Alan's Blog...It's all Gesamtkunstwerk to me!

Thoughts from nearly 40 years on the professional stage

Fidelio...yet again

Every artist, over the years of their performing career, strings together various roles to complete their repertoire. In the early years of a career, you’re constantly learning new things and trying them out. Even later on, you find that there are seasons when a load of new repertoire comes your way. For example, between 2011 and 2014, after already having sung for a very long time, I found myself having to learn several new roles and taking on new challenges. Yes, it does get harder to learn these things as you get older, especially when you specialize in long Germanic operas as well as some pretty challenging 20th century repertoire. Some roles, like Hans Sachs, are worth the wait. Other roles, even though they are shorter, challenge you on various artistic levels and lead you back to having to use every bit of your academic knowledge to learn and create them correctly.

I can still remember, during one of my first early young artist engagements, talking to the wonderful bass, David Pittsinger, about learning new roles. We were both working as young artists at Wolf Trap in “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” (and both studied with the wonderful Richard Cross). Both of us were facing learning new roles (lots of them). I can remember us both saying that we looked forward to the day when we’d start repeating roles after having them under our belts. And, when that time came, it was a joy. One finds that they perform each role so much better on the 2nd or 3rd or whatever number production they get of an opera. Notice, I didn’t just say, “sings each role” better--I truly mean “performs each role” better. There is a difference. With repetition of roles, you develop the character with more depth. You live inside the character’s clothing far easier. You have more of a foundation to build upon. And, of course, you sing the roles better as well (hopefully).

During my first season with The Washington Opera (1987-1988, before it became The Washington National Opera), I was given 5 small roles to learn (on top of learning two large roles for Wolf Trap, a major covering assignment at The Metropolitan Opera in Alban Berg’s, “Lulu”, and a few other small roles for various companies--11 roles in all). This was a HUGE investment of time and energy and showed that the companies were putting a lot of trust and hope in my future. But, I wasn’t sure if it was a challenge I could completely pull off.

Well, it did, of course, all come together. Most of those operas have long “left the building” of my career. One, however, has remained front and center. That opera is “Fidelio”. In that season at The Washington Opera, I sang the VERY small role of the Second Prisoner. We had a marvelous, young stage director by the name of Laurie Feldman recreating Michael Hampe’s incredible production from the San Francisco Opera. Laurie did an amazing job putting it all together--it’s not easy to recreate another director’s work. (To this day, that production remains the finest I’ve ever seen of “Fidelio”.) But, it was so obvious to see how much talent Laurie brought to the table--and, she’s still gifting us with her talents. Gerard Schwarz conducted and James McCracken sang Florestan--his last performances before his sudden death a few months later.

A few years later, the Met hired me to sing the role of Don Fernando in “Fidelio”. I always enjoyed singing this role although it certainly wasn’t the most challenging thing I’ve ever sung. In 1992, however, I was hired to sing Don Fernando in San Francisco (the same production that we had in Washington) and to also cover (understudy) Don Pizarro. Pizarro is one of the baddest guys in opera. It’s a challenging role vocally due to the heavy orchestration and the way Beethoven decided to set the vocal line. One has to be careful to not get carried away. You have to maintain the legato through some of the most punctuated and non-linear text. I can still remember, quite clearly, the final rehearsals of that production. The scheduled Pizarro, my friend and colleague Ekkehard Wlaschiha, became ill and wasn’t able to sing. It was decided that he would act his role out on stage but that I would do the singing for him from the side of the stage. The only issue is that this causes problems in the final scene of the opera when Pizarro (the role I was covering) and Don Fernando (the role I was scheduled to sing) appear and sing onstage at the same time. I can still remember the schizophrenic feeling I had when I had to jump between the vocal parts for those few minutes. I was asking questions as one character and giving the answer as the other. In fact, to this day, I have to be careful to make sure I sing the correct part in performances since I’ve sung both roles so many times. After that rehearsal, Ekkehard gave me a wonderful bottle of whiskey---I needed it (although, I think I ended up passing off the booze--appreciative as I was, whisky isn’t my thing).

I have so many memories of singing this opera with great casts and wonderful colleagues. Nearly all of the memories are very good ones. The rehearsal process of this opera always brings a lot of nice times on and off the stage for the cast. And, there always seems to be funny stories that come out of it all as well. I can still remember an important performance of this opera at The Met in 2006. It was the Saturday afternoon radio broadcast that was being sent around the world. My good friend, Ben Heppner, was singing Florestan. In Act 2, he, as a prisoner, has just been given some water and bread in the dungeon to sustain him (just before he’s supposed to be killed). I, as Pizarro, enter to do the killing. The dramatic quartet begins with me threatening Florestan and waving the knife. After my first lines, Florestan is then to dramatically call me a murderer and defy my presence. However, Ben knew how dangerous it is to eat on stage (it seems, if we try to do that, we always get something caught in our throats when trying to swallow). So, Ben had lodged that little piece of bread into his cheek and awaited my arrival. He spouted his lines wonderfully--but, he spouted the bread even more fabulously. I didn’t see it coming and got nailed with the soggy goo--all over the front of my costume. I didn’t even realize it at first--but wondered why there was this disgusting wad of glutinous paste all over my jacket. I couldn’t get it off before the final scene. It was actually some time later when Ben and I figured it out--he knew he had spit--he just didn’t know he had baptized me so thoroughly. Stinking tenors!!!! Thankfully, it was only a radio broadcast and not a televised performance. I don’t think the world was ready for globs of partially digested mana all over the attire of Pizarro--bad guy or not.

Over the years, I’ve returned to “Fidelio” so many times. I graduated from the 2nd Prisoner (Washington) to Don Fernando, which I sang at The Met, San Francisco, Chicago, Charleston, and Washington (in a new production nearly 7 years after my 1988 encounter), to being a “full-time” Pizarro at The Met, Amsterdam, Paris, Seville, Salzburg, Tokyo, and with the Berlin Philharmonic. I recorded the role with the Berlin Phil with Simon Rattle conducting. I guess the next thing for me to do is learn the role of Rocco so that I will have sung every bass clef part in the opera.

And now, I find myself in Madrid, Spain for more Pizarros. Tomorrow, June 7, will mark my
100th performance of the opera. I never get tired of this magnificent piece. I never get tired of learning new things in each and every performance. I enjoy the camaraderie of my colleagues on stage, working with the chorus and orchestra, and having fun with them all off stage. I enjoy the funny stories that come out of the rehearsals and performances. Yes, I’ve cherished all of the preceding 99 performances and look forward to number 100 tomorrow (as well as 101-103 in this run and then 104-106 with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra later this month). This opera has been very good to me...and, I’m very glad that those days of repeating roles finally came.