After his triumph as King Roger, the Australian baritone is excited (and nerve-wracked) to perform with Jonas Kaufmann.

Earlier this year, Michael Honeyman gave the performance of his life when he played the title role in Karol Szymanowski’s opera King Roger. The 20th-century Polish masterpiece, was given a spectacular staging in a co-production between the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and Opera Australia directed by Kasper Holten.

Michael Honeyman as King Roger. Photograph © Jeff Busby

Honeyman did a superb job as the conflicted monarch torn between the orthodox religion he has been brought up with and the sensuous hedonism preached by a visiting prophet known only as “The Shepherd” – a psychological drama considered to be an allegory of the composer coming to terms with his homosexuality.

Limelight described Honeyman’s performance as “his most impressive” for Opera Australia to date saying: “Roger is a damned difficult part, dramatically vacillating; constantly under pressure, yet demanding a vocal firmness and determination completely at odds with all of that. Honeyman captures the tormented leader, uncomfortable from the get-go in his stuffily starched collar, wishing to be authoritative and live in the bright light of day, yet emotionally closeted and dangerously tempted by the sensuality and music of the night… Vocally the role sits just right for him, his baritone ringing out loud and clear with plenty of bite. His desperate cries of ‘Roxana’ in the final act are heart-rending, his Polish more than convincing.”

Now, Honeyman is to make his debut as Amfortas in a concert version of Wagner’s Parsifal, starring Jonas Kaufmann. (Read Limelight’s interview with Kaufmann). Drawn from medieval legend, Parsifal tells the story of Christian knights guarding the Holy Spear that pierced Jesus on the cross and the Holy Grail that caught his flowing blood. The knights have been struggling since their leader Amfortas tried to attack the sorcerer Klingsor but was defeated when Klingsor’s servant, an enchantress named Kundry, seduced him, allowing Klingsor to steal the Holy Spear, and injuring Amfortas in the process. Now the wound won’t heal. The fate of Amfortas – who is wracked with shame and suffering – and the knights depends on the holy fool Parsifal.

Honeyman spoke to Limelight about playing King Roger, Amfortas and, after that, Amonsaro in Aida.

Congratulations on your performance as King Roger. The part clearly sat very well for you?

It did sit well for me on quite a few levels actually. First of all, vocally it sat in the best part of my voice. It’s a role that doesn’t suit every baritone because it does sit quite high and it’s got a very big orchestra to battle with. Musically, I loved the score so much, it was so rich, and it had so much to offer. I have a particular fondness for the early 20th-century repertoire that I’ve worked on like Carlisle Floyd’s Of Mice and Men. And the role of King Roger is one that I felt I had something to bring to as well. I’m a fairly logical person myself so the whole character had a lot that I could bring to it.

How did you go with the Polish?

Polish does share some similarities with other European languages. I’ve done a little bit of Russian training before. I had a coach three times a week for about a month before I even started looking at the music, and just worked on the Polish for quite some time. It brought so much colour to the piece itself, just working on the text so closely.

He was a fairly tormented character – as is Amfortas.

Yeah. The difference I guess is that Amfortas feels guilty about something he’s done, while King Roger was very much tortured by desire he couldn’t express. But this whole duty versus desire is certainly something that transfers over. Amfortas is so overweighed by his duty to the Grail, the spear, the brotherhood, which he feels he’s failed. He is another troubled person… but this role is a little bit more removed from the modern world. This need to serve that Amfortas has, and the whole brotherhood has, is really different to me and what we have in this modern world. It’s very different from the rest of Wagner too. Tristan und Isolde, for example, is all about subjugating yourself to your desires, and this is the other way around.

How different is it when you’re preparing for a concert version as opposed to a fully staged production?

It’s very easy to say “it’s in concert, I don’t need to get into the character deeply”, but an audience hears that. It’s in the tone, so I think I’m going to look at it as pretty much the same. The hard thing being, of course, I won’t have the benefit of the physicality of the character. I put a lot of effort when I’m preparing a role into thinking about how this character is going to move, and how is that going to affect the choices I’m going to make as a singer and as an actor. I won’t be able to do that so much as Amfortas – though I’m just lying on a bed anyway [laughs].

How do you feel about the music in Parsifal?

I adore it. I’ve only fairly recently been introduced to the world of Wagner. I think The Ring last year was the first time I studied it in detail. [Honeyman played Donner in Das Rheingold in the 2016 Melbourne Ring cycle]. It’s a totally different sound world, it’s more stately. Amfortas is a little bit tormented but he’s not as dramatic and dark as some aspects of the Ring. So, it’s an amazing discovery, I love it actually. I think I prefer it to The Ring at the moment.

It must have been exciting to have been involved in the Ring though?

It was. There were some absolutely outstanding international singers, who I got to work with and watch closely. It was the second time around for the Neil Armfield production so we got to tweak things, and it was my first time being involved in a production of the Ring so it was just mind blowing.

Are you excited to be working with Kaufmann?

It is exciting. A little bit nerve-wracking too [laughs]. He’s the tenor du jour.  But also, we’ve got Michelle DeYoung [as Kundry] and the Korean guy who’s playing Gurnemanz [bass, Kwangchul Youn]. They’re outstanding interpreters of their roles as well.

In September, you play Amonsaro in Aida for Opera Australia’s Griffith Opera on the Beach. It’s a role you played in 2015 for Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour.

Exactly. And it’s one of my favourite roles. I love the fact that he’s so loving towards his daughter in the first scene and then he turns that on its head in the Nile scene.

Have you done Opera on the Beach before?

No, I haven’t.

But having done Opera on Sydney Harbour, you know what it’s like to sing outdoors when it’s something of an event?

That’s exactly right, it is an event. I often say to people it’s actually a lot more exhausting to perform on the Harbour outdoors, partly because your energy is going toward battling the elements. Also, the audience is much larger, so you are performing with a bit more energy to reach that larger audience. The stage is almost like a stadium stage so you’ve got to direct that energy out across that distance so it’s quite exhausting, but I love it. I love the immediate reaction you get from the audience. I have a lot of cousins and uncles who live in Queensland so they’ll be coming along to hear me sing in Aida.

Where would you like to see your career going in the next five years?

King Roger has been a bit of a watershed for me career-wise. I’m thinking the next step is to start to get some work in Europe. We’ll see how we go. As a specialist in the type of repertoire I do, there’s probably not enough work here in Australia. I’m mostly singing Verdi, Puccini, and Escamillo will keep on coming back for me. So [going overseas] is probably the next step. If I could make money from it or get enough work in it, I would like to specialise in 20th-century repertoire. Certainly, it’s something I always love to come back to.

Parsifal plays at the Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House, August 9 – 14.