The role of Baron Ochs in Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier is one of your favourites. Why does it speak to you?

The role of Baron Ochs is my favourite role. First of all, it’s one of the largest roles in the bass repertoire so you get so much opportunity for play in terms of dramatic involvement. He doesn’t have a lot to sing in the way of beautiful, long lines of music. I mean, he does have some really great, exposed moments but for him it’s very much a play set to music. And he talks a lot! He sings for an hour and a half within the three and half hours of music. Most standard opera roles for men, low voices, are 30 to 40 minutes of actual singing if we’re talking about a large role. He sings for an hour and a half, and never shuts up onstage so really he has three hours’ worth of words. He just gabbles the whole time.

Daniel Sumegi as Baron Ochs. Photo: supplied

How do you see the character of Ochs? Does he change significantly from production to production, or do you always have quite a firm idea of who he is?

The way he deals with people sort of says who he is. I don’t want to give a spoiler about how we’re dealing with him in this show, because it’s very, very funny and topical. But if you can think of someone today who is boorish and misogynistic and narcissistic in power, you might draw a conclusion there. I’ll leave it at that.

So the production has a contemporary sensibility then?

Only in that we’re confronting or acknowledging the #MeToo movement in subtle ways.

In terms of the socially stratified world that the opera presents, what does Ochs represent? 

Ochs represents old money and old entitlement. He’s kind of living in a bubble and so the fun of the character is the potential lack of manners that comes along with that when he’s dealing with anyone who’s below his status.

How does that colour his interactions with somebody like Octavian as opposed to the Marschallin?

The Marschallin is clearly his superior. They’re cousins and she has the higher rank. And Octavian is a lower member of royalty, although possibly richer. In terms of the Marschallin, he’s quite playful with her and polite to a point. He can’t help himself though. And with Octavian, the Marschallin and Ochs are similar ages, but Octavian is half their age at 17. 17 and a quarter, it’s stated in the text! And so Ochs behaves differently again because of that.

How have you found the way to play those differences in this production for Melbourne Opera?

We have a disadvantage in this production in that we’re singing it in English. That’s not a disadvantage in terms of comprehension for the audience, but we do remove all of the Austrian class structure which is differentiated, like in Britain, by dialect and accent. We can’t do that here. When we’re singing in English we’re kind of singing in this proper way that people might not speak in, just to be comprehensible. And because it’s not set in Australia we can’t do the rustic, ocker accents, which would be very hard to sing in anyway, and it also wouldn’t work because we’re not setting it in Australia. We’re keeping it in Austria but singing it in English.

So has it been a challenge for you wrapping your head around the English? This is your first time doing the role in English, right?

That’s right. The challenge first of all was putting the German out of my head, which I can still remember very clearly as I’m singing it in English. It’s just confusing. Secondly, the text, which is so complex, is set for German, all the notations. So you have to go through and make very specific changes to the text so that it works with the original story and is comprehensible and fits musically. That was a challenge. And then to remember it! The other problem there for me is that I was engaged to do this opera only three months ago. So, two months before rehearsal to relearn it in English. The first translation, while it was fine, was not fine enough, so we had to go through and change it again, so I had to learn it one-and-a-half new times within those two months. It has been quite a challenge, I’ll say that much.

What then are the advantages of doing it in English?

The comedy. If an audience is glued to the titles, which we don’t have by the way, then they’re not watching the stage action. They’re going to miss all the physical comedy that comes along with it. And of course, it depends on which performance aspect they want to focus on, but I think it is better to do a comedy in the native language of the audience. Interestingly, 23 and 21 years ago, I did the Elijah Moshinsky Barber of Seville for Opera Australia when it was brand new and the first time we did it, in 1995, it was in Italian. It’s a fantastic production but extremely busy. And when we did it in Italian it got a nice reaction because it was very well done, but two years later when we repeated it in Melbourne we did it in English and it was like another show entirely. It had reactions like a TV sitcom, one after the other and that was simply because we switched it to English.

A lot of singers talk about how difficult it is to be understood in English. Do you find that to be a problem?

No. [Laughs] I can’t explain it, I just have no problem being understood in English and no problem delivering in English.

Have you worked with any particular directors who have really helped you shape the role?

David McVicar. He’s one of the best directors in the world. Just in term of his direction, it’s just so organic. He just goes right through it and doesn’t try to change anything. He keeps it current but doesn’t change or update it but does so in a way that doesn’t seem to have been done before. And that’s his talent. If you’re on his wavelength, you can run with it. We made Baron Ochs into an absolutely real person. We played the roles our own age. He said just be you and I think that helped a lot.

What other bass roles would you count amongst your very favourite? 

I can give you fairly distant, tied for second place favourite roles. And they are Scarpia in Tosca and the role of the father in law, Boris Timofeyevich, in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.


Melbourne Opera’s Der Rosenkavalier is at the Athenaeum Theatre, August 9 – 17

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Limelight, Australia's Classical Music and Arts Magazine