I always try to procure every possible information I can concerning the basic story, then I go over the libretto, but of course I always begin with the score. I also like listening at the start to the different recordings of the opera, as I did for example in the case of Werther, where the recording conducted by Georges Pretre, and sung by Victoria De Losangeles and Nikolai Gedda was a revelation for me.
Talking about Werther: it was really exciting to compare the original novel, with the opera that arose from it! In such cases I feel being kind of an explorer. I’m convinced, that this whole procedure is indispensable in finding the matching experiences of your own personal life. The whole thing is really like a puzzle. You try to set together emotionally, technically and musically the totality of the role, based on the score. And then comes the harmonization of these feelings, with the much better prepared coach. If you are lucky enough, your coach is just like a friend for you, since you need to excavate such personal experiences during the learning process for the sake of the cause, that it’s similar to confessing. It definitely requires trust. Furthermore, it is a big advantage to have a coach who likes and knows the composer, and the opera you are working on, and the whole structure of the subject is as interesting for him as it is for you. In the case of Wagner for example, when it comes to those famous leit-motives that the composer hid intentionally in monologues or scenes, it is good to have an adept helping the singer finding them. And if the mutual reasoning is beneficial, at the best I end up with my own conception of the role. This is often a much longer progression, as the learning of the whole part. And if we consider, that an artist has a lot other things to do, to prepare for meanwhile, it is understandable why most of the times there is only appr. 8-10 testimony-like roles in most singers’ life.
An actor puts together quite differently, let’s say from another starting point his role compared to a singer. He is much more conscious of the space, of directions, his body posture, his gestures, his eyes. He tries to transform the timber of his voice according to the character, sometimes even to the detriment of his vegetative system. As an opera singer you don’t have the freedom to change safely your voice timber, because it is probable, that you won’t be able to sing at all that way. Or that it won’t come across the orchestra pit. As for your vegetative system: you will have to submit it entirely to the service of singing! The tools of expressions remaining for you when you are a singer are: the space, the directions, the body posture, and your gestures. And most importantly: THE MUSIC!
It is an incredible discovery for me, when all of a sudden you are able to associate a musical piece to a poetic picture. That’s why it often happens, that if I like something musically, I try to play my part on violin too. And maybe not immediately, but a day or two later, a kind of vibration starts inside me, and culminates into a poetic picture or metaphor at the end. Then this vibration can easily trigger in the actor’s body a kind of visceral inspiration, when your adrenaline level rises, your perception sharpens when walking ont he street, and so you often come across some answers to your questions about your role in the most unexpected situation.
It is of course very important, what the conductor thinks about the interpretation, which is quite often totally different from my first idea. Usually the suggestions that the conductor gives are much more constructive, than my way of thinking. For example, a few years ago, in the Vampire, the hardest part of my role was a choral where everyone on stage is singing, and of course we all have different parts, and we are singing fortissimo. In addition, my part was written around my passaggio voice.
For a very long time, I practiced it as I deemed it musically fitting: the slower, the better. I trained myself to be slow, as I thaught it would be like that, and at the same time I was scared that it cannot be sung at such a pace. And at the first rehearsal with the conductor it turned out – thanks to God- that he wanted it faster, and then I was relieved.
The other aspect is the acoustic one. Whatever the person thinks is very piano or forte, it can happen that the acoustics are such that the forte seems to be a roaring, but the piano does not pass in relation to the given circumstances. Of course, the scenery also worsens or helps in this. All singers hate open spaces – unless there is terribly good acoustics.
Let me tell you another example! In my work with Balázs Kovalik during the staging of Eugene Onegin at the Hugarian State Opera (Hungary, Budapest), I soon realized that I did not agree with the idea he had. Nevertheless, as he was able to explain exactly why he imagined Lenskiy’s character as he did, it cost me a sleepless night to realize that he could be right, and from that moment on, I gave myself entirely over to him, because he had a definite idea of every other figure, player, and this perfectly structured relationship of theirs.
Sometimes your can also meet stage directors who are coming from the prose theater, and during the rehearsal period are working from the textbook. That’s very annoying. I understand of course that for him/her the text is the primary starting point, since I also started as a prose actor. But the fact is that in theater the task of a stage director is complicated, because he also writes the „score” of his own performance. However, when these directors happen to work on an opera, operetta or musical, they may often work against the music, as they to try to force their own prose score -which they have in their head- on the music written by the composer!
And many times these two do not meet. I’m kind of a conflict-avoiding man, but if this happens, I become really upset. For example, if to a slow music they want us to chase each other around the stage, and I can voice my disagreement, their shocked facial expression tells me they can’t hear the music! Well, I don’t say names here …
I think it is essential for a musical stage director to play a musical instrument, or at least understand the score, and to speak Italian, German, etc.. They do not have to speak these languages on a high professional level, but at least need to understand the composer’s instructions and notes. And if he does not understand it, he should at least learn the score by heart. Why is this important? Because, in an opera performance, a musical modulation can be a just as important emotional or mood factor, when in a prose play someone comes forward on stage without word. If the stage director does not hear this modulation or the change of tempo, or e.g. he/she don’t know about an accelerando that is written there, how build that scene?
Man’s psyche is constantly evolving. This psyche resonates in the voice, so it is natural that as long as a man is young, thirty years old, the simplest is to categorize him as a lyrical voice. It happenned to me also, that I sang a role before my time; for example, I wasn’t ready for the Prince in Rigoletto at the age of thirty, and I regretted afterwards having sung it, as, at the time I sang a lot of Mozart.
Just when I have played the role of Barinkay in the Gypsy Baron, which was also too early. But I had the freedom to sing and play as I knew it best at the time, so I could pull the role – so to say – over to myself.
A more mature voice would have been needed, but I solved it. Anyway, in Hungary, unfortunately, there are less and less teaching-oriented musical directors who could say to a singer: ” You should not sing this now, but five years later, although you should start learning it right now, because it would be good to let this or that role mature in your throat.” There are very few skilled professionals who could say yes, your voice is still small compared to your soul, but you have to go in that direction.
Therefore, you have to sing (also for existential reasons) many things. So the distillation process – which ultimately tells us what would suit you best amidst of many tasks – is slow. And then we haven’t talked about the selection of the market, since I have heard several times at auditions, that we are going to call an Italian singer for an Italian role, Russian for Russian, and not asking me for the aria that I sang better than the the others who were selected just because of their mother tongue.
I believed for a long time that the Italian repertoire was mine to sing. And to this day, when I have to sing Italian and German roles alike, they say, that my voice is suitable for both. But in the last five years, slowly, the natural “distillation” has shown that the Wagner roles found me. Let me tell you though, I have always been more of a long distance runner, than a sprinter. And, it seems, that I have to wake up and forget some of the roles I dreamt to sing; five years ago I would have run to get Count Almaviva, but I have already grown out of it.
But each role is different. I’m not alone with the idea that for every role one has to learn to sing again. We have often talked about this with many of my well-known colleagues. Anyone who sings every role the same way is a swindler. The cavities of our body and our energy are used in different proportions by each one of them. I have long thought that dealing with a role is just like the process of concluding a friendship. Each role is differently our friend.
But in order to become true friends, that role must also get to know my strengths and weaknesses (what to expect from me and what certainly not), and vice versa.