Opera Australia’s heavyweight champion talks Falstaff, fatsuits and fad diets.

Warwick Fyfe has every reason to be cock-a-hoop. The Australian baritone and stalwart of Opera Australia has pulled in exceptional reviews for his role debut in Verdi’s version of Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor. Catching up with him in his dressing room at the Sydney Opera House, complete with stunning view of the Harbour Bridge, he would appear to have even more reasons to be cheerful. Yet like so many artists his first concern is “was it alright?” He’s referring to the opening night and he should know by now that it was something of a triumph. “Last night was better”, he tells me. “Some brave souls were standing up; and I know it was a better show.”

With a sense of humour drier than one of Sir John’s flagons of Jerez and his slight air of self-deprecation, Fyfe has an easy charm. He might not share the fat knight’s bombastic nature, but he’s well on the way to matching him for loquacity. I’m interested in his journey – how did he get from casting to opening night? And who does he think his Falstaff is? I saw him perform the honour monologue, L'Onore! Ladri! in civvies at the Opera Australia launch and thought at the time: this is rather promising but it’s not easy to carry off out of costume. “I did it again in Melbourne”, he tells me, “but the launch that you saw in Sydney…I was so sick. The day before I said ‘I’m not going to do this’ and they said ‘It’s fine Warwick, you can do this; everything is fine’. On the day, I came in and blustered through it and thought ‘this is shit’ – and people said it was really good!”

And now, six months later, here he is in this very physical production wearing a great deal of padding. Is carting all that around on stage very demanding? “I have to use two fat suits because one literally gets sodden with sweat”, he chuckles wryly, “but it’s actually lighter than it looks. When I was Pooh-Bah in Mikado that really was ridiculous; it was like carrying around a sofa every night. On the other hand it’s negligible as a singing role. This is a bit like one of my Rigoletto humps in the sense that it doesn’t actually weigh anything. When I first put it on it feels okay, but once you’re under those lights for a couple of minutes it becomes just stifling!”

It all sounds pretty taxing. What’s the worst moment for him? “Inside the basket is just torture”, he groans. “It’s so unpleasant. The bit of my craft that I really hate is using glue for affixing wigs and beards and things”, he says, warming to his subject. “It makes me feel very grotty. I have very sensitive skin. My cricket coach at school was very unimpressed,” he digresses. “I was hopeless at sport and hated it with a passion but little boys were sent off to play. I didn’t want to catch the really high, fastballs in my hands”. Back on subject he elaborates on the adhesives issue: “Whenever they get the glue pot out that’s when I start really cringing. When I’m meant to look like I’m drenched after the bit in the Thames they have to put glue on top of slimy used glue. Then they take that off again after a couple of minutes to put the other lot back on again! Argh! I really, really hate it! I also have calf enhancers, by the way, to give me great big fat calves! Clearly it was felt that my fat thighs were up to the task and did not need to be enhanced!” he laughs.

I console him that presumably he can look forward to shedding a few pounds during the run. “Not really”, he says gloomily, “but I don’t expect to put any on either.” Though not a huge man by any means, he’s candid on the subject of weight: “I’ve always had problems since I was a tiny tot. I was always a fat little bugger. I just have to look at food and I get fat. It seems to me that nowadays you can be guilty of almost any despicable act and provided that you’ve lost weight people say ‘Good on you!’, as if you’ve done something socially useful. I’m not of that mind-set. It is inconvenient if you get really, really big though.” So how does he cope? “The only way to lose weight is to not go on a diet”, he opines. “Diets don’t work. You go and see a dietician and write down everything you eat, that really helps – oh, and make sure you only eat things you like. I also walk often. I haven’t been walking regularly during rehearsals because I need all my energy. I had an Asian meal for lunch – rice is good for slow-release energy – plus a ghastly, horrible drink, and a piece of fruit.” So much for Warwick Fyfe – but what about Sir John? What does he reckon his vital statistics to be? “The heaviest I have ever been is 143 kilos, I would say he would be in the high 160s – with perhaps a 70 inch waist!”

Picturing Falstaff’s impressive overhang, I remind him of one of my favourite moments in the production: the corpulent knight examines his nether regions (which presumably he can’t reach by natural means) using a hand mirror. “One review attributed that to the production but it was one of the few moments that I actually contributed,” he says proudly. “I invented that!” He goes on: “I also invented that bit where I stroke my codpiece, you know, when she says ‘You’re a great seducer!’ and I say ‘I know, continue.’ – that always gets a laugh.”

On the subject of comic timing – does he have good instincts? “What often gets laughs in rehearsal is quite different to what gets laughs out there”, he says ruefully. “The first time you have an audience there are always moments of discovery where you go ‘Oh! They liked that!’ It’s like being in a dark room blindfolded. In rehearsal I tried looking at my ‘nethers’ like this”, he says leaping up to demonstrate, “and then I used to go ‘Grrrrrr’ which always got a laugh in the room. In performance, however, they’ve already had a funny moment when I looked at them in the first instance. So it’s like when a better joke is followed by a weaker joke – the weaker joke gets lost.”

Was he wearing the fat suit throughout the rehearsal period? “Yes, it was available from the beginning”, he says. “When I got the full costume I thought ‘piece of cake’. Unhelpfully though, we are set in the Tudor period and there are these slashes down the sides of the fabric. They kept getting caught on everything, especially chair arms. Everything seems smaller somehow. And I don’t know how the bloke before me managed to wear the antlers! As soon as I would lean forward they would fall off. We tried ties and everything. Then someone had the idea to clip it on and get someone to quickly unclip it at the crucial moment. Eventually we just hoped it would sort itself out. Now the horns come off earlier in the production. It worked out the way it had to work out.”

For a first time in the role, he seems very comfortable with the character. I’m curious about his lead-time for this production – when did he know that he’d be playing the part? “I can’t give you a precise answer”, he replies. “Lead times and casting are not what they used to be. When I first got into the business people moaned if they didn’t know what they were doing three years in advance. Lead times are getting shorter and shorter. Anyway, it was maybe 18 months ago. There was another role Lyndon [Terracini] plied me with but it was all very fluid. There were things I thought I was doing, that I wasn’t, or things I thought I was doing and I turned out to be covering. Well, I looked at this other role and came back to him and said that I could do it. I asked him: ‘Next year it’s going to be such and such?’ and he said ‘Yes…or something better’. Finally I weaselled it out of him that the something better was Falstaff.

As Opera Australia’s Artistic Director, Lyndon Terracini is clearly very hands on then with regard to casting. Has that made a difference for Fyfe? “I think nowadays Falstaff and Rigoletto are what Lyndon sees as my two best roles”, he says. “Prior to Lyndon I was a person who pretty much did anything (I did a lot of buffo roles in my younger days) but his view has been to corral me into the Verdi baritone ‘Fach’. The term ‘baritone’ didn’t really exist until the 19th century. Your ‘Verdi baritone’ sits almost between tenor and ‘German baritone’. To sustain the tessitura is incredibly taxing. Chopping and changing what you sing can affect your ability to do the most difficult thing, which is to sustain the Verdi baritone sound. It’s not the most intellectually difficult – but vocally…! Lyndon’s view is that there will be plenty of time for me to return to other repertoire close to my heart when I can’t do Verdi anymore.”

Judging by his vocal performance in this show it’s a plan that seems to be working. “I had a great success with Rigoletto in New Zealand last year where I got the best response I have gotten from anything”, he tells me. “The thing about Falstaff is that as well as being smack bang in the Verdi baritone range it also draws on all that stuff which I have a knack for – stuff that has got me roles in the past like The Mikado, Rossini – all that arsing about. In Falstaff, I can bring all this to bear while still singing in my true voice type.”

And what about the voice? Falstaff is not only fat but he’s old as well. Is there a sort of ‘old, fat’ sound he aims for vocally? “I suppose so”, he admits. “One tries to have as large a palette of colours as possible. It’s essential to cultivate a thing called morbidezza, which is a sort of rich softness to the sound; it’s a wetter, satisfying sound that isn’t harsh but still carries. It’s all about getting the vowels right. It’s certainly very necessary for this role. It needs great, great warmth.”

That softer voice comes into its own in the opera’s quieter moments of pathos – like the scene where Falstaff, in this production, crawls out of the basket and sings his monologue about the perils of growing old.  “That’s the moment of greatest dramatic subtlety”, he agrees. “To me it’s the most interesting bit but, because it’s a solo moment, in rehearsal we kept skipping over it. The things that need most rehearsal are the things that have most people interacting. The bit where I’m stuck onstage in the basket, on the other hand, was rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed.”

Is rehearsal time an issue? “It’s felt like a scramble this time. In a state theatre they have previews but we can’t afford it. I’ve never known the first performance to be the best. It usually takes a couple of runs before it settles down. Of course the critics and dignitaries all come to the opening night but I always encourage people to come a few nights in. The potential for a catastrophe of the Frank Spencer variety is there on opening night. We had gremlins: the surtitles went out, but more importantly the lights in the pit went out! The conductor said he was one beat from stopping the show.”

Unusually for a revival of a 15-year-old production, the director Simon Phillips was around for the entire rehearsal period. Fyfe was clearly delighted. “He is just the loveliest man to work with. It would be a cliché to refer to his boyish enthusiasm but there is an element of play in him. He is the least jaded person I have ever met.” Having Phillips on tap was obviously a godsend when it came to finding the character. “It would be very easy to make Falstaff too Father Christmassy”, he explains, “but that would be wrong as the things that Falstaff considers acceptable, as a means to an end, debar him from being cuddly and nice. I discussed this with Simon and I don’t think he is quite at the highwayman level but he is a lot closer to that than Santa Claus. He’s a bit of a physical coward. As soon as there is a threat, it’s ‘bugger everyone else, I’m saving myself’. I don’t see him as a kind figure. They talk about a ‘mischievous’ old rogue; they don’t say ‘lovable’ old rogue. It has to have a fair bit of nastiness in there. If he saw a little kid he wouldn’t give him a sweet. He would say ‘bugger off, this is my chicken leg’.”

And yet from Queen Elizabeth I onwards, audiences have come back for more of this larger than life character. Does he have any finer points? “His best quality is his ability to pull himself together when the very worst has happened. That is his moment. One mustn’t look for his good qualities in a specious warmth and cuddliness. Where you have to look for them is when he says: ‘Well, you’re all laughing at me, and that’s all very well, but were it not for me you wouldn’t have anything to laugh at!’ The way he can bounce back – that is impressive.”

It’s the Verdi centenary this year and Opera Australia is offering no less than five different productions in Sydney. Are there other Verdi roles he has his sights on? “There are some that I have covered but I haven’t been able to perform, for instance, Iago and Nabucco. Lyndon doesn’t see me as an Iago, which is annoying. That’s the Verdi role I would like to do the most and that took me the longest to learn. There’s Nabucco which is more two-dimensional but nonetheless a great singing role, and Macbeth. I don’t know how much of a Macbeth I am temperamentally.” And of the roles he’s sung? What is he proudest of? “I do a pretty fair Amonasro if I do say so myself – I always get good crits for that. And it’s a nice easy night because if you’re in a reasonable voice you can go hell for leather, and in that one duet with ‘Madam’ there is a huge impact – if you play your cards right. Of the full length ones though, Rigoletto and Falstaff, are my best roles.”

And what about his future plans? “For this company I’m doing La Forza del Destino – Fra Melitone – which people keep telling me is a great role. The role without which, in the opinion of some, La Forza would be too heavy to take. It’s a bit heterodox really. It’s like a longer, more complex version of the Sacristan in Tosca.” And after that? “In the Ring I’m doing Donner”, he says, rather glumly, “but that’s a sort of loser’s role really. Maybe if I sing it loud enough people might think I can do Wotan!” Is that a dream, I ask? “I always wanted to be a Wagner singer”, he says rather wistfully. “I’ve done Wagner but I don’t think Lyndon sees me doing major Wagner roles. He wants to save my voice for the Verdi. That’s kind of annoying really but I understand his logic. I’m covering Alberich but I should have liked to have had a greater involvement in The Ring, because Wagner’s my number one man. Alberich suits my voice. Lyndon says ‘Oh, you’ll definitely do Alberich one day’. In the meantime I’ll have to wait for John Wegner to be gathered up in the rapture or something.”

Opera Australia’s Falstaff runs at the Sydney Opera House until March 16

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