Backstage Pass: Recording Siegfried

Backstage Pass: Recording Siegfried

The final puzzle piece in Deborah Humble's Hong Kong experience. 

Deborah Humble
Sydney, Australia

Backstage Pass: Recording Siegfried

The final puzzle piece in Deborah Humble's Hong Kong experience. 

There is nothing quite like the excitement and anticipation that an opening night generates.

Backstage is a veritable flurry of activity. Hundreds of instrumentalists warm up their instruments, singers vocalise in dressing rooms and corridors, administrative staff check that everything is ready to run smoothly. Agents and management staff are in town, sponsors and supporters come to give their well wishes and partners and spouses turn up from around the globe to share the evening with their loved ones. It is a unique atmosphere; one that is entirely different from the rehearsal period and one that is integral to the performance process.

So what do you do if your on-stage entrance is three and a half hours after the first notes have been played? Ever since I’ve been singing the role of Erda in Siegfried that question has posed something of a dilemma. Do you come prior to the performance to soak up the excitement and get into the mood of the evening? If you choose to do that how do you spend the next three hours? Waiting around for that length of time can be difficult. In that case, do you skip all the preliminaries and turn up ready at your designated call time? The trouble with that is that it can feel like you have missed an important part of the evening. Here in Hong Kong we are being accommodated very close to the concert hall. I decide to arrive before the concert starts to say hello and ‘toi, toi, toi’ to colleagues and to listen to the opening bars from side stage. Then I go back to the hotel to dress and prepare myself before returning again three hours later.

When I arrive during the second interval everyone has settled into the evening. Orchestral players are receiving professional shoulder massages before they launch into the final act. Boxes of apples, bananas and sandwiches have been laid out should anyone feel like an energy boost, and tea, coffee and bottled water are in abundant supply. A performance of this opera takes over five hours and everyone needs to stay energised and hydrated. The atmosphere is more relaxed now. The performance is going well and the audience seem to be enjoying the presentation.

We repeat the same scenario for a second concert three days later; the break in between performances has given everyone a chance to recover physically and vocally. There is generous applause at the end of both concerts, as well as a sense of understanding of what focus and stamina is required for a presentation of this nature.

Following the final performance there is a celebratory dinner at the Intercontinental Hotel for singers and management and their guests. It is a chance to talk and relax together, eat and drink, and get an idea of what the next days will bring. The live performances are over but now the patching sessions for the recording begin. The recording engineer for Naxos, Philip Rowlands, puts together a schedule that will begin the following afternoon. We will all return to the concert hall over the next few days to sing our parts again, giving the engineers at least a few options for putting together the best possible CD.

When recording and re-recording Philip says he is looking out for 'the same things which might concern a conductor: timing, pacing of the vocal line relative to the orchestra, and then, to a degree, interpretive aspects.’ Pitch is a main concern, and is often, according to Philip, ‘related to the quality of the sound. It is probably of less importance to a conductor whose main concern will be ensemble. As a producer, however, I take more notice of pitch for the simple reason that the recording lasts forever, whereas a concert performance is transitory.’ The recording process is an intricate and complicated one. Singing and playing excerpts from a score, sometimes out of context, can be very difficult. So too can trying to recreate the same tempi, the same conditions and the excitement present in a performance. ‘It is important,’ says Philip, ‘to understand an individual singer’s psychology in order to be effective in getting the results desired. My personal approach is to allow an artist to have their own vision and interpretation and to tread carefully when I feel there may be an aspect of the musical intention which hasn’t been delivered fully of effectively in the performance. Another major vocal concern is fatigue. There’s a physical limit to how much and for how long a singer can give, unlike with instrumentalists. Although, there are limits there too!

'I try to take on board the political and practical circumstances of the situation at any given time. Will I get away with asking for this? Is this the right time to tackle the issue of tempo or will it push the tension, which I sense starting to build, too far? Is it better to now address some technical orchestral issue now in order to give the singer a chance to cogitate and rest? Should I say this section is now covered even though it could be better? Shall I answer that question in such a way that an element of doubt lingers in the hope the singer will want to try it again? Language and diplomacy are important. Last year during the patching sessions for Die Walküre I was asked by the conductor Jaap van Zweden “You mean it’s out of tune?” My response was, “I wouldn’t say it’s out of tune but it’s not quite in tune.” This caused giggles from the orchestra, but that can be a help sometimes.’

At the end of several days of patching Philip has several takes of most of the music to choose from. He will now go away and edit the recording before the Hong Kong Philharmonic Ring operas come out in about ten months. This is quite a herculean feat for such a project and is, as Philip puts it, ‘the direct result of my own eagerness to edit the material and Naxos’ desire to release as soon as possible. Roughly speaking it takes me a day to edit ten minutes of music, maybe less. I expect Siegfried to take around twenty-four days and following that there will be further rounds of editing once the artists have had a chance to listen.’

From the perspective of the artist, it is gratifying to know that something you have created will have longevity. Many sources comment that the recording industry is dying as more and more people choose to download their music and move to digital technology. There is certainly no financial benefit for the artists. Naxos, a dominant player and market leader at the budget end of the recording market pays no fees to the singers and instrumentalists. Thus it is the recording itself that becomes the reward, a small legacy of sorts.

Suddenly, our job here is done. It’s time to pack the suitcases once more. It is always strange to think that in just a few hours this group of artists who have come together to create music from all corners of the globe will be going their separate ways. It’s an odd feeling, the feeling of real melancholy that accompanies the end of a job like this one, but one that I have gotten used to over the years. It helps to know that it’s a feeling that lasts only a few days. The creative cycle of highs and lows, the camaraderie of being part of a great, family-like team one day and of the sometimes crippling loneliness that follows, the travel and the excitement of new places and destinations and the routine of in-between are all parts of being an artist. But if we could have our time again I know of very few artists who would change anything. I wouldn’t, that’s for certain.

The main image is of Philip Rowlands in the recording studio.