“If you’re in a repertoire company maybe somewhere in Germany, this would be a luxury rehearsal period,” says English bass-baritone Darren Jeffery.

In Australia to take on the title role of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman for Melbourne Opera, Jeffery is referring to the four weeks’ rehearsal time he’s been given, compact by any other measure. But, he maintains, there are certain advantages to working this way, chief among them the clarity of focus it necessitates.

Darren Jeffery. Photo supplied

“It’s easy to think that in a short rehearsal period you just throw on some kind of show and hope for the best, but that’s really not the case. Rather, everyone comes in and is very focused because they know there’s only a certain amount of time available to them. By the end of the first week we pretty much got the general shape of all the scenes and we’ve been working on the detail ever since.”

This will be Jeffery’s second Dutchman and the first time he has performed in Australia, appearing in a new production by Suzanne Chaundy with Wagner specialist Anthony Negus returning to conduct after last year’s acclaimed Tristan and Isolde. Jeffery’s Senta will be Lee Abrahmsen, the company’s distinguished Isolde and Marschallin in 2018. The bass-baritone made his role debut only last year with the Nederlandse Reisopera in a challenging run of 13 performances – a “baptism of fire” is how he puts it.

“Your average run of Wagner performances would be four to five, maybe six at a push,” he stresses. “But to do that many in one go really helped. We had the advantage of quite a long rehearsal period, so it gave me a real chance to find out how to pace myself in the role, day in, day out. I think it’s really stood me in good stead for Melbourne because I have it in my system and can make the most of the shorter rehearsal time.”

A graduate of the Royal Northern College of Music, Jeffery was an inaugural member of the Royal Opera House’s prestigious Young Artists Programme. At 42, he’s just started to take on the juiciest roles available to bass-baritones and has accrued significant stage experience at many of the UK’s most important houses, among them the aforementioned Royal Opera, English National Opera, Opera North and Glyndebourne.

Darren Jeffery as the Dutchman for Nederlandse Reisopera. Photo © Nederlandse Reisopera

Although he’s appeared in a few Wagner operas (as Kothner in Meistersinger and Donner in Das Rheingold), Dutchman has naturally proven the most difficult so far, Jeffery likening his entrance aria, Die Frist ist um, to Olympic weightlifting. The Dutchman has just taken his first steps on land in seven years, and it’s here we learn about his sorry fate – cursed to roam the sea in perpetuity after foolishly invoking Satan, the only way he can find salvation is in the love of a woman. It’s a desperate, volatile lamentation that places considerable demands on the singer.

“It’s a crucial moment because it encapsulates the whole character and piece really. All the information is there, which only becomes expanded upon throughout the opera. Many arias are probably three or four minutes, Leporello’s Catalogue Aria is about six, but this one is huge, 11 or 12 minutes, and you have to deliver it as soon as you walk out onstage, so you’re really working at maximum capacity the entire opera. It would be very easy to sing yourself out in act one and two and have nothing left for act three.”

Jeffery’s solution has been to work smarter during rehearsals, treating them like an athlete would their training. This means singing out some days and marking his way through certain places on others. “I try to work my way up so what I’ve done in rehearsal is hopefully more demanding than anything I’ll be asked to do in performance. Once you add the elements of costume and stage lighting and the fact that you’re actually in the theatre in front of an audience, everything ramps up. It’s about building the stamina to get through the role and then pacing yourself accordingly. But you can’t be a wallflower, you really have to stand and deliver.”

It’s clear that Jeffery is fascinated by the role of the Dutchman, eager to mine the complexities of this mysterious figure. “It would be easy to see him as just a sinister character, but there’s a hopelessness and brokenness to him too,” he explains.

“He says himself that he’s been left with a beating heart and he feels the pain of not being able to love. And I really feel for him that he’s almost reluctant to accept this woman who is willing to love him and lead him away from this pain that he’s felt for eternity. When he walks in on Senta and Erik and misunderstands what’s going on and thinks, ‘well, I was absolutely right, I was wrong to believe that anyone would love me’, I think it’s a very human sentiment.”

Melbourne Opera’s The Flying Dutchman is at the Regent Theatre, February 3, 5 and 7