The Prima la musica baritone interview series continues! (Although actually, the next one will almost certainly be with a soprano.) Warwick Fyfe has just finished up a long Sydney season of Tosca, singing the Sacristan right up until the final performance, in which he made his role début as Scarpia. He'll soon be appearing as the Sacristan in the show's Melbourne season, but in between, he was good enough to answer a few questions about his Tosca experience.
It's a pretty long interview, this one. We do these via email, so I sent off my questions and was surprised — and delighted — to receive such detailed and fascinating responses. A more ruthless publication might have been obliged to edit for space, but I have no such restrictions; all I've done is split the post up, so just click the link after the first part to read the rest. You'll be glad you did.
You've been singing the Sacristan in Christopher Alden's rather unconventional Tosca for about three months now. Can you tell us a bit about the demands of this production, and about Alden's take on the way this character fits into the opera?
As the Sacristan, once I’d got used to simulating the making of coffee (employing the one method I don’t use at home – I have plungers and a small espresso machine in my kitchen!), the only even slightly difficult thing I had to do was hand out the blooming lottery tickets which would always fain stick together, and the desire to oblige the choristers who were understandably in a hurry to get this bit of business over with in good before the climax of the Te Deum made me nervously fumble. The chair I had to sit on for a good long while on stage in Act Three was catastrophically uncomfortable and not in the least adapted to the requirements of generously proportioned buttocks, but pain aside, sitting can hardly be construed as demanding (the sheer torture of my immobility when attempting to render convincingly a dead Scarpia in my one performance in that role made every other physical inconvenience encountered in the show seem like luxury and put me in mind of that character in The Life of Brian hanging from the wall by chains in the dungeon saying wistfully how he dreamed of being put in manacles, just for a few hours.. Indeed I thought I couldn’t stand it after a while and seriously considered putting into practice my wife’s jestingly suggested expedient of simulating a violent death twitch to get me out of such and extremity if it arose! Somehow I got through, though).
No, the most demanding aspect of the production for me qua Sacristan was nothing to do with physically awkward stage business or anything like that. Rather, it was to do with the dissonance between the reflection of a literal/traditional interpretation of the words, story and characters in Puccini’s music and the requirements of Alden’s production. The moroseness required of the Sacristan by the latter was at odds at certain points with the music in a way I could not reconcile. Alden was at pains to keep “acting” to a minimum so that I daren’t do so much as flap an arm to emphasise a point and had to confine myself to creeping about sullenly if I was to avoid censure. And this MUST affect the singing. It is a logical fallacy to imagine that the singing and acting are separable. To act and sing in ways which are completely at odds with each other is impossible to sustain in practice, except perhaps in an ultra stylised production with no grounding in any sort of reality, such as a Tristan I saw at Bayreuth one year in which, while performing the love duet, the singers were obliged to carry out a series of bizarre angular chess-like manoeuvres.
Anyway, at one point in rehearsals the then conductor (Licata) absolutely demanded more of the traditional Sacristan in the music at least than I could manage while skulking around like a peculiarly disagreeable tortoise. Rather than giving occasion for a tiresome and time wasting outburst, I cast an appealing look at the director and I thought received his tacit consent to fudge it, for want of a better word, that is to say, give a little more of something like what the conductor wanted while still doing the director’s production insofar as I was able. To be honest, more trad Sacristan stuff has crept back in during the course of the run, or at least more humour, and this has met with approval in some quarters as being a helpful contrast to the darkness of most of the rest of the score. I’m even flirting with the idea that Puccini may have been right…
I tried on several occasions to discuss with the director and others the phenomenon whereby seemingly nowadays absolutely anything goes on the production front and yet the music is considered sacrosanct. It may be argued that this allows one to have one’s cake and eat it – innovation in visual matters but something like an authentic experience on the musical level. (I should say that I for one would be against the next step of radical tinkering with music as anything but a rare experiment in a festival or something.) But as I attempted to explain to Alden when trying to discover how to make my little role work in a way radically different from that which I pursued in the old production which was so familiar to me, sometimes one simply cannot do both. Production affects musical performance. It just does. Another straightforward example is the Gaoler section which I perforce perform with much more harshness than I otherwise would because it has been tacked onto the Sacristan and must therefore be all of a piece with it.
Usually in a traditional Tosca, the Sacristan disappears pretty early in the piece, but this production keeps you onstage for most of the evening and brings you back at the end as the Gaoler. Does that make for a more tiring night than usual? And are you tired of watching that same Italian TV show over and over again?
It doesn’t make it more tiring but it is tough on the bottom. The second most uncomfortable chair in the world is the one in my little on stage booth. The MOST uncomfortable chair in the world is the one I perch on onstage after emerging from my booth in Act 3. The TV is indeed epically boring. Some sections of the video played repeat so frequently that it’s like a sort of drip torture. The best bit of video involves a generously proportioned show girl and a whole bevy of lesser show girls, the latter with strange floppy toy polar bears hung by the paws round their necks so that they bounce about on the girls’ fronts during the dance routine, but even this exercise in surreality palls after the fiftieth time. Just quietly though … by the later stages of the run I was being encouraged to take my own reading matter into my booth, so I would select an article from that day’s paper and read it during Act One. The Italian newspaper supplied as a prop soon became tedious so it was good to be able to supplement it in this way. I would only read during Act One however, as during act two I’d rehearse Scarpia in my head as Wegner sang it behind me. As my Scarpia approached, it was arranged that the feed from the stage be put through my TV so that I could see rather than just imagine what was going on behind me.
After a long season as the Sacristan, for the final performance you switched to the role of Scarpia. How much of an adjustment was that to make?
The vocal requirements of the Sacristan are nugatory so there was no adjustment required on that level. It was simply going from next to nothing to something. I was however at the same time covering Germont in La traviata, and although that’s a role I’ve done many times, I’m glad with hindsight I was not required to go on, because it would have been far too great an adjustment. Some roles can be done side by side. Some can’t. The high tessitura of Germont sits very uncomfortably beside that darkness and growling heaviness of Scarpia. If however you refer to psychological adjustment, this is not in general something I have any difficulty with at all. I just do it. I can, and frequently have, done comic roles cheek by jowl with dramatic ones e.g. Papageno and the Flying Dutchman. But even if I did find such adjustments a problem, I find that, curiously, for all their obvious differences, in this production both character subsist the same aesthetic world, one characterised by ineluctable heartless brutality, so I doubt the adjustment would be a great one.
Did the fact of having observed John Wegner in the role throughout the season help with your own characterisation, or did it make it more challenging to find your own angle on the role?
No, it did not in the least make it more difficult to “find my own angle on the role”, insofar as I might be imagined to be permitted such a liberty. But it was not a simple question of lifting ideas from him. If all I’d done was attempt to copy his performance, it would’ve guaranteed an embarrassing disaster. The reason for this is a simple one: I’m not John Wegner. I don’t look like him. I don’t sound like him. What works wonderfully for him would look preposterous if I attempted it, in the same way that if I were to put on a dress and faithfully replicate every one of Marilyn Monroe’s moves in "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend", people would be fleeing for to doors. But I can straightforwardly “pick up” some things he’s come up with even if in rendering them I have to tweak them to make them work for me with my voice and physicality. This is one determining factor, albeit probably the most minor one. Some things he’s contributed which work for him are out of the question for me because I know they wouldn’t work for me regardless of how much tweaking I did. An example would be his idea for making sense of the “In chiesa!” moment in Act One. Wegner told me he imagined Scarpia as having been abused as a boy in church and that he was reliving this in the lead up to the words “In chiesa!” An interesting idea and one which worked for him – but Wegner’s idea and not for me.
If these ideas specific to Wegner are one contributory factor for my performance, another is constituted of the givens of the production. I refer to those things which are intrinsic in the director’s view to his production and therefore cannot be dispensed with. One I would happily have dispensed with was the self flagellation with the belt. Wegner managed it okay but I felt daft, despite all my efforts to come to terms with it. Observing Wegner naturally was a way of familiarising myself with these givens, which he and I every other Scarpia in this production would be expected to respect. The third contributory factor consisted in my own personal modest contributions. There were several of these which took a specific form e.g. when I sat down at some point or which hand I used to do something. It is also naturally the case that even when the what is the same, the how can be very different, as a reflection of a specific singer’s personality and characterisation. This observation applies throughout as the most determinative thing differentiating Wegner’s performance from mine.
Scarpia is one of the great baritone roles. Is this your first time singing it? What are some of the vocal and dramatic challenges of the role, both in this show and more generally?
Yes, it’s my first time as Scarpia. I remember back in 1995 when as a Victoria State Opera Young Artist I was performing Sacristan (gee, I’ve come a long way...ahem..) I would stand in the wings all through Act 2 watching Wegner (and not only was it the same Scarpia, it was the same assistant director, to wit: the extraordinary Cath Dadd). My other main experience of the role at that time was courtesy of the classic Callas/Gobbi recording from the early Fifties. My heart would race at the chilling musical expression of inexorable evil, hate fuelled lust and rape. For me the most thrilling part of the score is the baleful musical motive which makes its entrance with the words “No, ma il vero potrebbe abbreviargli un’ora assai penosa.”
Anyway, the greatest challenge physically is lying dead. It really is. Sheer misery. Another physical challenge is not to lose one’s breath for one of the most gorgeous opportunities for singing in the whole role, when, in this production, one has just made a hasty move across stage and has to disrobe awkwardly while singing huge full throated phrases. The requirement to sit down while singing for long stretches is not as much of a problem as one might imagine. In terms of interpretative difficulties, to some extent one is faced with a similar problem to that described above in respect of the Sacristan, i.e. the need to reconcile the obvious intentions behind the musical approaches taken by Puccini, and the requirements of a modernistic production, but not to an insuperable degree. Certainly in a traditional production much more is obvious when it comes to deciding how to do a given thing. Callas stressed how with the great composers it’s all in the score. Indeed, were it a traditional production, for most of its duration there could be no argument about what to do at any given moment because it’s all there in black and white (and in a modernistic production much more is up for grabs and there can be all sorts of surprises round every corner), though there’s always plenty of scope for personal expression when it comes to how one does what one is required to do.
I’ve always found that if I do everything the director and conductor tell me to do without argument, there’s always still plenty of scope to put my personal stamp on things. For me, the main challenge is to make Scarpia as monstrous as possible, because he has no redeeming features whatsoever (despite its frequently being the case, bizarrely, that, depending on who’s performing the role and how, women audience members frequently fancy him — but that’s a whole other subject and one of many I will explore in my talk to the Northside Opera Study Group on 9 August, which I mention in case readers might like to come). But the one way NOT to achieve this is to be constantly shouting and snarling and spitting. Do that all night and it will seem weak and boring. One has to accept that effects which work well in isolation might not in context, because of their proximity to other effects. One has to be judicious and arrive at a sense of how much is enough but not too much, and always be striving for contrast and different colours. Then, if one judges things well, when the extreme outbursts come, they’ll be truly frightening. This and giving the performance internal logic over the entire arc of the role regardless of production are the main challenges.
You've sung a huge variety of roles in the last few years. But is there any particular corner of the repertoire in which you feel most at home? Is there a style or area on which you'd like to focus in future, or would you rather maintain this astonishing diversity?
As anyone who knows me will tell you, my first love is Wagner and I would happily be a Wagner specialist if I could make a living at it. I love singing Strauss too. But that’s not to say that I don’t love the Italian rep. I do!!! People used to make the strange assumption that my love of Wagner precluded a love of Verdi and Puccini! How does that follow?
When you ask where do I feel most at home repertoire-wise, my answer depends on what you mean by that question. Aesthetically, I’ve provided an answer in what I’ve just said about Wagner. There are other ways of answering the question though. I could for instance respond by telling you what I find comfortable: the German notion of baritone, Helden or otherwise, tends to assume a generally lower tessitura even when the overall range is the same. For instance Mandryka in Arabella sails up as high as Conte di Luna in Trovatore but I find the former much more congenial because it sits lower in the meat of my voice. I enjoy the high tessitura Italian roles but must be very careful with them and never get run down. There are however big singing Italian roles which sit more in the range of a Germanic baritone, and Scarpia is one of them. I can sing and sing it, and if the voice darkens a bit sometimes with the exertions it can even help a bit (though one should still be a bit cautious). Iago is another low sitting Italian role and one which I covet. Falstaff too.
I’ve done a lot of buffo/comic roles too, such as Papageno, Pooh-bah, Leporello and the Rossini Bartolo, and I hope I will continue to be offered opportunities at this end of the repertoire, where if anything I feel more valued and trusted up to now by the powers that be. But at some time in the near future I’d like to come to be considered as one of the first choices in the big singing rep as well, rather than just as someone to fill a gap at the end of a season or when someone else pulls out. I was making some progress in this respect for a while but then I had a vocal crisis requiring an operation and this had the effect of knocking me down a few pegs in the company’s estimation, notwithstanding the fact that when I’d recovered from the procedure I found I was singing considerably better than ever. So the big singing, dramatic roles and the buffo/comic/big character roles would be the twin pillars of the career I would like to see for myself into the future. There’s a whole lot of other stuff, however, I’d happily jettison. For instance, Capulet in Romeo and Juliet (an opera I despise), Frederic in Lakmé, Dancaïre in Carmen – none of these would I have any desire to revisit. So I’d like to maintain some diversity but not limitless diversity.
Warwick Fyfe appears as the Sacristan in Tosca in Melbourne from April 14th to May 13th. Information/bookings here.
All photos by Branco Gaica, courtesy of Opera Australia.