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“Nothing has come easily for me. I’ve had to work very hard.” After two attempts to get into the Guildhall School of Music, many would have given up, but not Mirjam Mesak. Undeterred, the Estonian soprano moved from her native Tallinn to London and got a job waiting tables. “I worked six days a week while taking private voice lessons,” she tells me. And after the third audition, she got in.   

Mirjam Mesak may not be a household name yet, but her silvery voice and acting acumen attract notice wherever she appears. Singing and playing the piano were an important part of her childhood. “After school I would go straight to the upright piano we had at home,” she recalls. “I wouldn’t even take off my coat first.” After completing her piano studies, she concentrated on her voice. “At one point, my teacher and I came to the same conclusion. I needed to take my singing to the next level. She is a Guildhall graduate: that’s why I chose London.” 

Mirjam Mesak © Priit Simson
Mirjam Mesak
© Priit Simson

In 2018, while still a student in the UK, Mesak sang her first leading role professionally when Clonter Opera Theatre in Cheshire cast her in La bohème. After seeing her as Mimì, music blogger Robert Beale observed that she is “surely a singing actress with a great future, and she effortlessly shone out over the biggest vocal ensembles”.  Currently, she is an ensemble member at the Bavarian State Opera (BSO) in Munich, where she has sung roles such as the Dew Fairy in Hänsel und Gretel, Juliette in Die tote Stadt and the leading role in Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta. It was chiefly this role that earned her the Bavarian Art Prize for the Performing Arts in 2019.  “And I’m not even German! The prize came as such a surprise. During his presentation speech, the Bavarian Minister of Culture said that as Iolanta I had touched people’s hearts. And that is exactly what I aim to do on stage.” 

“Fragile and ethereal, her lyrical soprano made the princess shine from within”, wrote Bachtrack about her Iolanta. The evening before I talked to Mesak over FaceTime, she had appeared online in another Bohème, from Munich. This time she played Musetta, opposite Rachel Willis-Sørensen and Jonas Kaufmann. Her portrayal had vividly brought out Musetta’s various facets, from flamboyant good-time girl to generous friend.  

Due to the pandemic, the cast had performed to an empty house. What was that like? “It wasn’t so bad, because we knew we were rehearsing for a video that was to be filmed ahead of time. We got tested regularly for coronavirus so that we could interact safely onstage. The performance itself was not unlike a dress rehearsal.” 

<i>La Bohème</i> (Musetta) at the Bavarian State Opera © Wilfried Hösl
La Bohème (Musetta) at the Bavarian State Opera
© Wilfried Hösl

“It was much harder performing in Macbeth [as Lady Macbeth’s lady-in-waiting, ed.] to an audience of 50 people, on the last evening before German theatres closed down”, she recalls. “The stalls looked so depressingly empty, the conductor seemed very far away and the orchestra sounded dispersed. At the curtain call, the audience stood up and you could see they were trying to reach out to us to show us their appreciation. We applauded back at them. I was crying in the wings afterwards.” 

Working at an A-list house, Mesak gets to share the stage with big opera stars. While being aware that this is a great opportunity to learn from the best in the business, she is grounded and self-confident enough not to be tempted to imitate anyone else. “The worst thing you can do as a singer is to try to imitate this or that famous name. I know my voice best and the best teachers are those who recognise that every voice is unique. You must believe in your voice and stay true to it.”   

The fact that she was cast as Musetta, half of the “second couple” in La bohème, attests to how much the house values her. “As a member of the ensemble you are first given small roles in BSO productions, then bigger parts. You’re expected to deliver quality work, just like established singers. Everyone is treated with the same courtesy and everyone behaves professionally. I have yet to meet a famous singer who puts on airs and graces,” she says.

She expresses her admiration for soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen, who sang Mimì in the webcast. “She is so approachable and has such an amazing technique. I’ve learned so much from her. She posts these useful warm-up exercises on her Instagram account. I know several young singers who do the ‘Rachel warm-up'.”  

Before joining the ensemble, Mesak first had to prove her worth as a member of the Opera Studio, BSO’s talent development programme. Getting accepted into the Studio was the next milestone after obtaining her Master’s from Guildhall. Being a kind of opera boot camp, it proved invaluable for building up stamina. “If you can survive the two years at the Opera Studio, you can survive anything. We worked six or seven days a week, not just following lessons and rehearsing for productions, but also giving concerts for sponsors. At the same time, we got full support from the staff – technical, emotional and professional.”  

It was as a Studio member that she was cast as the blind princess Iolanta. “It’s a wonderful production, part of a double-bill with Stravinsky’s Mavra. Director Axel Ranisch, who I think is a genius, linked the two plots together. I will be working with him again soon and I can’t wait. I was initially supposed to sing in Mavra, but then, two weeks before the start of rehearsals, they unexpectedly gave me Iolanta. So, I spent the Christmas holidays at home with my nose in the score, learning the part. My sisters said: How sad that this is how you’re spending the holidays. I replied: You know what’s really sad? The fact that I’m having the time of my life doing it!”  

Last April Mesak was looking forward to take on another leading role – Mignon in Ambroise Thomas ’s eponymous opera. Because of coronavirus, the run was postponed to September, when she was booked to appear in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale at the Estonian National Opera. Mignon will have to wait for now, but Norina in Tallin yielded its own special rewards. “It’s a tight-knit company and guest singers are unusual. I was the youngest members of the cast and I didn’t know what to expect. Estonians are warm people, but can appear aloof initially. I needn’t have worried, because I was made to feel completely welcome. It was also fantastic to work with the director, Giorgio Bongiovanni, who, as an Italian, helped us to interpret the text authentically.”  

And then there was the highly enthusiastic audience. “At the last performance my friends and family members occupied one hundred out of the nine hundred seats. My father alone had bought thirty tickets. I got a sea of bouquets, which I had to leave behind. The next day, after driving back to Germany, I read all the cards: I realised that my first piano teacher and my first school teacher had also been in the audience. It was very touching.” 

Norina, Papagena in The Magic Flute, Blanche de la Force in Dialogues of the Carmelites at Guildhall – she must have worn some amazing costumes. What’s her favourite one so far? “I can tell you which one is my least favourite,” she volunteers. “That would be the Flower Maiden costume in Parsifal [at BSO, ed.]. It was very comfortable, like singing in pyjamas, but it was too anatomically detailed. Too much information! My favourite frocks are definitely the ones I wore as Musetta in La bohème.” The costumes for the traditional Otto Schenk production from 1969, available on demand until the 1st of January, look like they’ve materialised from a Manet painting.   

I ask Mesak how she envisions her future career. Will she divide her time equally between the concert hall and the opera stage? “I see myself mostly singing opera, because my favourite thing in the world is the process of learning a role and developing the character.” But she also looks forward to giving lieder recitals. “I adore Rachmaninov. As a trained pianist, I love the fact that in his songs the pianist and the singer are completely equal partners.”  

In fact, Rachmaninov is on the programme in a song recital she will give with pianist Ewa Danilewska in May, at the splendid Kadriorg Palace in Tallinn. At BSO, two important role debuts are planned for April and July: the Composer in Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos and Freia in Wagner’s Das Rheingold. And Mesak is keen for people to discover Mavra/Iolanta, soon to be released on DVD. 

In conversation, Mirjam Mesak projects genuine charm and a sense of purpose, and one can see these qualities reflected in her art. Her performances are well-crafted but uncontrived. Even under the scrutinising eye of the camera she inhabits her characters with complete naturalness, and that’s the mark of a true singing actress. 

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With the Young Artists To Watch project Bachtrack aims to shine a bright spotlight on deserving artists from all over the world that might not be getting as much visibility as they would have without the limitations caused by the pandemic. 

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