Deborah Humble in conversation with Stefan Vinke who reprises his role as “Siegfried” in the Melbourne Ring.
I was recently privileged to hear you sing an extraordinary Siegfried at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany. Can you tell us what it is like to sing this role at the house where Wagner designed it to be heard.
In this summer season once again I was Siegfried at the Bayreuth Summer Festival in both Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. It is a very special and particular feeling to perform at this opera house which was built for Richard Wagner and his music. I think it is a great honour being invited to sing there and to become a part of the big Wagner family and society. Surrounded by great musicians, conductors, directors and a crew backstage that are all phenomenal, it is easy to give the very best that one can do for this music and an interested international audience.
You have been phenomenally busy since the Melbourne Ring Cycle in 2013. Which other Wagner roles have you sung?
Since I left Australia after the Ring Cycle in 2013 I have had several other contracts singing the role of Siegfried in places like The Bayreuth Festival, Carnegie Hall, Toronto, Budapest, Barcelona, Leipzig, Boston and others. In addition to Siegfried my other Wagner roles took me to Munich as Eric in The Flying Dutchman, Siegmund in Budapest, Tannhäuser in Berlin, Tristan in Madrid and Kiel, Rienzi in Leipzig, Parsifal in Bucharest and most recently I had my house debut at the Vienna State Opera as Lohengrin.
“Siegfried” is arguably the pinnacle of heldentenor repertoire. How do you prepare mentally and physically for such demanding repertoire?
Well, to perform Siegfried is a challenge. Again and again. It is like you are preparing for a marathon. And that´s exactly what it is. It is the longest of all roles for us tenors. The singing time of this role is about 2 hours and 20 minutes which means that I am on stage for almost three and a half hours. That is a very long time – not only for me but for the audience as well.
This means that in preparation for this role I need to sleep well and start performance days totally relaxed. Usually I go to the theatre around 11am to warm up the voice and ensure that I am in good shape. If everything is ok I will go for a walk and sit down somewhere in a park and read my score again and keep my mouth shut. Later I like to eat some pasta in preparation for my marathon.
What are the the technical difficulties of such a role? What are the rewards? Who has been your inspiration?
The main technical difficulty in singing Siegfried is first of all to learn to pace oneself and find the stamina for the duration of the opera. The next challenge is that at the end of Act One there is the famous and exhausting forging scene which takes a lot of energy from my voice, brain and body. After this big singing in Act One it is a pleasure coming back into the second act which offers the most lyric music of this role during the “Waldweben” and realising that the voice is still vibrant and fresh. And one always knows that at the end of Act Three you will meet a well rested dramatic soprano who has slept for 20 years. Woo hoo!
But in the end, if everything goes well, it is the most satisfying feeling taking a bow and being well accepted and applauded by the audience. On your way back to the dressing room you know that in two days time you have to sing the role of Siegfried in Götterdämmerung. So go home, rest well and keep your mouth shut to prepare for the next show. My inspiration for this role was the American tenor Jess Thomas who was singing this dramatic role in a very lyric and beautiful way. I am a big fan of this artist.
You are returning to Melbourne having done the Armfield production in 2013. Is it difficult to recreate a role having had so much success the first time? Do you sing and act the role the same way or do you think your perception will have changed?
I think my/the perception of the role will be the same as in 2013. I am looking forward to the rehearsals and to meeting Neil Armfield again and repeating and developing the role together. The main ideas will surely be the same as in 2013. I have of course worked with new conductors in the meantime and I have three more years of experience of singing and of singing this role. So I believe I can bring new facets to my voice and to the role.
What is your advice to young Australian tenors who may be reading this and who are thinking of exploring the heldentenor repertoire?
I would encourage each young tenor with a strong voice to explore the heldentenor repertoire. But carefully. Before thinking of becoming a Heldentenor you need some experience in singing, acting and being on stage. It is not a Fach for beginners. Sometimes with the benefit of experience and on-stage practice a voice grows and is able to sing the Heldentenor repertoire. For those who are able to sing this repertoire I highly recommend you sing the roles as lightly and as lyrically as possible. Make sure you never hurt your voice and don´t begin with the longest and hardest roles. To sing this repertoire it is of course of great benefit to speak the German language.
How exactly is being fluent in German or a native speaker an advantage? How does a native English speaker, for example someone in Australia, begin to understand the complexities and demands of exploring such demanding repertoire?
Being a German native speaker is definitely an advantage for me especially regarding the approach to Wagner’s text, although it must be stated that Richard Wagner’s language is a very artistic art language. As a native speaker I know how to play with this language, how and where to exaggerate and how to serve all the textual details. With the highest respect I realised in 2013 how well all my Australian colleagues had been prepared and how hard they had been working on this really difficult text. I am very much looking forward to meeting some new singers in this year’s production and to catch up again with those I already met three years ago.
Does a particular production change the way you act and sing a role or do you basically stay with a similar approach each time you reprise something?
Of course I have a certain approach to a role every time we start working on a production. I have my idea of what I want to do and how I would like to sing. During our working process I change parts of my ideas and add ideas of the director and conductor. So yes, certain productions change my way of singing and acting. This is positive and necessary to keep art alive.