The MAS­TER SINGERS

Opera Aus­tralia is bring­ing home some lead­ing tal­ent for its cy­cle in Melbourne, writes Michaela Boland

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Opera -

RICHARD Wag­ner’s epic, four-part Ring cy­cle of­ten is de­scribed as a life-chang­ing work of art, and not only for those pre­pared to sit through it. For the prin­ci­pal artists — those ex­pe­ri­enced singers on whose vo­cal tal­ents Wag­ner pro­duc­tions are built — ap­pear­ing in a com­plete Ring cy­cle is said to be a phys­i­cal feat akin to run­ning a marathon.

For a start, the four op­eras that make up a com­plete cy­cle run for 15 hours in to­tal. Each per­for­mance is sched­uled ev­ery sec­ond or third day, so a cy­cle goes for just more than a week. Any shorter and singers’ voices can be put at risk. Any longer and the de­voted au­di­ences, those mad­cap Wag­ner­ites who travel the world for Ring fes­ti­vals, could not be ex­pected to stay for the du­ra­tion.

Lit­tle won­der that those singers who ap­pear in Wag­ner’s epic are rel­a­tively few in num­ber. They jet be­tween en­gage­ments largely in the US and Europe. Among them are Amer­i­cans, Bri­tons, Finns and, of course, Ger­mans. There is also a hand­ful of Aus­tralian Wag­ne­r­i­ans, who have been en­gaged to sing in Opera Aus­tralia’s first com­plete Ring cy­cle in Melbourne this Novem­ber.

One Aus­tralian Wag­ne­r­ian is Ade­laidereared mez­zoso­prano Deb­o­rah Hum­ble who will sing the role of Erda, the wise god­dess of earth who has the abil­ity to see into the fu­ture.

‘‘ It’s like a lit­tle fam­ily,’’ she says of the singers who meet in dif­fer­ent com­bi­na­tions for pro­duc­tions around the world.

Af­ter seven years in Paris, Hum­ble joined for­mer OA mu­sic di­rec­tor Si­mone Young at the State Opera of Ham­burg in 2005. She has found her­self singing Wag­ner with in­creas­ing fre­quency, al­beit not ex­clu­sively.

She ce­mented her name in the Wag­ne­r­ian pan­theon when in 2008 she was a fi­nal­ist in the In­ter­na­tional Wag­ner Com­pe­ti­tion held in Seat­tle, US. Then she per­formed five roles in Ham­burg’s Ring dur­ing the sec­ond half of the last decade. Ham­burg’s Ring was re­peated in 2011 and last year.

‘‘ Wag­ner has cer­tainly dom­i­nated my pro­fes­sional life for the past five years. There’s been a lot of Wag­ner on,’’ she says of the fever­ish build-up to this year’s 200th an­niver­sary of the Ger­man com­poser’s birth on May 22, 1813.

Hum­ble will spend six months in Aus­tralia this year, slightly more than most of the per­form­ers be­cause her roles — she is also singing the valkyrie Wal­traute — are in all four Ring op­eras.

It’s a long time away from her work in the north­ern hemi­sphere but Hum­ble says she rel­ished the idea of re­turn­ing to show Aus­tralians what she has been do­ing.

‘‘ I had to learn Ger­man,’’ she says. ‘‘ If you sing in Ger­man in Ger­many it’s very, very im­por­tant to get it right.’’

She says she had the idea of com­ing back and per­form­ing for her fam­ily and friends in the Melbourne Ring, ‘‘ but they haven’t got tick­ets,’’ she ad­mits rue­fully. Pre­mium tick­ets cost $2000. ‘‘ Let’s say my friends are en­thu­si­as­tic (about what I do) but not that en­thu­si­as­tic,’’ she adds, laugh­ing.

Melbourne’s three Ring cy­cles are ex­pen­sive by in­ter­na­tional stan­dards, with A re­serve tick­ets priced at $1600 and C re­serve $1000, but cost has been no bar­rier to sales. The three cy­cles quickly sold out.

A sig­nif­i­cant pro­por­tion of those tick­ets were snapped up by Wag­ner­ites, those in­ter­na­tional jet­set­ters who cir­cle the world for Wag­ner fes­ti­vals and can be seen emerg­ing from theatres hotly de­bat­ing the sins and mer­its of ev­ery per­for­mance.

Ger­man-born, Aus­tralian-reared John Weg­ner is a 20-year Wag­ner vet­eran. He left Aus­tralia for Europe when he was 42 and will re­turn to play the key role of Al­berich, who sets in mo­tion the Ring story by re­nounc­ing love and steal­ing gold from the Rhine­maid­ens.

Weg­ner’s ap­pear­ance in Melbourne will com­plete an Aus­tralian tri­fecta for the bass turned bari­tone, who also sang in the two Ade­laide Ring cy­cles.

Weg­ner is gen­er­ous about the Wag­ner­ite scru­ti­neers of his work. ‘‘ They’re usu­ally delightful peo­ple and they come from all walks of life,’’ he says. ‘‘ The Ring nour­ishes them, it’s a greater work than the sum of all its parts, it speaks to hu­man­ity.’’

Stu­art Skel­ton also ap­peared in the 2004 Ade­laide cy­cle, as the in­ces­tu­ous adul­terer Sieg­mund, to sig­nif­i­cant ac­claim. He will reprise that role in Melbourne.

Daniel Sumegi has carved out an im­pres­sive in­ter­na­tional ca­reer since his US de­but in 1991. The Aus­tralian-born bass-bari­tone has trav­elled the world per­form­ing roles across the op­er­atic reper­toire. In the Melbourne Ring, to be di­rected by Neil Arm­field, he will per­form the roles of the gi­ant Fa­solt and, in Got­ter­dammerung, the vil­lain Ha­gen.

Miriam Gor­don-Ste­wart is a Wag­ner vet­eran on ac­count of her time as a res­i­dent soloist with the Ham­burg State Opera from 2005. She has por­trayed the roles of Freia and Helmwige but in Melbourne she will sing for the first time the role of Sieglinde, Sieg­mund’s twin and lover.

It has be­come cus­tom­ary for opera com­pa­nies to stage a new pro­duc­tion of The Ring across a pe­riod of years, per­form­ing an in­stal­ment each year and cul­mi­nat­ing with the com­plete cy­cle. But this is not how Opera Aus­tralia has de­cided to ap­proach it. Not one to shy from a chal­lenge, even when Ring cy­cles have brought big­ger and bet­ter-re­sourced opera com­pa­nies to their knees, OA artis­tic di­rec­tor Lyn­don Ter­racini is pro­duc­ing all four op­eras at once.

This ap­proach is prob­a­bly jus­ti­fied given Aus­tralia’s ge­o­graph­i­cal iso­la­tion from Europe and North Amer­ica where th­ese singers spend most of their time.

Re­hearsals have been un­der way in Melbourne’s Dock­lands for sev­eral weeks and will con­tinue into next month. Each per­former is re­quired to be present for only the time their char­ac­ter is in­volved. Then they are re­quired back in Melbourne in Oc­to­ber ahead of the Novem­ber 18 pre­miere of Das Rhein­gold. Die Walkure will pre­miere on Novem­ber 20, then Siegfried two days later and fi­nally Got­ter­dammerung on Novem­ber 25 be­fore the en­tire cy­cle is re­peated twice.

OA mu­sic ad­viser Tony Legge is op­ti­mistic this Ring pro­duc­tion will en­dure. He ex­pects OA will be able to reprise it in the fu­ture, hope­fully more than once. To that end all the un­der­stud­ies are Aus­tralian singers.

The lead roles of Brunnhilde, Siegfried and Wotan will be sung by Bri­tish so­prano Su­san Bul­lock, Ger­man tenor Ste­fan Vinke and Nor­we­gian bari­tone Terje Stensvold.

‘‘ We couldn’t have Aus­tralians in those roles be­cause there are so few peo­ple any­where in the world who can do th­ese parts,’’ Legge says.

‘‘ They’re

just

so

big,

it’s

like

do­ing

a marathon. The most tir­ing thing is stand­ing on a raked stage for a long time. You can be quite static be­cause of the im­por­tant con­ver­sa­tions [the char­ac­ters] are hav­ing, even in a love duet. In Tris­tan and Isolde they dis­cuss the word ‘ and’, re­ally what it means.’’

OA has not re­vealed whether Melbourne’s Ring cy­cle will have tra­di­tional stag­ing or em­ploy more mod­ern vi­su­als, as has been com­mon in re­cent years at Wag­ner’s pur­pose­built theatre at Bayreuth, where the Ring of­ten is per­formed.

Weg­ner, the Wag­ner vet­eran, is thrilled with Arm­field’s ap­proach to the work. ‘‘ Neil likes to see what you can bring to it [but] he has a clear idea of the deep psy­cho­log­i­cal di­rec­tion he wants it to go in,’’ he says. ‘‘ It’s al­ways great work­ing with Aus­tralians be­cause the ideas flow from all sides, there’s a feel­ing it’s a co-pro­duc­tion with the artists in­volved. Of­ten when you’re work­ing over­seas you’re work­ing to the di­rec­tor.’’

The pro­duc­tion comes as Ter­racini is push­ing for greater flex­i­bil­ity to cast in­ter­na­tional per­form­ers in the reg­u­lar OA sea­son.

Ac­tors Eq­uity al­lowed OA to en­gage dou­ble the num­ber of in­ter­na­tional singers this year, 20 rather than 10, in recog­ni­tion of the un­usual de­mands of cast­ing a Ring cy­cle. Ter­racini wants the ex­emp­tion to be the new norm.

‘‘ I’m not say­ing it should be open slather but we need flex­i­bil­ity in the agree­ment to al­low us to per­form as well as we can,’’ he says. One jus­ti­fi­ca­tion of­fered by the for­mer singer is that more Aus­tralian per­form­ers are en­joy­ing more op­por­tu­ni­ties in­ter­na­tion­ally.

But all the singers Re­view spoke to ex­pressed cau­tion about OA’s push.

‘‘ You have to mo­ti­vate the next gen­er­a­tion of singers to make the nec­es­sary sac­ri­fices to pur­sue a mu­si­cal ca­reer,’’ Gor­don-Ste­wart says. ‘‘ I’m con­fi­dent Lyn­don is not be­ing blase about im­port­ing peo­ple, but it’s im­por­tant to fo­cus on build­ing that re­source within the coun­try as well.

‘‘ I’ve not met a singer around the world who doesn’t dream of singing in the Syd­ney Opera House. In that re­gard we could bring out who­ever, but it needs to be bal­anced.’’

Weg­ner says: ‘‘ I hope they keep a pref­er­ence for young Aus­tralians who are per­form­ing over­seas and keep bring­ing them back. Yes, Aus­tralian artists can just have over­seas ca­reers with­out be­ing in­vited back, but it’s so good for the soul to be in­vited back and it can help per­form­ers go to the next level.’’

Daniel Sumegi, Miriam Gor­don-Ste­wart, John Weg­ner, Deb­o­rah Hum­ble and Stu­art Skel­ton

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