Many operatic careers evolve like a gradually climbing crescendo. The singer starts as a member of an ensemble and works his way up, singing one or two lead roles or standing in for a big name. And with plenty of hard work and talent and even more luck, he may arrive at the top of Mount Olympus himself.
Asmik Grigorian’s leap to the top of the opera league came was more like a big bang, fortissimo, when she made a sensational appearance at the 2018 Salzburg Festival as Salome in Richard Strauss’s opera of the same name. Strauss’s Salome is a seemingly naïve girl who, sick with desire, mutates into a mad and murderous avenging angel: it was a long time since this eccentric role had been played with such intensity and depth of expression.
Asmik Grigorian as »Salome« (2018)
An international success and its consequences
»I’ve got to accept that Salome will accompany me for the rest of my life.«
At the closing applause, the director Romeo Castellucci went down on his knees in front of her – and with him, the Salzburg audience and the critics among them. »The Salome of all Salomes«, exclaimed the Financial Times, while Germany’s FAZ imagined that »Richard Strauss must have smiled blissfully in heaven«. In a survey of the critics carried out by the magazine Opernwelt, Grigorian was voted singer of the year by an unprecedented majority. And even though she had already been a familiar figure in opera houses before this, now she was definitely a star.
»I’ve got to accept,« Grigorian said a couple of months later, »that Salome will accompany me for the rest of my life«. She went on: »The part was a true godsend for me – since then I’ve had a huge range of roles to choose from. I can work together with the best opera people in the world, and that is really important to me as my work is my home. But of course, this is also quite a challenge at the same time. With Salome, I definitely raised the bar, and a lot of people now assume that I’m going to outgrow myself from one role to the next, getting better all the time. And who knows? Maybe this idea doesn’t come from outside at all, but from inside me.«
A real feeling for life
Opera was part of the singer’s life from an early age: Asmik Grigorian was born in Vilnius in 1981 to the well-known Armenian tenor Gegam Grigorian and a mother who was herself a soprano and professor of singing, and she became Asmik’s first teacher. Grigorian went on to study at the Lithuanian Academy of Music & Drama, and in her early 20s was one of the founding members of the Vilnius City Opera, where she still appears once a year. However, she says that her parents influenced her personality more than her musical development: »I inherited from my father a real feeling for life – that is the greatest thing he gave me. My empathy and enormous discipline presumably come from my mother.«
»It was a dangerous time! I almost killed myself.«
Crisis and a new start
Discipline was something Grigorian certainly needed early on. She was still a student when she had her first child, after which she had to organise a life split between the stage and her son. »I needed to earn money, so that I worked without a break. It was a dangerous time! I almost killed myself: by the time I turned 30, I was completely washed-out. My voice was in very bad shape, so I decided to simply start over.«
Today she says she is happy that all this happened to her so early. »If I hadn’t had this breakdown back then, it might well happen now.« But this way, Ms Grigorian has a repertoire of over 60 roles to choose from, and she has long since overcome her voice crisis, likewise the panic attacks that were part of her life from her early student days, as she admitted quite frankly in an interview. In the meantime, Grigorian also has a young daughter, who often joins her on her concert tours. And if everything should get too much for her again, she knows what to do: »Always ask for help. And take regular breaks. I am now in the situation where I can finally enjoy being a singer.«
»That might be my responsibility in life, to make people feel and weep.«
In addition to her voice, of course, Asmik Grigorian owes her success to her outstanding stage presence. She is a gifted actress, even if she would never say it herself: »I never learnt to act, and I can’t claim that I know how to act. I take everything that I depict on stage from reality. That probably has to do with the fact that I am a very empathetic person. I’m good at putting myself in other people’s shoes, which is not always pleasant in everyday life. But of course this ability is a real help to me on the stage.«
As a result, her acting has nothing unnatural or rehearsed about it as the case with so many of her colleagues, where you can see that they have been practising in front of the mirror at home. On the other hand, she also knows how to draw a clear line between the stage and real life, between herself and the roles she plays: »They accompany me at all times, and I learn from them.«
»The most important thing for me is to tell my story and to say what I feel.«
By this token, her Salome was not some distant mythological character, but a person made of flesh and blood, vulnerable, with all the contradictions and dark depths that are part of being human. Perhaps that why her portrayal really got under one’s skin: Grigorian always sees the human side of abstract opera characters. »We are all human – we all have to struggle with the same problems. The most important thing for me is to tell my story and to say what I feel. This pure emotion and honesty gives every individual in the audience the opportunity to select what he wants to see and learn from the story.« And she adds: »That might be my responsibility in life, to make people feel and weep.«
The first recording
The stage is Grigorian’s passion: this much is shown by the fact that she has made next to no recordings. A few live recordings exist, the Salzburg »Salome« among them, but Grigorian has keept away from the recording studio. Up to now. She recently recorded an album of songs by Sergei Rachmaninov together with the pianist Lukas Geniušas, who is of mixed Lithuanian-Russian background, making this her CD debut at the age of 40.
Asmik Grigorian and Lukas Geniušas: »Rachmaninov songs«
The two artists are presenting the programme at a number of concert halls this season, the Elbphilharmonie among them. This gives Hamburg music lovers the rare chance to hear this unique singer away from the opera stage in the intimate setting of a lieder recital on 24 May 2022. For the time being, this will be one of the last such opportunities, as Asmik Grigorian’s diary is filled with opera productions all over the world. All the characters that live inside her and have become part of her want to get out on stage again.
Text: Simon Chlosta, last updated: 6.4.2022