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

Thoughts from nearly 40 years on the professional stage

Das Rheingold in Barcelona...singing Wagner

I’ll ever figure that one out--it’s just the way it’s been.

The Ring is the first Wagner I ever encountered way back in 1979 as a young student at Millikin University. The power of these stories and the magnificence of the music struck very strong chords in my heart and mind. It would be many years until I took any of the roles on for myself. I first sang Donner in “Das Rheingold” at The Metropolitan Opera. What an experience that was to sing with some of the great Wagnerians and to have my moment amidst the thunder clouds singing “Heda, Hedo”. That production, perhaps the last “traditional” Ring, was recorded and presented on PBS in 1990. Around that time, I was asked to look at the “Rheingold” Wotan for the first time for a new Ring in Brussels, Belgium. The Ring was to be divided amongst three different Wotans. As the “Rheingold” Wotan is not nearly as difficult as the other two, I decided to take on the project---at the tender age of just 31. Perhaps this was a bit soon--maybe not. All I know is that I was musically prepared but perhaps not near as mature as I wanted to be. It all came together just fine--but I knew that I shouldn’t be singing the role too often at that point. I needed more time and seasoning. I didn’t sing the other two Wotans for nearly another 8 years.

I started singing other smallish Wagner roles including MANY times the role of Gunther in “Götterdämmerung”. This helped me to become more and more immersed in the Ring saga. I started becoming not just a singer of this repertoire but a HUGE fan of these music dramas as well. In 1994, my second crack as the “Rheingold” Wotan came in Frankfurt, Germany. It was the same production that I had sung in Brussels and so I was at least familiar with that. What was incredible to me, however, was how different the role felt in my voice. It was FAR easier than just three years earlier. This speaks to exactly what we as singers must learn---be patient and let your body and voice grow into this repertoire. Although other smaller Wagner roles had come into my repertoire, they were only stepping stones to the bigger guys like Amfortas, Kurwenal, The Dutchman, and Hans Sachs (not to mention, the two older Wotans). I was also fortunate to be the understudy MANY times for one of the truly great Wotans of all time, James Morris. And, while singing Donner in performances in New York, Chicago, and Munich, Jim was THE Wotan who I could observe from a VERY close distance. Oh, what I have learned from Jim. I’m very grateful!!!

In 2001, just days after 9-11, I was scheduled for my debut with the Vienna State Opera as Wotan in “Rheingold”. It was not clear as to whether I would be able to fly out of the USA to get to Austria. As the days passed following the horrific events of that Tuesday, flights remained grounded and certainly international flights were not leaving the States. Finally, on the Friday following 9-11, it looked like I could fly the next day and make my way to Europe. It was a scary time for us all, to be sure. When I got to Vienna, another short rehearsal period, although a day or two longer than what I’ve faced in Barcelona, awaited. What I most remember about that engagement, however, was having the curtain rise for my first big scene and seeing the GREAT Vienna Philharmonic in the pit, playing their instruments, and string players looking up to the stage seemingly with the look in their eye of “Let’s see what you got, kid”. Okay, that could all just be in my mind--but it sure seemed very real. It was a very intimidating experience but it all went well and I had a great debut in one of opera’s most important houses.

Those performances in Vienna were the last performances I’ve given of this role until now. There was a lot of emotion involved then with the situation back in the States. And, as I write this, there is much anxiety and stress at home again with the bombing in Boston this past Monday during the marathon and the manhunt underway. But music helps to heal. Music helps to lift. Music is a great gift. I know all too well the looks on an audience’s face during times of national mourning (I sang a performance on “Les Contes d’Hoffmann” on September 12, 2001 at The Kennedy Center which is within view of the Pentagon). I rejoice that we can work through these horrible times and keep going. And, if music helps folks with that, it’s even more of a reason to support beauty and the arts. I’m happy to bring an old friend back to the stage here in Barcelona over the next week or so. He’s been with me on a long journey and through some tough times on many levels. I just hope that the next time I sing this role, there isn’t so much anxiety and angst to sing through. On second thought, the Wotan of “Das Rheingold” sings, in his aria near the end of the opera, about living through troubles and angst. Once again, life imitates art. Bring on an abundance of both.

Hans Sachs...Unfinished businesss...until now

I have had the opera of "Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg" in my repertoire for nearly 24 years.  Of course, there are about a zillion roles in this piece.  My first performances in this opera was as the Night Watchman in 1989 in Seattle.  The Watchman is a very short role that is often given to young bass-baritones as they move into the Wagner repertoire.  I remember a few things about that production but primarily I remember that a young Ben Heppner was singing his first Walthers in that run.  I also remember that, since the Night Watchman only appears in Act 2, that I was back to my apartment and in bed before the rest of the cast had finished the long, two hour, Act 3.  

My next run in with the opera came as Kothner at The Metropolitan Opera in 1993.  Kothner is a nice step up from the Night Watchman.  What was truly great about this role was having the chance to be a part  of the camaraderie that this opera always brings to a cast.  The show has a HUGE ensemble and the Meisters spend so much time together on and off stage.  Oh, the great memories I have of chicken wings and pizza backstage and listening to Charlie Anthony's funny musical ad libs that are firmly recorded in my score for posterity.  Also, singing Kothner gave me a lot of time to observe those wonderful bass-baritones who sang one of the longest, if not the most difficult role in opera, Hans Sachs.  Let's just say that I knew that the role wasn't going to be on my calendar any time soon.

Then came 2002.  I had been asked to learn the role of Sachs in order to present concert performances in Turin (Torino), Italy.  These were to be with the RAI Orchestra under the direction of Maestro Jeffrey Tate.  I spent a lot of time preparing the role, coaching with a coach at the Vienna State Opera, sweating over the length of the role, the amount of notes, and the unbelievable amount of text.  I felt fairly well prepared to do the performances---looking back, I may not have been nearly as prepared as I should have been.  

In March of 2002, I went with my young family to my son's first track meet.  Andrew was in 5th grade, skinny as a rail, but attempting to do some middle-distance running.  It was a frigid and windy day and I hated to see him freezing in his skimpy track uniform as he ran his laps.  You could see the panic on his face as the wind slapped him in the homestretch.  He finished the race pretty much just in time for me to say good-bye to my family and head to the airport.  Leaving, this time, was full of concern as I was headed not only to the new role in Turin, but first, to Munich to sing a few performances of "Parsifal" in Munich.  Most important, I was saying good-bye to my now pregnant (for the 4th time) wife and our three young sons.  But, as is the case with this business, off I went to the next adventure.

The performances went well in Munich.  I had wonderful colleagues and that opera, as I've written before here, carries such an emotional impact.  The performances were given over Easter which is always a moving time for me.  In addition, I knew that my Dad, back in Illinois, was not fairing well (in fact, he passed away about 5 weeks later).  Then came early April (just like now) and I headed down to Turin.  And then came the phone call home.

Just a few hours after I got to Italy on April 4, I called home to check-in and let them know I had arrived safely.  My son, the runner, sounded a bit odd on the phone and very soon handed the phone off to my wife.  It was then that she told me that she had miscarried and we had lost the baby.  Even as I write that sentence, 11 years later, I have to stop and gather my bearings.  The next day was miserable, as you can imagine.  I wandered around Turin in a zombie like state, stopping in churches to pray, shed tears, and just try and catch my breath.  I felt gutted--and felt tremendous guilt for not being home with my wife and family during these days as well.

Things didn't get much better (in fact, they got worse) the day after that as my wife was then reporting having numbness on one side of her face.  As we talked more and more during the day, the situation was becoming worse and worse.  Something was seriously wrong.  Finally, I knew that I needed to leave Turin and get home.  I had my agent advise the Orchestra that I was headed home, hoped to see how the situation developed, and then get back to Italy sometime during the rehearsal process.  

When I got home, I could not believe what I saw.  My wife had come down with Bells Palsy and had a nearly paralyzed right side of her face.  Her mouth drooped as if she had a severe stroke. From her eye down to her chin, there were signs of how this had stricken her.  And, of course, she was still dealing with the miscarriage as well.  She had been in touch with her doctor who had basically said to just see how things were through the weekend and then get back to him.  Before leaving Italy, I had already told her to call my doctor as her doctor's response was just not sufficient.  Thankfully, that's what she did.  

The miscarriage required a surgery and the Bells Palsey required electric "shock treatment" as well as medication.  Fortunately, because the Palsy was caught early and because of the treatment, she has totally healed from the effects.  It took about a month to 6 weeks for all that to work itself out--I don't think my wife enjoyed getting the electric stimulations--but, it helped so much.

But how does this all relate to Hans Sachs.  Well, because I had left town so early, the RAI Orchestra thought it best to replace me as Sachs.   I understood completely, but, of course, regretted the loss of income and having had to spend so much time preparing a work that I wasn't going to get to perform.  This was unfinished business.

Now, we jump forward a bit.  In 2010, I sang one of my most often repeated roles, Jochanaan in "Salome" at The Bavarian State Opera in Munich.  After that performance, I was met by Mr. Ian Holländer backstage.  He is the former head of the Vienna State Opera and now a noted advisor for opera companies around the world.  He asked me if I had considered Hans Sachs in "Meistersinger" as he thought I was ready to take it on.  I didn't go into my history with the role and the unfinished business.  I only knew I wanted another chance.  He put my name forward to the Nomuri Spring Festival to sing the role in April of 2013 in Tokyo.  A few months later, everything was confirmed, I signed the contract and the dates were set.

Hans Sachs, as I've said before, is a mammoth role.  It is unbelievably long.  After you've already sung a great deal during the night through the first two acts (enough already for most complete operas), you take a second intermission and are then faced with Act 3.  Act 3 is nearly 2 hours long and contains some of the most difficult music for any Helden-Bariton.  Not only is it a lot of music but it is over heavy orchestration, high in your range, loaded with tons of German text, and just an endurance test beyond most others for a singer.  I've heard it said that the leading tenor role in the opera, Walther, has 900 measures to sing in the piece.  It's a long role.  Sachs, however, has something like 1,800 measures.  Let's just say that you don't learn it overnight.  You don't master it very quickly either---I'm not sure it can be totally done.  The best you can hope, for the most part, is that it doesn't master you.  

I had so many other new roles to learn as well between January 2010 and early 2013.  I knew I needed to get cracking again on Sachs (it wasn't coming back into my mind very quickly even after mostly learning it back in 2002).  It seemed I had a mental block going on, great fear of the role, trepidation over ever taking it on again, and, as I realize now, much angst over the previous round of unfinished business.  We singers often associate our roles with locations (where we learned and sang a role), events (what was happening in and around our lives), and other external facets that are never really out of our minds.  I think I had a fear of this role that was magnified by the circumstances of when I didn't sing in 2002 and the difficulty of the role itself.  Let's just say that, even in February, I wasn't sure I could get through it.  Vocally, when practicing the role, I felt like I was a mess.  And, this too was a lesson learned---it's hard to sing a role that is written a particular way when you are in the middle of another run of performances with a different role that has taken your voice in a bit of another direction.  More on that some other time….

However, less than 2 weeks ago, I flew to Tokyo to begin rehearsals. I came in a bit early to give my body (and voice) a few days to get over the horrendous jet lag that comes from such a long flight.  It's about a 14 hour flight to Tokyo from New York and we are 13 time zones away from my home in eastern standard time.  I began rehearsing on March 26 (a few days earlier than expected).  I decided to wander over to an orchestra rehearsal just to hear what tempi the Maestro was choosing and to get some of the orchestral colors in my ear. Perhaps I'd sing a note or two.  However, I ended up singing a lot.  And, the next day I sang some more with the orchestra.  Then, most of the rest of the cast joined me for a piano rehearsal on day three.  Again, this was all nearly full out singing.  Then came more orchestra rehearsals on day 4, 5, and 6 (Easter Sunday).  I didn't think there was any way I could keep up this pace on such difficult music.  But, each time I'd get up in front of the orchestra, I just couldn't stop myself from singing.  The music was also reaching deeply into my body and bringing out technical security that I don't know that I've ever felt before.  Days 7 and 8 brought us into the theater for complete run throughs and I was shocked again that my voice remained strong.  I planned on taking it easy for the final run through (with a partial audience) but, once again, just couldn't stop singing.  Yes, I was tired after that run through--but I'm so glad I did go ahead and sing.  Mr. Holländer was there, who I mentioned several paragraphs before this, and who had put me forward for this role.  He greatly warmed my heart with his words and compliments.  I didn't think one could sing Sachs 8 days in a row and live to tell about it.  But, it seems, this role is indeed just right for me.

I have been fortunate, during these days, to also have the distraction of the Wichita State University Shockers. Those of you who are friends with me on Facebook know how much time I have spent posting about their incredible run to The Final Four in the NCAA College basketball tournament.  This is a SHOCK to us all.  To me, it's been much more than that.  Basketball has always been one of my great loves and I've continued to follow the Shockers all these years since we moved from Wichita in 1985.  My young wife and I used to attend many, if not all, the home games during a season.  The Shockers have been a HUGE part of my life. It was great to watch them win the championship of the N.I.T. tournament in Madison Square Garden two years ago when I was in New York rehearsing "Wozzeck".   Seeing them play so well and make it this far this year has meant more to me than just a team winning games.  It has meant having a distraction to take my mind off of the stress of performing the hardest role I think I've ever sung.  Thankfully, due to the wonders of the internet and Slingbox, I haven't had to miss a second of their games even if it means getting up early to watch the games from here in Japan (fortunately, the games haven't been that early).  

Back to business….So many people have told me, over the years, that Sachs is perfect for me.  I'm flattered beyond belief that one would think this.  He is, perhaps, one of the most human of the major characters in opera--especially in Wagner music dramas.  Although this opera is called "Wagner's Comedy", I've never really got the humor--until now.  The music is gorgeous, powerful, moving, and fulfilling in every aspect.  OH, and did I mention it's incredibly difficult, too?  But rehearsals and recommendations are one thing.  Singing a performance is another.

About two hours ago, we finished the first performance of our two concerts of this monumental opera here in Tokyo.  What an emotional and powerful experience singing, performing and hearing this opera is.  Yes, some things went better in rehearsal than in tonight's performance.  Some things were better tonight than they have ever been.  I always remind the students who I work with that perfection does not belong to this earth.  With singing, you give all that you have, grounded in your training and experience, and let the performance just happen.  For me, just being able to finally sing this role is a great blessing and achievement.  I am already looking forward to Sunday and the second performance.  Hans Sachs, in the opera, sings about a "new song being born"--a new "Meisterlied".  A new Meistersinger is born as well in the opera.  To me, tonight I gave birth to not just a new role--but to a new friend, born through tough labor pains, but, he's here to stay and is now part of my "family".  

And, now, I see how things have come full circle.  The role of Hans Sachs, left unfinished for me in 2002, is now complete and under my belt (at least concerning the musical aspect--these are unstaged concerts).  I have indeed sung the role and am grateful to even have the opportunity to help present this glorious music. While singing in rehearsal the other day, I thought how blessed I was to even get to sing the gorgeous "Flieder Monolog" in Act 2--how blessed I am in so many ways.  Earlier, I mentioned track and field.  Andrew, our wispy son of 2002, went on to play rugby and has just been hired for his first post-college job.  He ended up majoring in Exercise Science, has built his body into a wonderfully effective machine, and is now helping train others to reach their best possible physical potential.  He also just came back to the Church (with his lovely fiancé, Melissa, at his side), which we all left for awhile beginning in 2002 (The rest of the family returned a few years ago).  My youngest child, our little girl, Lydia (who we adopted less than 2 years after the miscarriage), has her very first track meet this weekend.  And, shockingly, I just realized a few minutes ago, that my first Hans Sachs was sung on April 4, 2013---exactly 11 years to the day from when we found out about the miscarriage and when one of the darkest periods of my life commenced.  But, through trials we proceed.  We face what is ahead of us through faith, perseverance, and hope.  Several other events, which I won't go into now, occurred following that day of April 4, 2002 that caused us anxiety, stress, grief, and temporarily clouded spirits.  But God has been faithful…as He always is.  And, although there is one more performance in the run this coming Sunday, I can say, with the first performance now behind us, that the unfinished business is no more.