Soprano Diana Damrau’s album marks the return of German composer Giacomo Meyerbeer

Soprano Diana Damrau’s latest album, Meyerbeer: Grand Opera, pays tribute to the long underappreciated 19th-century German composer.

German soprano Diana Damrau. AFP
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In the first half of the 19th century, Giacomo Meyerbeer was perhaps the world’s most successful opera composer, pioneering onstage theatrics as he worked comfortably across European cultures.

His fame faded after his death in 1864 but as part of a revival, German soprano Diana Damrau has released a new album devoted entirely to his arias.

Damrau, whose bursting yet lush and agile coloratura voice has increasingly made her a top attraction at opera houses around the world, said that a Meyerbeer album has long been a career goal.

“This idea was a dream,” says the 45-year-old, whose nonchalant smile and giggly laugh belie the grim traditional image of a diva.

Her album Meyerbeer: Grand Opera, released last week, includes selections from the composer's best-known operas Les Huguenots and Robert le diable, and two arias never previously recorded.

She also sings from Meyerbeer's Dinorah, which she says served as an introduction to coloratura, a vocal art characterised by quick-paced high notes, trills and other ornamentations.

"I don't come from a musical background and I didn't grow up in the opera house like some of my colleagues did," she says. "What you hear when you search for a coloratura soprano repertoire is naturally Dinorah."

Damrau was speaking in New York, where she performed at a gala ceremony on Sunday to mark the Metropolitan Opera’s 50 years at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

More than most composers, Meyerbeer, a German Jew, felt at ease working in multiple languages. His most celebrated operas were in French, but he also wrote in German and Italian, and brought in Orientalist motifs that were then fashionable in Europe.

He was instrumental in creating the modern concept of a grand opera, with professional librettos and elaborate productions to enhance the drama, including the 1849 premiere of Le Prophete at the Paris Opera.

Amid his success, he was viciously attacked by Richard Wagner, whose grandiose style would be embraced by the Third Reich. Wagner, who had enjoyed support from Meyerbeer, denounced him in the anti-Semitic essay, Judaism in Music, as uncreative and cravenly following popular taste.

The Nazi effort to purge Jewish cultural influences took a toll on Meyerbeer’s legacy, but he has found a new audience in recent years.

The Deutsche Oper Berlin is producing Meyerbeer's operas as a cycle – calling him the capital's "greatest ever composer" – and the Royal Opera House in London in 2012 staged Robert le diable for the first time in more than a century.

Beyond anti-Semitism, Meyerbeer's work faces other challenges – his operas generally require sprawling casts and are strikingly long for 21st-century attention spans, with the recent Berlin production of Les Huguenots running for five hours.

While hesitating to draw connections to the present day, Damrau notes that Meyerbeer showed a fluency in three languages and cultures long before the era of European integration.

“On one CD, it sounds like there are three composers – but there is only one,” she says.

“And that in a time when travelling, connections, multimedia, social media, all of this did not exist in the way it does now. How difficult it was, and how unthinkable for so many of his contemporaries.”

Damrau herself shows comfort singing in multiple languages, and is married to the French opera singer Nicolas Teste.

The wife-husband duo recently completed a tour of South America, a trip Damrau describes as “amazing”, as she sensed a real hunger in the region for opera.

Damrau had performed nearly constantly for 15 years, during which she had two children. In 2015, however, doctors told her to stay silent for six weeks.

“Sometimes one concert or more can be too much. The body says, maybe you should give me a little rest,” she said.

“You can never plan it. You have visions, but the reality is always different.”

Meyerbeer: Grand Opera is out now

* Agence France-Presse