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Andrew Shore –Alberich in the 2009 Bayreuth Ring talks to Jim Pritchard about his career and especially about appearing at the Bayreuth Festival (JPr)

Andrew Shore as Alberich in the Bayreuth Ring

The British baritone, Andrew Shore, is one of the most admired singer/actors on opera stages throughout Britain and across the world. His repertory includes title roles in Falstaff, Wozzeck, King Priam, Gianni Schicchi and Don Pasquale, as well as memorable performances as Dr Bartolo (Il barbiere di Siviglia and Figaro), Dulcamara (L’elisir d’amore), Don Alfonso (Così fan tutte), Faninal (Der Rosenkavalier), Dikoj (Kát’a Kabanová) and Kolenatý (The Makropulos Case), amongst others. Since 2006 he has been singing the role of Alberich in Tankred Dorst’s production of the Ring Cycle in Bayreuth and his experiences about working there were the focus of our talk when we met in an elegant city centre café during the performances this year.

To begin with I wondered how he had got the role of Alberich in the current Bayreuth Ring.

Well Harmut Welker who had sung Alberich here for a number of years announced about 5 years ago that he wouldn’t be doing it again in this Ring and my agent – being a very good one – was aware of this and put me forward as a replacement. I, like everyone here I think, had to audition and so I sang for Christian Thielemann and the Wagner family including Wolfgang who still was in control then. I went to Berlin where Thielemann was music director of the Deutsche Oper at the time and it was on the stage there that I auditioned and I was lucky enough to get the job. I must say it was a huge bonus for me having sung the role previously at English National Opera.

That was a tremendous grounding for me. I know a lot of people say you should learn a role in its original language first of all but in actual fact if you learn it in your own language first you get a much deeper rooted feel for any part: that’s true for me anyway and I found that when I came to learn the German it was so much easier. Of course there are little differences, small nuances here and there, but you know the core by having sung it in your own language.

I was interested in this because I recently had a debate with a representative from Holland Park about Kát’a Kabanová after I had written in a review suggesting it would have been better if the singers had sung in English; his view was ‘learning parts in English is a bit of a dead end’ and so I was interested that Andrew’s views differed on this.

As I said I value learning roles in English, with something like Kát’a it is a lot of work getting your mouth round those words in Czech with no natural feel for the language. The first Janáček I did was Dr Kolenatý in The Makropulos Case which must have the greatest number of words in each bar of any part and he just gabbles on. I was fortunate then to do my first one in English in David Poutney’s production with Josephine Barstow at Welsh National Opera so when I first came to do it in Czech at Glyndebourne I was already halfway there and feel it is a real bonus to do it that way. It’s been that way for me with other roles including Dulcamara, Bartolo, Don Pasquale and Gianni Schicchi. The only problem is if I have done more than one translation. I once did two productions of Così in English - one for Scottish Opera and the other for English National Opera - and in almost consecutive performances but in different translations and that was particularly mind-bending!

I praised Andrew on his good diction and I wondered whether a non-German singer singing at Bayreuth had to pay particular attention to this side of his performance.

I hope it is not immodest of me to say that you are not the first person to tell me that and only the other night an English person who is at the
Ring and speaks good German also said that my diction compared well to the German singers. I think if you are a foreigner coming here you expect yourself to do it absolutely clearly and I said to this person that if you are singing in your own tongue it is easy to get lazy. I tell young singers at ENO, when people criticise them for poor diction, that the problem is not how to produce the words - rather it’s their state of mind. You must sing with the intention of communicating some meaning and that will make all the difference. Some singers just sing for themselves and then the words do not go anywhere.

I wondered what he would like to say about being at Bayreuth and about how the performances are rehearsed.

I think they achieve tremendous things here. I saw Stefan Herheim’s Parsifal production and although it is not an opera I know particularly well and so didn’t understand everything the director was doing with it, I could see how it all related in some way to the text. It was almost cinematographic with the stage pictures changing as the text moved through. It was very good considering the shortage of rehearsal time you get on stage here. There are seven productions to put on and so there are seven first nights almost in a row and it leaves very little stage time for each one.

Of course when we started with the Ring in 2006, the obviously that first year gets the longest preparation. We rehearsed the four Ring operas from the middle of May through to the opening night in late July. Even eight weeks or so is not enough considering the enormity of the undertaking, so traditionally they always have a few preliminary rehearsals the year before and I came out in 2005 whilst that Festival was on to do one week’s rehearsal on the opening of Siegfried Act II and the Hagen scene in Götterdämmerung. That’s all I did then so when I came back in 2006 we did the rehearsals proper.

Now for this year it went to the other extreme and we did very little rehearsing. The 19th June was the earliest I could get here because I was singing in Milan. I assumed that rehearsals might have already begun before I got here but no: that was when everyone was starting so virtually all we had time to do was cover each scene that we were in once; just to make sure we remembered it. Naturally there are the orchestra rehearsals which are always held in the restaurant and then towards the end of the schedule you go on stage for the final rehearsals with the orchestra. When I first came back here in 2007 it was a shock to find how little revival time there was, but you get used to the system and that is just the way it is. At the Festspielhaus there are 6 or 7 different rehearsal stages most of which can accommodate large sections of the set even if they cannot take the whole thing. The sets are usually constructed in such a way that they can be wheeled around in units from one of these stages to another.

I enquired what his views were on Tankred Dorst’s production.

I must be honest and say I was disappointed and had expected more when I first started work on this Ring because, naturally, one comes to Bayreuth with the expectation – right or wrong – that you are going to see something exciting and done in the proper way. Of course, what you discover is that those things depend entirely on the creative team and Bayreuth is no different in any respect from anywhere else in that.

The first Alberich - and indeed Wagner – I had done was at ENO when Phyllida Lloyd directed the Ring. Now whatever you may think of Phyllida’s production it had been very carefully thought through and, from a performer’s point of view, it was richly rewarding because my character was fleshed out. I understood my motivation, my relationship with everyone else, and where I stood in the contemporary world if you wished to make that parallel association. Having dealt with all that I come here to be confronted with what I can honestly say is a very naïve approach – but I think deliberately so – on the part of the director.

Tankred Dorst is someone who, as far as I know, is steeped in the mythology of the Ring particularly from the literary point of view. He clearly respects the simple narrative of the words and instructions as they are they are presented in the text. One cannot criticise him too much from a personal point of view because he has never produced an opera before and he has come to it with his own best intentions. That is why the curtain comes in so many times in this staging because the text says that the curtain comes in and so that is what has happen. His starting point is the text and I suspect this is why he got this idea, which for me is a very simple and insubstantial one, of having the modern world creeping into scenes. Sometimes so much happens in musical terms between the time these extraneous characters appear and then reappear that the audience are really puzzled as to what they are doing there. So it would have been better if the modern world idea had been followed through more and showed that the mythology had some real relevance to the modern world.

I repeat: I do think it is all due to Tankred Dorst’s lack of experience in opera and he is a thoroughly nice man. Now in my fourth year here, I increasingly feel I am much more in control of what I am doing; you come in the first year as an innocent Englishman waiting to be told what to do, how to sing it, when to come out, where to sit and all that. You end up feeling that you must please everyone as much as possible and that is not what a performer should really be doing. Now I’ve come through all of that and do feel I’ve seized control of what I do with regard to the acting and, within prevailing limitations, feel freer to do what I think is right because the director is only too happy for me to do that, it seems.

Reflecting on what he has just said I commented that I had found the curtain closing so often rather annoying even though it allow me to concentrate on the music. I wondered if he had anything to add about that.

For me, one of the most exciting aspects of Das Rheingold is the scene change between Scenes 2 and 3 as we go from the gods into Nibelheim because, of course, it is continuous music with a great build up of excitement. There I stand on the side of the stage with Mime waiting to go on while watching this scene change happening. They roll one set back and the other flies down and I sometimes wish the audience could see that because it all happens with the curtain down. The audience loses out on something very exciting there. I recall the video of the Chéreau Rheingold where you do actually see the scene change and it goes with the music so well.

Part of the problem is that although there are hydraulics and you can raise and lower things at Bayreuth, there is actually very little wing space and so everything has to either go up into the flies or it has to be pushed back. There is an awful lot of pushing things around and it is not a fully automated stage like many modern international opera houses.

In this production Alberich has a rather toad-like appearance and I wondered if the costume was a heavy as it looked.

No it’s not. It’s just tight-fitting like one of those lycra suits you might squeeze yourself into. It is actually not what the designer originally wanted and this goes back to my first introduction to this Ring. The designer and director wanted Alberich to appear as a rather more inhuman sort of figure and I would have a false head sitting on top of my own and my face would be blacked out. So picture this, if you can, an unmoving head with a fixed facial expression with which, of course, there were several problems when we tried it out in rehearsal. Firstly, it was difficult to move around without the head falling off, but the main problem was that I felt it was distracting from the way I wanted to express Alberich - which required using my real face and not a false one. I felt instinctively that it would only be a matter of time before I had to put my foot down about it.

Fortunately I had Wolfgang on my side about this. At that stage he was still very much around and had the habit of appearing at rehearsals anytime unannounced and sat at the corner of the stage resting his chin on his stick while we were going through things and the production staff were in the auditorium. There were two things about this; first of all I found it so moving that the composer’s grandson was watching me perform Alberich with his face wreathed in beaming smiles and I thought to myself ‘Isn’t this wonderful’ because he was obviously appreciating what I was doing. More importantly, however, whenever that wretched head appeared he would make a real fuss about it because, as everyone knows, he was always very outspoken and would start shouting out his opinions in his rough Bavarian German. It came to the point where he started hiding the head so we couldn’t use it and people would be rushing round saying ‘Have you seen the head?’ Wolfgang would sit there – as innocent as could be – having hidden it. He hated it and I am so grateful for him speaking up.

I assumed the long piece of cloth on the costume was supposed to be Alberich’s tail though at one point in Das Rheingold he brings it up between his legs as – if I can put it delicately - a sign of his virility. I asked if this was correct.

Yes that’s right and the gesture only came in after the first year when the director had the courage to ask me to do it. However, going back again to the original costume design again, not only was I going to have that big head but I was going to have something rather large at the front dangling down. I said I couldn’t possible wear it as the audience would not be looking anywhere else - only at that.

How is it working with Christian Thielemann?

Well the music is on a completely different level for me and it is astonishing the sounds that he gets from the orchestra. They are, of course, all hand-picked players; they have played this together for four years now and many could have played it with him before, so they know how to respond to his every gesture. Watching him mould and shape the music is wonderful yet he retains the freedom from one performance to another to slightly change little corners, taking a bit more time here or there and you know you just have to keep you eye on him all the time to respond to those little moments.

I am always amazed in Bayreuth and at a number of other European opera houses about the prominence given to thanking the prompter at curtain calls - something we are not used to in the UK. I asked Andrew about this.

There is a basic difference between the UK and Europe because in general at home we try not to use a prompt box at all. The feeling is that if the piece is rehearsed properly and everyone knows what they are doing then there should be absolutely no need for one; the conductor in the pit will take as much interest in his singers as in his orchestra. That is different in Europe where traditionally the conductor is primarily concerned with the orchestra and so the prompter is needed partly to conduct and give singers a clear beat where necessary - as prompters have a monitor showing the conductor - as well as just giving singers the first couple of words of every line.

It is partly because in the German and Italian repertory system there might be a long gap between performances and some singers may have just one odd performance with no rehearsal at all. In that situation it is a very good safeguard against forgetting the words. When I first started rehearsing here, having the prompter kept putting me off because I thought someone was talking to me in rehearsals and I kept looking to see who it was. To be honest it’s a very useful aid because there are always those moments when you think ‘What do I sing next?’ and just to hear even the first word can act as a trigger to help you remember.

Looking at the faces of some singers on the big screen broadcast at Bayreuth, it seemed to me that coming out for curtain calls was almost as frightening as singing the rest of the performance. I wondered what Andrew’s experience of this was.

Well you never know what you are actually going to get because this is the most opinionated audience you will find anywhere in the world. You can never really tell what the reaction will be for you before you go out. In the past, if a particular singer has been very badly received Wolfgang wouldn’t let them go out for another call. There has been a lone voice in the last couple of years who actually boos me when I come out ; thankfully he doesn’t seem to have been here this year so far. I tried to convince myself it was a deep-throated roar of approval [Laughs] but I don’t think it was! John Tomlinson warned me about this and said that it doesn’t matter how many ovations you get, there will always be one person who for some reason does not like what you are doing, your type of voice or your character. Sure enough it happened for me last year and even with everyone standing on their feet there was this one person booing me –you can’t please all the people all the time!

As our time neared its end I asked Andrew how he had become a singer.

I always say it is the only thing I was ever good at so that basically I had to end up doing it. It started at school in the productions there because we had a very good music teacher and the first musical thing I did apart from being in the chorus of some Gilbert and Sullivan was Oklahoma singing the romantic lead - ‘Oh what a beautiful morning’ and all that. Then in my last year we did Carmen and I sang the Toreador. So it was all thanks to my teacher and it wouldn’t have happened without him. I started having singing lessons while still in Oldham and I enjoyed the Youth Theatre productions there and it carried on at University. I went to Bristol to read Theology because that was a subject I was quite good at academically and didn’t really want to study music because I just wanted to enjoy doing it. As you can imagine though, I spent most of my time at University immersed in the Opera Society directing operas and singing in them. My first professional job was for the Arts Council’s little group called ‘Opera for All’ and I was basically a stage manager with them and also sang small parts. Then I got into the chorus of Kent Opera and started building up from there.

I wondered what other Wagner roles he might like to sing, whether he has plans for more Alberichs and, in general, what his immediate plans are.

Well Beckmesser is the only other Wagner role I’d be really interested in and I have sung that once at the Edinburgh Festival. OK, Klingsor in Parsifal would be fun but he has just got that one important scene but Beckmesser is a wonderful role: however as a singer I am entirely at the whim of casting directors on this and can only take what comes. As for Alberich when this Ring is finished I feel it will have been a good stint and although there have been some other invitations to sing it one of the problems is the amount if time a new production takes which is why I haven’t accepted those jobs. I don’t really want to spend two months on a role I have under my belt. There is one coming up in Barcelona in a couple of years and that is a much shorter rehearsal period and so is more manageable.

In the immediate future I am looking forward to singing Don Inigo Gomez in L’Heure espagnole in the revival of the double bill with Gianni Schicchi at Covent Garden and then I go to Chicago to do Kát’a Kabanová. Next February I will sing Dulcamara in a new production at ENO of L’elisir d’amore by Jonathan Miller - well one that is new to ENO as it has already been put on by New York City Opera.

Finally I thought about all the other fine opera singers that have come, like Andrew, from Lancashire such as Eva Turner, Alberto Remedios, John Tomlinson, Graham Clark to name just a few and wondered if he had ever reflected on that.

I suppose music is in the blood but maybe our good, honest, straightforward diction has something to do with it.

Jim Pritchard

For further information about performances of L’Heure espagnole and Gianni Schicchi at Covent Garden in October see  

Picture © Bayreuther Festspiel and Jörg Schulze

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