Deborah Humble in conversation with tenor Brad Daley as he prepares the role of Siegmund for the Melbourne Ring Cycle.
“The pinnacle of Heldentenor roles is arguably Siegfried, which you covered in the 2013 Ring in Melbourne. How does Siegmund compare as a role vocally and dramatically?”
If you are just talking about length alone Siegfried is a monster of a role, it also demands lightning fast extremes in range. Siegfried has a high C within a couple of minutes of his first entry. So for a start the top of the voice needs to be fully warm before you reach the stage. Unlike Siegmund which requires the bottom of the tenor voice to be fully exercised.
Siegfried is also a very physical character. Wagner requires him to file down, smelt and completely build his sword, “Nothung” whilst singing relentlessly the entire time. This all happens in just Act 1. In Act 2 he must slay a dragon and then climb a mountain to find Brünnhilde in Act 3. So vocal good health for survival is a lot of what singing Siegfried is about. Also taking care to sing the role, as lyrically as well possible whilst fully supporting all the vocal leaps along the way is important. Siegfried is at the beginning of his adventure: hopeful, energetic, youthful and inquisitive, he knows no fear.
Siegmund on the other hand is darker. One gets the feeling he has been through and seen an awful lot when we first meet him in Die Walkuere. He has already experienced and made up his mind about the world, which has broken him and made him more vulnerable.
Interpreters of Siegmund often complain that the role requires a depth of register, which is difficult for a tenor. Indeed, many Heldentenors were originally high baritones. How does the range of this role affect how you approach it vocally? How do you warm- up for such a role for example?
True, this role is a very different animal to Siegfried and indeed most of the other dramatic tenor roles I have sung. While working technically on Siegmund I am constantly reminding myself to keep a very low, relaxed larynx position, importantly not forced down but just released. I am also placing most of this role in the chest and giving it a burnished warmth while sustaining as much line and beauty as I can muster. I find this colour also suits the character of Siegmund, as it is through him that we encounter a kind of love with Sieglinde that is warm tender and compassionate. Many years ago a very experienced, older singer advised me never to age or darken my voice prematurely. I have tried to keep that in mind over the years and subsequently discovered my voice to be still very healthy and aging quite naturally into this Heroic fach.
How does it feel to be debuting such a monumental role in Melbourne?
Melbourne is very close to my heart. I met my wife here and in many ways my operatic career began here singing with the old Victoria State Opera. It is a vibrant city that values and applauds culture. I couldn’t imagine a better place to be debuting Siegmund for our National Company.
For myself, preparation is the key to any new role. I have worked very hard on Siegmund and am now feeling very excited about finally starting the rehearsal process. I look forward to adding my part to what is a massive collaboration, as only Wagner’s Ring Cycle can be.
You sang Erik in The Flying Dutchman in Melbourne last year which is often considered the starting point for singers getting into this repertoire. How did the role differ from Siegmund? Do you approach the learning of all Wagnerian roles the same way?
In a way there are some similarities between Siegmund and Erik, certainly not the tessitura but both are written very lyrically and poetically. Although the end of Erik’s aria can be challenging vocally, the role itself is comparatively shorter than other Jugendlicher Heldentenor roles and Erik is written with an Italianate style. So for myself, progressing from a lyric-spinto voice type, it was a very good place to start.
My learning process to these roles has always remained similar. I firstly sing in the melodies with vowels only until they are free and easy whilst speaking and learning the German text separately. Eventually I put the elements together while getting an idea of the subtext. This final step, for me, adds the correct colours to my voice. That is if I have managed to interpret truthfully what the composer originally wanted. Working closely with the conductor, director, coaches and the other singers also helps immensely with this final step.
In Australia it is obviously necessary for a tenor to sing all kinds of roles including Italian repertoire. How difficult is it to change styles and which repertoire do you prefer and why?
Earlier in my career I found that I was continuously offered contracts with larger opera companies to understudy the lead tenor role of say a Puccini or Verdi Opera while, at the same time, performing a shorter leggero or spieltenor part. This can be a very confusing path to take vocally and while I would not recommend it necessarily for a young singer it did have its advantages. I was given the rare opportunity to watch closely many great tenors work, learn the major roles I would eventually go on to sing and gain valuable stage experience. It also gave me some financial stability.
I did understudy Erik for Opera North and Mao in Nixon in China for English National Opera before singing them in Melbourne for the first time, so I felt very prepared. The roles that I like to sing now are still of the Dramatic, Spinto and Jugendlicher Tenor fach. Roles such as Canio, Don José, Otello, Cavaradossi, Mao, Dick Johnson, Gerontius and Florestan. Roles that are centred in the medium to low tenor range but need an explosive upper extension to the voice, sometimes to the high C. More recently I feel so blessed to be developing the qualities needed to explore also these new Heldentenor roles such as Siegmund and Siegfried. They really are a gift.
Who were/are your inspirations in the Wagnerian heldentenor repertoire? Did you listen to anyone in particular when learning Siegmund/Siegfried?
I listen to many great tenors who have sung these roles in the past. I enjoy it immensely and it helps me learn the style. Each has such different qualities and strengths. I enjoy artists such as Hans Hopf and James King for their vocal ease and warmth of tone. Siegfried Jerusalem has a fantastic clarion top whilst Lauritz Melchior for me encapsulates the Heldentenor spirit. I love of course Jonas Kaufmann’s artistry. Also working one on one with a piano for months on end is very different to singing eventually with a Wagnerian sized orchestra. I find it important to become better acquainted with the orchestra by listening to recordings.
How do you perceive the character of Siegmund? His interaction with Sieglinde? What is/are the defining moments in Die Walkuere for the character?
When they first meet, I love the long, unsung voids between Siegmund and Sieglinde. This couple obviously have a deep, yet undiscovered bond between them that Wagner fills so touchingly with his theme of human love expressed through the cellos. One of the defining moments for Siegmund in the first act is the much loved Winterstürme song. There is a powerful moment during this when the winter storm blows open the doors to the outside, flooding the room with moonlight and heralding the approaching spring. The opera around this point changes gear vocally and gives way to a full-blown romantic duet between our lovers. This eventually culminates in the wonderfully heroic “Siegmund heiss ich” where he triumphantly pulls the sword “Nothung” from the tree, fleeing into the woods with his newly won sister bride.