We’re excited to welcome Danish tenor David Danholt to Seattle Opera. Danholt officially makes his debut today, in the role of Erik, Senta’s jealous ex-boyfriend. But Seattle’s hardcore Wagnerites will remember Danholt from his prize-winning appearance at our 2014 International Wagner Competition, a great festival of song intended to identify and encourage the Wagner singers of the future. This affable young man discussed singing Mozart and Wagner with me, as well as his remarkable experiences starring in The Passenger, a Soviet-era opera dealing with the Holocaust which is impressing opera audiences all around the world.
David Danholt's prize-winning performance at Seattle Opera's 2014 International Wagner Competition, conducted by Sebastian Lang-Lessing
Welcome (officially!) to Seattle Opera! And best wishes for a debut as successful as your earlier Seattle Opera experience.
Yes, the 2014 International Wagner Competition was really wild. I came here as the alternate; I was not supposed to be in the competition, the idea was they’d call me in if one of the others had to cancel. But a half hour after my rehearsal with Maestro Lang-Lessing and Speight, I got a phone call: they’d changed the plan, there wouldn’t be eight competitors, there would be nine.
Were you conscious of making a strong impression in that rehearsal?
No! I remember Speight saying to Sebastian, “Maestro, I want to talk to you. Goodbye, David!” But I didn’t expect to compete, let alone win. There’s a photo and you can see, I look like someone who just fell down from the moon.
Alan Alabastro, photo
To be frank, I’m not a competitive person at all. I don’t really like competing this way about music; the competition is always with ourselves—self-discipline, striving to do your best. But I’ve gotten so much good out of this experience. For me it was a confirmation that I’m going down the right path; that I’m a singing actor, a story-teller, instead of a bravura singer who’s great at throwing out high notes!
But young tenors are typically asked to do lighter, more lyric roles: Mozart and Rossini before Wagner.
Yes, and I love singing Mozart, I’ve done Tamino, Don Ottavio, Idomeneo, and I want to keep doing them. But Rossini? I actually turned down a job offer to sing Count Almaviva, in The Barber of Seville. It didn’t really fit my temperment or technique. Honestly, I tend to get bored when I listen to Rossini. But not Wagner or Strauss or Mozart!
What about modern music? In the last two years you’ve been starring in this fascinating work, The Passenger, which has been given now in Poland, England, Germany, Austria, and at several theaters around the US.
Yes, The Passenger was written in the Soviet Union in the mid ‘60s by Polish composer Mieczysław Weinberg. He was Jewish, he fled Poland during World War II; but he fled the other way, to Russia, where he became a protégé of Shostakovich. This opera is based on a play written by a Catholic Polish woman, Zofia Posmysz, who was in Auschwitz. Because as you know the Nazis put not only Jews in the concentration camps, but also Catholics, gay people, Communists, gypsies, all sorts of people whom der Führer didn’t like. It’s a very, very profound and important piece. I think it needs to be shown again and again.
I’ve been on this journey with The Passenger all the way, from its first staged performance, in 2010 in Bregenz, where I sang one of the minor roles, and covered Walter, one of the main roles. And then I sang Walter in Detroit and Miami.
Did European audiences respond differently than American audiences?
One thing every performance had in common at the end: silence. Normally you get applause after an opera. This didn’t happen with The Passenger. The performances of course attracted big Jewish audiences; at every performance there were people who had been in concentration camps, or their children and grandchildren. And everything was very realistic. The costumes, for instance, were copies of what was actually worn. The uniforms of the SS officers, the clothing for the prisoners. We had talkbacks after the Miami performances, and I remember a fragile old lady taking the microphone and saying, “I was in Auschwitz from the age of 16 to 19. I came out of it. Everything you’ve seen tonight, it really happened. It was just like that.” Well.
Video from Lyric Opera of Chicago Promoting The Passenger
Is that opera difficult to sing?
Weinberg is not typical 1960s; it’s very melodic, it’s quite easy to learn. The tessitura, the range, of my role, Walter, is close to the lyric roles of Wagner. The difficult part is what you have to say. My character is this West German diplomat with a shady past. The idea is, I was caught up in the madness of the Third Reich but got away; the opera happens many years later, as I’m going to Brazil. But I say these horrifying things: my character believes in the ‘master’ race, all that stuff.
Who is your favorite composer?
At the moment I have a thing for Beethoven and Brahms. I’m about to sing Florestan in Fidelio, in the original version, where the tessitura is a bit lower, a bit more human. But I wouldn’t mind doing the final version. It’s one of my favorite operas. And Beethoven’s musical language really speaks to me. I love doing Missa Solemnis, the 9th symphony, his songs. Beethoven is not known to be merciful to his singers, but I like singing his music.
Do you find a connnection between the way Beethoven writes for the voice and early Wagner?
Yes, very much. I’ve actually sung a lot of early Wagner. In Leipzig and Bayreuth I sang the tenor roles in Die Feen (Arindal) and Das Liebesverbot (Claudio), two operas Wagner wrote before The Flying Dutchman. There’s a reason Wagner later abandoned those early works. They’re not great. They go on forever, and you have to cut a lot. In Das Liebesverbot, he was attempting to write a pastiche of Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, but he was very young and didn’t quite know what he was doing.
Now, let’s talk about Erik. This is not the first time you’ve sung The Flying Dutchman.
I did it in Milwaukee, at Florentine Opera. I really like singing Erik. He’s a beast. It sits a bit higher in the voice than a lot of other Wagner tenor roles. It’s not too long; it’s about the same size as Parsifal, who only sings for about a half hour.
It seems to me that Erik’s music has a connection to the lied, to Romantic German art song.
Exactly. His cavatina could have been written by Bellini or Schubert; it resembles Beethoven, and early Schumann, and bel canto Italian opera. That’s good for a singer like me. My voice isn’t a great big shining-steel heldentenor sound. Erik has to sound youthful. He’s what the Germans call jugendlicher heldentenor—young hero-tenor, not a dramatic tenor, but rather a full lyric tenor.
Now, there’s some latitude in interpreting the character of Erik. The last time we did The Flying Dutchman in Seattle, we had a very literal by-the-book production, and he was just a regular guy, with his huntsman’s plaid flannel—looked like your typical Seattle ‘lumbersexual.’ But this production really pushes him to the extreme.
It’s very clear in Wagner’s score: Erik has a strong personality. He’s this guy from the woods, a guy who could tear down the building if he wants to. He’s not a sweet little Don Ottavio. I’ve seen several productions where he’s that guy, and I don’t buy it.
You mean, an interpretation of The Flying Dutchman where Senta dumps Erik because the Dutchman is dark, brooding, and mysterious, whereas Erik is easy and boring. You’re right, that’s inconsistent with the libretto, where Erik is constantly threatening suicide or murder—“Senta, you’re killing me!”
He’s outspoken, highly charged, all the time. In this production, [stage director] Chris [Alden] pushes Erik’s sanity, or insanity, to the extreme.
Philip Newton, photo
I know one of the big influences on Chris Alden, with this Dutchman, has been early 20th century German expressionism. You must have studied The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu and silent films like that, to get the acting style so spot-on.
No, I can’t take credit for that. I hadn’t actually seen those films until last week! But I have been rehearsing with Chris Alden, and he really does take us down that path. It’s almost like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Erik really should be drugged, put in an asylum. And here he is, running around with a gun! I like such characters, people who are pushed to the limit.
Now here in Seattle we’ve recently done a lot of by-the-book Wagner; productions where, if it says, “A bunch of mermaids swim in,” then in our production the mermaids swim on in. But this production demands a bit more imagination. How would this Dutchman production go over in Europe?
This wouldn’t shock the Germans at all; I think they’d find it quite ordinary. I don’t think this production is out of bounds. It’s very faithful to the story, and Chris is a wonderfully musical director. I have worked with stage directors who are extremely unmusical, and it ends up being a struggle, because they don’t understand where to go with the story. I don’t like it when stage directors put themselves above the composer or librettist.
I was struck by how Chris knows the music and text of this opera by heart. Every time I peeked into rehearsal, he was singing along.
Yes, and his brother, David, is just the same. We did Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria in Copenhagen, and he knew the score better than the conductor. He even understood how to embellish, Monteverdi-style! This is not a conventional Flying Dutchman; but if you can look beyond that, you’ll like it. It’s dark, and a bit traumatizing.
On a different topic, many great Danish Wagnerians have sung here in Seattle. Your countryman Stephen Milling won our Artist of the Year award, some years ago, and has sung here many times. Is it easy to become an opera singer in Denmark these days?
Scandinavia has always sourced great Wagnerians: Kirsten Flagstad, Ingrid Bjoner, Birgit Nilsson, Nina Stemme. Melchior, who’s an idol of mine, was Danish. But you don’t see a lot of Italianate singers coming from our region. And I fear that in the future, you won’t see the same level of quality Wagnerians coming from my part of the world. We don’t have the teachers. The skills needed for Wagner are very different from those for Italian music. You need stamina. You have to be able to sing, in the middle range, for a very long time. We have to recognize that Wagner is not only loud. His scores are very precise about dynamics. Yes, he has a big orchestra; but sometimes he makes them play very softly. All the great old Wagner singers sang it with nuance, sang the dynamics. We have to get back to that.
What new roles will you be learning in the next season?
In the fall I’m going to Arizona for my first Prince in Dvořák’s Rusalka. Another youthful heldentenor role.
Yes, that’s a role Ben Heppner sang here in Seattle, early on in his career. But Czech is such a tricky language to sing!
There’s a Czech woman who works at our opera theater in Copenhagen. She lives just two blocks away from me, and I have the sense that I’ll be moving in with her for language lessons. When I do operas I like to be as flawless as possible with my language. I don’t want anyone to tell me “it sounds like you’re a foreigner.” And sometimes it’s difficult not to sound like a foreigner!
I gave up trying to learn even how to pronounce your mother tongue, Danish. That language is hard!
Yes, Danish is actually considered a throat condition, not a language!