Interview Lilian Farahani and Sílvia Lanao

NSO 2024 tells the story of Gustav and Alma Mahler and how Gustav didn’t allow Alma to compose anymore when they married. We asked our soloist Lilian Farahani and composer Sílvia Lanao about NSO, Alma and women in classical music. You can read the full version of the interview in English here.

How do you feel about working with NSO? What are you most looking forward to?

Lilian

I am looking forward to working with young people who are making music just because they love it so much. It’s a different situation than I’m usually in when I’m working with professionals, where you have this element of ‘it’s my job and that’s why we do it’. But I have this idea that NSO is just really a bunch of people who are so passionate about music and I think it will bring me in this atmosphere of just being a music lover and going back to why essentially I started singing.

 

In ‘Ein Glück Ohne Ruh’ you sing songs by Alma Mahler. Is it important for you to sing her music and to tell her story?

Lilian

Well, I think it’s an interesting story. It was a different time back then and for many women it was inevitable that from the moment they got married they would just serve the family and put aside their dreams. We have a very different perspective nowadays, but still the voices of women are not heard as much as those of men. 

So I think to tell this story, it’s really good to have Alma and Gustav next to each other in one concert and also in a new composition by Sílvia, a female composer. 

I think it’s also interesting that she willingly puts aside her dream. Because it’s also their strength that they can serve. And they can somehow, I don’t say it’s a good thing that he asked her to do that, but it’s a very strong thing that women are in general more altruistic. 

I have two small children, I just became a mother 2,5 years ago and I see now the perspective. Before I became a mother I was just a strong, young woman on top of the world. But now I feel I am also a mother who sometimes puts herself aside to let someone else flourish for a moment. And sometimes I struggle with it, because I feel like, is there still any space for me? But at the same time I think this is also the great strength of a woman to be able to do that. 

 

Normally, you play a lot of opera roles. Do you think for this project you will try to get into Alma’s head?

Lilian

Well, I think I will try to get into her head as much as I can, but it’s also Sílvia’s voice more than just Alma’s. It’s Sílvia who is interpreting Alma and I am trying to interpret Sílvia. So of course I interpret the text, but Sílvia already interpreted Alma for me in a musical way. For example, the piece ‘In Einem Briefe’ is really Alma’s voice, even though it is not Alma’s music. I hear Alma’s struggles with the fact that she was asked to put her dream aside. I hear it at the end of the piece. She is internally going crazy because she has to let go of her dream. And in the beginning she is more contemplative. 

Sílvia

Yes, I think that was my idea. She is very contemplative but also she is very soft. She is carried away. In the end she loses her mind. You hear a bit of her music in between my music, so it’s really many layers of not reality, but maybe I wanted to recreate many layers of thoughts which I imagine is what she had in her head when she married and she had to stop composing. I think it was the sweet part that she wanted to marry him, she had many other options who she could have chosen but she chose to marry him, so something must have been nice about him. But then also it was turning her crazy at the same time.

Lilian

I think this is also what I talked about, about female strength. Because she says “he asked me to give up my dream, but maybe it’s better like this”. But in Sílvia’s music you hear that it is actually not better like this. She is saying “maybe it’s better like this”, but she doesn’t feel that way. It’s her female strength showing she can put her ego aside, for the sake of giving him space and letting him flourish as a composer.

 

Sílvia, for the piece you interpreted Alma and her music. How did you do this?

Sílvia

I read her full diary first, I really wanted to meet her first as much as I could. What was her personality? What was she like? And that somehow did not match her musical style. I feel her music didn’t have time to develop, so it’s very polite and it’s very elegant and it’s somehow very fragile. That’s how I see her songs, and then I thought, what potential did she have if she had continued with it. So from her diary I understood one part of her was this woman who was more willing to serve, more polite. That is the start of my music as well. I consider it the most polite music I have ever written. And then it twists because in reality she was not so polite, her true thoughts and emotions weren’t just polite. And that is in a way how I sketch ‘Ein Glück Ohne Ruh’. I think the way she writes is very strange. She didn’t seem like someone who would surrender. I think she was not honest in her own diary. I think not everything was there. And that’s what I tried to do with the music, to write the part that was not there.

 

Before she met Gustav, Alma had a mission to become a composer and to write symphonies. Do you feel you have a mission too?

Sílvia

I think all of us have a mission, as women. Whatever we choose to do, it is important that we stand our ground that we are as good and as capable with whatever job we choose, and maybe with composition a bit more. I felt a responsibility to take Alma’s music and bring it to life in this program. 

 

Lilian, do you sing music by female composers more often?

Lilian

Well, actually I do, I do sing music by female composers. For example, I have been doing a lot of Kaija Saariaho’s music. I’ve been doing a world premiere of her last opera and it has been touring over the world now and she is just brilliant. And before that I have also done a couple of runs of an opera by Monique Krüs, a Dutch composer, and I will do an opera by her again next season. So I feel I’m singing a lot of work by women. And I have been on stage with a lot of female conductors as well. 

To be honest, I think it’s a very good thing to give a stage to women, but if we constantly put emphasis on ‘giving the stage to women’ it is making them the underdog. I think nowadays we should just take the stage. And not talk about it, not apologize for it. It’s normal. We belong there, we are there. In the end it is all about quality. I wouldn’t sing work by someone whose music isn’t good, if I don’t believe in the music, male or female, I won’t sing it. And this is maybe my mission now, to not talk about it anymore and just to really be equal in that sense. I know there is still a disbalance, but then again I also see women who are really good at what they do who get played and then I think we should stop talking about the fact that they are women. They are composers and they are great.

Sílvia

I think it’s totally right. Normally I also tend to label myself as a female composer instead of just a composer. Someone has to initiate, someone has to start the turning point from us being the strange ones to normalizing it.

 

I asked you if you sing a lot of music by women, because I asked myself this question and came to the conclusion that I’ve never played something made by a female composer.

Lilian

Well, I think it also has to do with probability. We mostly play music by composers who have been dead at least a hundred years. And in those days there were very few women who dared to compose. Take Alma, she did, but she got muted. But percentually there were way many more men. 

Also many talented women who lived a 100 years ago never got the chance to develop their skills.

Lilian

Exactly, but that is different now. That’s why for example the female composers that I sang were all contemporary.

 

Sílvia, female composers nowadays can be an example for new generations of women who aspire a career as a composer. Who was an inspiration for you?

Sílvia

It was just that I loved music. I took inspiration from pieces, I never really cared who composed them in a sense the most important was the score and the music that was written. It varied a lot from styles as well and I don’t know how to explain what was attractive about every piece but I just fell in love with some pieces more than others and took inspiration from them. But of course looking up how to develop a career. Realizing the idea of who a composer is, what a composer looks like or speaks like, I watched a lot of interviews with Kaija Saariaho. She was a very important inspiration. But also other contemporary composers, but no one specific was more important than others.

Could you say your own love for music was your biggest inspiration?

Sílvia

I would say so, yes.

I would say that’s also the biggest inspiration of NSO. They make music because they love it and we are all very excited to get to do this with you.

 

What do you hope to give the audience besides a beautiful concert?

Lilian

I think it’s about the importance of new work and creativity that is reflecting our society nowadays. Because being in Kaija Saariaho’s opera that is getting so much raving reviews, speaking about a very successful woman. Her piece is just amazing, the libretto is by a woman as well. She is also amazing. The piece is clever, the music is great, the theme is very much about nowaday topics and this is what is resonating with the audience. So I would like to say to the audience, feed the contemporary artist, because there are really brilliant minds who can tickle our imagination and who can feed our souls with things that resonate with us now. So basically give Sílvia lots of commission because thanks to her I have really nice new works to sing for the audience.



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