Seen and Heard Interview
A Singer's Art: Deborah Polaski talks to Jim Pritchard (JPr)
I had first met Deborah Polaski in London several years ago when she was singing Brünnhilde at Covent Garden in the Richard Jones directed Ring cycle. She was born in Wisconsin in the USA’s mid-west, her father was a Protestant minister and Ms Polaski began by singing in church all the time ‘whether I wanted to or not’. Thoughts of a singing career only began during her first college years when she attended a very small church college with ‘a wonderful head of music who had a way of conveying his excitement of performance to his students. I was brought up in a community where there was no access to opera but great opera stars like Beverley Stills and Norman Triegle would perform at the local music hall and I sold programmes one summer in order to see them. It was fantastic to experience just those happenings on stage; the telling of a story’. Ms Polaski came to Europe very early in her studies and on a summer programme in Graz ‘I had the wonderful experience of meeting the great George London and he was an integral part of beginning my career for me. Unfortunately he had his massive stroke within the same year but he was a real inspiration.’ This lead to her first contract in Gelsenkirchen (a small town north of Cologne) where ‘they needed someone to sing Senta and Amelia (Un Ballo in Maschera)’. The rest, as the phrase goes, is history and she has developed into one of the most important dramatic sopranos of her generation concentrating particularly on the great roles by Wagner and Strauss.
At the time we last met there had been the furore about the scene in Götterdämmerung where Ms Polaski entered with a paper bag over her head and this is reproduced in John Snelson’s recent book about the history of the Ring at Covent Garden. She had thought that this expressed Brünnhilde’s humiliation better than anything she had done at the time. I asked Ms Polaski whether in hindsight she had really enjoyed working with Richard Jones.
I regret never having had the chance to work with him again as he is such a genius even if some of the ideas were a little surreal for what the public expected to see. He really got to the core of the emotion. It was such a good combination of people with a cast with an incredible amount of chemistry, Siegfried Jerusalem and John Tomlinson, and those kinds of pieces live from that. You cannot possibly have the same chemistry with everybody, you cannot expect that but when it is there it is fantastic.
I asked her who had been the director who challenged her the most.
Easily I would say that is Harry Kupfer. Over the years we did so many things together including Frau ohne Schatten, Elektra, the Ring, Parsifal and Lohengrin. That is an awful lot of rehearsal time and that is really when you get to know somebody’s approach, somebody’s moods, somebody’s craft, I just love the very explicit and exquisite way of working with text and not taking anything for granted as far as the words are concerned – he used to pull things out of pieces and I’d think, “I’ve never thought of that before”. He stopped the sentence before the full stop and made you interpret only that part of the phrase of the sentence. Not knowing what the end of the sentence is this opens up a world of possibilities – for example when Waltraute sings ‘Seit er von dir geschieden’, who is ‘er’? Brünnhilde according to Harry at this point, is only concerned with Siegfried and is not thinking about Wotan. ‘Seit Siegfried von dir geschieden’, is what it means to Brünnhilde in the context of the scene. However, what Waltraute is referring to is Wotan. It’s a fantastic way of working.
I had enjoyed the Kupfer Rings I had seen her in Bayreuth and Berlin but found familiar ideas in both.
There were certain similarities – if you have a good idea, why not use it twice? With a piece of this magnitude, it is very difficult to come up with a second new concept within less than 10 years. The Bayreuth Ring was not that far from the Berlin Ring. We started with the Berlin Ring in 1994 and the Ring in Bayreuth was finished in 1992 – that is not a lot of time especially for a person like Harry Kupfer, who is constantly trying to develop new concepts and is working on so many others pieces at the same time.
We were meeting backstage at the Vienna State Opera before a performance of Parsifal the production Ms Polaski will appear in next season. She was going to see it that evening to see the set and I wondered whether there were sufficient rehearsal for all the operas in Vienna and generally how much she enjoyed singing there.
Rehearsals exist for any new production – 5 or 6 weeks just like any place else in Europe. The biggest problem with a revival is if you have not worked with a colleague before. The chemistry within the house is something you earn and you work for. This develops over the years, and it’s wonderful because then it is like coming to a place where you can enjoy being – I love singing here. It is so important to cultivate a good working atmosphere.
Ms Polaski had sung at the 50th anniversary gala to celebrate the reopening of the Vienna State Opera in 1955 I wondered how that had been for her.
That was quite an experience; the atmosphere in the house was at least 10 times that of any première atmosphere I’ve ever experienced. You are taking part in a historical event, making history, seeing and recognizing singers of former generations, seated there on stage, taking part in an inactive way. It’s a humbling experience. I sang the Act 3 duet and the final quartet from Frau ohne Schatten and the finale from Fidelio, which I hadn’t sung for some time.
I was in Vienna to see Ms Polaski as Isolde. I asked whether this role had changed for her over the years she has been singing it.
My first Isolde was in 1984 in Freiburg. Some roles get easier with time but Isolde does not necessarily get much easier. I am so reliant on the tempi being exactly what I need, but in other roles in my Fach, I can accommodate a little bit more flexibility. For Isolde however, it is particularly important to me that the conductor knows what I need and when. You either need to know someone musically extremely well, like when I jumped in for the second performance at the Festtage 2006 in Berlin. They asked me if I would sing, and I said yes, mainly because it was Daniel Barenboim conducting. I had one staging rehearsal of about 2 hours, and I did not see Maestro Barenboim before the evening. We’ve done the piece together before and it was like putting on a glove. Nowadays Isolde is often cast with a lighter voice, perhaps to go along with the lighter tenors that are available… I’m not sure!? However, my tempi sometimes need to be a little broader since I am a dramatic soprano. You always have to be extremely careful how you get through the lyrical parts of the piece. If they are too fast you can sing lyrically but fast does not necessarily mean lyrically and lyrically does not mean fast. A piece like Götterdämmerung, for example, is a totally different story, and so is Elektra, which I have sung more than 150 times by now. I still have certain places where I need my own tempi but it is all worked into the muscles of the body. You hear a certain phrase and the muscles react spontaneously because that is the result of having sung the piece for so long.
Also I asked what Ms Polaski’s thoughts were on the current Vienna Tristan und Isolde production I was to see.
I love my dress. It has this huge long black train with a dark green bodice! The production is easy to look at. There is not a lot of movement. I like having something to do, to express myself and emotions with my body as well as with my voice. I like action and reaction, but I think this production allows in its simplicity the audience to really concentrate on the context and the content without being distracted.
The Vienna State Opera is beginning a new Ring Cycle soon and I was interested to know how she had enjoyed appearing the last one.
We buried the Ring this January – I enjoyed singing it in Vienna for different reasons. The production lost a lot since its première, but since I did not see it early on and had only access to video taped rehearsals/performances, I don’t really know how it was in the beginning. By the time I was cast to sing it, it was necessary to bring in my experience to fill some of the gaps that had occurred over time. It allowed you a lot of freedom because you weren’t straight-jacketed to do things you didn’t feel comfortable with. There were, however, certain things as far as the set was concerned that made it important to be careful for safety reasons. If you are like I am, someone who enjoys working with the text and delivering an emotion through text-painting, it was actually ideal. Then again you need that certain chemistry with your partners on stage…
What is it like to come back and revisit familiar roles?
I try to engage myself in the text to the extent that I can always find something new. With any masterpiece that you’ve sung so often and are intimately connected to, you can still find new interpretational things if you look long enough. That’s the beauty of singing these pieces, because you’re never finished – the work is never done. This sounds terribly corny – but it is a life experience and it is a road you go that never stops until you stop.
In many of her recitals Ms Polaski includes Mahler songs. I wanted to know her thoughts are about Mahler and his music.
I love the way Mahler writes for the voice – it’s a way of writing that because of his orchestrations gives so many colours and allows a singer also to add their palette of colours to that and it is extremely expressive music, extremely romantic in a certain way. I love Mahler and I wish he had written operas. He wrote in a way that speaks directly to me. When I sing the songs it is extremely good for my voice. The way he uses the language and the colours within the instrumentation it is a challenge for the singer to be able to somehow cope with it all of it and add something so that the picture is even more complete.
Since she spent so much time in two such great cities I was interested to know how Ms Polaski compared Berlin and Vienna.
I live in Berlin, where I often go for doggy-walks. In Vienna – the centre of the city has so much culture but very little green – you can go to the Hofgarten and go to the Stadtpark but there are not many places where you can take dogs. You only realize the worth of green when you don’t find it all around, and I need it. In Berlin, within the city limits, there are many forests and lakes. The feeling within the city here is totally different to Berlin and you cannot compare the two but I love coming to Vienna and nearly every month this season I am here. Culturally, they both have so much to offer: opera houses – plural! - philharmonic orchestras of world renown, drama theatres of international importance, so many museums that one needs almost a lifetime to absorb what is offered for visual as well, and then there is the whole culinary world which we could also discuss!
With so much experience behind her I was curious if she had time for coaching and teaching the next generation of singers.
I’m doing both now and really love it. The learning process and the experience process do not stop with me, and I enjoy being able to pass it on. So many times it is a matter of a young singer knowing how much of a risk they can take in making decisions and making their opinions known, and what risk they should not take. It is good to discuss these things with a colleague with experience. Questions and possible answers in conjunction to how do you feel about this etc. etc. If it is a matter of should I sing this role already? So much depends on who is conducting; what size of a house it is, and who your colleagues are. Do your partners fit vocally size-wise with you; also so much depends on the acoustics of the house. What you are singing the night before, what you are singing after? Little things that need to become part of your approach to every question about a new job. It needs to be all part of the list you tick off – and I enjoy seeing young singers finding their answers through our discussions.
I wondered whether younger singers now have greater pressures on them than when she began her career.
The pressure is undoubtedly greater when young singers get to the top too early. So many times you get young singers at the top who don’t have any experience to back up decisions necessary at the top. Of course, this often results in the inability to react in a ‘wise, experienced’ way. Decisions made, that are not based on experience, can be detrimental, vocally and even sometimes emotionally, if they make the steps to the top too quickly. That is only pressure that you, as an individual, have allowed to come into your life. It is still possible to say no. The days when I was ‘growing up’ in the system you had a full time contract in a house and tried out things in that house and did a little bit of guesting. You then moved onto a bigger house, tried out more things there and also did a little bit more guesting. That is not the popular way to think anymore. Don’t take the time to build a sound basis but go straight to the top, but with what kind of experience? Many times you get young kids at the top who don’t have any background to base the situation on and, of course, they don’t now how to react. The best advice an older singer can give a younger singer is if it is worth it everything will come, so take your time.
Finally what was in Ms Polaski’s diary that she was most looking forward to?
Well, singing in concert Dukas’ Ariane et Barbe-Bleue for the first time in May 2006, the tour to Japan with the New York Met in June 2006, and then I will sing Cassandra and Didon in Les Troyens in October in Paris. I will be returning to Vienna next season to sing Isolde, Kundry and Elektra and I am looking forward to that as well as to a new production of Elektra in Barcelona in 2008!
© Jim Pritchard