Monthly Archives: January 2014

“Stepping into the Spotlight.” An interview with Warwick Fyfe for classicmelbourne.com.au

Baritone Warwick Fyfe is no stranger to the spotlight. He has a long list of vocal successes with Opera Australia in works as diverse as Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado and Verdi’s difficult title roles Rigoletto and Falstaff.  It is the Wagner repertoire however, that Warwick has always found most alluring, and so it was with great relish that he stepped into the role of Alberich recently, replacing an indisposed John Wegner in the Melbourne Ring Cycle.  It was a big task having rehearsed the role of ‘Donner’ for the ten week rehearsal period leading up to the opening night. But this fiercely intelligent and talented artist was totally prepared for the challenge and received nothing but the highest praise for both his vocal and dramatic interpretation of this vertically challenged, sexually depraved character. Despite huge accolades from audience members, music critics and colleagues alike he remains disarmingly and typically understated about both the adulation and applause.

Warwick humbly credits some of his success to the fact that the German repertoire “sits in the meat” of his voice. “Alberich is a very juicy kind of role; the sort you just want to sink your teeth into. The absence of a particular sort of psychological pressure associated with the tessitura is quite liberating dramatically. He explains that unlike some of the Verdi roles he sings (Germont, Amonsaro, Falstaff, Rigoletto), which sit quite high for a low baritone and which must be carefully paced, Alberich is a role he can throw himself into with less calculation. He adds that it is not just his voice that suits Alberich but “my big face reads well and my predilection for scary films means there are plenty of nasties swimming about in my subconscious which surface of their own accord when required.” He provides a couple of interesting examples from past productions telling me that his accent for the role of ‘Papageno’ in the David Freeman production of The Magic Flute was consciously stolen from the serial killer on the film Wolf Creek. “For the Jack the Ripper section of performances of Lulu I referenced Nosferatu and Hannibal Lecter as portrayed by Anthony Hopkins. And of course there’s Benny Hill. I am a big fan of Benny Hill . He often creeps into my characterisations. Ideally these things should all well up spontaneously from one’s reservoir of impressions gained over a lifetime.”

The direction of this conversation launches us into a fascinating discussion about what Warwick describes as “cultivating one’s inner garden.” He firmly believes that “every good book you read, every good film you watch, every marvelous painting you look at, every sublime piece of architecture and every beautiful vista you gaze upon will make you a better singer.” He believes that although there are some singers who achieve miracles with their “tonsils alone” that “the artistic dividend from being a cultivated person is enormous. If you are an empty vessel, nothing interesting can come out. One’s whole life is preparation for being on stage.”

So where does he start when he first opens a new score? His preparation of an operatic role begins purely with “gut instinct” and “donkey work memorization.” He describes the process as being like “shelling a truck load of peas. You know you will get there in the end but it ‘s going to take some time!” He says he is not above using recordings to help speed up the process but that he has a strong sense of the character and the context in advance. The best part of the learning process in his opinion is the “polishing” stage. He takes the music off to a coach and a teacher for input and ideas and starts trawling through his mind for whatever resources might come in useful. “It’s the most interesting stage” he explains, because “that is when one finally makes art.”

On the subject of Wagner himself Warwick is happy to talk enthusiastically at length and he is somewhat disappointed when I remind him that this article has a word limit. “Wagner is one of the four titans of music,” he firmly states, “the others being Mozart, Bach and Beethoven.” He gets upset at those who profess a dislike of Wagner’s music, especially when he believes that opinions are often based on a sort of “cherished ignorance” surrounding the man and his politics.  He chooses not to expand on Wagner in relation to anti-semitism but does say that “people in general are not nearly as censorious of the disagreeable eccentricities of other artists.” He believes that one of the problems causing the clear polarization of audiences in relation to Wagner’s operas is that many people have lost the distinction between high art and popular entertainment. “It never occurs to them that a work of high art might demand something of THEM.” We discuss the concept of a society interested in, and used to, instant gratification and he laments what he describes as the “amuse me now and look sharp about it” mentality pervading all elements of life. “Shortening attention spans and an unwillingness to tackle anything challenging is the nub of the problem. A lot of people want music which can be absorbed in a totally passive fashion.”

I am curious to know if Warwick’s study in Germany as winner of the Bayreuth Scholarship helped to inform his Australian performances. He reiterates his ideas on “the general broadening of one’s horizons” always being a good thing and states that “the heady resonance that comes from observing the high arts in a great European capital provides a precious impetus for one’s work.” But he believes that overseas study should make Australian artists “better versions of their Australian selves,” and goes on to point out that whilst “provincialism is our greatest enemy” there are actually advantages to the “fresh way of thinking which actually stems from isolation.” Finally he adds that “more prosaically, travel overseas helps engender a bit of realism about one’s own abilities and potential.”

For those who were lucky enough to see Warwick’s momentous performances in the Melbourne Ring Cycle I doubt there would be many among them left questioning his ability as a singer or an actor. He could surely grace any stage in any opera house in the world in this particular repertoire. He personally finds, like many performers, that he has the annoying ability to focus on the parts of his performance that he isn’t pleased with, as opposed to those which fulfill personal expectations. “It’s an attitude that keeps an artist aspiring, learning and improving.” What then are his final thoughts as this epic event in Australia’s cultural history draws to a close? He says with typical good humour and a huge grin, “Well, Wagner’s Ring Cycle is the Ring of the Nibelungen. Alberich is the Nibelung. So I guess I had the privilege of singing the title role!”

More information on Warwick and his forthcoming performances can be found at: www.ozfalstaff.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Australia scores a Covent Garden Hat-Trick.”

as published on www.classicmelbourne.com.au

Deborah Humble talks with tenor Sam Sakker about his expectations from the Covent Garden Young Artist Programme.

Australia’s geographical isolation has always meant that young singers have had to travel far from home seeking to broaden their musical and cultural horizons.  In September this year three more Australians will join the Jette Parker Young Artists’ Programme at Covent Garden in a two year course designed to help them hone their onstage craft under the guidance of some of the world’s best coaches, conductors and directors. Tenor Sam Sakker, baritone Samuel Johnson and soprano Lauren Fagan join fellow Australians soprano Kiandra Howarth and stage director Greg Eldridge who will be completing their second year.  Selected after a rigorous audition process which saw more than 390 applicants from 58 countries apply for 5 positions in front of Music Director Antonio Pappano and Director of the Royal Opera Kasper Holten, it is a formidable achievement which surely says something about the quality of musical education Australians are receiving at home.

28 year old Sam is excited about the move to London after being encouraged to audition by close friend and “amazing” vocal coach Raymond Lawrence. “Realistically,” he says, “I didn’t expect to be accepted, but I certainly wanted to get up and sing as beautifully as I could.” He presented four arias: “Di tu se fedele” from Un Ballo in Maschera, “De’ miei bollenti spiriti” from La Traviata, “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz” from The Land of Smiles and “E lucevan le stelle” from Tosca. Now he can’t wait to learn from some of the best talent in the operatic world. “I know I have a long path ahead of me before I’m adept, let alone a master of all the skills I need to become a great singer. This is going to be an amazing opportunity to develop those I know I am lacking, refine the ones I already have, and discover the ones I haven’t yet identified.”  Sam says that singing full time with the Opera Australia chorus has been useful for learning about stagecraft and about the industry in general. But he is now looking forward to working completely on his solo vocal production

Sam acknowledges the professional and personal support of his mentors and biggest supporters including singers Jose Carbo, Emma Matthews and Yvonne Minton, conductor Giovanni Reggioli, and the Australian companies that have given him opportunities on stage.  “Mentorship is so important because people who have trodden the same, or similar path know the pitfalls of the profession and can show you the ropes.” Nonetheless he feels that overseas experience is essential for young Australian performers to launch careers. “There is so much diversity out there in the rest of the world,” he comments, “and such understanding of voices and repertoire that is not standard in Australia. Overseas experience not only broadens your sphere of knowledge but hopefully also leads you down paths you never imagined.”

He is realistic about the challenges ahead and knows first hand what living abroad is like after a move to Berlin just over 12 months ago. “In retrospect, I don’t think that when I left Australia the first time I was really ready to go. Singing wise I realized there was a lot more work to be done. Nonetheless I had a great time living in a completely different place with completely new experiences. I got to see operas very seldom performed in Australia, made some amazing contacts and friends both inside and outside of the opera community and sang in the finals of the Staatsoper Unter den Linden Studio auditions.”

On returning to Australia Sam says he was intent on “upskilling” and “diversifying” and he enrolled in a Master of Commerce degree at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. “In between starting afresh, getting my head around finance jargon and visits to Centrelink I still made time for regular singing. As soon as I was focused on something else, lots of singing things started falling into place. I sang in the finals of the Herald Sun Aria Competition and performed my first Alfredo in La Traviata with Melbourne Opera, a role I was asked to sing again for New Zealand opera this year.”

Right now Sam is focusing on preparations for the end of the year and is seeking financial support to help with the costs of travel, coaching and language preparation.

“This time I am going abroad with a definitive plan as opposed to thrashing out a path in the unknown. I know I am going to be very busy at the Royal Opera and I can’t wait.”

 

 

Vale Claudio Abbado

 

I have wonderful personal memories of working with Maestro Abbado at the Salzburg Easter Festival in 2001. I was a young artist and had the privilege of being given a very small solo in Beethoven’s ‘Choral Fantasy,’  accompanied by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra with Maurizio Pollini at the piano. It is true to say that I was somewhat mesmerised to be among such musical greats, and night after night I would stand side stage and watch whatever programme was being performed. I remember Abbado as somewhat quiet and kind  off stage but rather sprightly and energized on the podium. After the performances we would often go to a local pub where a group of brass and woodwind players from the orchestra would jam jazz standards. Abbado would join us and seemed to enjoy the camaraderie and spontaneous music making as much as the rest of us.
It was with sadness that I heard of his death this week in Italy. He is now lying in a simple coffin surrounded by yellow sunflowers in a dimly lit side chapel at Santuario Santo Stefano in Bologna. I paid my respects yesterday. Along with a steady stream of visitors, some well known musicians amongst them, I approached the chapel on a red carpet. Many people stood by the coffin and wept. Some just lingered for a time and listened to the piped recordings. Others knelt and prayed.
There was a queue to write a last message in a series of guest books by the exit. I found myself wanting to write something profound; something about providing me with one of the most definitive and memorable musical experiences of my life. But I couldn’t find the words. Then I saw what the woman before me had written and realized that simple words are sometimes enough. “Thank you,” she had put. “Thank you for the music.”
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