I interviewed Danish opera singers Denise Beck, soprano, and Thomas Storm, baritone, in 2014 for my classical radio program Culture Carousel in DZFE-fm. The interview was before Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra’s concert featuring the music of Danish composer Carl Nielsen.
Their deep points of view amazed me. For me, it was more than an interview — it’s two people sharing their thoughts and feelings on life.
Denise you are both an opera and oratorical singer. What is the difference between the two?
Denise: Opera is about passion, love and some other theme, and oratorium is about the Bible and biblical stories and about Jesus. So that’s the main difference actually. Opera is performed on stage and oratorium is usually performed in a church.
Are these two styles of singing popular in Denmark?
Denise: Yes and no. We have a big beautiful opera house in Denmark. It has a lot of facilities and opportunities. But it’s also difficult to get enough audience for such a big house. So there are some difficulties, but at the same time, we also have a lot of music festivals in Denmark that are always full. And the people coming there love opera. And those people who have never seen an opera, when they go to the festival and see the opera for the first time they are usually happy that they went.
Do you have music appreciation program in Denmark? How can one appreciate an opera?
Thomas: The opera house in Denmark has taken up the challenge of making an introduction of opera to the audience. So they can understand what the story is about and stuff like that. One more thing that the opera house does is to introduce opera to children. The children learn about the story; they learn how to listen to the music. So it’s a new focus in Denmark. I have done a lot of that during the last couple of years — making, producing and writing operas for children, at times with a symphony orchestra. We educate the audience that we have and the audience to come, meaning the children.
Denise, you have received the Inga Nielsen Prize and the Axel Schiotz Prize among so many other awards. What is the key to your success?
Denise: That’s a very good question. First of all, hard work. I don’t believe anyone can achieve anything without hard work. You really have to work hard for anything.
You have to be lucky and meet the right people. Get to know the right conductors and the right teachers who can help you. And you have to be brave. You have to give up something of your own life that is important to you. You have to travel away from your family and friends. It’ difficult to say exactly what’s the key. It’s trying to find a way and work very hard.
Thomas, you are a graduate of the Carl Nielsen Academy. Can you tell us the impact of Carl Nielsen to you as an artist?
Thomas: He has a great impact on my career. I’m from Funen, that is where Carl Nielsen was born and during my education at the Carl Nielsen academy of music and the Opera Academy at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen I’ve always sang a lot of Danish songs. In 2013, I was appointed Carl Nielsen artist. There was a big Carl Nielsen Festival and for that year I was Artist-in-Residence which meant a lot of concerts for that period. Two to three concerts were broadcasted live so that the whole country of Denmark heard the concerts. And after that I worked to present Carl Nielsen as a composer. I made a program and sent it to everybody.
Carl Nielsen is known all over Denmark. But some might say that they don’t know him. So I decided to explore other possibilities, and I said why not introduce Carl Nielsen to audiences who doesn’t know him. So last year, I performed in New York and had 2 to 3 concerts performing Carl Nielsen music. Denise and I went to Berlin to sing Carl Nielsen songs. And now we are in the Philippines to perform with the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra and with conductor Olivier Ochanine to perform Carl Nielsen compositions. Wow, who would have thought that we would travel to the other side of the world to introduce Carl Nielsen to the Filipino audience? Carl Nielsen really has such a strong impact in my career.
How does a singer reach that level of excellence?
Thomas: I have to say the same as Denise, hard work. In every work, you have to work hard to become the best. Of course, you also need talent. I have been working hard to be where I am today. When you study, at times you study with a group of people and when you hear them you will know that they will make it in any part of the world. I am not one of those singers. I am a singer who has to work hard to achieve my goals. Even if I’ve been educate before, I still take lessons. I go to my teacher. Every day is a learning experience.
If you were assigned songs you have performed so many times, what would you do to make the songs sound fresh and appealing?
Denise: You can always read the text and lyrics again because as human beings we undergo new experiences in life. If you are open-minded, you will always find a new angle to the text and the lyrics. And if the music is good, you can always find new angles in that as well, things you didn’t realize before or heard in a different way. I think Carl Nielsen’s music is really good and as you grow older, you focus on other things. It’s always new when you take it again, it is never the same.
Thomas: I would like to add that a lot of the songs, there’s a story. It’s also about telling a story and it’s your job telling the story as if it’s the first time the audience heard the song. That’s my job as a singer, to tell the story, the emotions, to give a new experience to the audience every time. And like what Denise said, as you grow older, you see different angles. When you hear it in a different way, it gives you an inspiration to do it in another way. The more you get inspired by your colleagues, singers, musicians and the more you inspire back. There’s always new inspiration even if you have performed the songs 100 times before.
Do you have life impressions that are embedded in you up to now?
Denise: In order to have enough energy and power to take on fights in your life, you should choose the fights you take on. Because you shouldn’t fight all the time, it’s bad for you and your soul. And you won’t have energy for the important things in life. But if something is important, then you should take on the fight.
Thomas: For me, it’s about the choices you take and make, and their impact on your life. Everything in life has choices and if you choose the right choice, you can make your life better.