There are things you can do on a blog that you couldn't do anywhere else, and one of them is post a 3,137 word long interview without any cuts. Why? Because Warwick Fyfe is so damned fascinating, and so very funny, that, since I'm not required to chop his responses down to size, I'm not going to — you all deserve to read everything he has to say, about Rigoletto, Sigourney Weaver, bananas, Benny Hill and more. Much, much more.
So pray, read on. It's a long one, but the time will fly, I promise. World, here's Warwick.
You sang Rigoletto in this production four years ago. What's it like revisiting it now? How has your approach to and conception of the role developed in that time?
Revisiting Rigoletto is daunting for the simple reason that Rigoletto, is and always will be, daunting, for this baritone at any rate. To me it feels like doing two and a bit roles in one night. The opportunity for another go at it is nevertheless extremely welcome. Last time I was, so to speak, performing, with one hand tied behind my back, because, unbeknownst to me, I had a pedunculated polyp hanging off one of my vocal cords. What I did know, what indeed I could not fail to be acutely aware of, was that my voice was behaving in a very inconsistent manner. Having felt strong and sung well in one performance or rehearsal, I would, for no apparent reason, start cracking in the next. It had nothing to do with viruses or anything like that. This mysterious and unpredictable state of affairs had the effect of turning me into a very scared singer, and this in turn took away a large portion of the mental energy I’d have preferred to lavish on dramatic interpretation. I was mainly focused on getting through it vocally. It was only in the following year that the evil little blob of tissue was discovered, lurking where it had no business being, at the heart of the mechanism on which I rely to earn a living. It was by no means clear that it could be fixed, and the first ear, nose and throat man I visited baulked at the prospect of intervention. It was only when I went to Dr Ian Cole and he with calm assurance announced his willingness to operate that salvation was at hand.
I’ve pondered how to answer the other part of your question, to wit, how has my approach and conception developed etc. I could chew the end of my pencil, stare off into the middle distance and, alighting on some particle of my performance, come up with something like “… the keen observer will note that every thirteen and a half seconds in Act Two, Scene Two, I throw out my arm, and this is directly lifted from Sir Digby Septum’s portrayal of the bear in his 1932 remake of The Winter’s Tale” or some such random silliness. The truth however is much less colourful. As an actor, my way of working is mainly intuitive. If I’ve improved over the years, it has been as a result of a steady process of evolution in the direction, I would hope, of greater complexity, refinement and clarity. Certainly, there’s a conscious element, an accumulation of know how through trial and error (I’m not suggesting one just goes into a trance like a medium), but even this know how, the fruits of one’s efforts over the years to be observant and learn from one’s mistakes, is frequently applied in an intuitive way. One is intellectually aware of the dangers of over-acting or weakening an effect with too much of a good thing from making a dill of oneself as a gauche beginner and watching others doing the same, but with experience one often just senses the point at which just enough tips over into too much; that one outburst is powerful but two seems petulant.
My great treasure is a huge vat of experiences which I carry sloshing about in my head – every day I quaff from the cup of culture. Some days it may be only a demure, Holy Communion style sip, but other days it’ll be a Bob Hawke style, down the hatch all in one go effort! Every book I read, every film I watch, every painting I see, every interesting character who hoves into view as I go about my business goes into this reservoir inside me. When things are working well, these things present themselves of their own accord for duty in fleshing out my dramatic interpretation. When this ideal spontaneity is achieved, I’m not always aware of where the impulse to do something in a given way has come from and have to scratch my head to find its source, which can turn out to be anything from a Benny Hill Show episode from the early 70s to a late Godard film! This is the delicious part of the process. This is all by way of laborious preface to a confession that in terms of its bare bones, my interpretation has not changed. I haven’t come to see the character differently in any way which can be easily or simply described. What HAS happened, is that that basic conception, or rather, sense, of the role, is much more fleshed out. I feel much more at home in the role. It feels much more like a thing of flesh and blood. I’m hopeful that the Rigoletto I offer this time will have many more nuances and a more pervading naturalness than that which I managed last time. So I’m afraid that in answering your question I have perforce lapsed into generalisations.
Can you tell us a bit about your preparation for this role? What's particularly challenging about it? What do you love about it?
I do a fair amount under the shower, actually. Some of my best work is under the shower. Oddly enough, it’s not so much singing under the shower as rolling my eyes, and refining pregnant-with-meaning looks! As to the dramatic interpretation, I’ll refer the reader to what I’ve said above and only add that I find it a good thing to go through sequences from the opera in the theatre of the mind reasonably regularly so as to maintain a gut sense of the role – to keep its heart beating. But even here one must be careful not to go overboard. If one obsessively repeats, either in the mind, or prancing about one’s living room, the dramatic business of the role or parts of it, spontaneity (or the illusion of it) is lost, and once lost it is almost impossible to retrieve. One has to learn one’s moves, naturally, but much more important is one’s gut sense of how the role goes. That inner substance is what matters most. If, in one’s head and heart, that character has become animate, if it’s been fertilized by the spark of life and, no linger a shop window dummy or cadaver, it sits up and looks back at its creator, then one has found truth and an audience will believe.
On the vocal level, it’s simply (I say “simply”, but it never feels simple!) a question of repetition. Once again, one must be disciplined and never put it aside for too long, complacently assuming it’ll “be there” in the voice when required, but on the other hand one must not run oneself into the ground by being obsessive and overdoing it. I find one has to keep revisiting the basics if one is to remain strong as a singer. One has to be one’s own teacher for the duration of one’s career, and this can be supplemented with trusted expert tuition for as long as one proposes to remain a singer.
Rigoletto, in purely vocal terms, is the toughest role I do. It’s not the hardest intellectually, but vocally it’s a killer. Some roles I can sing and sing in rehearsal and never feel much need to mark. I would come a cropper very quickly if I took this approach in Rigoletto. To compare it with Scarpia, in the latter role, the relatively low tessitura means that I can enjoy cultivating the darkness and power without fearing that this might be at the expense of high passages which I might no longer be able to sustain. In Rigoletto, if I get run down, I’ve had it. I have to pace myself in rehearsals so that I can be sure of being able to sustain the high passages with good intonation and without ugly strain.
I love this role because there’s something ineffably glorious about having the extraordinary privilege of singing this sublime music and something positively ecstatic about those moments when one feels one might actually be doing quite well. This may not make any sense to anyone but myself, but I feel kind of like the Sigourney Weaver character at the end of Aliens when she comes out in that machine to battle the monster, a machine which effectively makes her twenty feet tall and gives her giant arms and legs. In short, there’s a sense of power.
Moshinsky's production updates the action to a Fellini-esque 1950s. To what extent does that concept affect the way you sing/play the role as opposed to a traditional setting?
I’m something of a film buff and consider Fellini to be very possibly the greatest film director ever. Certainly to my mind he achieves the near impossible feat of creating a dream-like atmosphere. Most cinematic dream sequences don’t seem at all like dreams to me. But I digress. The question almost seems to imply that this production represents a deviation from a norm of traditional productions, of which latter I will have had extensive experience. Well, I’m afraid any such assumption rather over estimates the extent to which, operatically speaking, I’m a man of the world! This is the only Rigoletto production I’ve ever worked on. I very much doubt I’ll ever get to work on a traditional production. Still, I’ve enough imagination and enough experience as an audience member to venture an answer to your question.
At one level, the most important level, it does not affect the way I play the role at all (at no level does it affect the way I sing it). Regardless of specific productions, the audience is entitled to an experience which is in some sense authentic, or strives to be so. Now, this is not a cue for getting bogged down in arguments about what this might mean in terms of palpable specifics; and yes, obviously, even if it could be defined, an absolute authenticism would still be unachievable in practice. And who would want there to be but a single rigid, paralysed, indeed petrified notion of what was a legitimate manifestation of a given opera, any more than one would want there to be a single allowable version of a human being? I’m talking about an authentic quality at a certain level, deeper than the crust of externals, and of an aspiration towards it in a spirit of idealism rather than a literally realisable, circumscribed, concrete and allegedly authentic version of something. If a director’s efforts are first and foremost genuinely in the service of the work of art in question, then there’s no theoretical limit to the variety of things he can do – it’s still totally open ended – and he will be successful or otherwise in proportion to his talents.
To descend somewhat from the level of the abstractly philosophical, there are certain obvious things which are in my view sacrosanct: one cannot for instance go replacing the first violins with an electric guitar. I for one would be one of the first manning the barricades if I observed a pernicious trend towards major interference with the music. Getting back to the influence of the production side of things on music, it certainly can be the case that a production’s requirements can force one’s hand in the area of musical interpretation, and this is a problem. In a previous interview, I discussed how the recent Tosca production at certain points did affect the music so that I felt as it were in the grip of an artificially induced schizophrenia as I attempted to reconcile my singing and my acting. In this Rigoletto production, however, I’m happy to report I feel no such conflict. I don’t have to do anything of importance in terms of underlying intention on the dramatic front differently from how I would do it in a traditional production. Of course, I don’t know what it’s like to be a father, and Latin notions of jealousy, specifically, paternal jealousy, are not in my blood. I can’t ever know whether, how, and to what extent my interpretation would be different if I were an Italian father, but I honestly do not feel this has hampered me greatly. As I indicated above, when it comes to an attempt at an authentic dramatic interpretation, it’s a question of intention, but there’s much wiggle room.
You'll be taking over as Rigoletto while in the middle of a season as Faninal in Der Rosenkavalier. How taxing do you expect this double duty to be? Is there an art to keeping your voice (and yourself) in good shape during that period?
Well, prima facie, it certainly does look daunting! Time will tell how I’ll cope with this “double duty”! Fingers crossed… But seriously, from the moment I noticed that these two difficult roles would be cheek by jowl in my schedule, I felt it would be fine. They’re both high tessitura roles and to that extent sit well together. That roles done at the same time sit in the same part of the voice is important (unless one of the roles is so small as to make no real demands on one’s vocal resources). For instance, doing Scarpia and Germont at the same time would be very hard. When heavy rehearsals for one opera coincide with performances of a role of any size in another opera, the danger of getting run down becomes acute. One has to be self protective and disciplined. When there are late finishes followed by early starts, it can be particularly draining. To allow for travel time, I find I have to set the alarm clock at least three hours before I’m required at work, hence, if my make-up time for a stage call is 9am, I get up at 6am. If I’ve had a performance the night before and, as a result, not gone to bed till midnight, I really start to feel the lack of sleep. It’s even worse if, as frequently happens, I fail to drop off quickly because I’m hyped up from performing. When I’m feeling sleep deprived, rehearsals become a battle because my concentration is not all it should be.
Anyway, I knew that Rosenkavalier rehearsals would be out of the way by the time my Rigoletto performances arrived. Also, whilst, bar for bar, Faninal is one of the hardest roles I’ve done, it’s not actually very long. If I just sang all the notes of the role in one go, it would only last a few minutes. The most musically difficult part (which is the section where I express my horror at the wounding of Ochs before going apoplectic when I realize my daughter is saying she will not marry him) is also, in this production, the most physically energetic, and when I exit the stage thereafter, I’m gasping for breath and reaching for the water. But because it doesn’t last long, I recover very quickly. I don’t get run down.
If I weren’t doing Faninal, I’d probably do just as much vocalizing anyway on days where there was no Rigoletto performance, just to keep my voice clear of gunk and in trim. So I think it will be fine. I went on for Acts 2 and 3 of Rigoletto in the open General Dress Rehearsal at a time when I was immersed in Rosenkavalier rehearsals and everyone said I did well. Rigoletto is so hard, is such an elephantine role, I would never say it was easy and would never be complacent about the likelihood of my enjoying success, but I don’t believe my doing Faninal at the same time will make it any MORE difficult.
I don’t believe there’s an “art” to keeping my voice etc. in shape during that period because the word “art” implies something that can be systematized and taught to others. There are great individual differences between singers. Each “system” (and in my case I couldn’t dignify the various measures I try to take with such an appellation) is specific to the singer in question. There can be radical differences in respect of all the variables – diet, the expending or preservation of physical energy, the amount of singing on performance days by way of warming up and when that takes place – between singers. Personally, on a performance day, I vocalise first thing for a few minutes, then in a couple more brief bursts during the day, then as much as I feel is necessary when I reach the theatre. I don’t take to my bed but I don’t go climbing mountains either. I have a breakfast of moderate proportions, for example, muesli with half a banana chopped up on it, then a substantial but not excessive late lunch containing some complex carbohydrates for slow release energy, and then maybe some fruit or something in the afternoon immediately before leaving for the theatre. I avoid dairy on performance days excepting the splashes of milk I put in my plunger coffee. I won’t go into any more detail because it’s very boring and, as indicated, not particularly generalisable.
2010 has been quite a busy year for you, with plenty to come in 2011 as well. Have there been any especial highlights? Or is the best yet to come?
Scarpia was a highlight, obviously, though I’d like another go at it so as to be able to add to it certain things I wanted to do, and intended to do, but which didn’t quite come off for various reasons which I won’t go into now, beyond saying that I was just a little run down. Also, if I ever get to do it again, I will try to develop my interpretation further in all sorts of ways. Still, it was a big day for me, my work was well received and I felt I achieved something. I’m immensely excited to be doing Faninal. It’s a role I very much wanted and I consider it to be one of the best shows I’ve ever had the privilege of being involved in. It’s a magnificent cast with no weak links and I adore being in Strauss’s sublime sound world. The prospect of a polyp free shot at Rigoletto is delicious. It’s a role that will always feel daunting, but it’s a challenge which excites me and, unlike last time, I don’t feel any fear. Actually, jumping in for Acts 2 and 3 in the General is something I will never forget, because I can honestly say, I’ve never had such an overwhelming reaction to anything I’ve ever done. I felt very grateful and blessed.