Monday, February 27, 2012: Audience with the Queen

Gun-Brit Barkmin

Gun-Brit Barkmin as Queen Elizabeth I in Gloriana

An Audience with the Queen

Queen Elizabeth I is coming to Prague, and the audience with the queen will be held at The National Theatre Mar 3 and 4. That’s when soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin will star in the Czech premiere of Benjamin Britten’s Gloriana. The three-act opera alternates between glimpses of Renaissance, regal glory and intimate scenes with Queen Elizabeth I and her favorite and confidante, Robert Devereaux, Earl of Essex.

The Berlin-born Barkmin has performed major roles all over the world, and she’s characterized as possessing a flair for a strong, dramatic presence on stage. Yet she’s quick to smile and has a free, easy laugh, as she proved at last week’s press conference in Prague.

Asked how it feels to portray the monarch who propelled England into a world power in the 16th century, Mrs Barkmin laughs out loud; and sitting next to her, director Jiří Heřman, conductor Zbyněk Müller, and Essex himself (Norman Reinhardt) break into school-boy giggles, chins tucked into their shirt collars.

Mrs Barkmin then confesses that at a recent restaurant lunch, the group decided to have a champagne toast. “Waiter! bring us champagne!” Mrs Barkmin recalls ordering – literally. When everyone started to laugh, she realized her mistake and immediately apologized to the waiter, explaining that she had spent all morning on stage rehearsing as Elizabeth I. She forgot where she was.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, Jiří Heřman

Mrs Barkmin and director Jiří Heřman share a joke at the press conference.

“The waiter was very polite,” she says; “he responded with Czech-waiter humor.”

Slipping into Something a Little More Powerful*

*American English = to slip into something a little more comfortable, to change into informal clothes, especially to seduce someone

As you might expect, performing the lead role as a well-documented monarch is demanding, and, “We have to be exact, like a movie, because we know something about her,” she tells Opus Osm in an interview. “She’s not a character in a fairy tale or Rusalka.”

The dark-haired soprano says it takes about 30 minutes for her to apply the pale make-up and red wig for her first entrance, and she must fly through a total of six costume changes: “They have to be very, very quick, and right now I’m not sure how we’ll do it.” Figuring that out is a task for rehearsals early this week.

But does she feel different when she dresses as Elizabeth?

“Ja, ja,” she responds. “The shape of the costume puts you back in time, when you have another feeling.” And so would she like to live in that time?

“No. Definitely not,” she says emphatically. “It was really dangerous and there were so many intrigues behind your back.” She wouldn’t like to make Elizabeth’s decisions about “cutting off heads and going to war,” she admits. “Also the hygienic circumstances –” she pauses and then adds, “No, no, no. I like my [antiseptic hand-cleaner],” she laughs heartily. “It’s how I travel.”

Gun-Brit Barkmin

Gloriana was written in celebration of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, in 1953

Mrs Barkmin expresses her opinion that Elizabeth was unique as a ruler and as a woman. But don’t such powerful political women exist today? Angela Merkel, perhaps, or Margaret Thatcher?

“Ja,” she nods, “Angela Merkel is also a very strong woman surrounded by many men who don’t want her in her position,” she agrees. “But we live now in a democracy and you can’t get so easily rid of your head.” But she sees other parallels in the leaders, too, “with their strength; also you have to keep to your target and go straight forward. You [have to be] flexible, quick to react, in circumstances you cannot foresee.”

She believes the queen who ruled from 1558 to 1603 still has something to offer young, ordinary women today. “They can get an impression of how far a woman can get,” she says. “Nowadays even if everyone says something [positive about women's equality], you can’t believe that, really, because men are stuck to their [economic or political] power – they don’t want to share it with a woman.

“But to see it in previous times – 400 or 600 years ago – that there existed a woman with such strength …” she speaks in an internal monolgue, “‘If she can, then I can be more self-confident [too] and enjoy it, enjoy being a woman’ [in a man's world].”

Mrs Barkmin says she loves being in Prague and even thinks occasionally about living here. She also has high praise for her director, citing Mr Heřman’s “idea of putting Elizabeth in this surrounding – the sets [by Pavel Svoboda] and costumes [Alexandra Grusková] are great.”

She’s especially enthusiastic about working with conductor Müller, “the ruler of the game. He’s so well prepared, he knows it [the score] so well, he’s very calm and confident in us.” She explains that in a lead role “you have to think of so many things at the same time. So then it’s good to have someone so trustable ‘in the pit,’ who guides you through all the ups and downs.”

She adds that she appreciates the support she is receiving from everyone in the opera company. Perhaps like Elizabeth’s care for the greater good of her own kingdom, Mrs Barkmin adds “We work for the opera, not for ourselves.” — oo

– Mary Matz

Gloriana premieres Mar 3 and 4, with reprises Mar 11, Apr 9 and 23, May 25, and June 25 at the National Theatre. The opera is sung in English, with Czech and English sur-titles.

Photo Credits: Top and bottom: National Theatre Opera; center: Miroslav Setnička

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