29th January, 2015
This month Gwyn Hughes Jones will star as Walther Von Stolzing in Wagner's The Mastersingers of Nuremberg for English National Opera. It will be Gwyn's debut in this challenging role and his first important role in the German repertoire, signifying a milestone in his career.
Carys Davies, newsletter editor interviews Gwyn about his forthcoming appearance at the Coliseum, London.
Walther von Stolzing is a milestone for me as it is my first Wagnerian role. I have always tried to plan my repertoire carefully and make sure it maintains a healthy balance between the lyric and the dramatic. It has always been my intention to sing Walther, but my schedule has not allowed me to do so until now.
Die Meistersinger was enthusiastically received at its premiere in 1868, and was judged to be Wagner's most immediately appealing work. Despite this, the American author and humourist Mark Twain labelled Wagner's Mastersingers as "music that is better than it sounds". What is your opinion on this?
Wagner is a little like a game of cricket to me. It can be a rather boring, drawn-out experience watching it for hours but playing it can make a whole afternoon disappear in a flash.
There can be no question that he writes stunningly beautiful music but the economy in expression is very important. I do feel that Wagner wrote much for himself and not for a world audience. For me, Wagner may well have showed the world how opera could be written but Puccini showed the world how opera should be written.
If you could have a conversation with Richard Wagner, what would you like to know about The Mastersingers?
I'd like to know why the opera had to be so long. There are many instances where he could have been economical in his writing and his expression.
I would have liked to have heard his opinions on how his music has been sung and played during the last half-century or so - I'm in no doubt that the opera world would benefit enormously from hearing them.
The opera revolves around the real-life guild of Mastersingers, an association of amateur poets and musicians, mostly from the middle class and often master craftsmen in their chosen professions. How have you approached this role?
Studying the historical background of a story is always a good place to start and very informative.Walther is the outsider who comes to Nürnberg on business and ends up 'shaking-things-up' a little.
My approach to Walther has been no different than to any other role I sing. This entails hours of silent studying and memorising, singing passages over and over and over, trying different approaches and phrasings, and adjusting expression and inflection (in this case to accommodate the English text whilst trying also to honour Wagner's own expression marks as far as is possible). I have benefited enormously from preparing the role with Michael Pollock and Anthony Negus. As coach and conductor their perspectives have been invaluable to me.
The Mastersingers is a four and a half hour opera – how do you find the time to eat and drink properly?
Keeping energy levels and concentration levels high during these hours is very important and you cannot do this without putting fuel in the engine. Hydrating is fundamentally important, as is making sure that we maintain our nutrition during such a long show. Water and fruit will always be close at hand.
How have you prepared for the iconic role that is Walther? Do you listen to old recordings?
I have, indeed, listened to a good few interpreters of the role. My favourite Walthers have been those singers who have understood these qualities in the writing. Foremost among them have been Franz Wolker and Sandor Konya.
What are some of the greatest interpretive challenges in portraying Walther?
It is making what is a difficult and demanding role sound as elegant, easy and effortless as possible whilst at the same time playing and singing it to its potential and making Walther dramatically a credible foil to the Mastersingers.
Walther von Stolzing is a young knight who has fallen in love. Do you project a part of yourself through the role of Walther?
I think we use our own life-experiences to tell the stories of these characters as far as is possible in order to bring humanity to them. The rest of the time we use our imaginations and we 'act'.
Looking in Wagnerian repertoire, is Walther the role that you like the most?
It is the only one I have sung to date, but I plan to sing Lohengrin.
Do you get nervous before performances?
I get excited. It's always a great privilege to have the attention of an audience whether it is in the theatre or in a concert/recital hall. It's always a great challenge to move and inspire people; people who may be hearing you sing for the hundredth time and people who are hearing you for the very first time. The words '"you're only as good as your last performance" also ring in my ears so the constant necessity to be always better and better than my best is ever present and gives me plenty to think about.
Do you have any pre-performance rituals? If so, what are they?
I like to study the up-coming acts if there is time to do so before the show and during the intervals.
I have certain things on my desk that remind me of my obligations, some photographs of my family, of great artists and composers that I have always admired and a few words and ideas that inspire me in my work.
Do you have a preferred scene in The Mastersingers?
There are scenes in The Mastersingers that are great for their pomp and their pageantry as there are scenes that are just as great for their intimacy and (dare I say it) simplicity.
The festival and 'Prize Song' scene are special of course, but I enjoy enormously the scene in the Singing School with the Mastersingers and the scene in Sachs' workshop where Walther is inspired to improvise verse after verse of his 'dream song'.
Where would you place The Mastersingers within the global work of Wagner?
It is his only comedy. I'm not aware that anyone dies during its course - that can't be a bad thing.
What do you think of your experience thus far singing Walther at English National Opera?
I have enjoyed it enormously and as an artistic experience it has been very stimulating and satisfying. ENO is a company that I am very proud with which to associate myself. It is a world class company that is more than capable of matching and surpassing the standards set by more privileged and prestigious companies in the opera world. The London Coliseum is the largest opera house in the UK and a wonderful place to sing and the ENO audiences are among the warmest and the most sophisticated in the world.
How do you wind down after a performance?
Because of the adrenaline high from the performance it takes a while to find calm again. Sleep is impossible for a good couple of hours. I may spend some time having a beer with my colleagues before going back to my hotel/appt. and trying to get some sleep. Recovery after performances - particularly demanding roles - can take days.
How would you describe your voice? Has it changed much since your professional operatic debut in 1995 with Welsh National Opera as Ismaele in Nabucco? Do you have any advice for young singers starting out their career?
My voice is a lyric-dramatic voice which allows me to be able to sing a great deal of amazing repertoire. I have the opportunity to show the strength and the vulnerability of characters in equal measure thereby fulfilling the expressive potential of the great operatic roles such as Manrico, Des Grieux, Don Jose, Cavaradossi etc......
Has my voice changed? Of course it has changed. It has changed as I have matured. It has changed with the repertoire I have sung. I understand it better today than I ever did. I know what I do well and I know what I need to work on, and I am always aware of that necessity and drive to be better and better and better and to live up to the legacy I've inherited.
Advice to young singers. There are no quick fixes. There is only hard work, patience and the ability to use one's imagination within the confines of what is put in front of us.
Any new role challenges in the near future?
There are a great many. The title role in Ernani by Verdi, Don Álvaro (La Forza del Destino) again by Verdi. Turiddu and Canio in the double-bill of Cavalleria Rusticana (Mascagni) and I Pagliacci (Leoncavallo). These are all during the next two years, as well as operas such as Il Trovatore, Tosca and Madama Butterfly which figure significantly in my repertoire.
Richard Jones's acclaimed staging opens on the 7th February at English National Opera.