Tamara Wilson
Claire McAdams

‘I make sure I only do Turandots that have an abstract element’

29 November 2022

Tamara Wilson sings Turandot

The American soprano Tamara Wilson is famous throughout the world for her interpretations of the operatic heroines of Giuseppe Verdi, but over the past fifteen years she has proved herself capable of much more too. She is a singer who seems to be able to take on any role and sings the more demanding repertoire with apparent ease and an exceptionally clear, bright sound. In December she will be making her debut with Dutch National Opera in the title role of Puccini’s Turandot.

By Benjamin Rous


Soprano Tamara Wilson’s great breakthrough came in 2007, when she had to take over at the last minute as Amelia in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera at the Houston Grand Opera. She had only just completed that company’s Young Artist Program. It was the springboard for a major international career. How does she feel looking back at that time? Had she expected to be where she is now? “I never had a clear idea about a specific repertoire or certain roles. I just tried to make it from performance to performance, to see whether I would have any kind of career at all. That in itself is quite rare in our line of work! In my first three years off the starting blocks as it were, I sang a lot of the big Verdi roles. Then everyone said, ‘If she can do that, she must be a Verdi singer!’ But it didn’t feel like that, and I don’t feel that now. I just happened to be able to sing those roles!”   


A varied vocal diet

Verdi and Romantic Italian opera still form the core of Wilson’s repertoire, but she has sung more and more German roles in recent years. Is it difficult to sing so many different roles? “It’s not so much that I have to sing differently, but each composer demands something different from you. I really enjoyed singing the Kaiserin in Die Frau ohne Schatten. Strauss gives you so much time to prepare for the next phrase and it is so expertly interwoven with the orchestra that I felt as if everything just flowed along. Verdi is quite simply hard work: you need to have every aspect of your technique at your fingertips all evening. It’s a bit like a Swiss army knife: you have to be ready to pull out everything and use it. I don’t actually find Wagner that difficult vocally. I sing his music with the same voice, in an Italian bel canto style if you want to call it that. The challenge is more in the acting, to keep things reasonably interesting during those incredibly long scenes!”

‘My career is a long-distance race, not a sprint.’ 

The dramatic soprano

There is a great demand internationally for voices that can cope with the dramatic repertoire. Now that Wagner’s Isolde has been added to her CV, she must undoubtedly have been pressed to take on other dramatic soprano roles. How does Wilson deal with such pressure? “I decided early on that I didn’t want to be pigeonholed into a certain category. I would find that incredibly boring. I actually enjoy being challenged in different ways. I won’t be singing eight Isoldes a year; that would be vocal suicide. I would like to carry on combining more dramatic roles with other things. I have been saying ‘no’ to an awful lot of things for a long time. Which is hard because I’m a people pleaser! But I think it’s good to be careful. My career is a long-distance race, not a sprint.”


Mastering a role

Wilson has a fixed routine for learning new roles. “First I research the role; I look at the name, for example, and the context. I like having that depth, to inform myself. Then I listen and watch as much as I can. I look at how singers approach a role, how they tackle certain things technically, what works and what doesn’t, including in productions. Then I examine the musical score and I translate everything. I also add my own, shorter translations. That way I get to a certain emotion faster. I also always write down my own first impressions of what a character says, as a kind of mini psychological analysis. When I then really start learning the music, I’m already so familiar with the score that I can simply start singing and really start making music from the notes.”


Keeping her freedom

How does that work with the role of Turandot, which she is singing in Amsterdam? “When I started to learn the role of Turandot, I based most of it on psychology. People think: she’s a monster, a murderer. She’s cold and heartless. But if you look at it in another light, she is a woman who is being sold to another man and doing everything in her power to prevent that from happening. Of course what she does is cruel, but she keeps her freedom. That doesn’t mean you have to condone what she does, but you can understand why she does it.”


A strong concept

Is it difficult for Wilson to fit in with a director’s concept once she has studied a role and developed her own firm ideas about it? “Not at all! I love it when a director comes up with really strong ideas, even far-fetched ones. I’m up for anything as long as it’s based on a clear idea. If I have done a role in a very naturalistic production and later perform the same role in a more abstract approach, of course the emotion is still present under the surface. It always comes out in my singing, no matter what I look like or what kind of production it is. I still sing the same words, and I try to get their message across.”

‘Many operas no longer work if you perform them in precisely the way they were written.’

An abstract Turandot

In his stage direction, the director Barrie Kosky tackles some problems he feels are associated with the opera, such as the outdated Orientalism that it encompasses. “I make sure I only do Turandots that have an abstract element. If it was a production where I was being asked to play someone of a clearly different ethnicity, I’d refuse. I’ve turned down roles for that reason. Kosky has worked out a very unusual way of resolving this issue. I’m really curious to see how it will work out and how the audience will respond!”


Opera in the twenty-first century

Many operas in the repertoire, such as Turandot, have aspects that are deemed problematic in modern-day society. How does Wilson deal with such issues in the roles she sings? “It starts with the problem that we try to project our twenty-first-century theatrical concepts onto something that was written a hundred years ago or even longer. That often creates a tension. Many of those operas no longer work in society today if you perform them precisely in the way they were written, even if the music is fantastic and timeless of course. For example, when I first played Aida it felt weird to me. That’s a role I will never sing again as I find it too culturally specific. I don’t know if it’s good for us to keep doing operas that have these kinds of problems. What is it that makes us want to carry on performing those works in the same way? Fortunately, in the United States we’re starting to do more and more new repertoire that is a better fit with society today. I think that’s fantastic. We need more new stories, more new music!”

Wilson continues: “And preferably music that we can hum at the end of the evening. It can’t all be follow-ups to the Second Viennese School. OK, we did that, we’ve shown we can reduce music to its mathematical elements. So can we now please get back to beautiful things? I know it’s not remotely lucrative for them, but what if we were able to persuade film composers to write operas? If someone like John Williams were to write an opera, how amazing would that be?”

  • Turandot will run from 2 to 30 December 2022 at Dutch National Opera​​​​​​.