A Spanish Surprise

Hola from Barcelona! I never expected to be writing from this wonderful and beautiful city (one of my favorites) at this time but things change quickly in this business. I had been looking forward to a few weeks off after my time with Mr. Hans Sachs in Tokyo. Upon my return home from Japan, I did get about a week off before I received an inquiry asking if I’d be willing to quickly fly to Barcelona in order to have a few rehearsals as Wotan in “Das Rheingold” and then sing three performances. I hadn’t sung the role in about 12 years and so was a bit unsure how quickly I could whip it back into shape. Upon re-cracking open the score, however, I saw that it was all indeed very much still in mind. I also knew that, if I accepted the job, I’d be working with one of my favorite directors, Robert Carsen, and in a production that would make a lot of sense to me. So, I agreed to fly and made my way back to this wonderful city in Catalunya.

My flight took off on Tuesday night and I arrived in Spain on Wednesday morning. I rested for awhile in my dressing room at the gorgeous Gran Teatre del Liceu since it was too early in the day to have my hotel room available. At noon, with my jet lagged mind, I had a two and a half hour rehearsal which took me through some of the staging of the opera. I then had a costume fitting and a bit of time to get to my hotel and get checked-in. At 5:00, I attended a rehearsal of the opera with the other cast (the opera company here double casts their productions). I have to admit, I had a VERY hard time staying awake for the rehearsal--I might have dozed a time or two. Fortunately, the opera isn’t too long (about 2.5 hours without intermission) and I was able to get back to my hotel for a very solid and long night’s sleep.

Yesterday morning, I awoke for a rehearsal where I finally got to meet most of my cast mates. They are ALL extremely talented and wonderful colleagues---only one have I worked with before. We had no orchestra (only piano) and the scheduled conductor was not present. Basically, I was whisked through all the staging and then took a break in order to do the final rehearsal last night.

The production staff is simply excellent here. When I got back to the theater for the dress rehearsal, my costume fit perfectly, water was provided, and makeup was easily applied. There was just so little stress in a situation that could have been nerve wracking. The production, indeed, makes wonderful sense and fits my talents well. The conductor (who I only met just before the rehearsal) and I were nearly entirely on the same page. The assistant director had prepared me well in our rehearsals. Most important, the rehearsal went extremely well. I now look forward to our opening night on Monday.

Of the four Ring operas, three of them have the character of Wotan. He appears as a younger God in “Das Rheingold” --full of ambition but thrown off his plan at every turn. In “Die Walk
üre”, his plan goes further off track and he is faced with heart rending emotion as he surrenders his daughter to a fate outside of his control. In “Siegfried”, we find Wotan, disguised as “Der Wanderer” roaming the earth seeking to find reason for his existence and the future of the world. Wagner’s direction for “Die Götterdämmerung” actually does have Wotan appear but only in the distance as he sits in Valhalla, surrounded by the other Gods, as it is all destroyed by fire. It is a non-singing moment as the glorious and incredible Ring comes to a close. It may seem a bit strange that I’ve actually sung the older two Wotans more often, as of late, than the younger guy in “Das Rheingold”. I’m not sure 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 “G
ötterdämmerung”. 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.