimme befiehlt, nicht zu „drücken“, wenn sie in grabestiefer Lage vom Geheimnis der Liebe und des Todes singt. Bei Ermonela Jaho ist zu erleben, was es bedeutet, beim Todesgebet von Puccinis Suor Angelica oder dem Weltabschiedsgesang von Verdis Violetta im Klang der Stimme Seelenbilder zu malen.
„Eine gequälte Seele zu haben“, bekennt Ermonela Jaho, „hilft einem Künstler, weil man dann bereit ist, an die Extreme geht.“ Dass es keine Primadonnen-Floskel ist, wird im Seelenspiegel der Mimik ihres wunderschönen Antlitzes beglaubigt. In Barbara Hannigan ist der Sonderfall einer intellektuellen Sängerin (und Dirigentin!) zu erleben, die es zwar nicht vermeiden kann, „ein Teil der Rolle“ zu werden, aber doch exakt mit heißkaltem Kopf austariert, ob sie sich bei einer heiklen Passage mit der sicheren B-Variante begnügt oder sich auf das Risiko der A-Lösung einlässt: „Die nicht ganz gelungene Version A ist besser als die gelungene B.“ Bei ihr rinnen die Tränen, wie von Rousseau gefordert, aus dem Verstande. Die sanguinisch impulsive Asmik Grigorian ist offenbar das von innen brennende „stage animal «; sie hat, wie sie bekennt, Jahre gebraucht, um ohne Beta-blocker auf die Bühne zu gehen.
Wie wohltuend, dass keine der Sängerinnen auch nur im Ansatz versucht, sich mit den Posen der „umile ancella del genio creator“, als demütige Dienerin der Kunst, anzuschmeicheln wie Cileas „Adriana Lecouvreur «. Nie auch nur irgend eine Spur von Diva-Talk; sinnenfällig wird die lust- und qualvolle Arbeit des Singens mit all ihren physischen wie psychischen Herausforderungen. Der Regisseur hat es verstanden, seine klugen, eloquenten Protagonistinnen mit angemessenen, behutsamen und ernsthaften Fragen herauszufordern. Zu hoffen ist, dass sich auch die Zuschauer herausfordern lassen von diesem klugen, anspruchsvollen, aber auch enigmatischen und esoterischen Film über drei charismatische Sängerinnen, in dem wohl auch eine zarte Liebeserklärung des Regisseurs verborgen ist: an Ermolena Jaho, in deren Stimmklang jenes magische Feuer brennt.

Christine Peitz, Tagesspiegel, 25.4.21
Am bestürzendsten schließlich die Close-ups auf der Bühne selbst, etwa bei Jahos haltlosem Piano als „Suor Angelica «. Bei der Probe ist Maestro Kirill Petrenko hingerissen, er verspricht, mit dem Orchester zu verschwinden, damit sie ihre Spitzentöne so schmerzhaft leise zurücknehmen kann. Zu den großen Momenten des Films zählt der Schlussapplaus nach Verdi, als Jaho sich von ihrer Violetta nicht lösen kann und restlos verstört vors Publikum tritt, wie ein verlassenes Kind. Sängerinnen, die ganz großen, können zu Zombies werden. Sie lassen ihr Leben im Dienst der Musik und kehren als Gezeichnete zurück.

Rainer Pöhlmann, Deutschlandradio, 21.4.22
Der Film ist Pathos-geladen. Aber ich würde nicht sagen, dass er pathetisch im Sinne von schwülstig ist. Es taucht immer wieder Petrarca als Zitatgeber auf. Eines dieser Zitate lautet „Dieser Gesang bricht das Härteste und bezwingt den Hochmut «. Also die Idee der heiligen Kunst und der Besserung der Menschheit durch Kunst, die ist hier schon präsent, aber eher subkutan. Nein, schwülstig ist er gar nicht, sondern ganz im Gegenteil eigentlich. Er geht sehr sensibel, sehr vorsichtig ran, auch an seine drei Heldinnen. Es ist ein durch und durch musikalischer Film, er vertraut seinen Protagonistinnen.
Die Aufführungen selbst spielen keine große Rolle, aber die Proben werden sehr ausführlich – nicht dokumentiert, sondern man spürt hinein in diese Proben-Szenerie. Es gibt wunderbare kleine Szenen, wo Kirill Petrenko dann sagt: „Ich verschwinde. I will disappear.“ Im Pianissimo, das er sozusagen für die Sängerin, für die Solistin ausbreitet. Aber es gibt dann auch einen großen Bereich des Backstage. Also Zeit für Gespräche, intime Einblicke in die Vorbereitung, in die Rituale der Drei am Tag des Auftritts. Vor allem Barbara Hannigan ist da sehr eindrucksvoll. „Alles öffnet sich, öffnet sich, öffnet sich, öffnet sich“, sagt sie, „bis hin zum Schlussvorhang, wo sich dann alles wieder schließt.“ Also wie die drei dann mit dieser psychischen Situation umgehen, das wird schon sehr, sehr deutlich. Auch große Ehrlichkeit herrscht hier, soweit es im Rahmen eines solchen Films möglich ist. Asmik Grigorian sagt, der Premierenabend von „Iolanta“ von Tschaikowski sei der erste Abend ohne Betablocker und ohne Tabletten für sie gewesen. Und am Ende des Films spielen dann durchaus auch Krankheit und die Gefährdungen des Singens eine Rolle: die totale Erschöpfung von Ermonela Jaho, als sie nicht ganz gesund „La Traviata“ singt, eine Wahnsinns-Rolle. Und wo sie dann beim Schlussapplaus wirklich nicht nur als Rolle, sondern als Person völlig entäußert ist, das ist sehr eindrucksvoll.
Dieser Film ist ein musikalischer, der Film eines Musikliebhabers, eines schon Bewunderers – Jan Schmidt-Garre bewundert seine Protagonistinnen hemmungslos, aber eben nicht gedankenlos. Er hat keine kritische Distanz zu den Protagonisten. Das ist auch nicht die Aufgabe in diesem Film. Aber er hat auch gar nichts von dieser immer so leicht schmierigen Schwärmerei, gerade von Opernfreunden, die dann von ihren Heldinnen und Helden in einer Weise schwärmen, wo man denkt: Ach, da wäre dann doch ein bisschen Distanz ganz gut. Also insofern ist dieser Film wirklich ein wunderbarer Musikfilm.

Gerhard Midding, epd Film, April 2022
In „Fuoco Sacro“ geht Jan Schmidt-Garre der Frage nach, wie diese drei Sopranistinnen den Schmerz herstellen, nach dem ihre Bühnenrollen verlangen: Wie gelingt es ihnen, das Leiden zu einem Instrument werden zu lassen? Seine Protagonistinnen geben die Antwort darauf nicht leichthin, sie sind kluge Interpretinnen ihres eigenen Schaffens. Pathos eignet ihren Auskünften dennoch. Ihre Kunst besteht schließlich darin, dass man die Seele hören kann.
Schmidt-Garre zeigt seine Protagonistinnen mehr während der Arbeit, als bei ihren Bühnentriumphen. Er und sein Kameramann Thomas Bresinsky filmen sie feinsinnig und wachsam, die Montage von Sarah J. Levine ist sanft und agil. Man erfährt viel über ihr Handwerk, ihre Zweifel und Beharrlichkeit, über den Austausch mit Dirigenten (Jaho und der charmante Kirill Petrenko sind ein entzückendes Gespann) und Regisseuren (offenbar stört es Hannigan nicht, dass Krzsysztof Warlikowski bei den Proben zu „Pelléas und Mélisande“ E- Zigarette raucht). Ein ungemein ergiebiger Kunstgriff ist, dass der Regisseur seine Protagonistinnen dabei beobachtet, wie sie ihre Stücke mit Kopfhörer einstudieren und in ihrer jeweiligen Muttersprache kommentieren. Grigorian ist zeigt sich dabei als kritische Analytikerin (» Lügen, alles gelogen «, sagt sie über eine Arie der Salome, „den Rücken heraus“ und „Luft, Luft, Luft! «). Sie ist ganz fixiert auf die Technik, um die Angst vor dem Auftritt zu bändigen.
Schmidt-Garre hat das Glück, dass alle Drei unterschiedliche Temperamente mit je eigenem, rigidem Arbeitsethos sind. Manchmal finden sie nur andere Worte, um das Gleiche auszudrücken. Aber die sind stets prägnant und eigensinnig genug. Die vielseitige Hannigan – sie tritt auch als Dirigentin in Erscheinung – scheint mit leichterem Gepäck zu reisen. Ihre Kreativität ist pragmatisch: Sie steht vor einem Problem, das es zu lösen gilt. Für sie ist die Auseinandersetzung mit einer schwierigen Partitur „a beautiful struggle «. Sie mag Aspekte von sich in einer Rolle wiederfinden, aber das geschieht ohne Agonie. Sie verkörpert, nicht nur mit ihrem Repertoire, die Moderne. Eine sehr warmherzige Moderne, wenn man miterlebt, welch unaufdringliche Fürsorge sie dem greisen, schwerkranken Pianisten Reinbert de Leeuw zuteil werden lässt.
Die Montage schmiegt sich auch auf unterschiedliche Weise an die Protagonistinnen an. Bei Jaho legt sie Spuren aus, die sie später wieder aufnimmt. Ihre Aussagen werden erst eine Weile danach beglaubigt. Dass sie schwer aus einer Rolle wieder herausfindet, löst sich herzzerreißend ein, als man sieht, wie sie noch völlig mitgenommen ist von ihrer Violetta. Den Applaus scheint sie nicht zu hören – die Tonmischung ist diskret einfühlsam in diesem Moment, sie blendet ihn erst auf, als die Sängerin allmählich in die Wirklichkeit zurückkehrt. Ein andres Mal sagt Jaho, sie müsse die Energie des Ortes spüren, an dem sie auftritt. Minuten später kauert sie dann auf der Bühne, um sie als ihr Territorium zu vermessen. Dazu fügt sich ein kurz zuvor gefallenes Zitat aus den Schriften Stanislawskis, der einen Schauspieler beobachtete, der zuerst lange über die Bühne wandelte, um seine Seele auf die Rolle einzustellen. Jaho ist gleichsam die Method Actress unter den Dreien, die den Ausdruck aus dem Geheimfach ihrer Erinnerungen hervorholt.
Grigorian wiederum machte es Schmidt-Garre im Schneideraum wohl nicht leicht. Sie scheint zunächst unzugänglich, die am wenigsten Greifbare zu sein; auf ihre erste Interviewäußerung muss man bis zur Hälfte des Films warten. Auch danach klaffen Lücken, die der Regisseur bestimmt gern mit einer Selbstauskunft gefüllt hätte. Aber hat sie das Zögern erst einmal überwunden, ist sie von schonungsloser Offenheit. Ihrer Versagensängste wird sie erst Herr, wenn sie eine Vielzahl von Medikamenten genommen hat. Das Eingestehen von Panikattacken hat mich verblüfft, denn in einem Programmheft las ich, dass die Bühne ihr Seelenort sei. Sie ist auf ihr groß geworden, wurde praktisch dort geboren: Ihre Eltern verliebten sich zuerst in den Rollen, die sie gemeinsam sangen, und dann im wirklichen Leben. Diese Angst wirkt im Film wie eine Zerreißprobe, die sie unaufhörlich bestehen will, wie ein Preis, den sie wacker zahlt.
Die Leben, welche die Drei jenseits der Arbeit führen, sind dem Film erfreulich unerheblich. Ihre emotionalen Biographien liegen offen genug dar. Grigorian, Hannigan und Jaho sind Darstellerinnen von gewaltiger Ausdrucksstärke. Der Regisseur will das Geheimnis ihres expressiven Gesangs ergründen – und kommt einer allumfassenden Hingabe auf die Spur. Körperliche Ergriffenheit teilt sich schon im Opernsaal mit, aber die Mimik ist ein Pfund, mit dem nur die Kamera wuchern kann. Die Drei stehen auch mit ihrem Antlitz für die Figuren ein, durch die sie sich auf der Bühne ausdrücken. Es sind wunderbare, echte Schauspielerinnengesichter, von entschlossener Anmut. Umgekehrt stimmt es noch eher: Sie sind von anmutiger Entschlossenheit. In ihnen stehen die Seelenregungen geschrieben, die sie in ihren Rollen entdecken.

Klaus Kalchschmid, Münchner Feuilleton, April 2022
"Fuoco sacro" – ein berührend intimer, großartiger Film von Jan Schmidt-Garre, großteils gefilmt an der Bayerischen Staatsoper
Jan Schmidt-Garre hat nicht nur bemerkenswerte Filme gedreht über Sergiu Celibidache, bei dem er selbst Dirigieren studieren durfte, und viele andere, bei denen die klassische Musik eine zentrale Rolle spielt, sondern vor allem immer wieder solche, in denen Oper und das Singen im Zentrum stehen. So 1996 die hervorragende sechsstündige Serie "Belcanto" über die "Tenöre des Schellack-Zeitalters «, die auch auf DVD erschienen ist, oder "Opera Fanatic" (1999). Nun gibt es ein Dreifachportrait von Asmik Grigorian, Barbara Hannigan und Ermonela Jaho unter dem Titel: "Fuoco Sacro – Heiliges Feuer". Gemeint sind die Vestalinnen, antike Priesterinnen, deren einzige, aber ungemein wichtige Aufgabe darin bestand zu verhindern, dass das "heilige Feuer" im Tempel verlöscht. Hier geht es um Sängerinnen, die mit ihrem Gesang jeden Abend dieses Feuer immer wieder neu entzünden, ein Feuer, dass wir einst vor unserer Geburt erlebten und nachdem wir uns ein Leben lang sehnen!
Man kommt den drei Sopranistinnen so nahe wie sonst nie – in Proben mit Klavier, die manchmal unmittelbar in die Bühnenaufführung übergehen, beim Einsingen, beim Finden des richtigen Tons mit oder ohne Klavier. Wir erfahren von den Ritualen am Aufführungstag, und wie viel Identifikation mit der Rolle nötig, möglich oder gefährlich ist. Und immer geht es dabei buchstäblich um Leben und Tod, den der Strauss’schen "Salome«, von Madama Butterfly und Suor Angelica (Puccini) oder um das Ende der Traviata Giuseppe Verdis. Wir erfahren hautnah und in extremer Nahaufnahme, wie es ist, das Sterben einer hustenden Schwindsüchtigen zu verkörpern, wenn man selbst krank ist, aber die Vorstellung nicht absagen möchte. Wie viel da authentisch ist oder doch gespielt, mag man beim Sehen und Hören selbst entscheiden.
Richtig spannend wird es, wenn die drei Damen mit Kopfhörern Aufzeichnungen ihres Singens auf der Bühne lauschen und parallel in ihrer Muttersprache kommentieren, was ihnen dabei durch den Kopf geht, worauf sie achten müssen, wo sie loslassen können. Unvergesslich, wie etwa Grigorian auf Litauisch erzählt, wie sie die Schlussszene ihrer Salzburger Salome erlebt, oder was Barbara Hannigan zu sagen hat während ihres gleichzeitigen Singens und Dirigierens des Finalsatzes von Gustav Mahlers vierter Symphonie. In Erinnerung bleibt aber auch Grigorian als blinde Königs Tochter Iolanta in Tschaikowskys letzter Oper in Frankfurt. Ganz nebenbei werden auch drei charismatische Männer porträtiert: allen voran der 81-jährige Pianist, Komponist und Dirigent Reinbert De Leeuw, der kurz nach den Dreharbeiten mit subtil gefilmten Proben zu "Socrate" von Erik Satie starb. Dann der damalige GMD der Bayerischen Staatsoper Kirill Petrenko mit der Albanerin Ermonela Jaho bei Proben zu Puccinis Suor Angelica in München oder der junge Bariton Dominik Köninger aus dem Ensemble der Komischen Oper in Berlin hier bei Proben mit Barbara Hannigan für "Pelléas et Mélisande". Oper auch fürs Auge, für den Kopf.

Falk Straub, Kino-Zeit, April 2022
Kunst ist mehr als nur Unterhaltung. Sie löst etwas in uns aus und lässt uns im besten Fall verändert zurück. Doch je mehr Kunst wir konsumieren, desto seltener werden diese Momente. Wer die Besten der Besten gesehen und gehört hat, lässt sich nicht mehr von allem und jedem berühren. So ging es auch dem Film- und Opernregisseur Jan Schmidt-Garre – bis er eine Stimme hörte, die ihn an die Callas erinnerte. Gemeinsam mit der Frau hinter dieser Stimme und zwei weiteren Opernsängerinnen macht er sich auf die „Suche nach dem heiligen Feuer des Gesangs «.
Schon einmal spürte Schmidt-Garre diesem Feuer nach. In seinem Dokumentarfilm „Opera Fanatic“ (1999), aus dem er Ausschnitte einstreut, traf sich Opernfan(atiker) Stefan Zucker mit Operndiven der 1950er-Jahre, um sie nach ihren Geheimnissen zu befragen. Während deren Karrieren lange zurücklagen, steigt Schmidt-Garre diesmal mit drei noch aktiven Sängerinnen auf die Bühne. Divenhaft ist keine von ihnen.
Die Stimme, die Schmidt-Garre im Autoradio hörte, gehört Ermonela Jaho. Die 1974 in Tirana geborene Sopranistin ließ ihn nicht mehr los. Nach einer kurzen Recherche saß er auch schon im Flieger nach London, um Jaho in Puccinis Madame Butterfly im Royal Opera House in Covent Garden auf der Bühne zu sehen – und wusste, dass daraus ein Film werden könnte. Jahos Methode, die Seelenqual der Figuren zu kanalisieren und dabei bis zur Selbstaufgabe hinter den Figuren zu verschwinden, sollte jedoch nicht der einzige Zugang zu dieser Profession bleiben.
„Es sollte kein Porträt werden, sondern ein Film über die äußerst seltenen Grenzüberschreitungen, nach denen wir letztendlich suchen, wenn wir ins Kino gehen“, erklärt Schmidt-Garre in einem Interview zu seinem Film. Auf der Suche nach dem „Gesang, den man in der Seele hört“, wie Francesco Petrarca es nannte, stellt Schmidt-Garre Ermonela Jaho die 1971 geborene Kanadierin Barbara Hannigan und ihre zehn Jahre jüngere, litauische Kollegin Asmik Grigorian gegenüber.
Mit allen dreien geht er in den Probenraum und blickt ihnen bei ihrer Routine am Tag einer Aufführung über die Schulter. Die Vorgehensweisen könnten kaum unterschiedlicher sein: mal emotional, mal verkopft, mal körperlich. Dazwischen führt der Filmemacher ein kleines Experiment durch. Mit geschlossenen Augen und dem eigenen Gesang via Kopfhörern auf den Ohren fassen die Sängerinnen in Worte, was sich während eines Auftritts vor ihrem inneren Auge abspielt. Aufschlussreiche Einblicke in die Köpfe dreier Ausnahmekünstlerinnen.
Im Interview spricht Schmidt-Garre von jenen seltenen Momenten, „in denen Kunst und Realität miteinander verschmelzen «. In seinem eigenen Film gibt es zwar keinen davon, viele Momente kommen dem aber sehr nahe, etwa wenn Barbara Hannigan zum letzten Mal mit ihrem von Krankheit bereits schwer gezeichneten Freund und Mentor Reinbert de Leeuw auftritt. Oder wenn sie in Göteborg nicht nur selbst ein Orchester dirigiert, sondern gleichzeitig auch vom Dirigentenpult aus singt. Ein anderes Mal dimmt Schmidt-Garre nach einem Auftritt Ermonela Jahos den Jubel des Publikums herunter, um das Gefühl von Taubheit und innerer Leere zu verdeutlichen, dass Jaho ein ums andere Mal verspürt, wenn der Vorhang fällt.
Es sind diese kleinen Momente, die diesen Film ausmachen. Opernfans kommen voll auf ihre Kosten. Wer mit der Opernwelt hingegen wenig bis nichts anfangen kann, dem wird es schwerfallen, das heilige Feuer des Gesangs zu finden. Jan Schmidt-Garre gibt aber ordentlich Hilfestellung, damit sein Publikum wie er erleben kann, „was Singen sein kann: ein hörbarer Kuss.“

—— english version ——

Kino Kino, 26.4.22
A documentary in search of the secret of great voices: Director Jan Schmidt-Garre accompanies three opera divas, showing them at work and trying to follow them into the most hidden corners of their brains to explore the wonder of their vocal artistry. He lets them think and talk about their singing. A gorgeous film that celebrates the beauty of sound and at the same time deeply shakes you. A moving screen event not only for opera fans.

Fritz Göttler, Süddeutsche Zeitung, 21.4.21
A tortured soul helps the artist when s/he wants to express something, says singer Ermonela Jaho. After his film "Opera Fanatic" Jan Schmidt-Garre once again sets out in search of the sacred fire of singing. He observes three singers (besides Jaho, Barbara Hannigan and Asmik Grigorian). Incredibly moving, pure cinema is the interplay with other artists: Barbara Hannigan and the tired old Reinbert de Leeuw, who accompanies her on Satie’s "Socrate". She sits at his side at the grand piano; he died shortly after the recording. Or Jaho, when she rehearses Puccini’s "Suor Angelica" in Munich, Kirill Petrenko conducts her lovingly, accompanied by the grand piano, and promises a pianissimo: » I will disappear ... «

Ralf Schenk, Filmdienst, April 2022
Schmidt-Garre places a particularly intense sequence almost at the end. Ermonela Jaho has contracted a tracheitis, but nevertheless appears before the Munich audience. When the curtain falls, only distant cheers can be heard on the soundtrack, but her own breathing is all the louder for it, a redemptive thumping on her chest. The strength that this evening has cost the singer and her exhaustion are clearly visible on her face. Only after a while does the applause grow louder, penetrating the protagonist’s consciousness. The experimentally alienating image-sound collage gives an inkling of the finiteness of this art, the dangers of the voice and the state of happiness associated with it. It is a profoundly cinematic moment.

Ulrich Amling, Tagesspiegel, 21.4.21
Schmidt-Garre succeeds in taking a sensitive look behind the scenes of opera. He shows the deep loneliness from which the art of singing flows and gives an idea of the price his protagonists pay for touching their audience. Through all the orchestral floods, the human voice asserts itself. Extensively trained and fragile at the same time.

Jürgen Kesting, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 22.4.22
As a prelude, fifty seconds like from a neorealist film. A woman rushes toward the statue of a Madonna and laments to a horrified man: "The truth! Turiddu stole my happiness and honor, and your wife has stolen his heart from me." It is Santuzza in Pietro Mascagni’s "Cavalleria Rusticana «. From the sound of her fiercely vibrating voice come the agonies of betrayed love. Cut: "Fine «. This short scene marked the end of the film "Opera Fanatic", with which the director Jan Schmidt-Garre set out in search of the "secret of expressive singing" a good two decades ago. None of the ten singers he called to the stand at that time remained in his memory as painfully beautiful as Carla Gavazzi.
"I couldn’t imagine that a voice could touch me like that again, but then..." the director recounts as a first-person narrator at the start of his cinematic sequel, "I heard the voice of Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho during a car ride: There it was again, the singing one hears in the soul." For Schmidt-Garre, it was a challenge to explore the deepest secret of vocal expression with three of today’s singers – in addition to Ermonela Jaho, with the Lithuanian soprano Asmik Grigorian and the Canadian Barbara Hannigan: the "Fuoco Sacro" of which Petrarch had once spoken, of a "trembling in the greatest heat and glowing under the coldest sky «.
What is hidden in the fog of the term "expression «? There are three forms to distinguish: the vocal acting, the musical expression and the utterance of the soul. The vocal acting – the nuance of the pronunciation and the coloring of the tone – and the musical expression – gradations of the dynamics, shades of light and dark (» chiaroscuro «) and rhythmic tension – can be defined technically. But what is the secret of the "sacred fire", how can the expression of soul in song be explored? Is it, as a skeptic might object, only a matter of feelings, often only the dull reaction of the spirit?
And what makes three singers enter an emotional laboratory in search of an answer: to be observed during rehearsals; to give answers to the question of their identification with the role or that of controlling their own feelings; to talk about moments of fear before the performance and about the relationship to that fickle thousand-headed animal called the audience; to finally endure exposing their faces to the microscopic gaze of the camera for minutes and minutes? Among the most astonishing moments is a "test" in which the final monologue of Salome is superimposed with an inner monologue of Asmik Grigorian, who listens to herself with closed eyes through headphones. As in a mirror, the character’s ecstasies can be seen in her face and the physical tension felt when she commands her voice not to "press" as she sings of the mystery of love and death in a grave-deep register. With Ermonela Jaho, one can experience what it means to paint pictures of the soul in the sound of the voice during the death prayer of Puccini’s Suor Angelica or the world farewell song of Verdi’s Violetta.
"Having a tortured soul, « Ermonela Jaho confesses, "helps an artist because then you’re ready to go to the extremes." That this is no prima donna phrase is authenticated in the soul mirror of the facial expressions of her beautiful countenance. Barbara Hannigan is a special case of an intellectual singer (and conductor!) who cannot avoid becoming "part of the role," but who precisely balances with a hot and cold head whether she is content with the safe plan B in a tricky passage or whether she takes the risk of plan A: "The not quite successful plan A is better than the successful plan B." With her, the tears flow from the mind, as demanded by Rousseau. The sanguine impulsive Asmik Grigorian is obviously the "stage animal" burning from within; as she confesses, it took her years to get on stage without beta-blockers.
How pleasant that none of the singers even attempts to ingratiate herself with the poses of the "umile ancella del genio creator «, as a humble servant of art, like Cilea’s "Adriana Lecouvreur «. There is never any trace of diva talk; the pleasure and agony of the work of singing, with all its physical and psychological demands, is palpable. The director has understood how to challenge his smart, eloquent protagonists with appropriate, careful and serious questions. It is to be hoped that the viewers will also be challenged by this clever, demanding, but also enigmatic and esoteric film about three charismatic singers, in which there is probably also hidden a tender declaration of love by the director: to Ermolena Jaho, in whose vocal sound that magical fire burns.

Christine Peitz, Tagesspiegel, 22.4.21
Finally, most startling are the close-ups on the stage itself, such as in Jaho’s boundless piano as "Suor Angelica «. At rehearsal, Maestro Kirill Petrenko is entranced, promising to disappear with the orchestra so that she can take back her top notes so heavenly softly. One of the great moments of the film is the final applause after Verdi, when Jaho cannot detach herself from her Violetta and steps before the audience, completely distraught, like an abandoned child. Singers, the great ones, can become zombies. They leave their lives in the service of music and return as marked.

Rainer Pöhlmann, Deutschlandradio, 21.4.22
The film is pathos-laden. But I wouldn’t say it’s a pathos-laden film in the sense of being turgid. Petrarch keeps popping up as a quotation. One of these quotes is "This song breaks the hardest and conquers the pride «. So the idea of sacred art and the betterment of humanity through art is present here, but subcutaneously. No, it’s not turgid at all, but quite the opposite actually. He takes a very sensitive, very careful approach, also to his three heroines. It is a thoroughly musical film, he trusts his protagonists.
The performances themselves don’t play a big role, but the rehearsals are documented in great detail – not documented, but you can feel into this rehearsal atmosphere. There are wonderful little scenes where Kirill Petrenko says: "I will disappear" – in the pianissimo, which he spreads out, so to speak, for the singer, for the soloist. But then there is also a large area of backstage scenes. So time for conversations, intimate insights into the preparation, into the rituals of the three singers on the day of the performance. Especially Barbara Hannigan is very impressive there. "Everything opens, opens, opens, opens," she says, "right up to the final curtain, when everything closes again." So how the three of them then deal with this psychological situation, that becomes very, very clear. There is also great honesty here, as far as it is possible in the context of such a film. Asmik Grigorian says that the opening night of "Iolanta" by Tchaikovsky was the first night without beta blockers and without pills for her. And at the end of the film, illness and the dangers of singing also play a role: the total exhaustion of Ermonela Jaho, when she sings "La Traviata", an insane role, not completely healthy. And where she is then really completely exhausted during the final applause, not only as a role, but as a person, that is very impressive.
This film is a musical one, the film of a music lover, an admirer – Jan Schmidt-Garre admires his protagonists unrestrainedly, but not thoughtlessly. He has no critical distance to the protagonists. That is also not the task in this film. But he also has none of that ever-so-slightly smarmy rapture, especially of opera lovers, who then rave about their heroines and heroes in a way that makes you think: Oh, a little distance would be quite good. In this respect, this film is really a wonderful musical film.

Gerhard Midding, epd Film, April 2022
In "Fuoco Sacro" Jan Schmidt-Garre explores the question of how these three sopranos produce the pain that their stage roles call for: How do they succeed in turning suffering into an instrument? His protagonists do not answer this question lightly; they are wise interpreters of their own work. Pathos is nevertheless inherent in their statements. After all, their art consists in the fact that one can hear the soul.
Schmidt-Garre shows his protagonists more during their work than during their stage triumphs. He and his cinematographer Thomas Bresinsky film them subtly and alertly, and Sarah J. Levine’s editing is smooth and agile. One learns much about their craft, their doubts and persistence, their exchanges with conductors (Jaho and the charming Kirill Petrenko are a delightful pair) and directors (apparently Hannigan doesn’t mind Krzsysztof Warlikowski smoking an e-cigarette during the rehearsals for "Pelléas and Mélisande «). An immensely productive artifice is that the director observes his protagonists rehearsing their pieces with headphones and commenting on them in their respective native languages. Grigorian shows herself to be a critical analyst (» Lies, all lies «, she says about an aria of Salome, "the back out" and "Air, air, air! «). She is completely obsessed with technique, in order to tame the fear of the performance.
Schmidt-Garre is lucky that all three are different temperaments, each with their own rigid work ethic. Sometimes they just find different words to express the same thing. But they’re always concise and opinionated enough. The versatile Hannigan – she also appears as a conductor – seems to travel light. Her creativity is pragmatic: she is faced with a problem to solve. For her, tackling a difficult score is "a beautiful struggle «. She may find aspects of herself in a role, but this is done without agony. She embodies, not only with her repertoire, modernity. A very warm-hearted modernity, when one witnesses the unobtrusive care she gives to the elderly, seriously ill pianist Reinbert de Leeuw.
The editing also nestles up against the protagonists in different ways. In Jaho’s case, it lays out tracks that it later picks up again. Her statements are not authenticated until a while later. The fact that she finds it difficult to get out of a role again is heartbreakingly redeemed when one sees how she is still completely taken away by her Violetta. She doesn’t seem to hear the applause – the sound mix is discreetly empathetic in this moment, fading it out only as the singer gradually returns to reality. Another time, Jaho says she needs to feel the energy of the place where she is performing. Minutes later, she then crouches on the stage to survey it as her territory. To this is related a quote from Stanislavski’s writings, fallen shortly before, who observed an actor who first walked the stage for a long time in order to adjust his soul to the role. Jaho is, as it were, the Method Actress among the three, who brings out the expression from the secret compartment of her memories.
Grigorian, on the other hand, did not make it easy for Schmidt-Garre in the editing room. At first she seems inaccessible, the least tangible; one must wait until halfway through the film for her first interview. Even after that, there are gaps that the director would certainly have liked to fill with self-disclosure. But once she has overcome her hesitation, she is relentlessly open. She only becomes master of her fears of failure after taking a variety of medications. The admission of panic attacks amazed me, because I read in a program booklet that the stage is her soul place. She grew up on it, was practically born there: Her parents fell in love first in the roles they sang together, and then in real life. In the film, this fear seems like a test of endurance that she ceaselessly wants to pass, like a price that she pays valiantly.
The lives the three lead beyond work are pleasingly irrelevant to the film. Their emotional biographies are exposed enough. Grigorian, Hannigan and Jaho are performers of tremendous expressiveness. The director wants to fathom the secret of their expressive singing – and gets on the track of an all-encompassing devotion. Physical emotion is already communicated in the opera house, but the facial expressions are a pound with which only the camera can gain. The three also stand up for the characters with their faces, through which they express themselves on stage. They are wonderful, real actresses’ faces, of determined grace. The reverse is even truer: they are of graceful determination. In them are written the emotions of the soul that they discover in their roles.

Klaus Kalchschmid, Münchner Feuilleton, April 2022
"Fuoco sacro" – a touchingly intimate, magnificent film by Jan Schmidt-Garre, largely filmed at the Bavarian State Opera
Jan Schmidt-Garre has not only made remarkable films about Sergiu Celibidache, with whom he himself was allowed to study conducting, and many others in which classical music plays a central role, but above all time and again those in which opera and singing are at the center. In 1996, for example, the excellent six-hour series "Belcanto" about the "Tenors of the 78 Era «, which was also released on DVD, or "Opera Fanatic" (1999). Now there is a triple portrait of Asmik Grigorian, Barbara Hannigan and Ermonela Jaho under the title: "Fuoco Sacro – Sacred Fire «. It refers to the Vestal Virgins, ancient priestesses whose sole but immensely important task was to prevent the "sacred fire" in the temple from going out. Here we are talking about singers who, with their singing, every evening reignite this fire, a fire that we once experienced before our birth and that we long for all our lives!
We get closer to the three sopranos than ever before – in rehearsals with piano, which sometimes lead directly into the stage performance, when warming up the voice, when finding the right tone with or without piano. We learn about the rituals on performance day, and how much identification with the role is necessary, possible or dangerous. And it is always literally a matter of life and death, that of Strauss’ "Salome «, of Madama Butterfly and Suor Angelica (Puccini) or the end of Giuseppe Verdi’s Traviata. We experience first-hand and in extreme close-up what it is like to embody the dying of a coughing consumptive when you are sick yourself but don’t want to cancel the performance. How much of it is authentic or acted, you can decide for yourself while watching and listening.
It gets really exciting when the three ladies listen to recordings of their singing on stage with headphones and comment in parallel in their native language what is going through their heads, what they have to pay attention to, where they can let go. It is unforgettable, for example, how Grigorian tells in Lithuanian how she experiences the final scene of her Salzburg Salome, or what Barbara Hannigan has to say during her simultaneous singing and conducting of the final movement of Gustav Mahler’s fourth symphony. But also remembered is Grigorian as the blind king’s daughter Iolanta in Tchaikovsky’s last opera in Frankfurt. Along the way, three charismatic men are also portrayed: first and foremost, 81-year-old pianist, composer and conductor Reinbert De Leeuw, who died shortly after the subtly filmed rehearsals for "Socrate" by Erik Satie. Then the then principal conductor of the Bavarian State Opera Kirill Petrenko with the Albanian Ermonela Jaho in rehearsals for Puccini’s Suor Angelica in Munich, or the young baritone Dominik Köninger from the ensemble of the Komische Oper in Berlin here in rehearsals with Barbara Hannigan for "Pelléas et Mélisande «. Opera also for the eye, for the head.

Additional

Poster "Fuoco sacro"

Protagonists

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Asmik Grigorian

Asmik Grigorian’s Salome captivates all the men at court with jerky, birdlike movements of the head, torso, pelvis, legs, and with gestures that appear to be taken from some unfamiliar ritual. Yet she does not succeed in enchanting the prophet Jochanaan, the first time in her life that she has experienced failure. During the applause that followed the opening night in Salzburg, director Romeo Castellucci fell to his knees in front of her. She had developed her interpretation of the role without his assistance, he reported.

 » Who could have dared hope that such a performer and such a voice would be found for this symbolistically enigmatic production: a singer who commands the whole hybrid vocal range of the role from G flat in the contralto register to B in the high soprano register, who is not drowned out by even the greatest surges of orchestral sound, and who can imbue the lyrical phrases of her lengthy final scene with alluring, sensual enchantment? And this is not all. In appearance, the daughter of the once-famous Lithuanian tenor Gegam Grigorian resembles an imago invoked by Narraboth: she is slim, beautiful, and moves with the grace of a dancer. Her silvery voice burns in a way that only ice can burn. It is finely nuanced with a remarkable dynamic range. Her high notes have a metallic brilliance that is complemented by her soft, bell-like piani. Her insistent vocal acting throughout the callous demands for ‘the head of Jochanaan’ make her declamations utterly convincing. A magnificent, memorable portrait of a body and soul. We are moved to quote a verse by Nietzsche, which states: “All that I touch turns to light, all that I let be turns to ash, assuredly I am a flame.” (Jürgen Kesting, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung)

Born 1981 in Vilnius, Lithuania. She sings Tchaikovsky’s Tatiana, Maria, Lisa, Nastasja and Iolanta at the Theater an der Wien, the Komische Oper in Berlin, in Stockholm, Milan and Frankfurt. In 2017, she made her début at the Salzburg Festival as Marie in “Wozzeck”. Her Salome in August 2018 was the most spectacular success enjoyed by a young singer at the Salzburg Festival since Anna Netrebko’s début. In 2021 she debuted as Senta at the Bayreuth Festival.

Barbara Hannigan

In Katie Mitchell’s production of “Pelléas et Mélisande”, Barbara Hannigan is an alien, snakelike being, a creature between nature and spirit, ever-present in the castle of Allemonde yet usually invisible to its inhabitants. She eschews conventional human behaviour. She prefers to lie under the dining table, crouch on the back of a chair and stand on the table. Her touch appears to go unnoticed – yet it penetrates her partners’ subconscious.

Born 1971 in Waverley, Canada. She mainly sings contemporary opera and songs by Ligeti, Dutilleux, Boulez, Grisey and many others. She made an international breakthrough with George Benjamin’s “Written on Skin”. She often conducts her concerts herself. At the end of the orchestral prelude, she turns to the audience and begins to sing.

 » I don’t want to ‘move’ the public, that would be manipulative. I invite them to join me on a journey into an unknown world. «

Ermonela Jaho

As Suor Angelica, Ermonela Jaho’s openness is radical. There is no barricade, no image behind which she can hide – emotionally she is completely exposed. Her intensity is reminiscent of Maria Callas, although she imitates neither Callas’ style nor her performance.  Like Callas, she never spares herself; she sings as if every performance were her last. This evokes reactions in her public and critics that have become rare in our age of irony and coolness. Suddenly we read of hearts that are stirred and flowing tears:

“Heartbreak is what we expected and heartbreak is what we got in the most nuanced of interpretations. … If the number of tears shed by the audience is any guide, this is a resounding success. … Her sheer intensity in the last few scenes is utterly heart-breaking. … The combination of vulnerability and torrential emotion just tears you in two. … Ermonela Jaho gave everything to the role as if it was the last time she would ever sing. … She breaks your heart again and again, but you won’t want her to stop.” (The Spectator, The Guardian, The Times and The Financial Times)

Born in 1974 in Tirana, the capital of Albania, which at that time was completely isolated. At seventeen, she began studying at the conservatory and attracted the attention of soprano Katia Ricciarelli, who was organising a singing competition in Tirana. Ricciarelli invited the young Ermonela to Italy. By the age of eighteen, Ermonela was studying piano and singing at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome.

She won several competitions, moved to New York and began a carefully orchestrated career that ultimately took her to the world’s greatest opera stages. In 2016, her recording of Leoncavallo’s “Zazà” won her the International Opera Award. Future engagements will take her to Paris (La Traviata), Berlin (La Rondine), Munich (Suor Angelica), Barcelona (Turandot) and London (Otello).

Texts

Comparisons Have no Place in Art – Interview on » Fuoco sacro «

Christoph Schlüren in conversation with Jan Schmidt-Garre

How did you come across the three singers?

I heard Ermonela Jaho by chance on the car radio and was overwhelmed by this voice. There was a vulnerability and humanity that I really only knew from Callas. And from Carla Gavazzi, a wonderful singer who appears in my film » Opera Fanatic « and to whom I also refer in » Fuoco sacro «. At home I immediately researched, watched Youtube videos and then saw her live in London, as Madam Butterfly at Covent Garden. My first thought towards the film was not a sophisticated concept, but simply the desire to record and publish a lot of her singing, so that others can also experience this miracle.

And how did the other two protagonists come about?

As I got deeper into it, I realized that this wasn’t going to be a portrait, but a film about those extremely rare frontier crossings that we ultimately look for when we go to the theater. But it was clear to me that there is no second Jaho. That there is, however, a singer who crosses the same boundaries, even though she is the opposite of Jaho in every way, was something I knew, and that singer was Barbara Hannigan. She was the only one I immediately thought of. One who is intellectual, thoughtful, eager to experiment, downright athletic in testing and stretching her own means. Somehow these two women belong in the same film, I thought, but how can that be? I don’t want to compare them with each other, because in my opinion comparisons have no place in art.

With two protagonists, comparison is almost inevitable.

And that’s why I wondered who else I should add, a male singer perhaps, but I didn’t know anyone with that power. And then I heard about Romeo Castellucci’s rehearsals in Salzburg and about the singer of Salome, Asmik Grigorian. She was at the same time an ancient tragedian and a person of today, true to the text and totally free, a teenager and a woman. And there I had the constellation that I hoped would work.

Can you name any outstanding films about great singers that have inspired you?

One film comes to mind that has impressed me for a long time: » Let’s Get Lost « about Chet Baker, who also sang beautifully. Bruce Weber made it, the fashion photographer. But I don’t really care about the film genre, if that exists at all. A friend wrote me after the premiere that she appreciated about my work that I make uniques. I like that term very much. When I take my cue from other films, it’s not so much in terms of content, but rather in terms of form. Questions like: How do you create a certain atmosphere? What is a productive contrast? What kind of context do you have to build up so that a scene that had great magic on location also unfolds its magic in the film. That’s not a given at all; in fact, it’s perhaps the hardest thing to do. You see the scene and know from your memories of the shooting that it was a very powerful moment, but suddenly that power doesn’t want to emerge. It’s terrible. And then you tweak it, move the scene, build an entrée or an exit for it – until it finally works.

To what extent has your experience as an opera director affected » Fuoco Sacro «?

I’ve only been directing operas for ten or twelve years, whereas I’ve been making films for much longer. But it’s possible that the female characters I’ve directed have had an impact on » Fuoco sacro. « I’ve always let my female protagonists in opera be very strong. They are actually always the main characters with me, whether that’s Manon or Arabella or the Countess in Figaro or even Marietta in » Die tote Stadt «, an opera with a terribly reactionary conception of women. It just comes to my mind that I had trouble with the male lead in my first student film. It was a film adaptation of the love scene from Verdi’s Otello. And my Otello asked angrily at one point, » Is the opera called Desdemona? « In my very favorite production, in Fidelio, I even had Leonore be on stage through the entire opera, so that she sees everything and everything goes through her.

And the other way around? Are there repercussions from » Fuoco sacro « on the operas?

During the filming, it was very interesting for me to experience the opera rehearsals now from the singers’ perspective. I realized that most of what the directors say at rehearsals bypasses them – at least if they are as talented as the three in the film. They draw from completely different sources. Short, precise hints are enough.

What would be the central messages of » Fuoco Sacro «, that is, the ones that could ideally reach the viewer?

Only those who surrender completely, without reserve, without a false bottom, will win! What we actually know from all great art. And so it is here, too. That communicates I think. I myself don’t have a message in terms of content, but, as with all my work, I want the viewers to engage more deeply with art, to open up and really let themselves be touched. The film doesn’t want to teach, it wants to make things tangible. And in the end, I always want the audience to cry!

Did the singers willingly accept the challenge of commenting on their own singing with headphones and eyes closed? Were there any remarkable different reactions to it?

All three are fearless women, border crossers. That’s why they’re so good. When you challenge them, as I did with my séances, they embrace it wholeheartedly. But it’s interesting how differently they then experienced the situations. Barbara Hannigan looked at her recording more from the outside, while Ermonela Jaho went so deep that childhood memories came up and she understood for the first time why the character of Angelica is so close to her. And Asmik Grigorian shows perhaps most realistically what is really going on inside her on stage, namely a constant back and forth between identification with the character – » I despise you, Jochanaan, you piece of shit! « – and control of the instrument – » Back! Breathe, breathe, breathe! «.

What projects would you like to realize in the next few years, especially with regard to singing and opera?

I would love to stage Tristan. In the past I would have been afraid of Wagner’s lengths, of these endless monologues and dialogues, but in the meantime I believe that I could develop the inner drama of these scenes out of the music, so that I could stage an action that is just as detailed as this highly differentiated music. So that it would be really exciting. And the main character would undoubtedly be Isolde!

"Fuoco sacro – A Search for the Sacred Fire of Song" – Interview

Jan Schmidt-Garre in conversation with Rebecca Walter, January 2022

What was at the beginning of your project „Fuoco sacro"?

A voice. Without image, without body. I was listening on the car-radio to a CD review of the rarely performed opera „Zazà“ by Leoncavallo, and the voice of this Zazà struck me like a bolt of lightning. There was a tremor in this voice, vulnerability, knowledge, humanity, as I really only knew it from Callas. And from Carla Gavazzi, a wonderful singer who appeared in my film „Opera Fanatic". That was Ermonela Jaho’s voice. At home, I immediately did some research, watched Youtube videos, and then went to London to see her live as Butterfly at Covent Garden. There she gave herself to the character so much, disintegrated and died before my eyes, that I thought, „How great that I was able to witness that, but how unfortunate that this was Ermonela Jaho’s last night ever.“ I felt like I was witnessing one of those rare moments when art and reality merge, like when Keilberth died conducting „Tristan.“ But Ermonela Jaho wasn’t dead. Three days later she came back to the theater, well recovered, did her strange warm-up on the gymnastic ball, which I was later to learn about, and died again on the open stage in front of an audience of two thousand. That’s when I knew what kind of film I had to make.

And how did the other two protagonists come about?

It wasn’t meant to become a portrait, but a film about those extremely rare frontier crossings that we ultimately look for when we go to the theater. But it was clear to me that there is no second Jaho. That there is, however, a singer who crosses the same boundaries, even though she is the opposite of Jaho in every way, was something I knew, and that singer was Barbara Hannigan. She was the only one I immediately thought of. One who is intellectual, thoughtful, cool, eager to experiment, downright athletic in testing and stretching her own means. Somehow these two women belong in the same film, I thought, but how can that be? I don’t want to play them off against each other, and now that I’m talking, I’m already dreading this false emphasis. As if Jaho were hot-blooded and unreflective. Nonsense: she knows exactly what she is doing and how she must do it. Maybe even she is the controlled one and Hannigan the one who gives in to affect.

With two protagonists, comparison is almost inevitable.

And that’s why I wondered who else I should add, a male singer perhaps, but I didn’t know anyone with that power. And then I heard about Romeo Castellucci’s rehearsals in Salzburg, which promised a great performance of „Salome“, and about the singer of Salome, Asmik Grigorian. She was at the same time an ancient tragedian and a person of today, true to the text and totally free, a teenager and a woman. And there I had the constellation that I hoped would work.

You conduct conversations with the singers, but most importantly, you observe them in moments that are rarely seen: during warm-ups, just before the performance, or immediately after.

I thought of Stanislavski, who, before he became the great director and acting teacher, was an actor himself, and apparently a very good one. As a young man, Stanislavski literally spied on the famous actors of his time, such as Eleonora Duse or Tommaso Salvini, to find out their secrets. He observed what they did before the performance, what their rituals were, what their dressing room looked like, and so on. He wanted to find out what these geniuses do differently from their normally gifted colleagues. That’s what I did with the singers.

And what did you discover?

Very simple things, but they are very characteristic. Ermonela Jaho, for example, always asks for a dressing room on a different floor to her colleagues. Not that she is arrogant and wants special treatment – not at all, she is a most modest person and very collaborative. But she does have to tune herself in. She can’t be talking to the Suzuki singer ten minutes before the performance about lazy agents or about unmusical directors. She’s already in her fictional world by then.

Is she already in this world when she walks through the half-finished Butterfly stage set in her bathrobe?

That’s part of the process. She does that even on the 55th performance. She takes in the aura of the evening and does test steps in the other reality of art that will later emerge for everyone. This is exactly what Stanislavski reports about Salvini – which Jaho certainly doesn’t know. When she performs, she must, as she says, already be in this other reality. After all, she doesn’t just come from the wings, but from Cio-Cio-San’s bedroom. And because she always manages to experience this fictional world from within, she can turn even the 55th performance into an event. It really is the first time for her again and again. In this respect, it makes no difference whether she has a huge repertoire like Barbara Hannigan, or always sings the same five operas.

Barbara Hannigan talks about the process of opening up that takes place throughout the entire day of the performance.

That’s her perspective. Ermonela Jaho certainly wouldn’t put it that way. Barbara Hannigan is all about receptivity. She wants to be as open as possible, to be able to feel and respond to every vibe around her. That’s her method of avoiding routine, that is, keeping herself from applying the recipe for success from the night before.

You must have had shots of Asmik Grigorian before the performance. Why did you cut them out?

You don’t cut out anything, you cut in. It’s constructive work. As a director and editor, you are not a sculptor who uncovers the shape hidden in the material, which is what spectators often think, but rather a painter or a constructor. The spectator is not at all aware of how fictional such a documentary film is. The Turkish journalist Can Dündar recently said: „Documentary means: Rewriting history.“

But your starting point is always reality.

Absolutely. And in all its banality and randomness. You can plan and anticipate a shoot as well as you like – what actually happens is to a large extent random. And often insignificant. It’s pure raw material from which only in the editing process do I create the reality I had planned to encounter. And that applies just as much to the purists among documentary filmmakers who seem to be reproducing naked reality, like Frederick Wiseman.

But you don’t manipulate the footage.

That depends on how you define manipulation. At the beginning, the editor Sarah Levine and I view all the material. I copy along, mark good spots, make notes about possible combinations and placements. This takes forever and is the less enjoyable part of the work, for this very reason: because the material is still so random and unshaped. Then we start compressing scenes, still carefully, with a lot of air. By making a selection, we already detach ourselves a bit from, let’s say, the old reality. And then, imperceptibly, we move into the hot phase, where we begin to combine modules, to shift them and to feel the pulse of the material more and more. Some scenes I see and hear a thousand times, it’s like psychoanalysis. Wrinkles open up in the fabric – you can’t imagine that. Everything becomes transparent. I could write a two-hundred-page book about one sentence by Asmik Grigorian, so much unfolds there. I hear so many nuances and undertones. That is also somehow perverted. At some point, the singers are just colours on the palette with which I paint my picture. After all, they don’t need this film. They serve my fulfillment, and I should be grateful to them for that.

For you, it’s artistic work?

Compositional work, yes. Hindemith recognized that when he said to Arnold Fanck, on the occasion of his editing of the film „In Storm and Ice,“ „What you’re doing is pure music!“ That would be the goal. At least mine.

And where does that leave reality?

Hopefully it will return in the end. Purged. Only here does the ethical question arise for me, that is: does the overall construction do justice to the subject matter? I’m currently editing a film about the Indian architect Balkrishna Doshi. When he builds a university, he doesn’t just fulfill the specifications of his clients. He realizes his vision of an ideal campus, which he thinks of in terms of interactions: Exchanges between students and professors. A chance encounter in the cafeteria that might lead to something more important than the seminar the student misses. Doshi overfulfills the wishes of his clients. Hopefully, that’s how it is at the end of the edit: that the film is truer than its source material.

What is it like, then, when you meet the protagonists again after completing such a work? Who, after all, have probably moved on?

I’m surprised that they’re still alive.

What do you mean?

Like the murderer in Süskind’s „Perfume,“ I squeezed them dry to get their scent. There can’t really be anything left. That’s nonsense, of course, but it describes a bit the feeling one has towards the protagonists after such intensive work. At first I don’t even feel the need to see them on stage again. That only comes back slowly when the film begins its own life, independent of me.

What would you say makes up the work of a documentary film director above all else?

(Thinks.) The loading of the scenes.

What does that mean?

It’s about identifying what the essence of a scene is, and then finding the context in which that essence can be experienced by the spectator. That’s it. And that’s the hardest thing. One scene is strong at the beginning, another at the end, and a third can lie around unredeemed forever. Maybe a really great scene that we thought was a no-brainer. Then we try out different options, putting it in all sorts of places, until all of a sudden it comes to life.

And if not?

Then it’s kicked out. That’s the famous „kill your darlings"; you have to be merciless.

Did that happen with „Fuoco sacro"?

Fortunately not with a big scene, but with a take from an interview. I ask Ermonela Jaho what she would do if she couldn’t channel her pain into song. „I don’t know,“ she says, „maybe I would end up in a psychiatric hospital. I couldn’t survive.“ We didn’t find a place for this sentence to unfold its power without seeming indiscreet. Perhaps it is just for the best. Besides, the observational scenes are always much more important and meaningful than interviews.

In „Fuoco sacro“ you found a third form, the inner monologue of the heroines.

The „Inner Films,“ as we call them. The idea was to get as close as possible to what goes on in the mind of a musician while she sings. A painter can talk while she works, but a singer cannot. I’ve also tried this with pianists and am in the process of making a series of short films from this.

It’s interesting how Asmik Grigorian always switches between playing the role – „Jochanaan, I love you so much!“ – and coaching herself – „Back, support!“

That is probably very realistic. I suspect that these two personalities are actually active in her when she is on stage.

Frederick Wiseman, whom you mentioned, doesn’t do interviews at all. As a matter of principle, he also doesn’t make any comments in his films. For him, these are all impurities of the mere form of documentary.

It’s not really a commentary in my film either, but rather a second level that contributes my personal perspective. I think it depends on the film. I also have this purist side and have made many films that are strictly observational. But with some, a few words can make an extreme impact on the viewer. Then it’s almost liberating when you break away from the purism that’s in the bones of all of us since film academy. Ultimately, it’s all about experience, about my experience as a director during the work, and about the experience of the audience.

What do you want them to experience ideally?

Oh, I always want the audience to have tears at the end. And in this case I hope that they experience what singing can be: an audible kiss.

Nostalgic Recollections of a Concert that Did not Take Place

by Jan Schmidt-Garre

The hall of the velvet fin-de-siècle theatre had filled up, the orchestra had taken its places on the small stage, and while we were still talking, we felt, without looking up, that something was happening. The conversations quietened down and finally became completely silent. It had darkened imperceptibly. Nobody had noticed the conductor’s entrance. Tender minor chords resounded out of the the gloom, parallel fifths of the woodwinds and high strings. Sounds like those of Ravel or Debussy, but warmer, more archaic, coming from a different world than that of France. A female voice mixed in, from the middle of the stalls, pulsating like an open heart. A cone of light captured the slim woman: simple white dress, almost a smock, pitch-black hair tied back. As the “Angel of the Lord” she walked to the podium and reminded us of the origin of all the music from the prayers of Saint Cecilia that God may preserve her purity – a prayer “which blossomed into songs and fragrant harmonies”. She sang the prologue to the opera “Cecilia” by the priest Licinio Refice, written at the end of the 1920s in Rome for the soprano Claudia Muzio. The singer left the stage during the postlude and the conductor went over to the flute solo at the beginning of Debussy’s first “Épigraphes antiques” – in the same key as the end of Licinio’s prologue – without giving the audience the opportunity to applaud him, the now brightly lit orchestra or the disappeared singer.

When she returned, she wore a dark dress. Again the orchestra had begun before she entered the stage. It played the broken chords before the first aria of Adriana Lecouvreur from Cilèa’s opera about the great actress of the 18th Century. The singer held a textbook in her hand, Racine’s “Bajazet"; she memorized her lines, played with accents and vocal gestures. Then the aria, tellingly: “I am the humble maid of the creative spirit. He gives me language, I carry it into the hearts.” With a smile, the singer blurred the boundaries between Cilèa’s artificial character and the performer standing in front of us on stage. Finally applause.

The orchestra repeated the last chord of the aria and transformed it into the pale harmonies of Mascagni’s “Lodoletta”. Months ago, Lodoletta had left her home village to find her childhood love again. Now she stands in front of his door, looks through the misted windows and imagines their reunion. As if she wanted to prove Adriana Lecouvreur’s aesthetic credo, the singer was now, despite her modern dress, the lost girl from the countryside, who already knows that her lover has forgotten her. Exit of the singer and movement two from the “Six Épigraphes”, again picking up the key and gloomy atmosphere of what had just been heard.

At the next entrance everything had changed. Now a grand piano stood in front of the orchestra, which could only be seen vaguely in the semi-darkness, on it a lamp with a green shade. A pianist received her with the arpeggios from the first act of Puccini’s “La rondine”. The singer stepped to the grand piano, greeted the pianist with an inclination of the head – as if surprised to meet an old friend here – and followed his musical invitation. His arpeggios led to the two-part song about the mysterious Doretta, who spurned the king’s hand and was not impressed by his wealth. The singer sang not only Magda’s verse, conceived for soprano, but also that of the poet Prunier, who declaims the riddle of Doretta to his friends and asks them for the solution – and the completion of his song. Magda knows the answer: The kiss of a student is worth more to Doretta than all the riches of the king. “Oh golden dream to love so deeply.” Singer and pianist, it seemed, played only for each other, in intimate dialogue, like at a house concert among friends. Only late did the orchestra join in to gently conclude the scene after the floating high notes of the soprano.

And again the conductor denied us applause. While the pianist rose from his stool and sat down on an armchair at the edge of the stage to listen to the progress of the concert, he combined Puccini’s final chord with the nervous chromatic scales of the prelude to Wally’s aria from Catalani’s opera. Salon, irony and theatre in the theatre were forgotten. We were now in the grand opera, and the singer made us live it. With Wally we also thought we had to leave family, home and our beloved. “So I go, as far as the sound of the bells goes.” Ecstatic applause, intermission.

When the orchestra had taken their seats again, the stage of the red velvet theatre seemed to have become even smaller to us. The musicians were now flanked on both sides by a women’s choir, which announced Cio-Cio-san’s entrance with the “Ah!” shouts from the first act of “Madama Butterfly” as soon as the conductor had given the cue. Carried by the soft carpet of female voices, the singer slowly came forward from the depths of the stage to finally take the top of the sound pyramid with the high G-flat on the word “amor”. The orchestra led us imperceptibly into the second act of the opera, taking place three years later. A contralto parted from the women’s choir and entered the middle of the stage, where she turned into Suzuki, Cio-Cio-san’s servant. Together the women, whose voices stood in a characteristic contrast to each other, whereby the timbre of the soprano again gained a new illumination, sang the flower adornment duet. Suddenly it became clear what both scenes and perhaps the whole opera were about: anticipation. Cio-Cio-san, who is still a child, anticipates what love could be; Cio-Cio-san, a young adult, anticipates the reunion with her lover – a joy already clouded by the pain of too long a separation.

After the applause and departure of the singer – the contralto rejoined the circle of chorus ladies – the conductor played the fourth of the “Épigraphes antiques”, and now the function of these short interludes was revealed to us. After the sumptuous dishes of Puccini, Cilèa, Catalani and Mascagni, we were longing for a musical diet, for pure, transparent sounds, for a zero-point of composition, as Debussy formulated it in 1915. His floating dance, the final third of which the conductor combined in the finest way with the one at the beginning of the fourth scene in Riccardo Zandonais “Francesca da Rimini”, cleaned the slate of our consciousness and made us receptive to the subtle colours of this great composer. Again, the singer, who entered the stage after a two-minute prelude, was carried through this great scene by the contralto – in the role of her sister Samaritana – and the women’s choir. While “Madama Butterfly” was about anticipation, it was now about its melancholic older sister, the presentiment. The drama of Francesca has not yet begun – at least she doesn’t know anything about the deception she will fall victim to – and yet she and Samaritana feel that something will happen. After the sisters’ moving dialogue, the singer sat down on the armchair by the side of the stage and followed with us the idyllic choral tableau with which Zandonai concludes the first act of his opera.

The fifth of the “Six Épigraphes” prepared the ground for the climax of the evening, a scene from the first act of Pietro Mascagni’s “Iris”, which for the last time the conductor let flow without interruption out of the symphonic interlude. From her armchair, the singer smilingly watched the magnificent choir of laundresses, their song praising the water, moon and sun, rose, walked slowly to the centre of the stage and crowned the ensemble with her glowing soprano. While Cio-Cio-san’s anticipation and Francesca’s presentiment had still referred to the past and the future, these women now celebrated being in the now, the fulfilled presence. With the inadequate means of applause and bravos, we tried to express our enthusiasm for this apotheosis of nature and thought the concert was over. The singer left the stage, the conductor, the orchestra, the contralto and the choir bowed; it became dark.

However, a peculiar tension in the hall prevented us from leaving our seats. It became quiet. Minutes seemed to pass in this no man’s land between art and life. “Padre, ho pregato.” A woman’s voice cut the silence, speaking more than singing. “Father, I prayed.” With quiet chords the organ joined in, then, tenderly, the orchestra. A spotlight revealed the singer to us, in the white dress of the beginning. She was Saint Cecilia of Rome in the opera of the priest Licinio Refice, the prologue of which the evening had begun with; she was Cecilia, who had remained untouched by the pyre of the Romans, and who now, in the circle of the Early Christians, died transfigured with the words “Christ, I look at you”. Quite simply and naturally she played this death as a long dying away of the voice. The applause began only hesitantly and did not start until the singer had left and, after a small break, returned to the stage.

She now wore an Empire-style red velvet dress, a necklace with gold rubies, and presented us with Puccini’s “Vissi d’arte” as an encore. From the actress Adriana Lecouvreur to the singer Floria Tosca, she had come a long way, on which she, in Tosca’s words, “gave her singing to the stars and the sky, making them even more beautiful”. We still pondered over the play of references and destinies on this special evening, when the singer sang a simple song and saw us off into the moonlit night. 

The Trauma of the Diva – Interview with Ermonela Jaho

When Ermonela Jaho sings, it is a matter of life and death. This is not only due to the soprano roles such as Madam Butterfly. She tells about it in the film » Fuoco Sacro « and in this conversation 

by Susanne Hermanski, Süddeutsche Zeitung, May 3rd, 2022


Munich-born Jan Schmidt-Garre studied philosophy and directing at HFF (Munich Film Academy), learned to conduct with Celibidache and, in addition to documentaries, has also directed operas (most recently » Arabella « in Leipzig). In his latest work (produced by Marieke Schroeder from Munich), Schmidt-Garre again brings together film and opera. In » Fuoco Sacro – A Search for the Sacred Fire of Song, « he presents three singers who do justice to this bel canto idea of the overflowing divine spark: Barbara Hannigan, Asmik Grigorian and Ermonela Jaho. They come from three different cultures – Canada, Lithuania and Albania – and give everything on stage. Ermonela Jaho appears particularly unsparing in dealing with herself. Anyone who has seen her as Puccini’s sister Angelica, who receives the icy news of the death of her illegitimate child in her cloistered confinement, or as the unhappily loving Madam Butterfly, knows what that means. A sea of tears in the audience.

When did you start singing?

First in the children’s choir. You have to know, I grew up in Albania. The country was totally isolated. My father was in the military. Not a nice time.

Nevertheless, the decision matured in you to make singing your profession?

Yes, and there was a music conservatory in Tirana. I wanted to audition there. But for that I needed a piece from the romantic repertoire, and I didn’t have the slightest idea of the classical repertoire. So I went to the opera in Tirana for the first time with my oldest brother.

How old were you then?

Fourteen. The production was » Traviata «. I read through the program and thought: Okay, interesting. Let’s hear it. Albania was still a communist country at that time, you know, and the opera house was also – well, according to our bad image.

And then?

From the first note of the overture, something happened to me. Let’s call it love at first sight. But it was more than that. I was spellbound throughout the entire opera. At the end I said to my brother, » I’m going to be an opera singer. And if I don’t sing this opera at least once in my life, I’ll die. «

You did it.

Yes, and I am so proud to be able to say: Now that I’m sitting here in front of you, I’ve sung Traviata 300 times on stage.

Still, it probably wasn’t easy.

When the regime broke down, people left the country en masse. I was 18 years old when I came to Italy alone – with empty pockets and big dreams. I did many jobs. Also as a nanny and in nursing care for the elderly. I had already completed my education at the conservatory in Tirana, yet people always looked at me with a big smile: Excuse me? You come from Albania, and you want to be what? An opera singer?

Did you suffer from these prejudices?

I thought it was terrible. And how often I wished I came from a country that could look back on such a musical tradition as Italy or Germany. It was only much later that I realized that other countries also wrestle with their history, that every country has dark moments.

Why did you decide to work with Jan Schmidt-Garre?

He has a sensitivity that I trusted. He understands what’s going on on stage and what it takes to produce that. When I first saw the film, I could hardly look at the screen (holds her fingers in front of her eyes): What do I look like! Oh, God, what am I saying! But then it quickly became clear to me: it’s a good thing. In this world, where everyone has the impression that a computer-improved photo is all it takes as an achievement and to be happy, this honesty is important.

A countertenor once told me that he hates it when a director lets him sing with his upper body naked. Then the whole world could see what hard work he was doing when breathing. You sing with a naked soul, so to speak. But shouldn’t everything always look easy on stage?

But it is not easy.

Didn’t you ever just want to enjoy the glamour of being a star on stage?

Maybe you can’t be a singer without this fascination. But fame doesn’t carry you. Knowing that singing gives you something back, something essential, that’s much more. I also tell my students that.

In the film, you are seen before, during and after a » Traviata « performance in Munich – with a severe cold. Why do you do something like that?

I’m glad that Jan took these sequences into the film. I had a real fever. But I wanted to try it anyway. Maybe I’ll hit a certain point with it, I thought.

He visits you in the dressing room, we see you struggling for balance on a ball, and we hear your very throaty voice. On stage, that seems to have blown away.

It’s a miracle. Like being in a trance. But of course there is also hard work behind it. I try everything not to stay in my comfort zone. When you dare everything, you realize the human soul in all its beauty. As a singer, you then feel the connection with the audience.

Jan Schmidt Garre calls this sparking over » Fuoco Sacro «. Is this fire really sacred, do you believe in God?

If you ask like that – there is probably a higher power. In any case, it also accompanied me on this path to Italy.

When you sing all these arias of death today, you seem to be literally removed from the world. Does that complete a circle? The 14-year-old Ermonela didn’t die, but you die again and again on stage?

La Traviata is the fulfillment of a promise I made to myself. I also feel like a survivor as a singer. Opera became a therapy for me. This role is a catharsis for me.

To what effect?

After 28 years in this career, for me it’s not about singing beautifully and immersing myself in a story for three hours. For me, it’s about a spiritual experience. I know I can scream, I can sing pianissimo, I can make sounds that are scary. You have to go to those limits, to the pain, to connect with it at your core.

Really, do you have to?

I know that’s not particularly intelligent. Not least because one would like this career to last a bit longer. Still, it’s a necessity for my soul. I need this magic moment, I’m addicted to it.

It seems as if you are tearing open an old wound inside yourself again with every performance. Isn’t that cruel to yourself? No therapist should recommend dealing with personal trauma like that.

You’re right. I do know that there are still some things lying dormant that need to be healed. But I’m learning. That’s why I like this film so much. It shows me what I have already accomplished. I’m learning to love myself a little more. The pain is getting less. Maybe from tomorrow I’ll be singing comedy.