Swedish soprano Nina Stemme was exposed to music at an early age and knew she loved it. Her grandmother played piano and her father played various instruments and had a beautiful lyric tenor voice. And although she attended a high school with an abundance of music classes, including chorus, her path to becoming an international opera star evolved organically, rather than as a result of a grand plan. While studying business administration and economics at the University of Stockholm, Stemme decided to take a break and study opera instead. A few years later, she won the prestigious Operalia competition and caught the attention of Operalia’s founder, Plácido Domingo.
Originally a lyric soprano, Stemme matured into a dramatic soprano and is known for taking on extremely challenging roles, such as Brünnhilde in The Ring of the Nibelung, the title character in Turandot, Senta in The Flying Dutchman, Elsa in Lohengrin, and her signature role of Isolde in Tristan and Isolde. She has performed in all the major opera houses worldwide and has received numerous awards.
Stemme first performed with San Francisco Opera in 2004 as Senta, returning in 2011 as Brünnhilde and in 2017 as Turandot. She takes the stage again at the War Memorial Opera House this season, performing the role of the Dyer’s Wife in Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten (The woman without a shadow) June 4–28. (The American premiere of this opera was at SF Opera in 1959.) This revival production includes colorful designs by artist David Hockney and will be conducted by former SF Opera Music Director Donald Runnicles for the first time in his career.
I chatted with Stemme recently, in between rehearsals, about her journey to becoming an opera singer.
Was there a point when you realized that singing was “it” for you?
No, because singing as such wasn’t “it.” “It” was music, and making it together with others. I played the violin and then changed later to viola — I wanted really to play the cello, but the teacher at school was kind of mean. I played a lot of piano and sang in the choir, so music was a huge part of my life, and I just wanted to explore it more and more.
I didn’t have to become a singer, but now the way I can tell the story with my voice along with other colleagues onstage and the orchestra, it’s just amazing. It is an ongoing journey, and I am still enjoying it.
You won the Operalia competition in 1993 when you were 30 years old. Would you say that is what launched your professional opera career?
Yes, it launched my career onto a higher level — that together with becoming a finalist at the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition the same year, just a month later. I didn’t win that one, but it put my name on the map, so that made it easier for me to get auditions and to find out what I wanted to do with my voice and my singing.
Why opera — did you ever consider any other kind of singing?
Of course, you always start with songs, lieder, but the more I explored the staging even of a song or of a scene in an opera — all these things visually and with the orchestra coming together — the more I realized that this is it: body and music. My body is my instrument anyway, so why not use it onstage? And I like to rehearse. Rehearsals alone or with a pianist — that’s fine, but it’s more exciting to explore a new piece together with colleagues.
When and why did you decide to transition from a lyric to a dramatic soprano?
I think it was a transition after a decision that I would dare to take on heavier roles. Early on, I sang Madame Butterfly, which, of course, was far too heavy for me at that time, but my voice developed with it, so I went with that development and continued to Angelica [in Suor Angelica] and Tosca, so it’s always been sort of on the horizon. The big decision was to do Senta in The Flying Dutchman in 2000 and then Isolde at the Glyndebourne Festival. I knew I had the big lyric spinto voice, the type where there is a dramatic zing at the top, but for the rest, I was rather lyric without that dramatic core. And I thought, “I can do this kind of quite young Isolde, and then we see what happens.” But I was very aware, “If I take this step, I have to go with it, and I have to be prepared that if it goes well, everybody will ask me about it” — which they did, which is when I made the decision not to sing more than one Isolde production per year.
The dramatic roles are very difficult, even in just their length alone. What do you like about doing them?
I like being onstage. I like the fullness and also the journey of the characters, and there is so much more to explore onstage. I love my work, and I promised myself always to be happy with whatever repertoire I will be singing.
What is it like to sing the role of the Dyer’s Wife in Die Frau ohne Schatten?
It’s a nightmare. It’s almost atonal. The Dyer’s Wife is a complicated character. She doesn’t really know herself, so she is exploring her own emotions, so it’s a huge amount of homework to study the role. There are little bits and pieces that are utterly beautiful, but Strauss really wanted to show how complicated this character is. It’s high and it’s low, and you have to just be there and know what you’re going to sing, which context — you can’t just slide in and then hang on to the melody. I am enjoying it, but it’s really, really challenging.
You were named an honorary member of the Vienna State Opera following a performance of Lohengrin on April 23, 2023. What was that experience like for you?
It was unexpected and an amazing experience. It is such a great honor to be part of such a special opera house that means a lot to me. It has followed me, or vice versa, since 1993 in various ways. I made my debut there 10 years later in 2003.
Your career has spanned more than 30 years. At this time in your life, do you have any personal or professional goals going forward?
I feel so blessed having been able to sing all these fantastic roles, and I am still pretty scheduled for the coming year. But I look forward to singing slightly lower, slightly shorter roles now and to being able to take more time off with my husband and children in our country house in the archipelago of Stockholm. I just enjoy taking each day as it comes.
Correction: As originally published, this article gave Nina Stemme’s SF Opera debut as 2011. It was 2004.