It doesn't take long for my conversation with South African soprano Golda Schultz to head off in an unexpected direction. She's one of those people who's quick at making connections and, in what seems like a flash, my Zoom background of the Long Room in TCD's Old Library has led her to thinking how much Seamus Heaney there must be on library shelves in TCD.
“I remember I was in my first year at Rhodes University,” she recalls, “and he came to give a talk about his poetry. Everything took on a whole new meaning when he began waxing lyrical in his wonderful, lilting voice. I remember thinking, Oh my God, this must have been what it was like when Dylan Thomas would recite his poems. Powerful!
“There was us, some South African students at the bottom of the continent of Africa, and here was the great Seamus Heaney coming to tell us what his great poems were about. Someone would ask him, and he would just turn the question back and say, ‘What’s it about for you? It doesn’t matter what it’s about for me.’ I loved that.
“And now, as a performer, I do the same thing with an audience. When people ask what I’m thinking when I’m performing, I say it doesn’t matter what I’m thinking. It matters what you’re thinking when you hear it. It’s very interesting to be on the other side of the question.”
She talks about being in front of live audiences again as “being back to that conversation between performer and artist. The conversation about meaning is happening again. Which has always been the exciting part for me about my job. It’s never been the part of standing on a stage. I’m loath to stand on a stage. But I don’t mind standing on a stage if there’s a conversation happening between me and an audience. When it was just me and a camera it was just so terrible for me!”
I ask about the programme she has chosen for her upcoming National Concert Hall debut and she says it came about by accident when she had been working with her regular pianist Jonathan Ware on a full Schubert recital for the Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin.
“We’d been given this former programme that had been done by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.” It was part of a series in which singers had been invited to sing programmes that the great German baritone had either done himself, or completed for other singers. And they were invited to add extra music into the programme.
“One of the songs was Gretchen am Spinnrade. I remember being very fascinated by Goethe’s words, but also how Schubert was so able to write about this musical idea of obsession, this drumming. It’s not just her sitting at the spinning wheel, and the spinning wheel going round. I don’t know if you ever saw this movie, The Thomas Crown Affair. There’s that song in it.” She quotes from it: “Round, like a circle in a spiral / Like a wheel within a wheel / Never ending or beginning / On an ever-spinning reel.” And the Schubert, too, “keeps turning in your head”.
She draws in the obsession of teenage crushes, all the questions that come with first love, and “the way that Schubert had been able to write this obsessive thought pattern, and Goethe had been able to write this beautiful notion of obsession. And it felt like there was no judgment of this woman’s experience. But then at the same time I remember thinking to myself and asking Jonathan, ‘I wonder what it would have been like if a woman had written this? Would she be thinking differently?’”
There are these beautifully captivating, talented composers, who have very strong musical voices and they deserve their own time and space
They got fascinated with the idea "of female composers and poetesses just writing about female experiences, being a woman and writing about it. That's where the idea started. Then we got into Clara Schumann and her musical commentary on Goethe and Rückert poems. And into Rebecca Clarke and her musical commentary on William Blake. It all just became this wonderful conversation of women, men, men and women, but all the time with the very strong sense of there are these beautifully captivating, talented composers, who have very strong musical voices and they deserve their own time and space."
The next stage was to move on from the past. “There are women now and female composers and poetesses who have lots to say about the female experience. So we decided to commission a new work. Neither Jonathan nor I had ever commissioned something privately for ourselves. Talking to my friend Kathleen [the composer and performer Kathleen Tagg] and my friend Lila [the librettist Lila Palmer] who wrote the final group of songs titled This be the Verse, which inadvertently became the title of the programme... we struck on some really strong ideas.
“It became such a fun process, working with them and teasing out what’s the best way to say what we want to say. What’s the best way that I could perform what they want to say. It reminded Jonathan and me of what it might have been like to be around during the time of Schubert and even Mahler and Schumann. The performers were so involved in the creation of the work.”
She elaborates. “There’s never a conversation between a performer and a composer in the creation of a new work where a performer doesn’t say, ‘Oh, I don’t think this line rings properly in my voice. Can we try something else?’” And she tells of delving into the background of the writing of the words to negotiate stylistic shifts in the musical writing. “There’s so much around you that influences what you write, how you write, what you perform, how you perform, and how you read the things that you perform. It’s been a very special experience. It felt really organic to work like that.”
She describes the programme as having grown out of “a frivolous question on my part. Everything I do seems to start from a frivolous question that I ask someone. And then it sends me down a very dark rabbit hole, from which I never wish to return. I feel like Alice dumped in Wonderland and I’m never going back.”
She’s clearly very pleased with the programme. “I really enjoy it and so far audiences seem to be responding very well to it.” She does say, however, that there were promoters who raised their eyebrows and suggested adding in some male composers to balance it out.
Growing up in South Africa she was interested in music, listening to everything from pop music through folk and revolutionary to classical, sang in choirs, and had lessons on piano and violin. The country is so musical, she says, that political protest always generates its own rhythm, its own dance. “A chant becomes a song that is sung by thousands of people moving through a street.”
She says music was “always something I carried with me” but she never thought of it as a possible career. At university she studied journalism, and when she first sought tuition as a singer at the age of 19 or 20 it was with a view to performing in musicals. And although the teacher she approached taught only “classical voice” she still signed up.
I would sing. I would pass out. Here is this strange woman. The woman who faints when she sings
Yet that potential mismatch of singing styles was not the greatest barrier to her success on the great stages of the world. She took to opera with gusto. Her affliction was her vulnerability to stage fright. As she tells it, she couldn’t perform without fainting. “I would sing. I would pass out. Here is this strange woman. The woman who faints when she sings. It sounds like a sideshow in a circus. I would never bow. I would just fall over.”
She was pushed to perform as much as possible “to confront the fear, confront the anxiety” and figure out what she was really afraid of. She resolved the issue through what you might call the simplest version of talk therapy. At one concert, before singing, she told the audience about how nervous and how scared they made her. And somehow the laughter in their response created a connection that defused her fright.
With Fischer-Dieskau a key figure in the process that led to her current recital programme, I ask what she thinks of his contention that preparing to perform a single song is as challenging as working on a whole role in an opera.
“I agree,” she says. “It really is. It’s sometimes worse. Because a song is a universe in a few minutes. That universe is filled with only you and the piano. You have to fill it so that your audience has a full experience. With an opera role you always know there are moments where your character is not really in the foreground of the story. You can take a break. But when you’re doing songs, you’re leading the charge at all times. You are the general and you are the soldier on the ground.”
Golda Schultz and Jonathan Ware perform Clara Schumann, Emilie Mayer, Rebecca Clarke, Nadia Boulanger and Kathleen Tagg in the National Concert Hall's International Concert Series on Sunday, February 13th. See nch.ie