Fellow soloist Warwick Fyfe tells Deborah Humble about suddenly finding himself in the spotlight
Baritone Warwick Fyfe is no stranger to the spotlight. He has a long list of vocal successes with Opera Australia in works as diverse as Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado and Verdi’s difficult title roles Rigoletto and Falstaff.
It is the Wagner repertoire however, that Warwick has always found most alluring, and so it was with great relish that he stepped into the role of Alberich recently, replacing an indisposed John Wegner in the Melbourne Ring Cycle. It was a big task, having rehearsed a different role for the ten-week rehearsal period leading up to the opening night.
But this fiercely intelligent and talented artist was totally prepared for the challenge and received nothing but the highest praise for both his vocal and dramatic interpretation of this vertically challenged, sexually depraved character. Despite huge accolades from audience members, music critics and colleagues alike he remains disarmingly and typically understated about both the adulation and applause.
Warwick humbly credits some of his success to the fact that the German repertoire “sits in the meat” of his voice. “Alberich is a very juicy kind of role; the sort you just want to sink your teeth into. The absence of a particular sort of psychological pressure associated with the tessitura is quite liberating dramatically. He explains that unlike some of the Verdi roles he sings (Germont, Amonsaro, Falstaff, Rigoletto), which sit quite high for a low baritone and which must be carefully paced, Alberich is a role he can throw himself into with less calculation. He adds that it is not just his voice that suits Alberich but “my big face reads well and my predilection for scary films means there are plenty of nasties swimming about in my subconscious which surface of their own accord when required.”
Fyfe provides a couple of interesting examples from past productions telling me that his accent for the role of Papageno in the David Freeman production of The Magic Flute was consciously stolen from the serial killer on the film Wolf Creek. “For the Jack the Ripper section of performances of Lulu I referenced Nosferatu and Hannibal Lecter as portrayed by Anthony Hopkins. And of course there’s Benny Hill. I am a big fan of Benny Hill. He often creeps into my characterisations. Ideally these things should all well up spontaneously from one’s reservoir of impressions gained over a lifetime.”
The direction of this conversation launches us into a fascinating discussion about what Warwick describes as “cultivating one’s inner garden.” He firmly believes that “every good book you read, every good film you watch, every marvelous painting you look at, every sublime piece of architecture and every beautiful vista you gaze upon will make you a better singer.” He believes that although there are some singers who achieve miracles with their “tonsils alone” that “the artistic dividend from being a cultivated person is enormous. If you are an empty vessel, nothing interesting can come out. One’s whole life is preparation for being on stage.”
So where does the singer start when he first opens a new score? His preparation of an operatic role begins purely with gut instinct and “donkey-work memorization,” he says. The process is like “shelling a truck load of peas. You know you will get there in the end but it’s going to take some time!” He says he is not above using recordings to help speed up the process but that he has a strong sense of the character and the context in advance. The best part of the learning process in his opinion is the “polishing” stage. He takes the music off to a coach and a teacher for input and ideas and starts trawling through his mind for whatever resources might come in useful. “It’s the most interesting stage” he explains, because “that is when one finally makes art.”
On the subject of Wagner himself Warwick is happy to talk enthusiastically at length and he is somewhat disappointed when I remind him that this article has a word limit. “Wagner is one of the four titans of music,” he firmly states, “the others being Mozart, Bach and Beethoven.” He gets upset at those who profess a dislike of Wagner’s music, especially when he believes that opinions are often based on a sort of “cherished ignorance” surrounding the man and his politics.
He chooses not to expand on Wagner in relation to anti-semitism but does say that “people in general are not nearly as censorious of the disagreeable eccentricities of other artists.” He believes that one of the problems causing the clear polarization of audiences in relation to Wagner’s operas is that many people have lost the distinction between high art and popular entertainment. “It never occurs to them that a work of high art might demand something of THEM.”
We discuss the concept of a society interested in, and used to, instant gratification and he laments what he describes as the “amuse me now and look sharp about it” mentality pervading all elements of life. “Shortening attention spans and an unwillingness to tackle anything challenging is the nub of the problem. A lot of people want music which can be absorbed in a totally passive fashion.”
I am curious to know if Warwick’s study in Germany as winner of the Bayreuth Scholarship helped to inform his Australian performances. He reiterates his ideas on “the general broadening of one’s horizons” always being a good thing and states that “the heady resonance that comes from observing the high arts in a great European capital provides a precious impetus for one’s work.” But he believes that overseas study should make Australian artists “better versions of their Australian selves,” and goes on to point out that whilst “provincialism is our greatest enemy” there are actually advantages to the “fresh way of thinking which actually stems from isolation.” Finally he adds that “more prosaically, travel overseas helps engender a bit of realism about one’s own abilities and potential.”
For those who were lucky enough to see Warwick’s momentous performances in the Melbourne Ring Cycle I doubt there would be many among them left questioning his ability as a singer or an actor. He could surely grace any stage in any opera house in the world in this particular repertoire. He personally finds, like many performers, that he has the annoying ability to focus on the parts of his performance that he isn’t pleased with, as opposed to those which fulfill personal expectations. “It’s an attitude that keeps an artist aspiring, learning and improving.” What then are his final thoughts as this epic event in Australia’s cultural history draws to a close? He says with typical good humour and a huge grin, “Well, Wagner’s Ring Cycle is the Ring of the Nibelungen. Alberich is the Nibelung. So I guess I had the privilege of singing the title role!”
(More information on Warwick and his forthcoming performances can be found at: www.ozfalstaff.com)