Victorian Opera kicks off its 2019 season with a new production of Parsifal, Wagner’s final opera and an undisputed masterpiece. Conducted by Richard Mills and directed by Roger Hodgman, it features the Australian Youth Orchestra and a starry bunch of Wagnerian specialists. Although this most opaque of works offers very few answers, Parsifal has bewitched audiences since its premiere in 1882. In a characteristic move, Wagner eschewed the label ‘opera’ for the rather more grand ‘Bühnenweihfestspiel’, or ‘Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage‘, for his music drama about the Knights of the Holy Grail. Audiences have largely forgiven him this due to the unmistakable magnificence of the work, which captures the composer at the height of his powers. Its cast of characters are, like his most vivid creations, tortured, vulnerable and all too human, despite their supernatural status. Limelight talks to German tenor Burkhard Fritz and Swedish mezzo-soprano Katarina Dalayman about playing Parsifal and Kundry respectively.
Burkhard Fritz on the holy fool
Burkhard Fritz in rehearsal for Parsifal. Photo © Charlie Kinross
When did you first perform the role of Parsifal?
It was in 2004 in a medium opera house in Germany, Gelsenkirchen. It was not only my debut but also my very first Wagner role.
Wow! That’s not such a conventional pathway into the big Wagner roles.
I know [laughs], but it’s not so strange for a not so big opera house. I think it’s one of the only Wagner operas that you could do in a smaller house because there’s not such a huge cast.
Was it your first brush with Wagner’s music as well?
Yes, it was. It was really my first experience of Wagner because my family were more interested in symphonies and the classical composers like Mozart and Bach especially. We had no Wagner at home. My father always said it was too heavy, too complicated. But then I was offered this Parsifal by the opera house and I said of course. We had the first orchestra rehearsal and I remember the moment we came to the first transition to the Grail in the first act. The music totally slashed me because the beauty is so profound and touching, it goes directly to the heart. It had an immediate effect on me and I could never get rid of it again, so I was infected by Wagner from then on.
What are the role’s greatest vocal challenges, and have those changed for you over the years?
I’m quite a high tenor, and the role itself is actually very low for a tenor role. It could also be sung by a high baritone so you have to have a good medium range and open up there as well so that you can still be heard over the orchestra. That was the main problem earlier. But having sung it more and done other Wagner roles since, that experience has helped me learn how to better cope with it. For example, I’ve also sung Siegmund now which is quite low so I’m feeling much more comfortable in these lower ranges. But I still do the higher parts – the last thing I did before this was my first Siegfried in Chicago, so I’m trying to stay up there as much as I can before the voice finally goes down [laughs].
Burkhard Fritz in rehearsal for Parsifal. Photo © Charlie Kinross
Do you find you have to leave time between doing a Siegmund and a Siegfried so the voice can resettle and find the right place for it to sit for those roles?
Absolutely. You have to look out for these things as a singer. For example, Parsifal and Siegmund work really well together because they’re both very low but you really have to check with the higher roles. I have another Parsifal in Munich coming up and right after that is Walther in Meistersinger which is quite high. That will be a challenge but I have a few weeks in between so I can adjust the voice again.
“You enter the stage in the first act as the dumb guy who knows nothing, just running around in the forest and shooting your dinner”
What then are the role’s greatest dramatic challenges? I’m thinking particularly of that first act, where you have little to say and it’s more about your response to the knights and the idea of the Holy Grail.
I love it. Parsifal is one of these roles where you have a real, big development because you enter the stage in the first act as the dumb guy who knows nothing, just running around in the forest and shooting your dinner [laughs]. And then at the end of the opera you’re a part of this whole community of the Grail, and you’ve gained experience and wisdom, so for me the biggest challenge and joy in this part is the journey he goes on. Especially in the second half of the first act when you have the Grail scene, where he’s not singing at all, he’s just watching for half an hour. I love to listen to the other singers, especially to Amfortas and his narration, and I think it’s very important that you can see in Parsifal’s reactions that while he’s not totally getting what he’s seeing, he is touched in some way. Because otherwise there’d be no reason for him to go on this journey and this for me as an actor, I love to play, and I don’t necessarily have to sing at the same time. Of course it’s such great music so it’s such a pleasure to just stand there and enjoy it.
How do you bridge the gap between the Parsifal of the first act, described as a holy fool, and the Parsifal of the third, who’s achieved a sense of enlightenment and deep empathy?
The first steps are really happening in this Grail scene when you can see in his expressions and reactions that something’s touched him. He does not know what it is or how to deal with it but he is affected deeply. This is developed in the second act when Kundry tells him about his mother and the kiss happens, and he has some kind of vision. He lets out this cry of ‘Amfortas!’ and suddenly understands what the knight’s wound is about, and I think this is the part where he is compelled to search for the answers and solutions. When he comes back in the third act he has lots of experience and fights behind him, and he’s already in the search for the Grail again because he now knows how to perform the action of Salvation. He knows he now is the new ruler of the Grail.
Kundry is such a fascinating character. How do you see that climactic moment in act two?
There are so many things – religious and philosophical – that Wagner explores in that interaction, it’s huge. After Kundry kisses him, she tells us that she laughed at the Saviour on the cross and he cursed her and that’s why she has to travel for eternity. But the things she tells him before the kiss, I think it’s intended to soften him up. I think she wants to draw him to Klingsor’s side because it is her duty in this moment. But after this kiss and after he feels the pain of Amfortas’ wound, I think the most important part of this scene is how he experiences some sort of pity toward Kundry. It’s not about judging her anymore, it’s just about maybe helping her to get out of this spell that’s she bound to.
Do you think you’ll ever stop discovering new things in this opera?
You can always try to find new answers but you’ll never find a definite one.
Katarina Dalayman on the wandering Jew
Katarina Dalayman in rehearsal for Parsifal. Photo © Charlie Kinross
I think Kundry is not only one of Wagner’s most fascinating characters, but one of the most fascinating characters in all opera. Do you have a very strong idea of who she is, or is that always changing from production to production?
For me she is different in every production. Every production gives you new ideas, and you also bring the old ideas from previous productions. But she’s a very complicated character and it’s really hard to say who she is or who she is not because she is so many things in one person. I am always interested in hearing what the director’s ideas are.
It’s quite interesting the way we’re introduced to Kundry in the first act – the knights treat her very poorly considering they’re guardians of the Grail! So how do you view that dynamic in particular?
I think if you were a normal person you’d be afraid or angry, but she’s a cool lady here [laughs]. She’s like an animal. She’s used to taking care of herself, she’s used to living in rough conditions. Their behaviour is nothing that bothers her and then she also has Gurnemanz, who is almost like a good friend. He takes care of her and she takes care of them. I think for Kundry they are not important enough for her to get hurt by.
Have you created a backstory for yourself about how close they are, or how they first met?
Not in this production but I’ve done productions where she has been really close to him and where she is a really important person in this community. Very active, present almost during the entire first act, showing to the audience that she’s a strong, intelligent woman. And in that production we were very close. Not like a married couple, no sexual element, but still very close, like a close relative, where your brains understand each other. It’s strange because they’re not very much alike [laughs]. But there’s some kind of connection and I bring that feeling to most productions I do.
“I think she’s been around, she knows and remembers everything. Maybe she remembers what other people have seen as well, other people’s memories”
In that important second act, do you believe that Kundry has seen or knows what she tells Parsifal about his mother, that she died of sorrow? Or is it something that she created in order to seduce Parsifal into doing what she wants?
There are very many answers to that question. I have an idea that she actually knows the story because she’s talking about it already in the first act, about how Parsifal was fatherless and the mother treated him like an innocent fool and so on. So I think she might have been there and of course Gurnemanz says in the first act that she is never lying, she says the truth. But I think she’s been around, she knows and remembers everything. Maybe she remembers what other people have seen as well, other people’s memories.
Derek Welton (Klingsor) and Katarina Dalayman in rehearsal for Parsifal. Photo © Charlie Kinross
She’s been cursed to wander the earth for eternity. How do you portray that world-weariness, that feeling of not being able to find peace and then being enslaved by Klingsor?
It’s hard to put into words because I use my instinct a lot. I very often create things in the moment. The most important thing is to find a difference between the character in the first act and in the third act, because that’s where you’re showing her development. Gurnemanz says in the third act, “oh, she’s moving so differently. What happened to her?” So you have to think about how you move your body.
In the first and second acts, she has a lot of energy but she’s very, very tired and haunted. That’s the difficult part. In some productions I’ve done, I play her very nervously, almost like an animal, being very aware of all that is happening all the time and being prepared for violence. Almost like a crazy lady. And then sometimes I’ve played her more calmly. The crucial thing to remember is not to make a caricature out of her. It shouldn’t be this person screaming onstage. That’s not so good. My challenge is to find out how she moves, how she thinks, in a believable way.
Compared to some of the roles you’ve sung – Brünnhilde, Isolde – Kundry is not such a long sing. What are the vocal challenges then?
You have a first act where you start warming up, and then when you get on for the second act, I have warmed up my voice really well because it starts very softly and then builds up and suddenly you have these last 10 pages of really violent singing. The good thing about this part and with Wagner is that it’s so natural, the words and the music are so natural, and go so well together. So whatever she says she says it with anger or despair and that helps me to sing this crazy part with its very difficult, demanding high notes, screaming really. But if you go into the character, it helps you.
Victorian Opera’s Parsifal is at the Palais Theatre, St Kilda on February 20, 22 and 24