Clifton, your performance the other day was out of this world. I thought, at one point in Act Three, you were about to blast a hole in the roof of the theater with your voice. How do you pace yourself so that you can give it so much voice and energy, that late at night?
I don’t really believe in pacing. On a Tristan performance day, I wake up when I wake up, I eat whatever I want. If you go around treating yourself as fragile, you’ll become fragile. You can’t be afraid of doing this, you have to look forward to it; you want to sing it. That’s the key to Tristan: don’t try to pace yourself, if you pace yourself, you know, hold back here so you can give more there, you’re not in the music. If you’re not in the music, you’re not doing it. The idea is, you’ve already worked out the technical aspect of what you’re singing, back in the practice room, with your teacher, so when you’re onstage you don’t think about all that stuff. All you think about is Tristan, his experience, his emotions. You can’t be worried, or hesitant, you just have to be there. The Germans have a great word for it: dasein, to be there.
The one thing I’ll say, though, is, you do need the recovery time. If I sing Tristan, I’m pretty tired the next day. Three days is ideal.
You’ve done this role a lot. Does it get easier?
Yes, I’ve sung it over 70 times. But no, it doesn’t get any easier. I guess you do get a little more self-confident…the first time out, maybe there’s a little trepidation, but if you can just get your mind out of the way, your body will know what to do. It’s like if you’re pitching a ball game: you can psyche yourself out by overthinking. Don’t think, just throw. You don’t think, “What if he hits it?”, you just think of the ball going in the catcher’s mitt.
You’ve sung Tristan, Siegmund and Parsifal, but not Tannhäuser or Siegfried. Are some Wagner tenor parts better-suited to your voice than others? Or does it have more to do with the characters?
It’s a combination of both. There’s a fach system in Wagner, just like there is in Italian rep. Some of the Wagner tenor parts are higher, some are lower, some are for heavier voices, like mine. My three parts are written differently than Walther, in Meistersinger, or Siegfried. And, truth to tell, some of those characters don’t interest me as much. I like singing Tristan because there’s so much insecurity; he’s so much at sea. If you’re gonna spend five and a half or six hours singing a role, you’d better be interested in the character. Honestly. It would be a disservice to the audience for me to do a role like that, because I wouldn’t be into it one hundred percent. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.
Tristan inspires a lot of devotion from the important people in his life. What interests you the most about his relationships?
Tristan’s relationship with Marke, with all its complexities...it’s like the center of the wheel, and the spokes are all radiating outwards from there. The paternal aspect of that relationship is so important. That’s why Tristan fights so hard on behalf of Marke...every son wants their father to be proud. Not having had a father, Tristan makes Marke play that role. And he betrays this man, who is his uncle-father-king-friend, not because he wants to, the betrayal is involuntary, he can’t control it, can’t even explain it. When Marke asks him, it’s beyond comprehension, there’s no way for Tristan to articulate what has occurred. The only way Marke could ever understand would be for him to experience it himself.
But I think, up to the point where the opera begins, the one thing Tristan knows is honor, nobility, fulfillment of duty; he’s an extremely upright person, and the others are drawn to him because of it. That’s how he gets along in this world. After Marke, Kurwenal is the most important person in his life: he’s probably been Tristan’s weapons trainer, his tutor, his coach, his teacher, they’ve fought side by side. And I think Kurwenal’s affection for Tristan is fatherly, it’s not so much the teacher/mentor and more "the son I never had". Whereas Tristan’s affection for Kurwenal is more out of duty, honor, respect, and trust.
Like many Wagner characters, Tristan suffers a great deal and tells us about his suffering in some detail. How do you prevent him from coming across as a self-pitying whiner?
I think the important part is heroism. You play the character as moving his life onward, in spite of all his pain and agony, his sehnen [unfullfilled, unfulfillable desire] and suffering and all that. If you don’t play the self-pity, he’ll be truly heroic. That’s the Viking way!
What’s it like working with a stage director (Peter Kazaras) who has sung tenor roles in Wagner operas before?
I haven’t worked with Peter before this summer, but it’s been great. He knows, he’s been there. He knows what not to ask for!
Photos by Rozarii Lynch