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“Shoes!” comes the cry from within the hotel suite. The diva, it seems, isn’t quite ready for her lunchtime interview. After a moment, though, the door swings open, and there, dramatic in black, is Helen Donath, fresh from a triumphant debut as the Marschallin in the Washington Opera’s new production of Der Rosenkavalier. A surreptitious glance reveals her to be wearing medium-heeled pumps.
She has come to the door herself—no lackeys, no prima donna hauteur. Colleagues will tell you it’s typical behavior: The Texas-born Donath (née Erwin; she married German conductor Klaus Donath in 1965) couldn’t be less like the popular caricature of the high-handed diva. Friendly, even maternal, she positively beams as she bustles about, collecting a stray bunch of balloons that has drifted into the middle of the sitting room, waving her guests to the sofa, offering coffee. She drinks her own out of a mug with the legend, “I’m not old. I’m really, really old.”
She isn’t anything of the sort. At 55, Helen Donath is in her prime, having only recently left behind lyric ingénue roles like Rosenkavalier‘s Sophie and The Magic Flute‘s Pamina to play more stately women: Figaro‘s aggrieved Countess, the noble, selfless Marschallin, even Elisabeth in Tannhäuser, which she will essay for the first time next year. In a glowing Rosenkavalier review, the Washington Post even suggested that the best years of Donath’s career may well be ahead of her.
One of the quintessentially young at heart (the ungracious might even say she’s a little giddy), Donath calls these new characters “women I have absolutely no affinity for,” so what’s most surprising is the awesome gravity that marks her Marschallin—and that she’s gotten it so right the first time. “I completely switch off who I am,” she says, amused. “My drama coach said, “Helen, I never thought I’d have to ask you to be a little less glacial.’ ” She’s had no shortage of opportunity to watch and learn, of course; a legend in Europe but only moderately well known in the States, Donath sang Sophie hundreds of times opposite some of the world’s greatest Marschallins. Now that she’s stepped into the older character’s shoes, though, she insists on making them fit her and her alone. “If I try to copy anyone else, it’s going to be a lie. It has to come out of my emotions; it has to be me being this woman.”
Successful opera is as simple as listening to the music and paying attention to the words, Donath contends. “You can go contrary,” she acknowledges, and plenty of directors have. But “…I’m going to be true to [Rosenkavalier librettist Hugo von] Hofmannsthal—otherwise it’s like doing Shakespeare and messing it up.”
Such is the kind of wisdom she’ll try to impart next week when she and her husband teach a George Washington University-sponsored master class. No hints of technique; that’s dangerous, she says, when you’re only scratching the surface. They’ll give tips on interpretation instead. But the Donath most wants to get across is even simpler: “You must be willing and capable and have the desire to give of yourself to others. If you are only in this for your own glory, you’re in the wrong place. From that lesson, the music will grow.”