Every once in a while a contract will come along which makes you glad you decided to become an opera singer. You’ve stuck it out: the training, the language learning, the endless auditions, the money spent on coaching and lessons, the travel, the hotels, the nerves, the critics, the competitions, the closet-like dressing rooms.
I arrive in Hong Kong on a Saturday afternoon in January to begin such a contract. One of the highlights of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra’s 2016/2017 season are concert performances of Siegfried, the third opera in Richard Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle. Siegfried was composed between 1851 and 1871 and had its premiere in Bayreuth along with Das Rheingold, Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung in 1876. Under the direction of Chief Conductor and Music Director Jaap van Zweden, the Hong Kong Philharmonic, recognised as Asia’s leading symphony orchestra, is undertaking the entire Ring Cycle over a period of four years.
It is a first for Hong Kong, and, right from the beginning of this project, there has been the sense that this is a very special undertaking. Raff Wilson, Director of Artistic Planning, explains that these performances form the centrepiece of the Maestro’s Hong Kong tenure. “The Ring is a massive project by any measure,” he says. “The challenge of bringing together all the forces required at the right time mean that our whole organisation has been working on these performances, in some cases, for years.”
The project has an even greater significance as all four operas are being recorded by the Naxos label for commercial CD release. This increases the orchestra’s reputation and reach, not only within Asia but worldwide. “For many people around the world this will be the first thing they hear the Hong Kong Philharmonic perform,” says Mr Wilson. The Philharmonic's performances of Das Rheingold, in which I sang Erda in 2015, and Die Walküre, recently included in The Guardian’s ‘Best Classical CD’s of 2016' list, are already on the shelves and have received critical acclaim.
For the next three weeks I’ll be performing and recording with an international cast which includes several colleagues I know well and have worked with before. The Wagner ‘family’ is a fairly small one, and one of the nicest things about being involved with this particular repertoire is that the same faces pop up in all corners of the globe.
The job begins when a driver collects me from the airport. I am shortly dropped off at the Intercontinental Hotel in Kowloon, which has an amazing, panoramic view of Hong Kong Harbour and is just a few steps from the concert hall at the Cultural Centre. Presentation of a Ring Cycle, even in concert format, is a huge financial undertaking for any opera house or orchestra and often requires support from a number of patrons. Since 2006, the Hong Kong Philharmonic's principal patron has been Swire, a company who have provided the largest sponsorship in the orchestra’s history. Swire, along with the Philharmonic, are committed to promoting artistic excellence in Hong Kong and to enhancing the city’s reputation as one of the great cultural centres of the world. In addition, the Ring Cycle project has received financial support from the Hong Kong government, and is thus well funded.
As I am unpacking two large suitcases full of everything that an opera singer requires for almost a month’s stay in a hotel room (pot noodles, long life skim milk, tea bags, instant coffee, duty free red wine, portable speakers, CD player, humidifier, sound reduction headphones, the list goes on), I receive a ‘welcome to Hong Kong’ message from the orchestra administration. This message includes the news that the arrival Matthias Goerne, alongside whom I sing at the beginning of Act Three, has been delayed by a day; I am thus not required for rehearsal tomorrow as planned and am given a reprieve. I plan to spend the day resting, recuperating, and trying to beat the jet-lag.
I spend the evening doing what many travellers do when they arrive at a new destination: exploring. First I wander the hotel, its restaurants and cafes, its pool, spa and business centre, before walking around the neighbourhood. I remember the area quite well from my previous visits here; I find the local supermarket, coffee shop and train station, as well as buy an Octopus travel card, with relative ease. On the way back to the hotel I stop by the concert hall to admire the laser light show which occurs nightly around the harbour. The Cultural Centre here may not be as architecturally impressive as the Sydney Opera House, but the view across to Hong Kong Island and its vertical skyline is as impressive as anywhere in the world.
I fail miserably in my attempt to stay awake until a ‘reasonable’ hour and fall asleep at 7.30pm. As a result I am sitting up watching House of Cards on my computer at 3.30am and am at breakfast before the buffet is even open. I’m not the only one. This is how colleagues meet for the first time; bleary eyed, before the sun has come up, comparing jet-lag stories – very glamorous! Twenty-four hours later, regardless of how anyone is feeling, rehearsals begin.
Putting on an opera in concert requires a different rehearsal schedule to a fully- staged production. Time that would normally be given to the drama becomes extra time to devote purely to musical detail. The Philharmonic have already been rehearsing without the singers for some time prior to our arrival, so things are well underway. Maestro Jaap van Zweden works with orchestra and singers separately in the beginning, with the singers also joined by a pianist, assistant conductor and language coach as we work through the opera act-by-act and scene-by-scene. It’s a long opera and there’s a lot of music to get through so the process takes nearly an entire week.
This is the 'discussion' stage. There is a lot of stopping and starting in order to discuss everything from tempi, phrasing, pronunciation, language, dynamics and orchestration to the importance of harmonic progression, chromaticism and the understanding of various leitmotifs. Maestro van Zweden welcomes input from the singers and tells us his personal ideas regarding the score. At this stage it is an inclusive process. Single phrases are sometimes repeated several times until a result is found that works for everyone. Every singer is either German or very experienced performing in the German language; however, everyone is aware that this opera is being recorded, so there are small intricacies that need extra careful attention.
This is where the important job of the language coach comes into play. Volker Krafft, a répétiteur and language coach at the Staatsoper Hamburg in Germany, is fulfilling these same roles for the complete cycle in Hong Kong as well as being one of two Assistant Conductors. “The function of a language coach,” he states, “is to listen to the singers in the piano and orchestral rehearsals and give them notes regarding their pronunciation of the German language. That’s why the person who fulfils this role should be a native speaker who also knows something about singing. In individual sessions at the piano I try to make sure the singers manage to combine the correct pronunciation with their individual way of singing. The language coach/répétiteur is also there to make sure all rhythms and notes are correctly sung and to ensure the dramatic intent of each word comes across.”
Ultimately it is the unity of words and music in Wagner’s works that make for successful understanding of the whole. Every element of language is expressive, as well as being connected with every instrumental colour and every modulation in the work.
“Languages are so important in the international world of opera,” says Volker. “Not only the phonetics, which can, to a certain extent, be learnt and taught by good coaches, but also the ability to communicate in different languages is crucial.” He also believes that immersion into the cultural background of the music is very important. It is indeed hard to imagine singing Wagner successfully without at least some understanding of the historical and political background surrounding the composer and his music. This education is an ever evolving one for a singer and Wagnerian roles are always a work in progress. Some colleagues here are singing these long Wagner roles for the first time, and are learning to adapt to the many details that will change throughout the rehearsal process.
To end the first week of rehearsals there is an Education Programme and open day. The public are invited into the auditorium to witness the rehearsal process and I am delighted to see a number of very young people taking part. This involvement is part of a wonderful initiative by the orchestra entitled the Young Audience Scheme. This particular open day includes an introduction to the story of Siegfried through a demonstration by musicians of some of the more unusual Wagner instruments such as the Wager tuba. Late last year local children were encouraged to participate in the Siegfried Creative Art Competition by presenting their unique vision of the story of the opera in the form of visual artwork. The entries are being displayed as part of an exhibition in the foyer of the concert hall and in a dedicated published booklet. It is so important to encourage the next generation of opera goers and I very much admire the staff who invest time in these kinds of outreach programmes in order to make opera which is perceived as heavy and difficult so much more accessible and understandable.
There is a great deal of spare time when one rehearses a Ring. No matter which character you sing, there are many rehearsals for which you are not required. It’s important to be independent during these long weeks away from home; with few cast members, the challenge is how to spend long hours alone. Of course, there is always sightseeing to do in a foreign place; however, it is important to balance activity with rest. If you are lucky enough to have continuous work then you also need to schedule time to learn your next role. This can be difficult when you are living in a hotel away from access to your regular teachers and coaches.
Publicity also takes time. It is an important element of careers in the current cultural landscape and the centrality and development of social media and the internet means that singers can maintain high profiles if they so wish. Most major companies have their own publicists who may ask singers to be involved with various press opportunities during their contractual engagement and some singers have their own private publicist. While publicity is important, it is also a large commitment. In my first week in Hong Kong I spend no less than six hours on publicity commitments including local radio interviews, answering questions for online publications and interviewing both over the phone and face-to-face.
One thing I like to do on my days off is to go into the hall and spend some time listening to the music being rehearsed and, in particular, to watch the conductor. As a guest singer it's rare to have had a lot of experience working with one conductor, and one way of becoming familiar with their gestures and communication is to watch from the audience. It’s also a good way to get to know the acoustics of an unfamiliar venue. Perhaps one of the biggest advantages to doing this is to begin to identify with the opera as a whole. If you have one of the smaller roles and are only present at rehearsals when you are involved, it can feel like a very disconnected experience. It is always possible to pick up a few tips too. In the Wagner world there will always be a colleague around with more experience who is happy to pass on the benefit of their expertise.
At the end of the first week of rehearsals everyone seems relaxed and happy. Things are progressing nicely and going according to plan. We are told to enjoy our Sunday rest day and return refreshed for the orchestral rehearsals which will add another exciting dimension to the proceedings. So far, so good.