“Wotan- that’s quite a role…” was what somebody said to me the other day. “How do you go about learning that?” Good question!
The composer Wagner’s Ring cycle has got to be one of the pinnacles of western culture and a truly incredible achievement from one human being. Its relevance today is as profound as the time it was written. The more I learn about Das Rheingold the more I love it, the more powerful a story it becomes and the more relevant it is to us today. It is so musically descriptive I can think of no better piece to hear in these Opera North concert performances.
Wagner has been a composer close to my heart for a very long time. My daughter Elsa was born when I was performing Heinrich in Lohengrin for ENO coming up to eighteen years ago. Since then I have either performed or covered Donner, Fasolt and Hunding in the Ring, Gurnemanz in Parsifal and now Wotan. I first tried to sing this music when I was at the National Opera Studio back in 1990.
I remember one Friday afternoon at the National Opera Studio, I was having a coaching session with the beloved senior coach of that era who adored Mozart. Friday afternoons were notorious for the coach’s good lunches and I think it’s fair to say I was nothing less than indigestion. His face said it all! I responded by saying: “Well, I’ve got this other score, how about a look?” It was Wagner. The music that day was a revelation for me, it fitted like a glove. King of the Gods, much better than a Count’s Valet! But there were words of wisdom from my coach: yes this is you but you will have to wait twenty years…
The learning process has been a real voyage of discovery and has taken over my life for most of the last year. Coming to a new role in a known piece is like looking at a favourite painting from a totally new angle. I’m getting used to it now since my voice has taken me from the bass repertoire to the helden-baritone repertoire.
Learning a Wagner role takes a long time. It’s so multi-layered, you don’t have the luxury of learning the tune, inserting some words and aiming for the high note at the end of the aria as some Italian roles allow. With Wagner the words are the melody, the language leads you, every note in the vocal range counts. I’m understanding that’s where the Wagnerian technique lies. The orchestra is the conscience of the character, telling the story and that includes the past, current and future thoughts of the character himself as well as everything else that is going on! Apart from that I think you probably have to be a little bit crazy and fearless to sing this music- I’m sure my neighbours would have a lot to say…
Of course you have to have the vocal resources, the size of voice, mental and physical stamina and the vocal imagination. But my goodness it’s wonderful stuff to sing. I’ve never been vocally happier or learnt so much as I have during this learning period and Opera North have done this properly, giving me every opportunity and resource. Martin Pickard, Opera North’s head of music and I spend the most part of a day locked away in the studio, at times wrestling with Richard Wagner’s great creation (in the best sense of course) and getting a tremendous buzz and sense of discovery. I have to confess I have been horrified when I see bits of Wotan in myself!
But above all it has been a wonderful time. I didn’t realise when we started just how much I would learn from it. Some say one learns to sing through Mozart, but for me Wagner is teaching me to sing. It has also opened up a whole world of music I would perhaps not have been introduced to and would love to explore further: Bach; lieder; my great hero Hans Hotter is proving a real inspiration through his recordings and writings.
I was also very lucky before Christmas. I was working at the Opera de Paris at the glorious Palais Garnier, I was sharing a dressing room with that great artist Heinz Zednik, one of the greatest ever Loge and Mime, and with that direct link back through to the great Maestros such as Bohm and Karajan. The hours we spent just sitting talking about phrasing, style and the traditions of the music were very special. If I can put a little of his wisdom and inspiration into my Wotan I’ll be happy- thank you Heinz.
I have to add to this the Wagner Society who has generously supported me with some top coaching- thank you to them.
So it’s two months to go now until we open with the first performance in June. Daily work continues and I get closer to this masterpiece and find who my Wotan is. I really can’t wait to hear the orchestra and join in with the Wagner tubas as that great introduction to scene two of Das Rheingold begins and then onto that glorious ending as we go over the rainbow bridge and enter Valhalla……..
Michael Druiett, Wotan, Das Rheingold