‘When I stop learning that’s when I retire’: Bass-baritone Alan Held talks to Jim Pritchard about his career and his current role in the Royal Opera’s Rusalka
Alan Held is recognized internationally as one of the leading singing actors today. The American bass-baritone has appeared in major roles in most of the world’s finest opera houses and they include Wotan in Wagner’s Ring Cycle, the title role in The Flying Dutchman, Kurwenal in Tristan und Isolde, Leporello in Don Giovanni, the Four Villains in Les Contes d’Hoffman, Jochanaan in Salome, Don Pizzaro in Fidelio, Orestes in Elektra, Balstrode in Peter Grimes and the title role in Wozzeck. He is equally at home on the concert stage having performed with the world’s leading orchestras and at the Salzburg and Tanglewood Festivals as well as the BBC Proms. He returns to Covent Garden to sing Vodník in the Royal Opera’s first ever full staging (in Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito’s 2008 Salzburg Festival production) of Dvořák’s Rusalka.
As I sat down and turned on my recorder Alan and I exchanged comments about modern technology, I had notice he tweeted and as someone who cannot be bothered with it I asked him to tell me why he does it.
Tweeting I don’t do a whole lot of,.It is usually just that I have arrived somewhere or about the performance I am in … maybe I just don’t have quick thoughts [laughs]. I spend more time on Facebook because so many people have written to me and asked to be a ‘friend’. I don’t just do the opera stuff. There’ll be a lot of other things, but of course you have to be a little guarded. People only started carrying laptops in the 1980s and now what has happened is incredible.
I asked Alan to tell me about his role in Rusalka.
Well I am Vodník, a water goblin. There are not very many traditional interpretations of this character these days and this is certainly not one of them. I think at the New York Met he is still very traditional, at least he looks like some kind of goblin. I just did it in Munich this summer and it was completely different from this production. Here you can tell there is a nice relationship between father and his daughter, Rusalka, at the beginning but when she says she wants to become human he turns on her. In Act II they have a strong argument and later in this production he tries to kill her. Despite this it is rather fun and I wear flippers on my feet. I am chasing the nymphs in Act I and you can tell Vodník is not very successful in his amorous advances. This whole production is quite different and it was received very interestingly in Salzburg; many people loved it and many people did not. I found so many aren’t very familiar with Rusalka and I don’t understand that as it is one of the great operas.
From what I have read the production seems to be a mixture of the real world and the supernatural, is that so?
Absolutely, on the one hand you can obviously see the woods in this piece but then in Act III the whole set looks like it is in a brothel. We have the Nymphs that come in and they are pretty otherworldly but are exploring the human world. Yes you couldn’t have put it better, it is a wonderful mixture and it is very obvious what is the human world and what is the other world and this makes the last act especially very interesting.
How does it compare with the Munich staging he has been in?
In that there is no other world aspect to it whatsoever and it was based on that horrific Fritzl case in Austria when he imprisoned his daughter and other children in the basement of his house.
Some people think Rusalka needs Wagnerian voices and I wondered what he thought about this.
For some reason historically they did it that way but there is no reason to if you listen to the music. Yes, there is big orchestration at times but it is written so well for the voices and is a very lyrical piece. You need a Rusalka who has a full voice and can sing all the range such as Camilla Nylund who also sang with me in Salzburg, but Vodník does not need to be a Wagnerian. The Foreign Princess has some pretty impressive music but she need not be Wagnerian either and definitely that’s true too for the Prince. It’s one of those misconceptions that has arisen along the way and I’m not sure why. This is very approachable music, some of the best ever written, and the ending is so heart-breaking.
Has the production changed since it was put on in Salzburg in 2008?
Well the directors were here at the beginning and one has recently been back. There have only been some little changes and in fact just before I came to meet you we were talking about a small one. That’s good because these pieces should evolve. In the West End or Broadway they have lots of try-outs for music theatre and they are changing things or tweaking things all the time, though once it is set they stay pretty much set. But we have a chance to explore it differently this time – which is good. Sometimes there are things of a logistical nature, I come out of the floor several times and it is a different set up here than it was in Salzburg: there I had a ladder and here it is a mechanical rig that has to pop up. Then of course the whole set has to fit on the stage within the Royal Opera House. It is often little things like that.
Did he find the staging easy to remember?
Yes because we rehearsed it well in Salzburg and if you are in a new production like that you do not forget the staging because we spent weeks and weeks on it and it comes back to you very quickly.
How is he enjoying working with Yannick Nézet-Séquin?
I saw him conducting once but I’ve never worked with him before. You hear all these things; how wonderful a certain conductor is, or a singer, or whatever, and I heard so much about Yannick that I began to wonder if he really is going to be as good as that. In fact he better! He really is extraordinary and such a delight to work with too. The orchestra love him, the cast love him, and he’s a real musician … actually a musician’s musician. What has been really good that he is at the stage rehearsals and is offering things that are helping the director a lot. This is the first time he is conducting Rusalka and it is going to be really wonderful – and he is still young and is going to be with us for so long.
I wonder how the role of Vodník fits in with everything else he sings.
I’ve over 70 roles in my repertoire and I am particularly noted for doing Wagner and Strauss. But I’ve never been one who says I only have to do the largest roles and this role has such beautiful music in it. Next month I am doing two lead roles on the same night in Toronto in a double bill of Zemlinsky’s A Florentine Tragedy and Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. Then I might be back to my Wotans and Jochanaans and those kinds of things. I don’t think it is good necessarily to be singing all the big stuff all the time. Last month I was singing the Dutchman in Munich so it is nice to step away and do something a little less stressful. That is how you make a career last and I have been singing now for almost 26 years, many careers do not last that long because they do all the hard stuff all the time.
Anyway even with some of the smaller roles like this and Orestes in Elektra there is a psychology to them and this is certainly true of Scarpia, Wotan and Wozzeck. I think if they don’t have that then I am not interested in the role. For me they either have to have phenomenal music or something in the character that you really want to explore and Vodník has them both.
I asked him to tell me more about the intriguing A Florentine Tragedy and Gianni Schicchi double bill.
Naturally the reason they matched them together is because they both take place in Florence but otherwise they have little in common apart from that they were written about the same time. Simone, the part that I play in A Florentine Tragedy sings about 80% of the short work and that makes it a long role. It has only three people in it and is a conversation piece, and he is such a dour guy and even though the music is rhapsodic I have to turn around from being this serious and very earnest man and then sing Gianni Schicchi who is such a rascal. The brightness and sunshine of him is a totally different thing and I cut my teeth in this business in comedy and to go back to it is so much fun.
Another role he has recently taken on is Scarpia – how did that happen and did he enjoy doing it?
Many years ago at the start of my career I was told by a baritone when I was singing Angelotti in Tosca that there are certain roles you do not want to take on until you are over 40 – Wotan, the Dutchman, Scarpia and a few others – and Scarpia was one I put off until I thought I was the right age to do it. When I finally took it on it fitted me like a glove.
What is there not to enjoy? [laughs] It is one of the best characters of all time, with the best entrance music of all opera and he is such a fun character to play. You cannot go over-the-top because you’ll get yourself in trouble dramatically and vocally; his evilness is written into the music, you don’t have to play it as it is already there because Puccini wrote the part so well. It’s an amazing part because it is so much shorter than a lot of hard roles – for instance compared to Wotan or Dutchman – and I get halfway through Act II and realise that it is almost over. It is a unique thing for me to have such an important role that is fairly short.
He is famous for singing Gunther in Götterdämmerung and I wondered what his thoughts were on this character.
I love the guy! I remember being here in the old Richard Jones Ring Cycle and laying under the tables. It is a very important role and I have always enjoyed doing it. I also sang it many times at the Met before this current new production. People think there is not much to Gunther but there is a lot there. The secret is that he is controlled by Hagen and you must be like a puppet. You always need a good strong Hagen to work with and I’ve generally been fortunate to have good ones. Again it is all in the score and Wagner gives you plenty to react to.
When did he start singing Wotan?
The voice just went there I think and this is another important thing about Wagner. I first started studying the Ring when I was a sophomore in college, not to perform it but just to study the mythology and it construction. That was in 1979 and I sang my first Rheingold in 1990 and I didn’t sing the others until 1999. You have to mature with Wotan and I gave it 20 years to let it grow and I believe it is important for a singer to do that.
I asked how he approaches learning so large a part.
That of course is the hard part and you must take your time; I play the piano so I can play all my parts. Some people go to coaches, some people learn them on their own and that’s what I do but it’s so many words [laughs]. You look at that monologue in the second act of Walküre and my goodness you open the score and keep turning page after page as there is more and more. All I can say is that you have to let it season into you and you cannot rush these things.
The upside is that once I’ve learnt a role it sticks with me. Sure you forget little things but, for example, a year or so ago I wasn’t scheduled to sing Wozzeck at the Met but I got a call saying someone had cancelled and could I jump in. In a short time it was all back and I hadn’t sung it for 6 or 7 years, so if you take the time to learn a role well it will stick with you.
What did Alan think was the reason for the vast number of wonderful singers – such as himself – that America seems able to produce?
Well it’s a big country of course [laughs]. I think it is because of the schooling we get. It’s obvious we don’t have a long opera tradition like in the UK or France or Germany but what we do have is outstanding schools and very good teachers. Unfortunately – as in many places – the Arts are now under attack and their funding diverted and things are changing now. Nevertheless, the cream of the crop rise and there are still so many people interested in it, with teachers to encourage them and places for them to sing. There has been the rise in the presentation of opera in HD and all that has meant the last 20 years have been good for inspiring people to get start singing. It will remain to be seen 20 years on what it will be like if the emphasis on the Arts is less than it is now, we could be saying something very different then and that would be very sad.
Americans, as soon as they finished their training, used to go off to Germany or France or somewhere else to learn more but now we have plenty of places for them to sing in the States. There they can train further and also get a chance to sing. We have quite a few Young Artists programs that are very important and these help the opera companies because they also get young talent to sing roles at a cheaper price and it is good for everybody … but can it continue that’s the thing?
In this Rusalka cast Brian Hymel is from New Orleans and there are so many singers coming out of that area and Kansas or, like me, from Illinois. Joyce Didonato, Samuel Ramey and I all went to the same school and no one thinks of Wichita State as a music school but it gave us a chance to grow up as singers and learn slowly so when we left there we already had many roles under our belts because we had come from somewhere like that.
Alan Held is a noted singing teacher and often gives master classes and I wanted him to explain his approach to these.
The days leading up to an important master class – such as at Yale University where I do something every year – are very intimidating because we have open audiences and you want to make sure that what you are saying in these things is very honest, but you only get something like 20 to 35 minutes with the student. You want to make sure you give them something that they can grasp onto that is really going to help them become a better singer, whether they are a very polished one or rather raw. My thoughts are that you have to take each and every voice and listen to what is natural for them and try and close in on that and build upon it. You cannot try to push each singer to fit into a mould. However short the time I have, I want to give the singer something to explore.
Every teacher can give his students wonderful advice but there is a problem however; I’ll walk into a music building and hear violinists, pianists and wind players practicing but you will not hear many singers. They spend so much time doing choir and opera rehearsals that they cannot concentrate on their voice. So when they get to graduate school and have more time I want to know that students are taking the time to learn because when they go on the road they’ve got to know how to do it. They cannot be running back to a teacher all the time, so they have to be able to know how their voice works; our instruments are inside out bodies – that’s what’s unique and fabulous about being a singer – and you have got to know how your instrument works.
Did he always want to be an opera singer?
No I’m from a little farm town and started as a tuba major in college with piano as my secondary and I wanted to be a teacher. Then I sang for some people at my University and they told me I needed to study singing. I just kept auditioning and I got more and more work. I was in 3 or 4 operas before I actually saw one! I liked both parts of it – music and theatre – not one separated from the other. That’s the real Wagner Gesamtkunstwerk idea and that is perhaps why he appeals to me so much.
I asked whether he still enjoys all the travelling.
Perhaps not so much but it is nice to get to a place and settle. I’ve spent a lot of time in London over the years so coming back here is nice and I know it well. I was here in 2007 for a Götterdämmerung at the Proms with Christine Brewer so it hasn’t been that long but it has been 10 years since I was with the Royal Opera, though of course I spent lots for time here in late 1990s and early 2000s. I feel at home also when I go to Munich, Paris and Vienna because I have spent a lot of time there too.
I wondered whether there are still new roles for him to explore in the future and anything he was particularly looking forward to.
Well I have Meistersinger and my first Hans Sachs next March in Tokyo. I have that double bill and a lot of work in Toronto and I have never worked there before. There are Duke Bluebeard’s Castle semi-staged concerts coming up and then I will switch to Hungarian, and later this year I sing the Wanderer in Siegfried in Seville.
By tackling Hans Sachs I suggested he was not making life easy for himself.
I don’t have very many roles when I can coast that’s for sure [laughs]. Even roles like Jochanaan though it’s not a long night that’s hard singing and Vodník is actually one of the easier ones. I cannot think of anything I could do that is longer than Hans Sachs; it is a six hour opera and he sings a lot.
But I always say when I stop learning that’s when I retire.