Interview: Derek Welton

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Published: 25th June, 2017

Bass-baritone Derek Welton started singing with the Australian Boys Choir before moving onto Melbourne Chorale. In 2004, he won the Encouragement Award at the Herald-Sun Arias and the following year was Runner-up. He is now under contract to Deutsche Oper Berlin and this year makes his debut at both the Bayreuth Festival and the Salzburg Festival. Classic Melbourne writer Vanessa Taylor catches up with him to find out more.

VT: When did you first envisage a career in opera?

DW: It was not a life-long plan to become a musician. I was accelerated through school and ended up going to uni at 16. I started studying law and arts at Melbourne Uni. At the time, I thought I wanted to be a lawyer but I ended up doing a double major in Linguistics and German. It wasn’t until later that I did something serious about singing, after various people telling me I should. I was in the Melbourne Chorale from ’99 to ’03 and people, including Jonathan Grieves-Smith, were telling me “you’ve got some potential, you really should get some lessons”. Eventually, Richard Gill was conducting a Messiah for the Chorale. He picked me out of the group and asked me to come and sing for him, and he said the same thing. Still, it was some time later that I started getting lessons. It then became clear to me pretty quickly, as it never had before, that singing was a career interest.

I think it meant that I took everything more in my stride than I would have if I’d always had a drive from day one to become a singer. I never studied an undergraduate music degree and I didn’t have a kind of competition feeling that I think some people do from a young age. So things like the Herald-Sun Aria were just how it was to me. I was nervous in the final but I was nervous in a way one is in any performance when one’s young. More than anything, I think it was an enjoyable experience because there I was, performing arias that I never otherwise would have had the opportunity to perform; with an orchestra, in a full Melbourne Concert Hall (now Hamer Hall).

VT: So what led to your move to London?

DW: I won the Guildhall Prize in the 2005 Australian Singing Competition and despite having had no immediate plan to move overseas, one doesn’t turn down a full scholarship like that. I moved to London in August 2006 to study at Guildhall. The first year was post-graduate and there were two following years on the opera course, finishing in July 2009. Then I ended up doing a part-time year called the fellowship. It was a new programme, which gave me access to a singing teacher and I had some input back into the school at the same time. So it was another year to allow me to develop with some connection to an institution, which was very useful.

VT: While studying at Guildhall, you won the Handel Singing Competition in London. What led you to enter the Competition?

DW: It was one of the first things that I’d done in London, actually, in April 2007. Because I never had direct peer relationships in music studies until I moved to the UK, I never knew how far what I did would take me. I didn’t know how I would fit into the scheme of things. So, I signed up for the Handel Competition and went through every phase and all of a sudden ended up winning it, which was a very pleasant surprise.

VT: It’s interesting that you haven’t done a great deal of Handel since. What’s the reason that you’re now leaning more towards Wagner?

DW: Yes, it’s not by design. My first love was, and still is, Bach. I would gladly sing Bach every week and I’d gladly sing more Handel. I’ve got a Jephtha coming up next year. Partly, it’s that there’s less opera in the baroque repertoire. So there are not as many opportunities in the opera world, which is what I’m increasingly associated with and where the bulk of the employment is. I do feel probably that the more I develop, the more my voice tends toward Wagner. While I want to maintain the flexibility to sing Bach and Handel, I think the more you do Wagner, the more people think of your name in association with that repertoire.

VT: Do you think there’s still an idea that Handel and Wagner require two distinct voices?

DW: Yes and it’s a shame. Hans Hotter and Fischer-Dieskau sang everything. I would gladly sing more baroque music. And for voice matching if you’ve got people who just specialise in one thing, it doesn’t always make for seamless ensemble.

VT: You’ve been with Deutsche Oper Berlin for 2 years. How did your contract with the company come about?

DW: It all worked out serendipitously. I hadn’t planned on taking a fixed contract. My agent was very keen for me to consider the idea. It was a great way to get a lot of repertoire under my belt and helping me grow. So in 2013, I auditioned for the Deutsche Oper and sang my repertoire. They immediately offered me a two-year contract, which was surreal. Having just bought a flat in London, I learned I’d be moving countries again. But it’s been a wonderful experience in Berlin.

I think I’ve done 16 roles so far, which is a lot. Twelve of them are new roles. And I think I’ve grown as an artist from the experience. You learn so much from the vast array of things that you sing and the approach to it. Often there are quite short rehearsal periods, so I think I learned to be more realistic about expectations. You’re less precious about every little thing you do and I think it makes you a better artist.

VT: You’ve just concluded performances in a wonderful production of Billy Budd at Deutsche Oper. How did you find singing Mr Flint?

DW: It was strange to be in a cast that is entirely men, which I’d never done before. I found the role of Flint a tricky sing. I don’t want to use the word “shouty” but it’s quite exclamatory. They are not very nice men, the officers. I far prefer roles with a lot of lyric singing where you can really sing through phrases, as with a lot of Wagner’s scores. I found Flint almost harder to sing than Wotan in Das Rheingold. On the other hand, it’s a very good task to learn how to sing something like Flint without damaging your voice.

VT: What did you consider when deciding to accept the challenge of singing Wotan?

DW: It’s interesting. When the Deutsche Oper staff came to ask me about doing Wotan in Das Rheingold, it was about a year before I actually sang it. As a developing singer, I always used to think “that’s future repertoire”. You spend years of your life thinking I’m not going to sing that for years. All of a sudden, it’s no longer so far in the future. At the end of 2015, I was doing Angelotti in Deutsche Oper’s Tosca and Falk Struckmann was singing Scarpia. He asked me, “Have you sung Scarpia as well?”and I nearly laughed because I thought that’s so crazy. Then suddenly I thought, well, actually, it’s not. At some point you do start singing this repertoire.

Again, taking Hans Hotter as an example, he sang his first Wotan at the age of 23 and I don’t see why we shouldn’t do that if we have the right voices. When we look back years ago, there were singers taking a longer time to develop. One of the things that has changed now is that we have such access to recordings and when people think of Wotan, they think of Hans Hotter at 50 or George London at 40. They’re not used to hearing singers’ voices develop over time and I think I’d rather be somebody who starts something young and learns as I mature, how to do it better every time. In this case, what I found with Rheingold – I didn’t sing the Die Walküre Wotan or the Wanderer – is that it suits my tessitura very well. A lot of the roles I’ve sung have stretched me upwards or downwards and this one sits right in the correct range for me.
I’m never scared of the size of Wagner’s orchestra. If you look at a Wagner score, the majority of his dynamic markings for the orchestra are piano or pianissimo. He’s very clever with orchestration. There are points where a singer needs to be loud, but they’re mostly high in your voice so you have extra power. Rheingold was the highlight of my career to date. It’s beautiful music. It’s tender and soft in so many moments. I found it was a really holistic experience; everything came together. I didn’t need to think, goodness, I must sing loudly here; it just comes out of you. It’s part of what you’re expressing as a character.

VT: You’ve done a couple of productions of Das Rheingold and I believe there are more scheduled?

DW: Yes, in January there’s the Rheingold at Semperoper (Dresden) singing Donner, which will be interesting, having recently sung Wotan in Berlin. There will be another Wotan in Rheingold in a few years, as well.

VT: You make your debut at Bayreuth next month.

DW: I’m excited, though it happened under unfortunate circumstances. In January, I auditioned for the role of Klingsor in Parsifal for the 2018 festival. At the audition, they were happy. A week later, the poor man who was singing Klingsor in this year’s première of the production, Gerd Grochowski, suddenly died. So they said to me, “Would you be free this year?” It’s sad that I’m taking over from somebody who’s died, but at least the production will continue. It took some negotiation as I’m already singing in Salzburg this year. There was a lot of organisation involved to allow me to come back and forth for performances of Parsifal while rehearsing Lear in Salzburg. But everyone was very accommodating. I really can’t be thankful enough to these people for allowing me to do all this. It also means that I’ll be doing a fair bit of driving in July and August.

VT: Given that you’re contracted to Deutsche Oper, how does it work with guest appearances for other companies? DW: It’s always with the permission of the Deutsche Oper but they’re very generous when good engagements come along. As soon as Bayreuth came along, they were ecstatic for me. They took me out of the final six performances of a production just to facilitate it. They’ve done the same for my guesting at the Semperoper and for the Salzburg Festival this summer. That’s one of the things that makes me so appreciative of Deutsche Oper.

VT: Would you accept a Ring Cycle if it was offered?

DW: I would wait on the other two Wotans. The Rheingold Wotan is much shorter to sing. I’m particularly keen on singing The Wanderer before I sing the Die Walküre Wotan. I’m preparing them slowly and getting them into my body. It takes a long time to get them into your body so you can sing with full engagement. Again, I know it’s early compared to a lot of my colleagues, but the way I sing this repertoire is with the same voice as anything else, and I don’t think I’m causing any vocal damage doing it. So if I was offered a Ring Cycle in a few years time, I would look favourably on it.

VT: So would you consider returning home for a Melbourne Ring when you feel ready for it?

I’d dearly love to return to Australia. I’d happily return for anything, but especially The Ring. That would be a dream come true.

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Read more about Derek Welton at his website.