South African lyric soprano finds instant stardom at the Met

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NEW YORK — Some young singers make their Metropolitan Opera debuts in low-profile fashion, perhaps joining the company in a minor role or slipping into the second cast of a routine revival. Not Golda Schultz.

The South African soprano became an instant star on the third night of the new season, singing the lead role in Mozart's "Die Zauberfloete" ("The Magic Flute") in Julie Taymor's fantastical production. Her conductor was none less than James Levine, the company's music director emeritus. And her debut run gets even higher visibility this Saturday when the final performance is broadcast live in HD to movie theaters worldwide.

Schultz portrays Pamina, daughter of the malevolent Queen of the Night, who finds happiness with her true love, Prince Tamino, but only after both undergo a series of ordeals.

Pamina is sometimes viewed as a rather passive character whose fate is played out by forces beyond her control. Schultz disagrees.

"I think a lot of people seem to underrate her," she said in an interview at the Met. "I find she is surprisingly strong.

"She is the one who saves herself," she said. "She tells Tamino: 'Listen here, my father made the flute, the flute's magic, watch it do what it can. We're going to get through these trials together. Not you saving me, but we'll help each other.' So it's quite a modern understanding of relationships."

FLOATING THE HIGH NOTE

The role provides Schultz with an ideal opportunity to show off her lyric soprano voice, notable for her ability to loft high notes on a cushion of sound. In The New York Times, critic Zachary Woolfe remarked on the moment when she is reunited with Tamino before their final trials, writing: "She floated a line as plainly beautiful as anything I heard" during the opening week of the season.

The line in question starts with just two notes as she sings the first two syllables of Tamino's name: first the C above middle C, then up to A natural. That's an interval known as an ascending major sixth, which Schultz said is "one of those very special intervals that Mozart uses a lot.

"It's ethereal," she said. "You go from Earth to somewhere else, and you don't know where that somewhere is. If you just do the step the way he wants it, it has its own beauty."

And what's the secret of the particular sound she creates?

"I try never to approach a note from the bottom up but from the top down," she said. "So instead of going from C and moving my voice up, I take a little bit of a jump and then come down to land on the A. Then you're on it, and you just open it up and let it be. Complete trust is what Pamina is all about, and you just have to trust that the note will be there."

FUNNY, YOU DON'T LOOK JEWISH

Schultz's parents are both what's known in South Africa as "coloured" or mixed race. Her father's family is descended from German traders who settled in the eastern part of the country, hence her last name. Her first name is in honor of Golda Meir, the first female prime minister of Israel.

"My mother's a bit of a feminist," Schultz said. "She found (Meir) to be a fascinating, strong woman who acted in good faith for her people."

Schultz is Roman Catholic, but because of her name people who haven't met her often assume she is Jewish.

"I was singing a concert once and my friend was sitting behind these two lovely ladies," she recalled. "They started reading the program to see who was coming next and they said, 'Oh, Golda Schultz, nice Jewish name. Can't wait to hear her.'

"Then I walk onstage and the friend turns to her friend and says, 'That girl's not Jewish!'"


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