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Stephen Milling who shares the role of Sarastro at Covent Garden from the end of January talks with Jim Pritchard (JPr)

The Danish bass Stephen Milling is an imposing presence on stage and seems even taller in the confines of the Royal Opera’s interview room before he makes himself comfortable on the settee. He recently impressed with a menacing Hunding in the Ring and is pleased to be back for Sarastro in Lee Blakeley’s forthcoming revival of David McVicar’s production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte which opens on 28th January.


Do you enjoy coming back to London and what about the weather?

‘I love coming to Covent Garden, the bigger the house you work in the more the warmth between the stage people, it is a very very nice place to work at. There is always a hug or ‘Hi!’ from someone and everybody is smiling. I love the city and the weather even more, today with the damp and rain it reminds me of Copenhagen.’

Stephen appears the most amiable of men as we talk and there is a lot of laughter so it comes as no surprise that his preferred listening when he is relaxing is jazz yet recently he made his entry onto the Covent Garden in Die Walküre so convincingly wielding an axe.

‘It is the most exciting moment, Hagen is not a very nice person and when you come on stage with that axe it is lovely – I like it. I really like the director Keith Warner’s ideas and the way he would go into every character, modelling it along with the artists so everything fitted and we had a reason to move and act on stage – that I think was very unique. I like it when I can see the whole spectrum of a personality. It is a little difficult with Hunding but I can live with that when I have an axe like his (he laughs). I like to step into the character and when I finish with the opera I just leave it behind – it is not always like that but I think it is what most singers look for, that moment where you are completely in the role and going along with the music and everything is just right. That is really what opera is all about.

It is always nice to come on stage and be mean although I don’t think I want to really explore that psychologically (laughs again). It could be because I try to be nice every day that it is good to go in and really make a presence – especially when people say ‘Oh that Bastard!’ or something like that – it means you have really reached people. This is of course much easier when the character is mean than if he was say, the hero.

Then in another role I do, King Phillip II, all the angles are there – the pride, the kingship and so the power, but you also have weakness. We even have the fifth act that is missed in the Italian version where you have Phillip, the father, reaching out for his son, Don Carlos. I like that when we see every facet of a character’s personality.’

I wondered whether Stephen always wanted to be a singer and how did his career start?

‘Actually I wanted to be a country vet. In fact my family were not that musical, my parents were working in India for some years during my schooling and I went for one year to where there was a free room involving lessons in sculpture and history amongst other things. There was a choir there and I found out I loved singing. I was already a bass and did small solo parts. The person conducting said “this is really what you must do’. In fact my voice was deeper then than it is now (laughs).

I was introduced to the famous Danish composer Svend S. Schultz and I sang a couple of songs to him, he said I was good but I should go away find a singing teacher and come back and see him again sometime in the future. I didn’t know why I had to wait so I rang him as soon as I could because I thought he was the teacher I needed. So I began lessons with him but more than that he introduced me to opera, to symphonies, teaching me what I needed to know about classical music theory and technique. With him I went to the Danish Opera for the first time. The first thing I saw was Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci. I was immediately enthralled by sitting there in the auditorium, listening to the orchestra, feeling the power of the singers, watching the acting, the whole atmosphere in fact, it was really lovely.

I worked with Svend two or three times a week on piano lessons, little scenes, learning repertoire, very low things because I was very deep voiced at the time so it had to be massaged. Although I later had sung a wonderful piece of his on Danish radio as a kind of tribute I was unfortunately working when he died in 1998 and was unable to sing at his funeral. After nearly a couple of years he said that I had to find a real singing teacher and I went to the Conservatoire. I first sang in public at one of the small concerts there and developed my repertoire, Sarastro (that I am singing again now), Leporello and all those smaller parts for my low voice “in tiefen Keller”.’

I wondered whether he researched roles when he first sang them?

‘I am not a person who worries about reading the background of the people I am singing.  What is more interesting to me is the opera director’s history, can we meet, do I think it will go like clockwork? In this production here of Die Zauberflöte I like it especially because we see a bit more of the dark side of Sarastro. Some text has been added back, just a line or two, and yet again, the more we can see of a personality – the more interesting it is to watch. I have sung Sarastro many times and with him there are my own experiences that I can bring in – being a husband, being a father, coping with death in the family – all that kind of stuff. I am using all this to put feeling into whatever the director wants. I always approach most of the roles I sing this way and if the director wants an extra dimension I count on him or her to fill me in with their vision and ideas. I like this Zauberflöte here very much indeed. I always enjoy that dialogue with the director never forgetting that our main job is to fulfil not only their wishes but the composer’s too.

I was curious how Stephen musically worked on a role and whether he could sing say Gurnemanz at short notice if he had not sung it for a while?

‘For Gurnemanz the difficulty is learning all those words. I will write out the German text, and it is fortunate understanding their meaning is no problem because I speak the language well. If it is an Italian role I will write out the words and translate it, not from a libretto but word for word. Once you have the words it is just a matter of working on it at the piano.  It is amazing that with Wagner and Strauss – and possibly some of the Russian repertoire that I haven’t touched yet to any extent – you learn the roles and they stay in your system. You may forget a word here or there but they come back quickly. I am working on Gurnemanz now because I am performing it in Vienna at Easter and I am amazed at how much I remember. The words are also linked to the character’s movement and emotions so that is also a way to memorise a part.

I am also learning Baron Ochs at the moment, my much-missed Danish compatriot Aage Haugland, who also had a dramatic talent I adored, once told me there are four to five thousands words in this role to learn … that is a lot!’

I remarked how it was clear that for Stephen the acting part of his job was nearly as important as the singing.

‘Acting of course is important otherwise let’s do a concert, so drama for me is a passion and why I most like rehearsing a role. First I must please myself and be in balance with whatever I do then I feel I have something to give to the audience. But we constantly need to develop our methods if we are to attract young people to opera. They grow up watching these special effects films and so just moving on stage from A to B, then B to C, standing and singing is not working any more. We have an obligation to develop our acting skills. Of course it is not completely natural as we still have to sing over 90 people in the pit, but when we have a fight then make it real. It is no good having a singer shot and there being no blood – it is just not good enough these days.

In the fight between Siegmund and Hundling we must hear the sounds of the swords and they must get in someone who knows how to fight. In Seattle in this scene you could hear “Ting! … Ting!” and people went “Wow!” and believed it. It can take some time to learn and even might be dangerous but we owe it to ourselves as performers and to the audiences.’

I asked whether although Stephen sang a lot of Wagner he looked closely at his calendar to ensure that there were a suitable range of the other roles he enjoys.

‘What I am concerned in this business is that because I sing so much Wagner that I will be put only into the box labelled “Wagner singers” because I know I can also sing a very good Sarastro, Phillip II and Padre Guardino in La Forza del Destino and so on. I have done all the Wagner roles right for my voice apart from King Henry which is too high for me with too many High Es and I don’t sing Pogner either, though I probably could do but haven’t done it yet. Hagen is also something I have turned down many times; it was first offered to me when I was only 35 and that was certainly not the right time to do it.

It is also vital to sing different stuff because there once was a year when I sang 3 or 4 different productions of Rheingold and Walküre which was tough because both Fasolt and Hunding are rather loud and sort of gruff. My voice got very tired and a bit like a German “Stehbass”. I was longing to sing some Italian to get it in shape again. It is the way Verdi wrote for the voice that can help it get back into shape again and that’s why I really enjoy roles like King Phillip II because the text and music acts as a kind of balsam for the voice. It is almost the same for the Mozart I am singing now.

King Mark in Tristan is the most Verdian of the Wagner roles where musically and technically for the bass if not the tenor,  it lies most towards the Italian. The way the monologue is written is amazing and almost without warming up you can go in and sing King Mark. (He begins to sing) It starts just like vocalising and it is so beautiful and so is the text – this man does not understand how Tristan who is almost his own “flesh and blood” could betray him. With the sublime music it all fits together (he links fingers to emphasise this). This is the Wagner role I most compare with Phillip II.’

I was curious where Stephen regarded as his home and whether he enjoyed travelling the world the way he does?

My family and my three sons are in Copenhagen. I am like most basses I believe, and fairly “down to earth”. My family are the reason why I can do this kind of work and travel like I do. I am fortunate to have a contract there for a maximum of 15 performances a year – so there are one or two productions I know I will do each year in Copenhagen. I’ll be going back there for my first Ochs and Phillip II again. Now and then I take one of my sons along with me and I had my middle son in London for Walküre and we went to all sorts of places as well as seeing Arsenal play football and this was a great experience for both of us. Another time I had my eldest with me in New York for two weeks. All this compensates for the time I am away. When I am in Seattle where I have sung in the Ring and as Gurnemanz I always have the family with me all summer so it becomes a kind of second home for me and the family,  so that’s great.

Although I haven’t been to Japan I’ve been nearly to almost everywhere else they sing opera.  There are always two feelings when I am travelling – the first, if they are not with me, is of course that I miss my family. The second is the joy of working with wonderful people; conductors, directors, and singers. The Wagner world in particular is its own family as when I get to a place I will undoubtedly meet a number of colleagues I know and have worked with before. To work with a person like Simon Rattle, Zubin Mehta, James Levine or any of the great conductors; or with great voices such as Domingo and many of my other friends then this is worth a lot too!

As yet for Stephen concert work or Lieder recitals do not feature as much in his plans as more opera.

‘With Lieder I feel a bit awkward and a bit naked as it is really only about the text and I enjoy the drama in opera. I hopefully I will have that pleasure when I can put some time in the calendar and prepare Hugo Wolf Lieder and the Vier ernste Gesange by Brahms.’

Finally as the time for our conversation was ending and Stephen had to leave to go back to rehearse Sarastro,  I wondered what he was looking forward most to next or perhaps where he was looking forward going back to.

‘Well I am most looking forward to doing the Parsifal in Vienna and Tristan in Amsterdam. I haven’t sung at the opera house in Amsterdam before only at the Concertgebouw. Places I am always happy to come back to apart from Copenhagen and London include New York, Paris and Florence … but you don’t get any hugs in Florence (laughs again).

Stephen Milling rises to his feet - and keeps on rising  - and never has an admittedly small room seemed so tiny and me so insignificant despite my girth. It was a pleasure to meet such a man at ease with himself and with so many positive ideas about a singer’s life and I left to await his forthcoming Sarastros with much anticipation.


© Jim Pritchard


Stephen Milling shares the role of Sarastro (with Hans-Peter König) at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden from 28th January.


 Pictures © The Royal Opera

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