Saturday 19 August 2017

Singing Wagner: a continuation of our conversation with Claire Rutter and Dame Anne Evans

Claire Rutter (Sieglinde) in Wagner's Die Walküre at Grange Park Opera (photo Robert Workman)
Claire Rutter (Sieglinde) in Wagner's Die Walküre at Grange Park Opera (photo Robert Workman)
We continue our conversation with Claire Rutter and Dame Anne Evans. Claire has recently sung her first major Wagner role, Sieglinde in Die Walküre at Grange Park Opera and was coached in the role by Dame Anne Evans whose Wagner experience included singing Brünnhilde at the Bayreuth Festival. I recently joined the two of them to talk about singing Wagner. This is the second part of the conversation, and you can read the first part here.

Claire admits that she will now put some of her lighter coloratura roles away, as she finds that she now enjoys singing other things more. Also, as singers get older the voice and the muscles change and the voice's centre of gravity can get lower. There are of course roles which can still be sung by a heavier voice, such as Elvira in Verdi's Ernani.

Dame Anne Evans as Brünnhilde in Die Walküre at WNO in 1984 (Photo Clive Barda)
Dame Anne Evans as Brünnhilde in Die Walküre
at WNO in 1984 (Photo Clive Barda)
Claire's move into Wagnerian repertory is tricky, despite her experience, because frequently no-one is going to book you until they have heard you. So Claire feels that she was lucky that Wasfi Kani, of Grange Park Opera, had the vision to see Claire in the Wagner repertoire. Claire has sung quite a number of roles at Grange Park Opera (including Elvira in I Puritani, Minnie in La Fanciulla del West and the title roles in Madama Butterfly and Tosca), and it was Wasfi who was the first person to book Claire to sing the title role in Bellini's Norma (another peak of the soprano repertoire) in 2009.

Claire has not sung much German repertoire in recent years, but whilst she was at the Guildhall School she sang at lot of lieder and sang Wagner's Wesendonck Lieder for her final recital. She had it in her mind that she would sing Wagner one day, but it just happened that she never had the opportunity. There is also the problem that opera companies get used to a singer in a particular repertory and cannot see them in anything else. In fact Claire sang her first major French role this season when she was Lia in Debussy's L'enfant prodigue with Scottish Opera.

Just as Claire came to study Sieglinde with Dame Anne, many other singers come to her as Dame Anne loves working with young singers on repertoire which she knows well and feels that it is important to pass things on. She adds that if distinguished older singers don't do this, then the younger ones will lose the style. Claire adds that she studied the role of Violetta with Ileana Cotrubas (herself a famous Violetta, Dame Anne describes Cotrubas' portrayal as so human). Cotrubas was famously a rather tricky person to be coached by, but Claire learned a lot about colour and passion, as well as not singing loudly. Claire also had coaching with Rita Hunter in the 1990s, and of course Hunter was singing Brünnhilde in The Ring at the London Coliseum when Dame Anne was singing smaller roles (and singing Violetta in La Traviata at the same time).
The Goodall Ring at English National Opera (with Rita Hunter as Brünnhilde and Alberto Remedio as Siegfried) was cast from the strength of the company, with few guest artists, something which would not be possible nowadays. But Dame Anne also comments that they were lucky that the repetiteurs at the company were also wonderfully experienced.

Dame Anne is a trustee of the Countess of Munster trust which provides support for young singes, and she hears a lot of young singers whom she feels should be under contract with a UK opera company. She also points out that audiences like to make their own stars, they come to see young singers in smaller roles and follow them, looking forward to their next major role. When Dame Anne was young she used to receive a lot of letters from audience members who enjoyed one of her roles and looked forward to seeing her in the next one. Nowadays it is unfortunate that some young singers fail to take a particular training route because of the sheer expense.

Bryan Register (Siegmund), Claire Rutter (Sieglinde) in Wagner's Die Walküre at Grange Park Opera (photo Robert Workman)
Bryan Register (Siegmund), Claire Rutter (Sieglinde) in Wagner's Die Walküre
at Grange Park Opera (photo Robert Workman)
Claire points out that she had eight years of training in the space of ten years and did not pay a penny, she had a grant for seven years, but singers cannot do this nowadays. Dame Anne had a similar experience, she spent four years on a grant at the Royal College of Music and then a scholarship to study in Geneva for two years. These two years were difficult as the Swiss Franc was very high and it was expensive to eat. As the school was attached to the opera house she not only got those first small Wagner roles, but was able to go and hear rehearsals. She thinks it is an important part of a young singers experience to find themselves there, part of the opera house. Whilst Claire was training at the Guildhall School she worked as an usher at the Barbican Centre and was similarly able to hear the major singers, as well as getting used to the sound of the hall.

One problem with modern performances is that there is often never really enough rehearsal. When Dame Anne performed Brünnhilde at Bayreuth in the Ring Cycle directed by Harry Kupfer, she spent two months of each year at Bayreuth. Not surprisingly the personen regie was outstanding. But with a reduction in the amount of rehearsal conductors often expect a singer to use full voice all the time. Dame Anne was advised by Ruth Packer to watch how full she sang as 'a singer only has so many top C's in a lifetime'. Ileana Cotrubas advised Claire not to sing unless she was being paid to sing, (i.e. to mark in rehearsals); advice it would be great to take, but Claire does sing out sometimes, as it would be very frustrating for conductors and colleagues, though she is careful  not to keep singing out all day every day in rehearsal, especially in heavy repertoire. .

Dame Anne feels that orchestras are playing louder and louder; she always tells young singers that, whatever they do not to try and compete with the orchestra. Claire adds that if you really sing up then the musicians assume that you can cope and do not play down. Dame Anne points out that in the pre-war period strings used gut strings rather than metal, which makes a bit difference to the sound. She heard the 2004 Proms period instrument performance of Wagner's Das Rheingold (when Simon Rattle conducted the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment) on the radio and was impressed with the warmth and beauty of the sound.

Act One of Tristan und Isolde at WNO in 1993 (Photo credit Clive Barda)
Act One of Tristan und Isolde at WNO in 1993 (Photo credit Clive Barda)

Wagner Die Walkure - Bayreuth Festival, Anne Evans, Nadine Secunde, Poul Elming, Matthias Holle, John Tomlinson, Daniel Barenboim (available from Amazon)
Wagner Siegfried - Bayreuth Festival, Anne Evans, Siegfried Jerusalem, John Tomlinson, Graham Clark, Daniel Barenboim (available from Amazon)
Wagner Gotterdammerung - Bayreuth Festival, Anne Evans, Siegfried Jerusalem, Philip Kang, Gunther van Kannen, Daniel Barenboim (available from Amazon)

The first part of this interview is available here.

  Elsewhere on this blog:

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