In terms of range, stamina, and sheer power, Richard Wagner's operas make demands on the human voice that were unprecedented in the composer's time: and that have rarely been matched since. Whether it was Tannh‹user's agonizing tale of his journey to Rome or Tristan and Isolde's ecstatic love duet, Wagner's works called for a new kind of singer. But even by his highly demanding standards, performing the four operas that make up the Ring: particularly when presented in complete cycles: takes the crown. The leading roles of Br‹nnhilde, Siegfried, and Wotan are among the most difficult in the repertoire, and only a handful of artists in every generation have successfully faced their challenges.
Soprano Deborah Voigt, one of today's great Wagnerians, had sung in many of the composer's operas at the Met before she felt ready to take on Br‹nnhilde for the first time in the new Ring. With the individual operas now under her belt, she's preparing for her first full cycle. "Going into it, I think the mental aspect is the most important factor for me," she says. "I expect to guard my quiet time: not so much for my voice, physically, but for my own mental focus. I want to be in the right place to appreciate the grandeur and responsibility of it all."
To prepare, Voigt has been working with John Fisher, a Met Assistant Conductor and veteran coach who also helped the other members of the Ring cast tackle Wagner's demanding score. "These are marathon roles," Fisher says, "and there's a certain baggage that goes with them in terms of public perception. People think of these as the sort of 'mountain' roles that are so hard."
In working with the singers, one of Fisher's first goals was to find a way to get past these preconceptions. "The first thing we do in the rehearsal room is talk about the role and about how we're going to plan the work," he explains. "It's important to have a strategy, to pace it. Later, in the performance, a large part is about pacing as well. It's like in a sporting event, you don't just burn yourself out right away. Otherwise there's just this enormous mountain in front of you, and you panic when you see it."
One of the most vocally challenging entrances of any character in opera occurs at the end of Siegfried, the Ring's third installment. Four and a half hours into the performance, Br‹nnhilde appears in the work's final scene, for one extensive 30-minute duet with the title hero. "She lies there for ages before she moves or utters a sound," Fisher says, "and then has to sing this very hard scene that sits extremely high, almost from the word go. It's very, very difficult."
"When John and I began with Siegfried," Voigt recalls of the opera's premiere run last fall, "we spent a lot of time just trying to get my voice into the groove that it needs to be in for the tessitura of that piece, which is very high. The great thing about John is that he really understands how voices work and the psychology behind singing. I wouldn't have had the success that I did without him."
According to Fisher, pacing and breath are two of the key elements when taking on the challenge of the Ring cycle. Daunting as these roles might be by themselves, having to sing them back-toback can seem overwhelming. "But the important thing," Fisher adds, "is to not feel one has to soft-pedal when singing one opera because you're going to be singing the next one in three days. You've got to give the performance, whichever one this is. That's why the preparation is so important, in terms of the pacing, because it stays with you. You learn it the first time, and then that serves you when you come to do the cycles."
While Fisher would offer advice on virtually every aspect of a performance: from how to shape a phrase and when to take a breath to the overall interpretation of a character: he is quick to point out that he won't get in the way of a singer's technique. "I'm very respectful of voice teachers, who work only on technique, and I'm careful not to overly intrude in that." Whenever he might have to address a vocal issue, he says, he would make that position very clear.
Fisher also worked with tenor Jay Hunter Morris, who had sung the title role of Sieg fried in San Francisco before making his acclaimed Met role debut last October, but who was new to G‹tterd‹mmerung, which opened in January. When learning the music, Morris found that it required a different kind of approach than he had expected. "For me, the challenge is to sing with my most beautiful sound and to not get caught up in the intensity of the drama," he explains. "A few years ago, my teacher said to me, 'Jay, have you ever considered that maybe your loudest, biggest sound is not your best sound?' For a long time I had thought of Siegfried as a role that had to be sung with power, that it was all about making a big noise. And that's a dead end for me. I have to sing wisely or I'll get myself into trouble." But even with the most meticulous preparation, some things only become apparent once you are on stage, as Voigt points out. Before every performance of G‹tterd‹mmerung, she would go over the score with Fisher. "As the run went on," she says, "we found that the gap between the end of the second act and the beginning of the Immolation Scene, when I come back on stage, is so long that my body and my concentration would drop. I needed John to come to my dressing room and review it. These are things you don't know when you take on a role for the first time."
Having coached the cast during rehearsals for Sieg fried and G‹tterd‹mmerung over a period of several months, Fisher has nothing but praise for "his" singers. "Deborah is a delight to work with, because she's an extremely gifted musician and a highly intelligent woman. She's also a very good pianist. And Jay is just extraordinary. I've worked with quite a lot of Siegfrieds in my 40 years in this business, and his is one of the most easily and most lyrically sung I've ever heard. It's not forced and it's clear, so you can hear his text and his colors. A lot of the vocal writing for Siegfried, particularly in Sieg fried itself, is like lieder. The text comes first."
For Principal Conductor Fabio Luisi, who oversees the entire Ring enterprise and leads the Met's musical forces, text also is a keyword. One of the first things he worked on with the singers was pronunciation. "Words mean a lot in Wagner's operas," Luisi explains, "and they have a close connection to the music. Roles like Siegfried and Br‹nnhilde are not only demanding in terms of vocalism, they're intellectually demanding. The singer and actor has to understand every aspect of what he or she is singing, what he's saying, but also what he means." With thoughts and subtext often revealed in the leitmotifs in the orchestra, Wagner's characters demand our full attention, musically and dramatically, for their story to really come to life.
Putting on the Ring cycle ranks among the most ambitious undertakings for any opera company, and attending a performance can be a life-altering experience. With Robert Lepage's groundbreaking production and a stellar cast led by Maestro Luisi, the Met performances this spring offer an ideal opportunity to experience what the unique magic of opera is really about: including those aspects that may be less obvious to the audience. "Often when people come to the opera there's a sort of glamorous aspect to it," Fisher points out. "It's theater, it's entertainment, these are celebrity artists, and all that. But the reality is that it's bloody hard work!"