For the soprano Golda Schultz, performing Richard Strauss is a tightrope act. “I don’t pretend to do it right all the time,” she says. “But when you do, you float, without ever thinking you were high in the sky. And when you find yourself on the other side, you want to go again.”
The South African native makes her New York Philharmonic debut performing the full cycle of his Brentano-Lieder, February 17–19, conducted by Santtu-Matias Rouvali. Schultz, a Juilliard graduate, first learned the songs as a member of the ensemble at The Bavarian Staatsoper. Shortly thereafter, in 2015, she made her international breakthrough as Sophie in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier at the Salzburg Festival. She has since won over audiences at institutions from The Metropolitan Opera to the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
Meanwhile, Schultz continues to make her home in the German region of Bavaria and cherishes the proximity to the landscapes that shaped Strauss’s music: “Coming from South Africa, where I don’t think many great [European] composers ever set foot, the only access I had was sitting with their works and trying to imagine myself in the places that they wrote them.”
In the third of the Brentano-Lieder, “Säus’le, liebe Myrte!,” she connects musical images of clouds floating in the sky to the walks Strauss may have taken in the town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, where he had a summer villa. “You have to enter the meditative state that the words and poetry evoke,” she says. “And then let that guide the music.”
The fifth song, Amor, is full of coloratura figures that have depictive rather than technical significance, Schultz explains, as they evoke “the bubbliness of Cupid. … He can cause absolute havoc and have a wonderful giggle about it, knowing that it’s all in fun.”
She admits that the cycle is a “beast” to sing in full. (In fact, this is the Philharmonic’s first-ever complete performance of it.) Following the first five, which are “full of mirth and a little bit of fancifulness,” the final Lied der Frauen throws the singer into a proverbial storm. Schultz imagines “women on their own holding fast, praying for something good to come. And then the clouds open.”
Golda Schultz has been familiar with the New York Philharmonic since her days as a student at Juilliard, where she sometimes had the opportunity to drop in on rehearsals, and through “multitudes of recordings.” “Their sound is so distinctly lush and intelligent,” she says, noting the proximity to a “Viennese sound” given the Orchestra’s history with Gustav Mahler, who served as Music Director from 1909 to his death in 1911.
She also notes a particular kindness in the New York audience: “You can come with your own vulnerability and show them what you have to offer. They respond to authenticity, not to artifice.”
The soprano can only describe it as “beyond a dream come true” to sing one of her “favorite composers” with “by far one of my favorite orchestras. I really never suspected that I would be so fortunate.”
Rebecca Schmid, a Berlin-based music writer, contributes regularly to publications such as the Financial Times and International New York Times. She has moderated and annotated for The Cleveland Orchestra, Salzburg Festival, and other organizations. Her scholarly writings about Kurt Weill’s aesthetic influence are forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.