Deborah Humble in conversation with Lise Lindstrom on her return to Australia and her biggest debut to date.
How do you prepare for a role like Brunnhilde when you are singing it for the first time?
I started working on Brünnhilde almost 5 years ago for a production with Graham Vick in Palermo in 2013. We were to perform Das Rheingold and Die Walküre in early 2013, followed by Siegfried and Götterdammerung in late 2013. Unfortunately, the schedule was altered after the first two operas, and I was not able to complete the project. But it got my study started in late 2011 and it has been ongoing since then. As you might imagine it is a somewhat daunting amount of material to digest when you consider all the material written about Wagner and the Ring, not to mention all the music, the words, and all the famous interpreters. I don’t believe I will ever finish studying this piece.
Have you admired any particular singer in the role and if so why?
I’ve admired and studied several of the famous interpreters of Brünnhilde: Kirsten Flagstad, Birgit Nilsson, Astrid Varnay, Elizabeth Connell, Gwynneth Jones, Anne Evans; all these amazing ladies bring tremendous and serious energy to the role while creating vastly different interpretations. I’ve always said that anyone who undertakes the dramatic soprano repertoire deserves enormous respect just for having the courage to persevere. No matter whether it’s Elektra, Brünnhilde, Salome, Isolde, Die Färberin – these roles are superhuman and require immense focus of sound, energy, mentality and spirit.
Which other role have you sung that might come close to the vocal stamina and dramatic requirements needed for Brunnhilde? What is most vocally challenging in this part?
I can only compare Brünnhilde to Elektra, as no other role has even come close to the physical and mental demands. The wonderful thing about Brünnhilde in comparison to Elektra, is that she is paced well even though the operas are long. Elektra, however, is a nonstop marathon of superhuman proportion with an enormous orchestra. While I haven’t yet performed an entire cycle, I am imagining that the manner in which Wagner wrote the piece with substantive breaks in stage time will allow me to manage my energies and resources. Contrary to Elektra which is BAM! Start at the top and don’t stop – ever!
How does any singer know when the time is right to consider singing Brunnhilde in a complete Ring Cycle?
I am certainly happy no one approached me for it much earlier, as I am certain I wouldn’t have had the emotional and mental maturity to tackle it, not to mention the vocal maturity. How does one know if one is ready or not? Well, I think singers are required to have a VERY clear idea of what we can honestly expect from ourselves, and if we don’t feel absolutely certain we can deliver it – then that is a very good indication we are not ready, or the piece is simply inappropriate. Just wanting to perform something and being able to perform something well are two vastly different things. Singers can rely on teachers, coaches, conductors, agents to help make those sort of decisions – but in the end, I have always had the last word.
If I don’t feel I can honestly serve the music, the piece, or the character because I’m not mature enough mentally or vocally, or because I can’t deliver the role in the way I think it should be delivered, or has historically been delivered – then I won’t do it. For example, I have been asked many times to sing Abigaille in Nabucco. Many people have told me it would be perfect for my voice. I tried it out several times over several years –and I have always have come away not feeling good about it. So I have never done it. Of course I could have sung it, but would it have been right? Or would it have been at the expense of either my instrument, or my integrity?
My desire to sing something can not trump sensibility. However, if I’m feeling hesitant because the undertaking is daunting, but the piece is appropriate for my voice and my resources, and taking it on will stretch me in ways in which I want to grow as well as serve the piece, then I must be courageous and take the leap.
The music, range and vocal requirements for Brunnhilde in Die Walkure are quite different from the final two operas. Can you comment on this from your perspective? Which opera is most challenging and why?
Die Walküre is indeed the lowest of the 3 Brünnhilde roles, however it is orchestrated in a way that doesn’t kill the singer by having too much sound coming from the pit during those moments. Dramatically, the entire role (all 3 operas) is a nonstop challenge as Brünnhilde evolves from innocent, young warrior via shame, love, and deepest betrayal into a wise, mortal woman by the end of Götterdämmerung. In many ways, she is the most human and most intricately drawn soprano role in the operatic repertoire. Certainly she embodies the most honest depiction of a life-journey/heroine-journey, and therefore she is the greatest prize to portray. The RING is so Shakespearean in proportion, and, in my opinion, the drama should be taken no less lightly. That said, it is always dangerous to try to imbue a character, or a piece, with any more, or any less, than the author/composer intended. Attention to text, music, and the writings by Wagner about the RING are my cornerstone for study and interpretation.
How do you see the character of Brunnhilde in your first appearance? Who is she? What is her age? The development of her character is huge. What and who influence her most?
I think of Brünnhilde in Die Walküre as being in her late teens, full of energy, self-confidence, innocence, and full of pride for her father and her special relationship with her father. I wonder if Wotan and Fricka might be the two characters that influence the story the most? The 4 operas seem to be a devolution of their conflicted relationship which in turn sets in motion the social, emotional and moral journeys of all the other characters.
Have you seen many Ring Cycles? Any favourites? Are you more of a traditionalist when it comes to staging and direction or do you favour more modern productions?
I’ve not seen many RING cycles live – it’s a bit difficult for a working singer to be in one place long enough for a full cycle! But, I’ve seen several on DVD. I don’t have a preference for traditional vs non-traditional. My preference is for a production that tells the story that Wagner wrote and composed. I think anything less, or diverging from the “script” is trying to tell a different story altogether.
How do you feel about returning to Australia for such a huge role debut?
I’m very much looking forward to returning to Australia. My time there last year for the Turandot was absolutely lovely. I found the people, and especially the entire opera company truly extraordinary. I am honoured to be coming back for this project and really am looking forward to working with these amazing people again.