Backstage Pass: Performing Siegfried

Backstage Pass: Performing Siegfried

Putting Wagner's epic opera on stage with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra. 

Deborah Humble
Sydney, Australia

Backstage Pass: Performing Siegfried

Putting Wagner's epic opera on stage with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra. 

There are more surtitles used in Act 1 of Siegfried than in an entire performance of Tosca.

This statement, delivered during one of the Wagner symposiums here in Hong Kong, makes it absolutely clear to us performers as well as the potential audience, just how much music there is to get through during the few days allocated to orchestral rehearsals. It is an amazing statement when you stop and think about it. Nonetheless, there is no sense of panic regarding the task ahead, only a sense of what must be achieved and the realisation that the next few days will be long ones. Thankfully it is a team effort and there are particular structures in place to make sure everything runs smoothly.

Maestro van Zweden leads the way. He is supported by two assistant conductors who continually provide feedback to the singers regarding rhythmic details, language corrections, tuning and balance. They give the conductor suggestions regarding the orchestra’s playing: the motive in the horn could be louder in that bar, the woodwinds need to come down in this bar, have you considered a different string sound for that section? Together with the recording engineers from Naxos who are also making copious notes in huge photocopied scores, they listen very carefully to the overall balance from different areas in the auditorium. Microphones are placed correctly for the singers at the front of the stage and music stands are strategically positioned.

Volker Krafft, language coach and assistant conductor, says the most interesting part of the project is “working with an orchestra which has never played the Ring Cycle before. It’s a big challenge for me to help Jaap van Zweden create the specific Wagnerian sound language he requires from the players, and to make a concert and symphonic orchestra turn into an opera orchestra.” The Maestro himself concurs and tells us that no matter what the orchestra perform and play in the 12 months between the Wagner operas, they must recreate the same sound world as they did previously. It’s no easy feat when there are so many guest instrumentalists (mostly from Europe) augmenting the orchestra’s regular numbers.

The Wagnerian orchestra, normally housed in a theatre pit, is positioned on stage for these performances. No matter how many times I am involved with Wagner’s music, there is always a moment of complete astonishment when I see the massive instrumental forces together in one space. The stage is completely utilised. “No room for a big frock in this show,” quips one string player as I walk between them to take my place next to the conductor. And he’s right. There is barely space between the instruments to enter and exit the stage. I am sure I am not the only singer who has wondered how, when set against such amassed power, the human voice could possibly prevail. And yet it does. The orchestral music is composed in such a way that is both soloist and accompanist. One of the great misconceptions I have encountered in developing singers is that one must always sing Wagner ‘forte.’ There are passages of great tenderness and beauty in Wagner and, whilst a singer must have a certain kind of voice to tackle his music, one must learn where to conserve energy and vocal strength when taking on the big roles.

Performances of opera in concert almost always lead to some kind of debate about whether it is a successful and engaging experience or not. Some operas seem to lend themselves to this format better than others, and the sheer length of Siegfried and the fact that we are performing with scores and without any specific direction or interaction with other characters makes me slightly nervous. Will we be able to hold the audience’s attention for over five hours? Here in Hong Kong the local audience will never have seen or heard this music live. To help them follow the story a synopsis will be projected alongside the surtitles in both Cantonese and English. Over the course of the orchestral rehearsals I can see the concert ‘communication’ between the singers develop instinctively; a look here, a gesture there. Each character lends itself more or less to ‘acting.’

Regarding the delivery of ‘Erda’ I decide that that the drama is present in the stillness of the score, that ‘doing’ less is best. When Wotan first wakens the Earth Mother, Wagner instils the musical moment with great weight and ponderousness, showing the character’s reluctance and confusion with sustained and heavy chords. With Wagner the ‘direction’ is often inherent in the score; there is drama in the tempo, drama in the language, drama in the orchestration. As a singer, it has taken me some time to understand and be comfortable with the power of stillness in the delivery of this role.

No matter the extent to which a singer decides to ‘act’ his character, there is a different feeling when you perform with an orchestra right there with you on the stage. You have the feeling of being surrounded and supported by sound and of very much being part of the musical whole. Without costumes, lighting and dramatic restrictions it is possible to notice things in the musical texture that you might not notice in an on-stage production. The singer can focus completely on the act of ‘singing’ and putting relevant emotion into the delivery and poetry of the text. As I am rehearsing the beginning of Act Three I am reminded just how powerful this music is. The orchestra in full force and the brass section playing at capacity literally make the stage vibrate beneath my feet. It’s very exciting and I can’t help but turn around in order to take in all that is going on behind me. The conductor smiles in my direction and I know we are thinking the same thing; it’s a lovely moment of musical connection and there is a great feeling of musical empathy and synchronisation when the person leading the proceedings is just centimetres away.

At the end of each day of orchestral rehearsal, the musical staff have a meeting and prepare the next day’s schedule which is sent to each singer by e-mail. It’s a slightly disjointed process; we are not rehearsing the opera in sequence and, because of the amount of music to get through, there is no formal Sitzprobe (orchestral run through) before the first performance. Soprano Heidi Melton arrives from her previous engagement with only one day to rehearse the scene between Brunnhilde and Siegfried, sung by New Zealand tenor Simon O’Neill. At the top of the profession, performance commitments and travel logistics very often dictate rehearsal programming. Raff Wilson, Director of Artistic Planning, says “it’s been a privilege working on casting these parts. The big roles like Wotan, Siegfried and Brunnhilde are titanic. There are only a handful of people in the world who can sing them. These are roles that singers tend to ‘grow into,’ and which they often also ration out in their singing schedule. So getting the right singer at the right time is a matter of both skill and luck. The challenge of bringing the right forces together at the right time mean that our whole organisation has been working on these performances for years.”

The planning seems to have paid off in this instance. The cast of international singers is a particularly fine one. With the last notes of Act Three dying away on the final day of orchestral rehearsals, there is a moment of tangible silence before the maestro puts down his baton. It is a moment of tacit acknowledgement of everything that has been achieved and a moment of anticipation of the performances to come. The ground work has been done.

Singers and musicians now have a day off before the opening night. Each artist will have a different routine; some will do nothing but rest, avoiding speaking and socialising, others will carry on as normal. However one chooses to spend the time, it is imperative to stay vocally and physically healthy. Hong Kong is often clouded in smog, and, if we can believe what we read in the papers while we are here, the amount of pollution blowing down from China over the city makes it one of the most hazardous and toxic periods for years. The many people wearing masks in the street to avoid inhaling the pollution and stop the spread of disease is sometimes an unnerving sight. Warning signs in the concert hall dressing rooms alert artists to Avian Bird Flu and other illnesses and how best to avoid them. The buttons in the elevators backstage are disinfected every hour. A further challenge is living in a hotel room for over three weeks where the windows can’t be opened. It is a completely air-conditioned environment, totally devoid of fresh air, which can be very dehydrating.

These challenges aside, everyone arrives fit and healthy for the first performance. There’s an air of expectation and excitement about. The preparation is about to pay off.