Anne Sofie von Otter is a leading mezzo-soprano known for her versatility in operatic roles, her interesting recital choices, and her willingness to take vocal risks. Her father was a Swedish diplomat whose career took the family to Bonn, London, and back to Stockholm while Anne Sofie was growing up. As a result, she gained fluency in languages. She studied music at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. Her main voice teacher was Vera Rozsa, while Erik Werba and Geoffrey Parsons coached her in lieder interpretation.
She gained a contract with the Basle Opera in 1983 and remained with that company until 1985, debuting as Alcina in Franz Joseph Haydn's Orlando Paladino. She also took several male roles written for female mezzo-sopranos (which are known in operatic circles as "trousers" parts), including Cherubino in Mozart's Marriage of Figaro, Hänsel in Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel, and Orpheus in Gluck's Orfée et Eurydice.
In 1984 she debuted at the Aix-en-Provence Festival as Ramiro in Mozart's La Finta Giardiniera. Others of her trouser parts include Octavian in Strauss' Rosenkavalier, the Composer in Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos, and the title role of Rossini's Tancredi, among others. A tall, statuesque woman, she is at home in numerous opera serie of the eighteenth century, in which alto voices routinely played the heroes.
Another reason for the high proportion of Baroque- and Classical-era operas in her repertory is an important working relationship with conductor John Eliot Gardiner, a British conductor who began as a Baroque specialist. She first auditioned for him in 1985, but failed to make an impression then. It was only with a subsequent chance for him to hear her that he began working with her. She has joined him in recordings of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony; Mozart's Clemenza di Tito, Idomeneo and Requiem; Monteverdi's Favola d'Orfeo and L'Incoronazione di Poppea; Handel's Agrippina and Jephtha; Gluck's Orfée et Eurydice; and Bach's Christmas Oratorio and St. Matthew Passion. He also conducted von Otter's recording of Weill's Seven Deadly Sins and selected theater songs.
Her other major artistic partner is the Swedish pianist Bengt Forsberg, her recital partner. Forsberg is a leading scholar in the field of song literature, so von Otter relies on him to suggest songs and organize the programs of her recitals. With him, she has tended to specialize in lieder from the periods around the beginning and end of the romantic period, including well received recordings of songs by Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Zemlinsky, Korngold, and Mahler as well as the late Romantic Nordic composers Alfvén, Rangstrom, Stenhammer, and Sibelius.
She is a believer in singing songs in the keys the composers' originally specified. When she came to record Kurt Weill's Seven Deadly Sins she used the original version for high soprano, a range she possesses, rather than the once-traditional mezzo-soprano version made for Lotte Lenya late in that singer's career. Von Otter also recorded Alban Berg's Seven Early Songs, also music that is a strain for many high sopranos. In addition, she is not averse to stretching her voice for dramatic effect. "I believe in shock effects," she once said in an interview.
However, past the age of 40 she had some particularly bad experiences as a result of these two tendencies and, she admits, hurt her voice. As a result, she has decided to be "sensible" and transpose down.
She has sung at Covent Garden, La Scala, Berlin, Munich, Rome, and other major opera houses. She is married to a stage designer and lives in Stockholm with him and their two children.