Thursday 18 May 2023

From Psychic Shellfish to a leading role in Wagner's Ring Cycle: Ingeborg Børch's Regents Opera journey.

Wagner: Das Rheingold - Ingeborg Børch as Fricka, Keel Watson as Wotan - Regents Opera 2022 (Photo Steve Gregson)
Wagner: Das Rheingold - Ingeborg Børch as Fricka, Keel Watson as Wotan - Regents Opera 2022 (Photo Steve Gregson)

On Sunday 21st May 2023, Regents Opera presents its new production of Wagner's Die Walküre, the latest instalment of their new Ring Cycle, directed by Caroline Staunton and conducted by Ben Woodward. Here, in this guest article, we hear from Ingeborg Børch, who sings Fricka.

As a little girl with pig-tails and a habit of turning every single roll of toilet paper in the house into a white, lush gown and bossing everyone around with a metre-long veil dragging after her, mezzo-soprano Ingeborg Børch was lovingly referred to by her parents as "their little Valkyrie". It was partly to do with her obvious desire to express herself, partly loving all kinds of competitions and challenges (she was later a high-level figure skater), and partly the family business. 

Ingeborg Børch (Photo: Britt Lindemann)
Ingeborg Børch (Photo: Britt Lindemann)
Both Ingeborg’s parents were opera singers with a huge love for Wagner, in particular Wotan’s Abschied with George London, never missing a chance to play it for dinner guests. As a shy, quirky kid hiding behind a bubbly surface, Ingeborg found more comfort and safety in the world of the gods than in real life. All she ever wanted was to become an opera singer and more specifically a Wagnerian singer. Perhaps not the easiest career choice, and initially that meant having a lot of patience.

Early engagements were not without their setbacks. Her first Carmen was with the Royal Danish Opera’s touring department. She went on as a cover with very little rehearsal but collapsed backstage part way through the show. She pulled herself together and made it through to the curtain call but has no memory of the performance. She was later diagnosed with Legionnaires disease and was told in no uncertain terms that she should be happy to be alive and was urged to go home and rest. Like many a performer, she said "Yes, of course, I’ll do that" - and carried on working. 

This kind of behaviour contains some of the characteristics (or warning signs) for people with the irresistible urge to sing and perform Wagner: A good portion of madness, sheer stupidity, stubbornness and a slight death wish. Ingeborg learnt a lot from the experience, however, and now takes care of her safety in order to deliver her best on stage.

But in this world where getting any singing contract let alone a Wagner role is already nearly impossible, where does one find one’s peers?

  1. You realize that there’s a performance of Wagner’s Die Meistersingers with Fulham Opera that coincidentally takes place the day before an audition for the very same company. 
  2. You write the conductor and tell him, you’re in town and looking forward to the show - and casually ask for an audition. The fact that you are not in London, but in Copenhagen with your bags already packed is irrelevant in this case.
  3. You show up on time and give your all.
  4. You wait - and hear nothing for 8 months.  

Then one day an email ticks in asking her if she’d like to portray a psychic shellfish in an opera by Richard Strauss called Die Aegyptische Helena. Who in their right mind could turn down the offer to impersonate an Omniscent Mussel? She said yes in a heartbeat.

Then came Covid and while waiting to do the show, it gave creative minds a chance to be, well, creative. During lockdown conductor Ben Woodward decided to conduct a world premiere: The Ride of the Valkyries in Isolation with full orchestra and 9 singers having all submitted their own parts from their respective living rooms. The result can be seen and heard on YouTube.

Ingeborg took it very seriously, dressed up and did her best to deliver a concerned Shield Maiden but her virtual colleagues took their costumes and acts to another level. Amongst several initiatives such as pretending riding a dog like a horse and installing a rowing machine in the living room for authenticity, she was particularly drawn to the homemade shields and horns made from….Toilet rolls! She knew then that Regents Opera understood her. When they were finally able to put together the Strauss in person she had the time of her life.

Meanwhile, the virtual Walkürenritt had planted a dangerous but exciting seed in the mind of Ben Woodward, and an offer had found its way to Ingeborg’s inbox: To play Fricka, and later a Norn, in Regents Opera’s new Ring Cycle

Very few singers are in fact able to sing Wagner; it requires a special kind of voice and mindset, and the window for falling into that category is extremely narrow due to the strict demands. But once you’ve arrived, a world of limitless possibilities opens up and for Ingeborg, singing Wagner feels like coming home. Why? "Because being of a very energetic nature and having more than once succumbed in my quest for getting absolutely everything right the first time, being forced to do things properly rather than merely enthusiastically makes me a lot calmer. You can’t force Wagner. You have to lean back and let the music work for you, not the other way around. Hugely provoking - but such a relief when you surrender."

Commitment to Wagner is not the only thing required of Ingeborg. Along with everyone else on the project, she goes above and beyond. Just getting word out that there is a Walküre happening in London, in Covent Garden no less …but NOT in a theatre, is hard work, and all the singers take turns to hand out flyers at other opera performances. Thankfully, they have found it can be surprisingly fulfilling as the response is overwhelmingly positive from both the audience accepting flyers and the ushers quietly agreeing to just let the singers use their space in order to promote the show. 

Ingeborg strongly believes that doing great opera in close proximity to the audience can facilitate an atmosphere that has the potential to captivate die-hard Wagner fans without alienating "Wagner Virgins", allowing them to experience the universe, the music and the grandeur without feeling uneducated and /or potentially terrified. In other words, one can absolutely do fringe opera without compromising the quality of the musical standard or the dramatic content. 

Rehearsals have now moved into the venue ahead of the premiere. Ingeborg sits in the auditorium seeing the actual set for Die Walküre for the first time: "It is so beautiful. On stage there are nine crying Valkyries and their father Wotan, the god of Gods, having a massive family crisis over a tiny human who just happens to carry the biggest threat to them all in her womb. This child could mean the end of the realm of all gods, mankind and all of the world."

Nothing is easy in Wagner. So why not up your game and choose a temple, a relic of art deco splendour for a venue - and still make a point of using the "F-word" (Fringe Opera). As Ingeborg says: "It’s amazing what one can do if one doesn’t know their limitations - and I personally think Regents Opera is a great example of this."

Many thanks to Regents Opera for this interview

Regents Opera present Wagner's Die Walküre at the Freemason's Hall, London, WC2B 5AZ on 21, 23,  27 May 2023. Ben Woodward conducts his own arrangement for 21 piece orchestra, Caroline Stanton directs. Full details from the Regents Opera website.

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