24 February 2021

With the return of the opera Julius Caesar in Egypt – Anew by Georg Friedrich Händel, the first baroque opera staged in Rijeka, honorary member of the Rijeka Opera ensemble Diana Haller also returns to the stage of Zajc in the title role with which she made her opera debut in Rijeka, her hometown.

After two premieres, that is, two versions from 2016 and 2020, this opera will be performed on Friday, February 26 under the musical direction of Maestro Ville Matvejeff and directed and dramatized by Marin Blažević. The renewal of this opera, which, among other things, includes the incorporation of anti-epidemic measures, will be the last opportunity for the Rijeka audience to see this performance before its guest appearance at one of the most prestigious opera festivals in Europe, the Savonlinna Opera Festival in Finland in July of this year.

In the renewed version, Diana Haller as the Roman Emperor Caesar and Anamarija Knego as the irresistible Cleopatra are joined by national opera principal Dubravka Šeparović Mušović as Cornelia, Michaela Selinger as Sesto, and Sonja Runje in the role of Tolomeo. Bass-baritone Luka Ortar and countertenor Franko Klisović will perform in the show for the first time.

We also took advantage of her stay in Rijeka to conduct a short interview with Diana Haller, who is otherwise a permanent soloist of the Opera in Stuttgart, Germany.

How does it feel to return to Rijeka, to the Rijeka National Theatre, after more than half a year? It is a return to the role of Julius Caesar, known as a trouser role, which you described before the 2016 premiere as a considerable and specific challenge. How do you experience this role today?
Almost five years have passed since the premiere, and the role is still evolving, just as I’m evolving as a musician. It’s important to also point out my new colleagues; with every revival there is someone new in the soloist ensemble who brings new energy with them. The role is still a big challenge for me regardless of my years of singing; it’s a very large, heavy role with a lot of arias, a lot of technical challenges, and when it’s a question of coloratura as well as register, changing depths and heights… That’s why before a new performance I have to technically renew it, to actually learn it, as it is long and I can’t get tired already after the third aria. So what I said five years ago is still equally valid; the role of Julius Caesar is always a big challenge.

At the Croatian National Theatre in Rijeka I am always followed by a feeling of warmth and belonging, because Rijeka is my city and will always be, always in first place. The German audience accepts and loves me very well, but Rijeka is still my hometown, the city of my temperament, where my people are. That’s why I’m always so happy when I can come back, especially in such a challenging role in a show that isn’t routine. Marin Blažević made it so that it can’t simply be routine. It was created with a lot of creative thinking so we, the singers, have something to think about before or after each rehearsal. The performance has changed over the years, though the devised concept is flexible enough that the singers have the freedom of movement within that concept. Through such directing, the role also becomes simpler, which is characteristic of a great director. In addition, I think it’s important that it’s important to comment in some way on the current situation in society and the factors making up and influencing the world at the time through the play that is put on stage. So we have now adapted the show to anti-epidemic measures. Even with all the changes, however, the show has remained essentially the same, giving the same input that it gave five years ago. In some scenes, it takes into account what is currently happening to us, and actually shows the possible consequences of a pandemic that has been going on for a year. We are very lucky that performances can be held in Rijeka, though with a small audience. Regardless of the pandemic, for people art is food for the soul and always will be. One should, of course, be very careful and respect all measures.

How have you spent this pandemic time professionally since we last watched and listened to you in your hometown this summer?
In Germany, we were able to hold rehearsals until the end of December, but with a distance of six meters if we were singing towards another singer. Those who were tested were allowed to sing from three meters apart, and from two meters if they stood in parallel. During the time of stage production we were tested twice a week. The production we were working on unfortunately didn’t experience a premiere, but it did recently get a live stream which can be viewed on YouTube. It’s Ravel’s opera L’enfant et les sortilèges (The Child and the Spells), in which I sing the lead role. This way of working was complex; it is difficult to work on an opera with such intervals, and we were not allowed to touch the props except with gloves.

Can you tell us what the current situation is with opera and theater in general in Germany?
Theaters in Germany are closed from the beginning of November until the end of March. Smaller productions are being planned, with a reduced choir and orchestra, but we are not sure that we will be able to perform in front of the audience from April on. It’s possible that the planned concerts and performances will only be performed again via streaming. However, we are glad that a really large audience is watching those live broadcasts. In Stuttgart, we recently did an Opera Ball with a small number of performers. Then, during intermission, guests could meet on the Wonder Me internet platform and gather in groups in four digital rooms to talk to each other. It was very interesting; our audience was in direct contact with some of the singers and the intendant. In addition to the live stream, this well-received opportunity was also offered, and I think that such digital conversations with the audience are very important today.
We still have regular rehearsals and preparations for projects planned for the next two seasons. This plan, of course, may change due to the epidemiological situation, but we practice our roles so that the role really enters our body and so that on stage, when the time comes, we are fully prepared and, in that sense, free.

And what is the situation of freelance artists who have lost their engagements due to the pandemic?
There aren’t as many permanently engaged singers in Germany as, for example, in Croatia. But there are a lot of freelance artists who haven’t been able to get financial help for a year. So, for example, in June I met a horn player in a shop who often collaborated with our theater as a guest performer, but who lost his job and earnings because of the pandemic and started to earn his living as a salesperson. There are many such examples. I therefore launched an initiative with Rotary Club Stuttgart International to hold a concert livestream soon to raise money for artists who were to be periodically hired at the Stuttgart Opera but who could not realize their contracts from last season due to the pandemic.