Stereo sound: the contralto who doubles as a conductor

Nathalie Stutzmann, the new guest conductor of the RTÉ NSO, has found two very different ways of producing sound

If I had just one word to describe Nathalie Stutzmann, it would be "wise". She has needed to be. Her career path has been unusual. Both of her parents were singers, and as a youngster she liked to spend time in the orchestra pit, soaking up the dynamics of the relationship between the singers on stage and the conductor guiding the musicians and working on the larger picture.

She might well have become a conductor had the time been right when she was a student in the 1980s. But, as a woman, forces conspired against her. She studied piano and bassoon, but singing was always her particular joy, an achievement that singled her out. As a singer, she was both blessed and cursed. She had the rarest and most unusual of voices. She was a true, deep contralto, and she simply didn’t aspire to the higher notes – and more versatile repertoire – of a mezzo-soprano.

The contralto voice is not just exceptionally low, it is also slow to develop. She recalls her shock as a 20-year-old when her teacher, the great Hans Hotter, explained that she would probably be 40 before everything would be in place. When you're 20 that wait is literally a lifetime away.

She seems to have known not just how to accept her fate, but also how to embrace it. She made what cannot have been an easy decision to decline lucrative work because she was not yet ready for it. It was on this basis that, at the age of 28, she turned down an engagement to sing in Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde at New York's Carnegie Hall under Christoph von Dohnányi.


Much later, just over a decade ago, when the desire to become a conductor became irresistible, she formed her own period-instruments orchestra, Orphée 55. She knows all too well that there are performers who turn to conducting as a way out when something else is failing, a career is slowing down, the maintenance of performing fitness becomes too much of a burden, or the body just won’t deliver any more. She wanted to combine the careers of singer and conductor, so she made her move when she was at the peak of her vocal powers, and made sure that no one would ever have a reason to speculate negatively about her.

Conducting is a mysterious art. And she counts herself guilty of having sometimes functioned as a conductor when she was actually supposed to be working only as a singer. Many years ago in Dublin I attended a concert that had no fewer than three conductors working all at once, a man on the podium who was not doing so well, a soloist (related to the conductor) who tried to help steer the orchestra on top of his solo contribution and an orchestra leader who kept the show on the road by making up for the deficiencies of the family pair.

It’s not a million miles from being a singer who can have a huge influence on a performance behind the conductor’s back, to being someone who does so openly as an actual conductor.

Opposite ends

Conducting and singing are at opposite ends of the performing spectrum. Conductors do not need to make any sound during a performance. Singers are unique in using only the vibrations of their own bodies to make music. How have the two extremes interacted in her approach to making music?

“It was such a strange feeling at first for me, despite my long dreams about conducting, to not really directly produce the sound,” she says. “However, I think the conductor does produce the sound in a way. If you put the same orchestra in front of three different conductors, and just ask them to give an upbeat and the first chord, you will get a different sound.”

She goes further. “It’s wrong to think you don’t really produce the sound. You don’t produce it with your body. But your body shows your imagination of the sound you would love to get. You inspire the musicians who are directly producing the sound. It’s one of the most fascinating parts of conducting. Telepathy, in a way. Charisma, of course. But there should be something more, in your body language. The actual body of a conductor has an impact on the sound. A skinny guy will not produce the same sound as a very fat one.”

She growls hoarsely

In relation to her singing influencing her conducting she points out that, "When you see many great conductors in rehearsal they are often singing, or trying to sing. Some have ugly voices but they still do it. Some have beautiful voices, like Riccardo Muti or Carlos Kleiber, and then you hear Karajan just doing this" – she growls hoarsely to imitate the sound.

The conductors are communicating about shape, not about beauty of tone. “They always try to sing the phrase – half of the music is about how to phrase, how to sing a line. When you talk with musicians, they always say they would like to play like a voice. And when you talk to concert singers they always hope to sing as beautifully and purely as an instrument, especially in Bach or Mozart or classical repertoire. The connection, the exchange of experience, what you can share between the two, is really interesting.”

Is there any influence in the other direction? “Has the conducting influenced my singing? I don’t know. But I think I am the sweetest girl with any conductor. Because now I know really how hard it is. You have no idea until you have done it yourself about the storm that is always happening in a conductor’s brain. I have much more respect now, even for the ones I don’t like.”

Her preparation as a singer, she says, was always “very complete and intense”. But even just in terms of time, she says, “it’s nothing compared to what you have to do as a conductor”.

Her study always begins with the big picture. “I want to understand the structure. That’s the most important thing at the beginning. I want to know how it’s built, how the structures of the phrases are made. I play it on the piano, I play every line. If you want to go deeply and imagine how the players feel, for example in a solo, of course I sing it. Then I can sing it to the player during the rehearsal, but I can also just influence him, or I can also prepare and mark the parts of individual players.”

It eats her life, she says, but she finds it very useful. “Most of the time you have three days’ rehearsal, and for the kind of work I like to do, it’s very little. Marking the parts saves a lot of talking. You don’t need to do it for everything. Someone like Mahler writes everything in. For Beethoven, Mozart, Schumann it’s very useful.”

Online research

When she has dealt with the overview and the fine detail and she knows what she wants, she does what she says would have been a dream for conductors in the past: searches out other views online and from her extensive CD collection. Stutzmann says she likes to trust orchestral musicians, to encourage them to express themselves freely, even if their views and interpretative approach are different from her own. In this regard she sings from the same hymn sheet as Benjamin Zander, whose rehearsal skills and theories about orchestral practice took flight in a way that enabled him to launch an independent career as a management guru.

Her debut with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra in February was an intimate, soft-spoken, chamber music-like experience. The quality of an orchestra, she says, is better judged by the hush of its pianissimos than by the blaze of its climaxes. She talks of taking time in rehearsals to remind players of what their colleagues are doing, drawing their attention away from what is the immediate and obvious focus of interest. Quite apart from the obvious shift in balance that can result, there’s another kind of shift that results from helping players to listen in a different way, too.

When you listen differently, you play differently.

  • Nathalie Stutzmann's debut as principal guest conductor of the RTÉ NSO is at the NCH on Friday 29th, when she conducts Brahms's Violin Concerto (soloist Veronika Eberle), Beethoven's First Symphony and Prokofiev's Classical Symphony. See