Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Meet Our Singers: DANIEL SUMEGI, Fafner/Hagen

Daniel Sumegi made his Seattle Opera debut as Daland in 2007. This summer he reprises ‘bad guy’ roles he first sang in Seattle in 2009: in Das Rheingold, the giant Fafner; in Siegfried, Fafner (now a dragon thanks to Mime's magical Tarnhelm); and in Götterdämmerung, the scheming Hagen, advisor to the King of the Gibichungs. But the Australian singer, who uses the same amazingly dark, rich, velvety voice to speak as he does to sing, had much to say in defense of his characters. He also told me about the differences between the different deep-voiced characters in the Ring, and reflected on how the opera industry has changed in the last few years.

Daniel Sumegi sings Hagen's Watch Song

Welcome back! I’ve heard rumors that your voice is even bigger and richer this summer than it was the last time you were here, for our ’09 Ring. Do you perceive a difference?
Not really...although I did start working with a different teacher in ‘07. These things take time: you have your career, you’re off running around the world, and lessons are few and far between. What I do feel I have is much more stamina, and am more grounded. It could be that I’ve finally ‘clicked’ into my voice type. There’s a great deal of emphasis now on getting everything done when you’re 25. That’s a new thing in opera. Until a few years ago, opera used to be the place where you could have a long career and age in a dignified manner. But now, in my 40s, I’m regarded as a veteran. Which I think is really sad!

And now the 20-somethings are supposed to be ready to go as full opera professionals, which is often biologically impossible. What is causing the change?
Cinema. Close-ups. Frankly, it’s beautiful to watch, but it’s not an accurate way to represent opera. The live experience is what pins you to your chair, or sweeps you into another world. And you can’t get that from a screen. Maybe from a recording, if it’s recorded beautifully...but that’s not opera either. You can turn it up to whatever volume you please, in your living room.

And it’s not just the sheer volume that pins you to your seat, in the theater—
Sometimes it is!

Okay, but often it’s a combination, a lot of elements working in concert.
Right, which you can’t replicate through media. I think this emphasis on youth is financially driven. More established singers are more expensive, and obviously companies need to cut costs.

That’s what you feel has changed, even in these last four years.
Rapidly.

You’ve done a lot of Rings in these years. You’ve done Rings in the US, in Europe, in South America, Japan. Australia—
That’s coming up, Australia. Opera Australia plays in Syndey and Melbourne, but the theater in Melbourne is the one that’s big enough to hold a Ring cycle. Only 2000 seats, so it’s smaller than these big American houses, but the pit is big enough for a Ring orchestra and the backstage facilities are good. The pit in Sydney can only hold about 65 people. Even when they did Meistersinger there, that wonderful production back in ’88, they had to amplify the strings. But in Melbourne this year, we had a pre-rehearsal period for Rheingold and Walküre, which they ran up to Piano Dress stage. We rehearse Siegfried and Götterdämmerung beginning in September, and present full cycles in mid-November.

So the public hasn’t seen any of it yet, no half-Rings of just Rheingold & Walküre...
No, nothing.

You weren’t involved with the Australian Ring of 2004, conducted by Asher Fisch, who’s conducting here in Seattle...
No, I did the previous one in Adelaide, in 1998. That was my first, the Châtelet Ring which they took to Australia. I sang Hagen in that. Quite a part for a 32 year-old! I somehow managed to survive it, and I suppose that’s why I keep getting asked to do it. Hagen is a really tricky role. There’s no lyricism in it at all, except in the Alberich-dream scene. And one or two lines when he’s drugging Siegfried in the hunt. Otherwise it’s all very angular and harsh, always sitting in the passagio, and every time he sings all the brass play with him. It’s completely unfair.

Daniel Sumegi as Hagen, rejoicing with the Gibichung vassals
Rozarii Lynch, photo

I love Hagen’s big declamatory lines: “Gute Waffen, starke Waffen, scharf zum Streit!” “Meineid rächt’ ich!” or “Heil, Siegfried, theuer Held!”
Right, and everybody in the orchestra is always playing their loudest, and somehow you have to be heard at least through it, if not over it.

So what have you learned about the role over these fifteen years you’ve been singing it?
You just do your best! That’s all you can do. The Ring is such an ensemble piece—there are no star turns. Everyone has to do their part, and do their best, that’s all.

You’ve sung it so widely. Do you find the audiences differ much, in terms of how they respond, from continent to continent?
They’re responding to the production they’re looking at. I’ve come to the conclusion that often people are not listening to anything. They’re hearing what they’re seeing, and responding to that. So if it’s a horrible production, they’re not really hearing anything beautiful. They’re just tolerating an evening out. If they’re watching a beautiful production, they’re going to hear it more beautifully. I’m convinced of that.

And you’ve done Rings running the gamut, from beautiful to...
Horrendous.

Or maybe they weren’t going for beauty, maybe there was another aesthetic goal in mind! Can you clarify for us the difference between Wagner bass, bass-baritone, and helden-baritone roles: Fafner, Fasolt, Hunding, Wotan, Hagen. Here you’re singing Fafner, who’s sort of the bottom of the barrel, in terms of deep bass sounds.
Yes, it requires a sort of inky black quality, which, frankly, I don’t have. But I can sing all the notes and give it the volume it requires. I am still a bass, but not that type—perhaps a Karl Ridderbusch type. Subjectively speaking I might be better suited, vocally, to sing Fasolt, and Andrea [Silvestrelli, who sings Fasolt and Hunding in Seattle] might be an ideal Fafner, in terms of vocal color. His voice is so unique and dark. If I weren’t standing and singing right next to him, you’d probably think that I have the right color. But it’s also a matter of taste.

Andrea Silvestrelli (Fasolt) and Daniel Sumegi (Fafner)
Rozarii Lynch, photo

We’ll listen for that. And the two of you have worked together before—
We’ve been brothers here in Seattle, and in San Francisco; we’ve been adversaries in Don Carlo. We first met at the Pavarotti vocal contest in Italy, back in ’91.

Does the relationship between your Fafner and his Fasolt change from city to city?
It’s similar. We may be dressed differently—in San Francisco we looked like Super Mario Bros. We were welders or riggers, and we entered on an iron girder as if we were coming down from the Valhalla building site.

But you were still the unpleasant older brother—
Wait, wait, neither of us have come into that scene with the intention of being unpleasant. We’re forced into this strange situation, in order to get our payment.

Daniel Sumegi (Fafner) negotiates with Greer Grimsley (Wotan), who is reluctant to pay the giants their promised fee
Rozarii Lynch, photo

What’s the difference between the two of you?
I’m cleverer, he’s nicer. He’s more sentimental.

Right, you’re not in love with Freia, the way Fasolt is—
I’m not in love with her at all. I’m just after money. When the gold is offered, I’m much more interested in that.

So getting back to the different types of Wagner bass...have you sung Fasolt elsewhere?
Yes, Buenos Aires. And I’m singing Fasolt in Melbourne. It sits higher than Fafner, and he has a big aria—two arias. Fafner only has interjections in Rheingold. His aria comes in Siegfried.

What about Hunding?
Hunding is closer to Fafner and Hagen. But it’s extremely short; it appears much bigger than it is. It’s very cleverly written.

That’s interesting, Hunding is one of the shortest roles in the Ring.
There are only a few long roles in the Ring: Brünnhilde, Siegfried, and Wotan. Hagen is a pretty long role. Mime is a long role, in one act. Siegmund, same thing. Alberich is a big role in one opera. But these other roles are very compact.

So you’re here, singing Fafner, who’s down at the bottom of the range; you’ll be in Melbourne this year, singing the higher and more lyrical Fasolt; and I notice that you’ve also covered Wotan. Are you a bass-baritone, or a bass?
I have a low voice. I’m equipped to sing many roles, both high and low! And not equipped to sing other high and low roles. So...it depends. I have a very easy top. My top is better than a lot of baritones. But I remain a bass, or at least a bass-baritone. I prefer to say, “I have a low voice, and if I can sing the role, I will!”

Well, I can hear it in your speaking voice, which is amazing.
Yet I tell you, if Andrea were sitting here talking next to me you wouldn’t hear that at all, swear to God! [laughs]

Which role is higher: Hagen or Wotan?
The Siegfried Wotan is very high. I had to sing that at a dress rehearsal in Los Angeles...it wasn’t a problem for me—they’re manageable, compact scenes—but it’s very high. Act 3 of Die Walküre is the hard one. The monologue in Act 2 is hard, just from the point of view of memory...

And then stamina challenge of Act 3.
Right, because it’s declamatory first, controlled yelling, and THEN you have to sing the most gorgeous lyrical piece every written, in the Farewell.

Do you have a favorite among all these roles? Or one that’s the most fun?
Fun?! Gee. [chuckles] Hagen is fun to play, because he’s just such a bastard. But I like singing the Siegfried Wanderer very much—it’s got jokes in it, he’s teasing and needling people all night.

Hagen must be an interesting character to embody. You’re here to tell us that he’s misunderstood.
No, not really...I just like saying that. Hagen is what he is. He’s certainly very troubled.

Is he a victim of prejudice?
Well...he’s stuck in this lonely old castle with Gunther, who looks down on him for being a lesser being than him. Yes, there’s prejudice there.

Hagen’s parents. Lots of love for little baby Hagen, as he was growing up?
Alberich didn’t have love. He renounced it. He had a child, but couldn’t have loved him, because he’d given up loving.

Richard Paul Fink (Alberich) and Daniel Sumegi (Hagen)
Rozarii Lynch, photo

But in our staging of the dream scene, we see some tenderness, or even intimacy between father and son...
That’s pretense. You know: “There, there...do what I say.” Alberich is there to get Hagen to fulfill his destiny. And if he needs to touch his hair, or give him a kiss, he’ll do it. It’s fake love.

And Hagen can tell the difference?
Oh, yes, It tortures him.

Gordon Hawkins (Gunther), Marie Plette (Gutrune), and Daniel Sumegi (Hagen)
Rozarii Lynch, photo

What about Hagen’s relationship with Gutrune?
He thinks she’s a bit of a dope. He certainly plays her, right to the end. She doesn’t catch on at all, until the end.

It’s sort of like Iago, in Othello.
Yes, it is.

With Iago, people are always debating his motive...
But here it’s very clear: Hagen is after the ring. Everything he’s doing, it’s all to get the ring. Because the people who have the ring, Brünnhilde and Siegfried, are superheroes. You can’t just walk up and take it off their finger.

Stig Anderson (Siegfried) with the dying Fafner
Rozarii Lynch, photo

One question for you about Fafner in Siegfried: you mention the aria Fafner sings there. Why is Fafner so kind to Siegfried as he lies dying?
Fafner was never an aggressor. He was lying in his cave, minding his own business, when Siegfried comes and wakes him up. It’s like Fasolt in the beginning of Rheingold: “We didn’t come here to fight you, we just want our money.”

How do you act the role of Fafner in Siegfried, given that you’re not onstage?
You just have to sing it. It’s all in the words. I have to give them the right vocal color, snarling or sounding as if I’m dying.

Wouldn’t you say that Fafner is an agressor, when you kill your brother over the ring?
It’s all very sudden. Fasolt takes the ring; I snatch it from him and look at it; and suddenly he really wants it back, and we start fighting to the death over it. Whoever has the ring is cursed, and I guess the curse works really quickly on Fasolt!


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