OPERA PLACES Soprano Jessica Muirhead takes us to Essen

by | Jan 26, 2023 | Artist of the Week, Featured, News

British-Canadian soprano Jessica Muirhead, described by the New York Times as a “multi-hued soprano with floating top notes”, is a very active presence in the European opera scene. Career highlights include performing Musetta in La bohème at Munich’s Bayerische Staatsoper alongside star singers Anna Netrebko and Joseph Calleja, Marguerite in Faust and Mimi in La bohème at the Semperoper Dresden, Alice in Falstaff with Glyndebourne on Tour, Contessa Almaviva in Le Nozze di Figaro at Lisbon’s Teatro Nacional de São Carlo, and her return visits to her hometown Canadian Opera Company as Contessa Almaviva, Donna Anna in Don Giovanni, and Micaëla in Carmen.

Since August 2015 Jessica has been engaged as Soprano Soloist at the Aalto-Musiktheater in Essen, where she has revisited her favourite leading ladies, including Donna Anna (Don Giovanni), Violetta (La Traviata), Mimì  (La bohème), Marguerite (Faust), and added the roles of Katerina (Martinu’s The Greek Passion), Vitellia (Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito), Lisa (Lehár’s Land des Lächelns), Rusalka (Dvorak’s Rusalka), Luisa (Verdi’s Luisa Miller), and Elsa (Wagner’s Lohengrin).

This Saturday, January 28, she opens a production of Verdi‘s Simon Boccanegra at the Aalto-Musiktheater as Amelia (tickets and details here). Since Jessica has spent so much time in Essen, we wanted to ask her about her experiences there. If you’re travelling there, you will know what to look out for!

City where you’re working?
Essen, Germany.

You’re working on a contract for how long?
I’ve been working at the Aalto-Musiktheater for 7.5 years, and my current contract ends in July 2024, with the possibility of an extension. The kind of contract I have is called a Festvertrag, which means I am a full-time prima donna. I’m serious! I get a monthly salary, and usually have about 35 performances in Essen per year. I get 6 weeks of holiday in the summer when the theatre is closed, and usually I am still able to find time to guest in other theatres, like last fall when I was able to sing the world debut of a one-woman opera in Israel.

What’s the opera house like?
The opera house in Essen is called the Aalto-Theater, as it was designed by the well known Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, and was first opened in 1988. He wanted to make people feel welcome, and part of nature with his design, and he certainly did that. The many large windows in the foyer look out onto the Stadtgarten (city garden), and you feel like you are right in the middle of all the green grass and trees. Then, inside the hall you will find blue seats, white balconies, (evoking the sea) and AMAZING acoustics. At just over 1100 seats, it is the perfect size auditorium for opera in my opinion. I love the opera so much, I even made a little video tour. Check it out!

Where is the most peaceful place in Essen?
The Stadtgarden, where the Aaltotheater is located is one of the city’s most beautiful parks, especially in spring when all the daffodils are in bloom, and the giant chestnut trees perfume the air with their white or pink blossoms. Essen is also located on the Ruhr River, and one of the best views over the river and outlying areas is at a restaurant called Jagdhaus Schellenberg, where they have a huge outdoor patio. In the summer it becomes a bustling beer garden. It is definitely one of my favourite spots in Essen.

Best coffee or tea?
Zweibar has the best cappuccino in town, and is located on the most happening street in Essen, called Rüttenscheider Strasse.

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Coolest bar or restaurant you’ve been to?
Down the hill in the pedestrian area of downtown Essen there is a very cool place called Unperfekthaus. It is a place where artists of all disciplines come to hang out, be inspired, and showcase their work, or anyone who just wants to be surrounded by creativity. You need a wristband to enter; included in that could be a full buffet and all the self serve drinks you might need while translating an opera, or coming up with a libretto for a new one! There are even meeting rooms that you can use, but la piece de resistance is the roof top balcony where you can gaze over the rooftops of Essen.

An activity you’ve done that is unique to the area?
Essen is located in what is called the Ruhrgebiet (referring to the Ruhr river), which is a largely industrial area where you will still see the remnants of coal mines. The last working mine closed in 2018 and was a very big deal in the region. If you meet someone on the street and ask them if they know anything about mining, they will likely tell you their grandfather was a miner, or they used to do it themselves. You have most likely heard of the ThyssenKrupp company (look out for their name on elevators and escalators next time you take one)… Well, the Krupp family were the steel barons that pushed the industrial revolution in this area, and are still a big deal in Essen. I sang in a production of an opera called Hans Heiling by Marschner in 2018. Our entire production was based on their family, and the set was modeled on the Villa Hügl which was their family home, but is now a museum with a concert hall. So, during my research to prepare for the opera, I learnt everything I could about the Krupp family, and coal mining. This meant a visit to Villa Hügl, and the famous Zeche Zollverein, a UNESCO world heritage site, known as the “most beautiful mine in the world”. There is a museum there now, as well as cool restaurants, theatres of different sizes and styles, and you can even take a tour down underground in an old mine. Can’t say I’ve ever been anywhere like it!

Is there something unexpected that happens locally that you discovered?
Everyone here knows a mining folk song called the Steigerlied, and they all sing along when they hear it!

How did you find your accommodation?
As with many places I have stayed during my travels as a singer, I found my first place in Essen through another singer. Funnily enough, I found my second apartment in Essen (and where I still live) the usual way (online agency), only to discover afterwards that a colleague of mine had lived here before me. Go figure.

What’s the most important thing you think of when it comes to finding accommodation as singer?
I am a huge fan of accommodation which is within walking distance of the theatre I’m working at. The Deutsche Bahn, the national rail company, used to have an impeccable reputation, but that has changed drastically. Now it is the butt of all our jokes about why people are late. So, I am happier to rely on my feet to get me somewhere, rather than public transit or driving. Nevertheless, proximity to the train station and the airport is still very important. Also, neighbours who don’t mind my singing or playing the piano in our apartment are crucial. My husband and I are both singers, and because he is freelance, he really needs to practice at home (I can go to the theatre). Luckily our neighbours are AMAZING, and don’t complain. In fact, I once spoke with the neighbour who lives directly above us and told her if our singing is ever a problem, to please let us know, and to that she replied “Oh but I love when you both sing… it feels like I live in a Disney Musical!”

Have you had a chance to explore some galleries or museums?
On top of the Zeche Zollverein and Villa Hügl which I already mentioned, there is also the Folkwang Museum which is a large collection of 19th and 20th century art, and worth going to several times to check out their exhibitions.

Is there anything you recommend beyond what we’ve asked here?
You asked about the opera house, but just a 2 minute walk through the park from the Aalto-Theater, there is the Philharmonie Essen, our concert hall. The major hall is called the Alfred Krupp Saal (see what I mean? Big deal family!), seats around 1700 and is a major destination for the stars of today, while there is also a smaller hall which is perfect for sunny afternoon salon style concerts. Definitely worth going to see something there! Also, in the centre of the pedestrian downtown at the Essener Dom (Cathedral), check out the Golden Madonna statue to the left of the altar. It is from about 980 AD and is both the oldest known scupture of the Madonna and the oldest free-standing medieval sculpture north of the Alps. Of course, visiting me should be mentioned as the top reason to come here. Duh!

Jessica Muirhead ©️Nanc Price Photography

Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra
Aalto-Musiktheater Essen

Jan 28, 2023 – June 14, 2023

Gabriele Adorno CARLOS CARDOSO
Jacopo Fiesco ALMAS SVILPA


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