Opera Australia’s Valkyrie talks about the highs, the lows, the hojotohos and how Anna Wintour inspires her interpretation.

Do you remember the first time you came across Wagner’s Ring?

I wasn’t lucky enough to be one of those children who grew up with a parent listening to it, but I remember coming across the famous Patrice Chereau and Pierre Boulez 1976 Bayreuth version. I remember seeing Gwyneth Jones sing the Todesverkündigung and I thought, “Oh my goodness… Oh my! This is gorgeous!” And then I just sort of shelved it until I did a university course on the Ring, and I remember thinking, “Yeah, OK, this is the real deal.”

Obviously Gwyneth Jones in particular struck you. How did you feel about the character at that point? What was your emotional response to the role? 

I think the young part of me really identified with her innocence. Particularly in the Walküre, when she doesn’t quite understand what she’s done wrong and she cannot do anything other than what she’s done. It resonated with me at that time in my life, because I felt the same. I had that youthful, innocent identification with someone who was just doing their best. And then of course, as the opera progressed, I was completely absorbed by her heroic and honest reactions to everything. It’s a little hard for me to look at it through those eyes now because I’ve got so many other impressions inside me. And, of course, the mountain of sound frankly overwhelmed me at the time.

As Turandot at The Royal Opera House

Do you see Brunnhilde in Götterdämmerung as a heroic figure or is she a victim?

At first I was more of a fan of the whole piece, rather than seeing how despicably one character is treated – and then how humanly and faultily (if you can say that word) she responds. She’s terribly betrayed by the two most important men in her world and she responds in an incredibly mortal manner. Through my eyes now, that is what makes the piece. Of course, it’s about gods and mythology and archetypes, but at the end it’s a piece about us. It’s a piece about mortals and society and greed and cruelty. I’m always sort of astonished when people want to layer on more meaning than is there. Or if they want to reinterpret it, if you will, into a sort of Jungian thing or some sort of industrial manifestation. I think, “Good God, it’s got enough!” I mean, really, if you leave it alone, there’s a hell of a lot in there.

Was there a particular point at which someone suggested it to you, or you thought that the role was one that you’d might sing?

It’s funny, because it’s similar to Turandot in that I never assumed I’d sing these roles. I always thought I was more of a lyric-dramatic sound – Sieglinde had been a role that I thought “yeah, yeah, I can do that”, and Ariadne, that kind of thing. But certainly not Brünnhilde! When the conversation came up the first time, I think I remember saying no, I’m not ready for that. It must have been in 2008 or 2009. But then I started working with some really interesting conductors and directors and I developed a new and evolving idea of how a singer adapts to a role. After that I thought “maybe Brünnhilde isn’t such a bad thing…”

After I was approached in 2011 with a contract to sing it in Palermo, I think I was in denial for at least a year! I just didn’t feel worthy of the piece. That’s gonna sound cheeky, but I just really didn’t, and that prohibited me from delving into the scores. I was terrified. I thought “what have I done? I can’t possibly take on this iconic role.” That frame of mind lasted for about four years [laughs]. Except that when I started doing the Walküre, I thought, “wow, this is good for me. I am good for it.” I know it sounds like a little late in the process, but I do think the material is so immense that one doesn’t truly know until one is inside it.

As Salome at Wiener Staatsoper © Michael Pöhn

Someone once said of the three Brünnhildes, one is too long, one is too high, and one is too low. Is any of that true for you?

I absolutely understand what that means. I don’t know if I would say too long, but they were speaking of Gotterdammerung and that it is a long evening. The singers have to understand their mechanism and know how to keep their energy high throughout the night. Walküre is the lowest of the three, and it is challenging to sing in that tessitura and still access the blaring high notes that Wagner requires. But again, that’s about a singer learning how to sing it and manage it. And Siegfried is too high? Well, I’m not sure that I would say that. It’s extraordinarily different from the other two. If you were to use an analogy, it would be the difference between driving through long rolling hills with softly curving roads, versus a steep incline, sharp turns, steep decline, more sharp turns, and then you still have some long stretches as well.

Is Walkure the toughest from a stamina perspective?

Honestly, I’ve only performed in one production, and I remember thinking, “oh, this isn’t so bad”. I’ve got the first act to get a really solid warm up, and then each chunk has a different character. You come on with the hojotohos, and then there’s the big scene with Wotan, and then you go immediately into the Todesverkündigung, and that is low, sustained, and somewhat stentorian (though elegant). And then, of course, there’s the whole scene with the Valkyries… My goodness, it’s just women chattering quickly, a lot! [Laughs] And then you go into the end with Wotan, which is another speed altogether. That’s challenging, but there are moments to recuperate in between. It’s not Elektra!

What about text?  Do you find getting the words across tough against the weight of the orchestra, or is that something you take in your stride? 

It’s certainly my focus. It’s a challenge and has to do with range at some points. It also has to do with how important the language is in the music. You know the famous Capriccio thing, about music and words, which is more important? In Wagner, you can’t even consider the question because they are one and the same. He’s written the music and it’s rhythmically attuned to the language, and vice versa. He says over and over and over again, you must understand the words! It just has to be as important as a beautiful sound.

With Kim Begley in the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s Salome

Do you have Brünnhilde role models?

I actually do, and it’s a sort of ‘lazy Susan’ revolving turntable of women. First of all, I just love Flagstad. She’s my go to as far as sound. I could never sound like her, ever, in a million years, but I love her sound and elegance of sound production. Her groundedness, and her language is so gorgeous. And then of course, Nilsson, who brings such a fire and energy to things. And then of course there’s Gwyneth Jones, who is so amazing, and Elizabeth Connell, my God, what a beautiful, youthful, fresh sound she brings. And Astrid Varnay – they’re all revolving in my head. Now we are in the 21st century where women are still striving for their place of power, I find other iconic women inspiring me for finding this character: people like Mother Teresa, or Grace Jones, or Debbie Harry. I know it sounds ridiculous! Or Anna Wintour… Women of power, who manage (in a world completely unlike Brünnhilde’s) to be feminine and strong.

This is your first full Ring Cycle. At this stage, are there moments you are really looking forward to?

At the risk of jinxing myself, so I’m gonna knock on some wood here, I imagine singing the Immolation Scene with orchestra to be second to none. I think that I might levitate off the stage from joy and fulfilment! To have that much sound coming through my body – whether it’s my voice or the orchestra – I cannot imagine anything more joyous. It’s such an enormous, fantastic (in the literal sense of that word), and potentially life-altering experience for all of us who are involved, and everyone who is able to come and experience it. It’s otherworldly. That’s what Wagner intended, to transport us to another place.

Opera Australia’s Ring Cycle runs three times in Melbourne from November 21-December 16