Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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The Dawning of a New Wotan – An Interview with Mark Delavan, Part 2

January 13th, 2011

[William: This is the second part of an interview, most of which was conducted in June 2010 in the Press Room of the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, with supplementary information provided through recent communications between William and Mr Delavan.  The first part of the interview can be accessed at The Dawning of a New Wotan: Interview with Mark Delavan Part 1.]

Wm: Although you performed Scarpia in Puccini’s “Tosca” opposite Carol Vaness early in this decade, you have not sung many lead Italian roles in San Francisco.

[Below: Baron Scarpia (Mark Delavan, left) plays on the jealousies of Tosca (Carol Vaness); edited image, based on a Katy Raddatz photograph, from the San Francisco Opera.]

In this city you are noted for your role debuts as Wotan in Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” and “Die Walkuere” and for being selected to sing these roles and Wotan the Traveler in his “Siegfried” in the three “Ring” cycles next year.

Conversely, your reputation at Los Angeles Opera has much to with strong impressions of your Iago in Verdi’s “Otello” and Michele in Puccini’s “Il Tabarro”. Do you see yourself doing more Italian opera in San Francisco and more German opera in Los Angeles?

MD: My intention is to maximize the skills that I have, wherever I have the opportunity to sing. Early in my career, I learned a wonderful lesson from the great baritone Thomas Stewart when I was in San Francisco Opera’s Merola Program for Young Artists. I ran into Mr. Stewart one day while getting coffee in the opera house. I boldly approached him and asked,  “Mr. Stewart, you are singing a lot of Wagner now, and you sang quite a bit of Italian earlier on. What fach would you call yourself?”

He testily replied, in that deep voice of his, “Son, I’m a baritone.” Suddenly the lights went on.  “Correct me if I’m wrong,” I replied. “What you are saying is that you sing what they hire you to sing.” And he said with a knowing smile, “Now you’re getting it.”

Ever since that encounter, I have resisted being categorized. If Placido Domingo at Los Angeles Opera sees me as an Italian baritone, I “have voice, will travel”. If David Gockley wants me in the German roles, I will brush up on my German.  I happily do what I need to do to put food on my family’s table. I try to produce the best baritone voice that I can, but the “type” of baritone  is dependent upon who is hiring me and the role I’m being hired to sing.

Of course, over time a voice can change – mine has deepened – and singers will adjust their repertory to reflect these facts. I am as competitive as the next guy, but some roles now suit me better than others. My wife said of two of my roles –“they are now too high for you, there are other that can sing those roles better than you can.” She is right, and I have now dropped them from my repertory.

Wm: You starred as Michele in a new production of Puccini’s “Il Tabarro” with Salvatore Licitra as Luigi and Anja Kampe as Giorgetta, conceived and directed by an A-list Academy Award winning film director. How you find the experience of working with William Friedkin? Do you believe he approaches opera differently than do most opera stage directors?

MD: I hope you e-mail this interview to Friedkin! It was a great experience! He came in with a cinematic view of how “Tabarro” should look. In that opening scene, the barge designed on wheels, actually “floats” onstage as it  moves from out in the Seine River to the banks where the boat is moored. As it came into place, those of us on the boat’s crew tied it into place. It was really an amazing effect and helped cement the scene as a riverbank.

[Below: Film Director William Friedkin (left, standing) works with Mark Delavan’s Michele for his staging of “Il Tabarro”; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, from www.markdelavan.com.]

I’ve done the role a couple of times, but this was the greatest way of telling that story. I wish that somehow a DVD can be made of it. (My middle son played the ghost child in the Los Angeles Opera performances.)

There is much that could be done if the film record of a performance is done by a first rate film director. I could imagine Giordano’s “Andrea Chenier”  performed on location in the streets of Paris. It would be an absolutely fantasitic video. I’ve also thought of filming Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra” with Dmitri Hvorostovsky, where I would play Simon and Dmitri would be Paolo, and then we would switch roles. He was looking for some backers for such a project.

Wm: As a young teenager, my very first German opera was the San Francisco Opera’s production of “Die Walkuere” with Hans Hotter as Wotan, Ludwig Suthaus as Siegmund, the wonderful Nell Rankin as Fricka, with two European artists in their American debut season – Birgit Nilsson and Leonie Rysanek. I understand that Hotter is an artist whose Wotan you admire? Have you consciously approached the role with Hotter’s interpretation in mind?

MD: Even though my voice is nothing like Hotter’s, I have been looking closely at how he uses the German text. Wagner was a masterful musician, and the way he had with poetry and the music –  matching the words – is unprecedented.  I can think of  no other example of a composer integrating music and text to the extent he did.

Hotter was a master at expressing the German text. At several points in the text he would even growl. (I tried to do that in Berlin.)

Once, when I was listening to Hotter’s recording of Wotan in the last scene of “Die Walkuere”, I broke into tears as Hotter sang the words “Und das ich ihm in Stuecken slug” (“the sword I struck into splinters”), as Bruennhilde reminds him that it was Wotan who promised Siegmund the sword Nothung in his hour of need. When you hear Hotter sing this phrase, you know Hotter is expressing Wotan’s sudden realization, that, just an hour earlier, he had murdered his son.

I have never been broken-hearted by something someone else did vocally, until I heard  Hotter’s Wotan.  His interpretation of the text influenced me greatly.

[Below: Wotan (Mark Delavan, kneeling) pauses with the body of his son Siegmund (Christopher Ventris) who has died when his sword shattered; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Wm: You have now appeared with Donald Runnicles both in Goetz Friedrich’s  production of “Walkuere” at Deutsche Oper Berlin and Francesca Zambello’s at San Francisco Opera. Clearly, you have caught the essence of Zambello’s conception of Wotan, but are there aspects of the Friedrich “Walkuere” that you find insightful, that impact your approach to the “Walkuere” Wotan, and that will impact your reprise of the “Rheingold” Wotan next season?

MD: The iconic Goetz Friedrich production was certainly a fantastic preparation for Francesca’s unique approach. Case in point – the intimacy of the relationships.

Donald Runnicles will take what you bring linguistically and vocally and integrate that interpretation with the old. In the case of the Goetz Friedrich “Rheingold” and “Walkuere”, which I did back to back at Deutsche Oper Berlin, they were revivals with shorter times for rehearsals than I expected to have. It was a trial by fire. My wife will tell you I was a basket case during the rehearsal period, but it was a great experience.

Wm: Even though both the Berlin and San Francisco productions are revivals, in the case of San Francisco, Zambello is working with you and presumably refining her concepts. Do you prefer to work directly with the individual who originally conceived a production?

MD: Since I have both to compare, I will give a guarded yes. In the case of most revival directors, they will adjust to the needs of a new person in the production. In the Friedrich “Rheingold” the characters wear masks. I was given the option of wearing or not wearing the mask, and chose not to wear one.

In working with Francesca, I found that having Francesca present at the revival, made the process  more intimate, and helped to create an end of a very nuanced product. The San Francisco Opera “Walkuere” cast is phenomenal. Through this process, the cast finds out what they can bring to the product.

Wm: You are working with Conductor Runnicles on the “Ring” operas with two different orchestras in two different productions in two quite different houses. Does Runnicles approach the opera differently in Berlin than in San Francisco?

MD: Yes, I think so, and not just because one works with the strengths of each orchestra, both of which are simply fantastic. In San Francisco, where he has worked with the opera orchestra before, it is like a well-oiled machine – he and the orchestra know each other very well.

In Berlin, the relationship is still new, and so they are still learning about each other.  I remember we were doing a rehearsal of the Monologue. Runnicles had arranged a rehearsal of the orchestra with the artists in a sitzprobe. What I observed next was fascinating. The brass section sat forward in their chairs, as if to say “Why, this is what we have in mind”. The next sound they made was so unspeakably beautiful that it was hair-raising.

They like to play their Wagner loud, though that is not how Wagner marked it. The fabric of the piece is in many colors, and it is this coloration that Runnicles is bringing to Berlin.

Wm: Speaking of Berlin, you are currently there working on a new production of  Strauss’ “Die Liebe der Danae” – you’ll sing Jupiter – with the Deutsche Oper Berlin with Andrew Litton conducting and Kirsten Harms directing. Then you will also sing  Verdi’s “Otello” – the role of Iago  – with Donald Runnicles conducting and Andreas Kriegenburg directing. Runnicles also conducts the San Francisco Opera’s Ring Cycle – where you are singing Wotan. What’s it like, these two “godly” roles – any similarities?  And what differs between Harms and Francesca Zambello in directing style?

MD: I’m really enjoying working with the Deutsche Oper Berlin; it’s a great company.  In terms of the two roles, Jupiter and Wotan – well, Jupiter is far more comic, Wotan more tragic.  Whereas Wotan is quite prolific in his womanizing, so much so that it’s more of a sideline in the Ring, in Jupiter, it’s the main plot line. Both Jupiter and Wotan are very powerful characters, incredibly sensitive and emotional, but they each require a different approach.  Visually, as Jupiter, I am trading in Wotan’s eye patch, spear and black leather coat  for a gold helmet and a long, gold leather coat.

[Below: Jupiter (Mark Delavan, center) keeps up his womanizing skills; edited image, based on a Barbara Aumueller photograph, courtesy of the Deutsche Oper, Berlin.]

Jupiter literally walks away from the love of his life when he realizes that things aren’t going to work; he could force Danae to be in a relationship, but he doesn’t. Wotan seems wiser and more concerned with undoing the mistakes of the past, then a present or future tryst.

Kirsten Harms as a director has a wonderful, open atmosphere of creativity and improvisation that is quite invigorating.  She brings an intense energy to the rehearsal process. Francesca Zambello starts the rehearsal with a firm idea of  what she wants – she’s able to translate her vision very clearly, which allows you  to develop the character rather quickly almost from the beginning of the process.  Both women are extremely creative and both processes are rewarding.

[Below: Conductor Donald Runnicles, on the occasion of signing his contract as musical director of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, stands beside Kirsten Harms, the Deutsche Oper’s general director; resized image, based on a Marcus Brandt photograph for daylife.com.]

It’s also wonderful to work on the “Otello” production – both “Liebe der Danae” and “Otello” are running this winter /spring at Deutsche Oper Berlin with Donald Runnicles, who is the conductor for San Francisco Opera’s Ring Cycle. He’s a great conductor and I’ve been fortunate to work with him on several productions.  I haven’t worked with Andrew Litton before, and am enjoying the experience.  He also has a great sense of humor that helps keeps things moving, and, for a comedy, really brings an infectious lightness to the process.

Wm: Thank you, Mark. See you at the San Francisco “Ring” in June.

MD: Thank you, Bill.

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