Interview: Warwick Fyfe

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Published: 31st October, 2016

Interviewer Deborah Humble presents a full and fascinating interview with her erstwhile colleague and friend, Warwick Fyfe, including his huge success with  Alberich in the Melbourne Ring Cycle in 2013. “Can you tell me a bit about what you have done/sung since the last Ring Cycle?”

“Ooh lots. I can’t list everything but there was Rigoletto, Falstaff, Aida and Barber for Opera Australia. I was in Victorian Opera’s Dutchman and received a Helpmann nomination for that. I worked on Pelleas et Melisande for Welsh National Opera and performed the Four Villains in Tales of Hoffmann for English Touring Opera which is a fantastic company. Also overseas there was Don Giovanni for my beloved New Zealand Opera as well as Mahler’s 8th Symphony in Singapore. Then there was Turandot with Auckland Philharmonia and Beethoven 9 with Orchestra Wellington.

Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle in Melbourne was a hoot. I was delighted to do the St Matthew Passion in German at last (I’d previously only done it in English). That was in Melbourne this year for the Melbourne Bach Choir. There have been recitals in London and Sydney. More generally, I’ve been doing a LOT of overseas travel. This has included study with Anthony Negus, Deborah Polaski, Joshua Hecht and others. This year I made my Vietnam debut in La Boheme! I’m a gallery addict and my head spins when I think of all the art I’ve gazed on in London, Berlin, New York and elsewhere. And the performances I’ve seen: Götterdämmerung in Munich, Meistersinger at Glyndebourne, Book of Mormon in London. Is that enough?!

How do you approach learning a role like Alberich? How do you prepare dramatically for the portrayal of such a character?

Alberich is a bit of a special case because I’ve been acutely aware of him – he’s been stalking the uneven terrain of my brain – since I became a Wagner obsessive in my youth. All hail to Leo Schofield for broadcasting the Bayreuth Centenary Ring on TV in the 80s and to the ABC for showing the Tony Palmer Wagner film thereafter because these both really kicked along my interest which had been seeded a few years earlier when I got into music via school band and the Canberra Youth Orchestra Society. So in the case of Alberich I just jumped right in. I’d read lots of books (especially in my 20s) on the subject, I’d listened to all the great recordings. I’d covered the great John Wegner in Elke’s 2004 Adelaide Ring and observed Malcolm Donnelly’s remarkable Alberich in the 1998 Adelaide Ring (in which I did Fasolt). I was ready to hit the floor and get this version up and running!

But to answer your question: generally, my approach is to make my whole life my preparation for my work. I refer to this process as cultivating one’s inner garden. When I’ve given masterclasses I’ve always attempted to drive home to students what I know to be true which is that even good book they read, every masterpiece of painting they gaze on, every first rate example of straight theatre they witness will make them better singers. There’s a direct tangible effect. So always have a good book on the go (one should always have a satisfactory, truthful answer to the question “Read any good books lately?”), make it your study to be like a sponge where culture, especially high culture, is concerned and generally do everything you can to be a civilised, cultivated person. Then you might be worth watching onstage yourself.

This approach, which I have adopted, I’ve always found very satisfactory. The cultural nutrition imbibed over a lifetime results in various cultural references and evidences of an intuitive knowledge of human universals bubbling to the surface when and as needed. I often only realise what I was referencing after the event! There is a role of course for the conscious application of knowledge acquired consciously as part of the research for a specific role, but to my mind (certainly for me), this only has a supplementary function. The main thing is to have a healthy, thriving inner garden whose tendrils can spontaneously reach out and find their marks. If you’re an empty vessel, nothing interesting can come out of you. I’m looking forward to wallowing in the pornography of evil while simultaneously throwing what light I can on the role’s moral ambiguities and complexities.”

You had huge success with your Alberich in the Melbourne Ring Cycle in 2013. How easy or difficult is it to repeat a role like this and will your vocal and dramatic interpretation have changed in any way this time around?

I find it hard to answer in terms of easy/difficult. It’s such an open-ended process. One naturally aspires to find more and more. These roles are bottomless. One can keep hauling things out of them as from a hole in the ice. They stay with one for life and remain a study and an inspiration. Alberich is the least boring role imaginable. One note of caution; there’s an inherent danger when one has had a success in the urge to do even more of what seemed to go over well the last time in the belief that more is better. It isn’t always. One can over-egg the pudding and end up in the realms of self-parody. I had some salutary experiences early in my career which taught me this lesson.

Do you anticipate that your dramatic weight loss will change or affect your portrayal of the character in any way?

I’m sure it will have some effect. I was at my thinnest when I performed the four villains in Tales of Hoffmann. I was dangerously thin actually. This though allowed me to include references I couldn’t have when I was big. Principally to Nosferatu. Thank goodness, with the help of a marvellous endocrinologist I’ve started seeing this year, I’ve managed to regain 20+ kilos and with them the strength I had lost when all that weight fell off me after I was diagnosed with diabetes just before the last Ring. My regret is that I didn’t go to him the day after I was diagnosed because I’ve have some tough times over the last few years trying to sing with depleted strength. I’m delighted to report that with his prescribed insulin regimen I’m back at full strength and singing better than ever thanks to my work with Joshua Hecht and Deborah Polaski as well as the coachings with Anthony Negus and the coaches at the Bavarian State Opera. I’m no longer cadaverous and moribund looking but I’m not fat again either. People who were worried when I was getting skeletal are much relieved to see me with my colour back and looking a healthy weight for a middle-aged man. It’s great feeling strong again. So I’m smaller than for the last Ring and this will have implications and I’ll work out what they are in consultation with Neil. I won’t be like a wraith though. I’m very confident about this Ring. I think I can do even more this time.

What are your favourite Wagner roles to sing? What would you like to do in terms of Wagner next?

I’ve been working on Klingsor. I always aspired to Amfortas but have been thoroughly persuaded that I’m more of a Klingsor. Sits beautifully in the voice. I’d like a crack at Telramund but I can’t see where that opportunity would come from. That’s a role which would’ve been daunting when I was feeling depleted but I’d be raring to go now. There are Alberichs who do Wotan and some have opined that I’d make a good Wotan. Terje Stensvold was one who thought that role would suit me. Kurwenal, obviously. I’d like another go at Dutchman. Ditto Wolfram. I covered Beckmesser once and I’d love to perform it in my own right.

Any advice for aspiring singers who would like to begin this repertoire?

Listen to the great recordings of the 50s and 60s and earlier. The 50s and 60s are great because the quality of the recordings was quite good by then. Some of the 40s recordings too. Earlier than that, there are marvellous recordings of the greatest singers who ever lived but one has to become accustomed to the hearing through the inferior recorded sound quality. So listen to the Keilberth Ring recordings for instance. Furtwängler, Knappertsbusch, Flagstad, Hotter, Varnay; these are the sorts of people whose work should represent your benchmarks. Aim for it. Also, become a cultivated person with conversation. In other words, read great books, go to galleries and become besotted with art, see great theatre and films, become absorbed with history. Then your work will be fertilised by your culture and magic will happen.

Any great productions you saw overseas? Singers you like?

Recently, the thing which impressed me most was a full studio rehearsal with piano of Tannhäuser for the Longborough Opera Festival. I was invited along and it was a real privilege. The voices were extraordinary. I felt I’d been wafted back to the golden era. I give great credit for this to Anthony Negus both for his clever casting and guiding hand as conductor. It was a beautifully crafted performance. He is one of the greatest Wagner conductors in the world today. Also, serious Wagnerians should note a new Brünnhilde in their midst: Kate Sheppeard did a recital with me in London. I thought it’d be fun to start with Brünnhilde’s Battle Cry from the top of Act 2 of Walküre. Immediately we started rehearsing I knew I was in the presence of a genuine Wagnerian soprano. So idiomatic! Someone should offer her Brünnhilde. We are repeating the recital, possibly with variations, for the Melbourne Wagner Society on 18 December so it’s not too late to hear it!