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Queen of the heights

We take a look at the Queen of the Night's famous aria from The Magic Flute

Mozart’s legendary Queen of the Night, and her vocal acrobatics, are probably the most well known in all of opera. But just what does it take to sing at those dizzying heights? Philippa Burbidge finds out.
The Queen of the Night in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) is a role that is often defined by the moment when the soprano reveals her first series of eight high Cs in the show-stopping, ear-piercing, breathtaking and (nearly) glass-cracking aria ‘Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen’ (‘Hell’s vengeance boils in my heart’).
Caroline Wettergreen performs ‘Der Hölle Rache’ (Festival 2019)

It is an aria that has become synonymous with the beauties and extremes of the human voice. It is simultaneously marvelled at (it was chosen as one of the tracks on ‘The Golden Record’, a disc sent up to space in 1977 as part of NASA’s Voyager missions, containing sounds selected to portray the diversity of life on Earth) and joked about – it doesn’t take much searching to find abundant karaoke versions, whistling versions and even a parrot version in the intergalactic space of YouTube.

‘Der Hölle Rache’ is the second of two solo arias in the opera – the first, ‘O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn’ (‘O tremble not, my dear son’) is no less virtuosic than its more famous sister aria, but it’s ‘Der Hölle Rache’ that earworms itself into the memory, and embodies the drama of the role. It is an aria that keeps audiences poised and waiting on the edges of their seats for that moment when the Queen appears, dagger in hand, spitting with rage.

Image: NASA’s Golden Record is prepared for the Voyager mission. NASA/JPL, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

How does a soprano prepare to deliver an aria that requires such power and virtuosity all at once? What are the main challenges they have to conquer? ‘Der Hölle Rache’ appears almost halfway through the opera, after an extended passage of dialogue between the Queen, her daughter Pamina and Sarastro’s slave Monostatos. Mary King, Glyndebourne’s vocal talent consultant, believes that the sheer amount of dialogue is one of the major challenges for a soprano: ‘The speaking voice needs to have the same resonance as the singing voice’ she says. ‘The Queen has to speak with authority, two octaves below the range she needs for singing, and then switch between the speaking voice and singing voice quite quickly. To bridge this gap is a big challenge.’

Image: Caroline Wettergreen as the Queen of the Night at Festival 2019. Bill Cooper

The range of the Queen’s voice spans more than two octaves, and climbs to the height of F6 (two and a half octaves above middle C). Although it’s the repeated staccato high Cs of ‘Der Hölle Rache’ that first command the audience’s attention in the aria, it’s the quality of the high F that is one of the real ‘wow’ factors in the aria. Mary maintains that most sopranos have got a high C in their vocal jewellery box, but the ability to produce a high F, especially in the midst of dagger-wielding high drama (and in addition to the other vocal requirements of the role), is much more of a rarity. ‘There are often 15 more sopranos than any other voice type in auditions – and of these 15 sopranos, usually only one can do Queen of the Night’.

So, casting the role from a relatively small pool is another kind of challenge. Ann Rawdon Smith, Glyndebourne’s casting administrator, explains that when casting the role ‘we look at the high tessitura – the ability to produce crystalline high notes as well as dramatic coloratura. Not many singers have the combination of lyric warmth in the middle register, vocal agility and the capacity to sustain a legato line in the long phrases.’

The heady mix of other technical virtuosities demanded by the role includes passages of coloratura incorporating high-speed scales, extended triplet passages, staccato arpeggios as well as the ability to create long and beautiful phrases with sustained breath control.

Another challenge a Queen faces are the staging and directorial requirements of the role. In the 1985 film of Peter Shaffer’s iconic Amadeus, the Queen of the Night appears suspended from the heavens on high with a silver crown – her spectacular appearance and vocal acrobatics hold the audience (including a transfixed Salieri) spellbound. Diana Damrau’s Queen of the Night at the Royal Opera House in 2003 wore a particularly elaborate headdress. Her powerful rendition of ‘Der Hölle Rache’ has amassed an astonishing 56 million views on YouTube – and the costume is as impactful and memorable as the penetrating high notes.

In Barbe & Doucet’s 2019 production of Die Zauberflöte, which will be revived this year, the suffragette Queen’s dagger is a kitchen knife, and the monochrome coat covering her regal purple robe is inscribed with the mantra ‘Deeds not words’. In 2019 the role was sung by Caroline Wettergreen whose Queen made headlines by leaping up a further octave to even loftier heights at the end of ‘O zittre nicht’. The production was due to tour in 2020 (sadly cancelled due to the Covid pandemic) with a new young Queen, Polish soprano Aleksandra Olczyk. Since then, she has become one of the most sought-after Queens in opera. From January 2024 she’ll be taking the role to Paris, Berlin, Rome and Dresden before she arrives for her eagerly anticipated Glyndebourne debut in May.

Image: Aleksandra Olczyk by Karpati Zarewicz.

Philippa Burbidge is Glyndebourne’s Senior Marketing Manager


Recit

This article is taken from the latest issue of Recit, our Members’ magazine.

It is packed with features about this summer’s operas, including interviews with Carmen stars Rihab Chaieb and Aigul Akhmetshina, and Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen who will play the title role in Giulio Cesare. Plus Gus Christie and John Hoyland tell us what to look out for in the gardens this year.

Members will receive a copy in the post, or you can read it right now by downloading the PDF below:

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